A Tale of Two Cities

Discovering the lost cities of Bethsaida.


July, 1998. It was like picking up shells on a beach. Never in his imagination did he ever think that he could casually and effortlessly pick up one ancient pottery fragment after another in one place without doing any digging. In this recently plowed farmer’s field, he sees a tan-colored ceramic fragment lying visibly on the surface. His more experienced walking companion points to it and says, “That’s Roman-period. Probably a piece of a pot or plate.” A few feet farther, he sees and picks up a somewhat larger, triangularly-shaped fragment. Shaking it and then rubbing off the soil, this shard had a slightly different tannish earth-tone. “This might be Roman-period, too,” he adds.  These pieces take them back in time perhaps 2,000 years. As they continued to walk, every foot or two yielded something ancient, stirred up to the surface from its deeper resting place by the plow.  

Paul was an archaeological dig volunteer.  He had signed up for a two-week stay at an excavation in northern Israel. The farmer’s field belonged to a community called Ginosar (see left), a quiet kibbutz in Israel of only a few hundred residents, abutting the northwestern shore of the Sea of Gennesaret , or the Sea of Galilee, as it is popularly known. In its earlier years this community derived a living mostly from agriculture. Now, tourism is the primary source of income. It is identified by many as the site of ancient Gennesaret, the small but highly fertile plot of land on the lakeshore mentioned in the Bible’s New Testament Gospels of Matthew and Mark: “And when they had passed over [meaning on a boat over the lake], they came into the land of Gennesaret, and drew to the shore.” (Mark 6:53)  Today, this kibbutz is home to the Yigal Allon museum, which houses the spectacularly well-preserved 27-feet long by 7.5-feet wide “Jesus Boat” or “Sea of Galilee Boat”, discovered initially in 1986 by two brothers nearby on the receded shores of the then drought-ridden lake. The boat (pictured right), identified by archaeologists and historians as a type of fishing vessel, was dated to 40 BCE (plus or minus 80 years) based on radiocarbon dating, and 50 BCE to 50 CE based on the ancient boat construction techniques and pottery and nails found within the boat. For Christians, that placed it around the time that Jesus walked the area (and thus the popularly-assigned name, “Jesus Boat”). It also testified to the prominence of the fishing industry in the area at that time, as evidence of the presence of similar vessels had been found in the muddy contexts of the lakeshore during the draught.   

But the farmer’s field and the “Jesus Boat” were not the reasons Paul had volunteered. The Yigal Allon museum also houses the field laboratory and offices of the Bethsaida Excavations Project.  Along with a group of students and others, Paul was here to assist in the excavations at the ancient site of the city of Bethsaida, only a few miles away on the edge of the Golan Heights. Today, what remains of this ancient city can be seen at an elevated point about 2 km off the northeastern shore of the lake. But about 2,000 years ago, the city was much closer to the shore. Geological activity since then had, in effect, shifted it further inland from the lake’s edge.

As the birthplace of the Apostles Peter, Andrew and Phillip, it was an active fishing community (the name translated means “House of the Fisherman”) during the time of Jesus, and was raised to the status of a Greek city in 30 CE by Philip, the son of Herod the Great. He renamed it Julias, after Livia-Julia, the wife of Emperor Augustus. Here, Philip was buried, according to the historical account of Josephus Flavius. And here, or in the area, based on the Biblical account, Jesus performed miracles, such as healing of a blind man and the feeding of the multitude. Like Capernaum and Jerusalem, it is one of the most frequently mentioned locations in the New Testament. 

But a first-blush view of the remains of the Tel, or earthen mound that once was Bethsaida, tells the casual observer that this place was much more than a fishing village. On the first day of the dig, Professor Rami Arav, Director of Excavations for the Bethsaida Excavations Project, leads an orientation of the many students and volunteers that have come to join him. He shows them massive fortification walls and evidence of a glacis, an artificial slope of earth and rock adjacent to and connected to the walls, designed to facilitate efficient defense from attackers in battle. He shows them more stone walls built of massive stones, these arranged as part of a city wall and a 4-chambered city gate complex more characteristic of cities built during the 9th and 10th centuries BCE.  But on top of these, in another part of the ancient Tel, or mound, he walks the group through the Roman-period structures that define the city that existed around the time of Jesus and the 1st century CE.

Clearly, there was more than one city represented at this spot. Was the group looking at succeeding stages in time of a single city and culture, or were they looking at perhaps two or three different cities built by entirely distinct cultures? 

According to Arav, this place was indeed the fishing village where Jesus walked and the Bethsaida-Julias that Philip built, but there was much more to be told.


Massive stone construction at the site of Bethsaida, portraying a location that was clearly home to more than the 1st century town that Jesus, the Apostles, and Herod Phillip knew.  Photo courtesy Shai Schwartz.


Aerial view of the archaeological remains of Bethsaida. Courtesy Virtual World Project and Bethsaida Excavations Project



Finding the Lost City

For centuries, the location and remains of the Bethsaida of the time of Jesus and Josephus had been a mystery. For the last 2,000 years, pilgrims had searched the northern coasts of the Galilee to no avail. Unlike places like Capernaum and Tiberias, there appeared to be no commonly acceptable and clearly identifiable trace of it anywhere on the landscape, at least insofar as any reliable historical documentation or tradition could attest. Interpretation of the Biblical geography and references could perhaps provide some clues, which scholars used historically as part of the basis of their search for the lost city. 

Then, in 1938, American Biblical scholar Edward Robinson, while exploring the northeastern region adjacent to the lake, discovered a promising tel (a mound containing archaeological remains of a settlement). This tel, he maintained, could be what is left of Bethsaida. It was located approximately 1.5 – 2 km from the lake’s northeastern shore and just east of the Jordan river. Not a likely spot for a fishing village, maintained the crtitics. But later geological studies showed that the lake was actually significantly closer to the tel 2,000 years ago. Tectonic rifting, sedimentation of the Jordan Delta, and greater usage of the lake water over time through land irrigation and increased population are all cited as possible explanations for the difference.

Finally, in 1987 Israeli archaeologist Rami Arav conducted a ten-day probe of this 21-acre site, then known as et-Tell (“the mound”), on the educated hunch that the site could well be Bethsaida. His preliminary conclusions were positive, but much more needed to be done before the site could be placed on the map as a viable candidate. In 1990, he and a number of colleagues created the Consortium of the Bethsaida Excavations Project, an institutional grouping dedicated to exploring the site, researching and analyzing the remains, and disseminating the findings to academic audiences and the public. Today it numbers at least ten institutions, headquartered in the International Studies and Programs department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Early excavations at the site did indeed reveal a settlement location that had been occupied in Roman times. Salient finds included evidence of a Roman temple dated to the early 1st century CE, including foundation remains, some limestone ashlars and decorated architectural elements. Ritual vessels, such as two well-preserved bronze incense shovels found within the temple footprint, support its description as a temple. It may have been the temple built by Herod Philip in honor of Julia Livia. In addition, courtyard-style houses typical of the period were uncovered, estimated to have been two stories high. Ceramic wine amphorae and vine pruning hooks were found in the cellar of one of the houses. The houses were designed as paved, open courtyards surrounded by several rooms. Within them were found fishing tools, such as fishing hooks, needles, lead net weights, and iron anchors. Clearly, fishing was a player in the economy of the settlement.


Fragment of the lintel from the Roman temple at Bethsaida.  Courtesy Virtual World Project and Bethsaida Excavations Project


One of two remarkably well-preserved incense shovels found within the context of the Roman temple remains.  Courtesy Virtual World Project and Bethsaida Excavations Project.


More recent excavations have turned up plentiful evidence of the Roman/Hellenistic periods. Among the finds were shards of Roman period oil lamps, pottery, coins, glass, and an intact iron sickle with the remains of its wooden handle. Of particular note was a complete Roman glass typical to the 1st century, a gold coin depicting Antoninus Pius dating to 138 CE, of which only twelve others have been found in Israel, and evidence of Megarian ware pottery, high quality tableware that was first created in ancient Megara near Athens, Greece.  Roman/Hellenistic period walls and pavement continue to be uncovered. 


The gold Antoninus Pius coin found within the area featuring Roman/Hellenistic period remains.  It appears as good as new. Courtesy Shai Schwartz.


Nothing thus far confirms without a doubt that et-Tel is indeed the Bethsaida of the New Testament and the writings of Josephus, but the indicators are supportive and most scholars agree that it is a likely candidate for the city.


What Lies Beneath

Perhaps the most revelatory discovery at Bethsaida came in 1996, when Arav and his excavation team uncovered something entirely unexpected, but in every way as significant as the remains unearthed in previous years. Emerging from beneath the Roman-Hellenistic layers was evidence of another, far older settlement. Features of an Iron Age (1300 – 600 BC) four-chambered city gate complex, or gate house, were revealed. When completely uncovered, it turned out to be one of the largest and best preserved found in Israel, comparing in form and size to the large gate houses discovered at major Biblical period sites such as Hazor, Gezer and Megiddo. Evidence of wooden beams was found placed between the stone courses, indicating an architectural technique that may have been practiced by the ancients to secure structures against the effects of earthquakes (particularly as the Bethsaida site area was vulnerable to relatively frequent earthquakes in antiquity). Two of the gate house chambers yielded evidence to suggest that they were used as granaries. One of them featured burnt barley, clues to a fiery destruction. The other two may have had a cultic or public function, one of which contained arrows and spearheads (pictured right) dated to the time of the Assyrian campaigns against ancient Israel. Archaeologists interpret the finds as possibly corresponding to the campaign of the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III.

Now, excavations began to take a new turn, as additional energy was dedicated to uncovering and exploring what appeared to be a different, more ancient city that had occupied the same space long before the village of Jesus’ time was an idea in any fisherman’s head.


View, above and below, of the Iron Age gate house at Bethsaida.  Courtesy Shai Schwartz.



More digging soon led to the discovery of a peculiar basalt stele (human-carved standing stone, pictured right) in one of the forward niches of the gate house, featuring a simple, carved bull-headed figure or symbol with prominent horns, carrying or wearing a dagger. Interestingly, the stele was found in scattered fragments, implying intentional destruction. Stelae are already rare finds in Israel, and the “bull” stele was considered rarer still. It is the only one of its kind found in the archaeological context of this part of the Middle East. Only three other bull stelae have been found, all in the ruins of Mesopotamia.

But what is the meaning of the bull-headed figure? Arav suggests that it was a representation of the moon god Sin, a popular ancient Middle Eastern deity often associated with Mesopotamia and who is credited with being the chief or head of a pantheon of gods and the creator of the universe. The god was very popular in areas where Abraham of the Hebrew Bible had lived. 

Like other gate houses established throughout the ancient Near East, this one likely served multiple purposes. The Sin god stele and two cultic niches found in front of the gate house structure obviously indicated that it was a place of worship. A stone bench indicated a place where the elders of a city would typically sit in court session. And the grain findings in two of the chambers or rooms indicated a granary or storage function. 

There were more surprises near the gate house excavation. Near the gate house emerged the remains of a bit-hilani style palace. Such palace styles were popular during the 10th-9th centuries BCE in the Levant, and particularly in what is today northern Syria. Dated to the 9th century BCE, this structure contained what appeared to be a main, or throne room, surrounded by eight other rooms. Within the palace was found a small figurine of the Egyptian god Pataekos (see left). Pataekos was one of the children of the Egyptian god Ptah, the god of craftsmen and artists. The figurine depicts a dwarf with an elaborate beaded necklace and two knives or daggers. There were also traces of faience, a turquoise glaze. 

Investigation of the palace also uncovered two very interesting pottery handles with inscriptions. One was stamped with the name “Zechario” (“remembered by the Lord”), and the other was stamped with “MKY”, which is short for Michyahu (“who is like the Lord”). 

Right: Examples of some of the pottery recovered from the bit-hilani palace. Courtesy Virtual World Project and Bethsaida Excavations Project. 



View of the Iron Age gate house and pavement. Archaeologists have now uncovered two gates as part of the same complex, an outer and an inner gate, separated by a large paved plaza. Both gates were flanked by a tower on each side. Although the pavement of the gate complex shows erosion, it lacks wheel-marks, indicating that the complex may have been chariot-free during the Iron Age. The outside walls were constructed of dressed basalt stones, which were then plastered and covered with whitewash such that in antiquity the stones would not have shown. On the outside, adjacent to the towers, there ran a low bench, possibly designed for the city elders to sit while holding court in the gate. There are two chambers on either side, which originally would have stood two or three stories high. The rooms themselves were actually built of large sun-dried bricks nearly 3 meters thick. On the outside, on either side of the inner gate, there are niches, probably for cultic purposes based on archaeological findings at other ancient sites. In the right niche there are two steps leading to a smooth basin made of basalt stone. Within the basalt basin archaeologists found two incense burners, or small perforated cups with three short legs. The burn marks betrayed their usage. In antiquity, visitors to the city would have poured a libation into the basin or burned incense. Around this niche were the scattered fragments of the basalt bull stele, which at one time would have stood behind the basin. The moon god stele shown in this photo is a replica fabricated by Orna Cohen. The original is on display in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.  Photo courtesy Shai Schwartz. 


The discoveries didn’t stop with the 9th century gate house and the bit-hilani palace. Archaeologists knew that beneath these Iron Age remains, dated now to the 9th – 8th centuries BC, there would be evidence of an even older city. Continued digging proved them right. Excavations have now revealed evidence of a possible casemate wall, a massive tower or defensive bastion, and another gate house, all dated to the 10th century (950 – 850 BCE). Smaller finds included pottery shards with a casual red slipware, a ceramic type typical to ancient Israel in the 10th century BCE. 

And it appears that the story of this city does not end with the 10th century. Archaeologists have now recovered structural remains and artifacts that may attest to at least a Late Bronze Age presence (14th – 12th centuries BCE) and Early Iron Age. Among the larger finds were small architectural remains dated to the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age, and among the smaller finds were Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age pottery shards representing cooking pots, deep bowls, decorated handles and juglets with a palm design and red bands. One folded handle of a Middle Bronze Age I (or Intermediate Early Bronze/ Middle Bronze Age) jar was also discovered. The most complete artifacts included an almost complete juglet, a jar and an intact bronze bowl.


Above left: 10th century BCE granary of the newly discovered gate house dated to the same time period.  Courtesy Virtual World Project and Bethsaida Excavations Project. 

Inside corner of the 10th century BCE gate house.  Courtesy Virtual World Project and Bethsaida Excavations Project.


Excavator standing upon the pavement of the 10th century BCE outer gate.  Courtesy Virtual World Project and Bethsaida Excavations Project.



A Fruitful Alliance

With the discovery of this monumental Iron Age settlement in the area of present-day Golan, the finds naturally begged the question as to the identity of the ancient site that lay beneath the ruins of Roman-Hellenistic Bethsaida. 

Taking geography, Biblical accounts, ancient records, and the nature of the archaeological discoveries into account, Arav suggests that the remains may in fact represent those of the capital city (thought to be identified as “Tzer”) of ancient Geshur, a small, independent Aramaen kingdom that was closely alligned with early Israel during the times of David and Solomon.  

The first mention of Geshur, or the kingdom of the Geshurites, emerges in the el-Amarna letters, 14th century BCE diplomatic correspondence between the Egyptian pharaohs Amenophis II and his son Akhenaten and smaller client state rulers in Egyptian-administered Palestine. It is also mentioned in the Bible in Joshua 13, which recounts how it actually became a part of ancient Israel when the land was divided among the 12 tribes of Israel: “The Israelites failed to expel the Geshurites and Maacathites, and Geshur and Maacah dwell among the Israelites to this day.” (Joshua 13:13). It is mentioned again in II Samuel 3:3, which records the birth of King David’s son Absalom by his wife Maacah, who was the daughter of Talmai, king of Geshur. The marriage between David and Maacah is interpreted by scholars as a means of strengthening the political union between Geshure and Israel, as this was not an uncommon practice among the royalty of ancient kingdoms.

And finally, it was to the land of Geshur that Absalom fled for refuge after he slew his half-brother Amnon: “But Absalom fled, and went to Talmai, the son of Ammihud, king of Geshur.” (II Samuel 13: 37) Absalom ‘s daughter, also called Maacah, married Rehoboam, the son of Solomon, the king of Judah after the united Israelite kingdom split into two kingdoms, Judah in the south and Israel in the north.

In the early days of ancient Israel and Judah, then, the kingdom of Geshur, and thus their respective capitals, enjoyed a close, fruitful and peaceful relationship. Indeed, similar Syrian influences on architectural style can be seen between Israelite royal architecture and that found at Bethsaida. 



Getting off the bus at Ginosar, Paul knew that digging from about 6:00 a.m. until noon at the site would not be the end of a long day’s work. He was covered with the dust of ages, satisfied that he had put in an honest day’s efforts uncovering, in tandem with the rest of his friends and colleagues, what had been lying for well more than 2,000 years beneath soil and rock deposits. He had encountered at least a handful’s worth of pottery shards and a fragment of an oil lamp that day.

After lunch at Ginosar’s dining hall and a break for rest and relaxation, there would be pottery sorting and then “reading” of pottery shards recovered from digging completed in previous days. This work was on the shores of the Galilee, affording the same view that the ancients must have had thousands of years ago. Arav would perform the “reading”, or preliminary identification and analysis of the finds, while using it as a teaching opportunity for the students and volunteers. This is when much of the learning takes place, and when the dig participants have a chance to get truly “up close and personal” with key finds that help tell the story of Bethsaida. 

After the evening meal and another break, participants gather into a room set aside for classroom activity. Here, Arav or another participating scholar will deliver an informative lecture or conduct a discussion about various select topics related to archaeological methodology or ancient historical subjects related to Bethsaida and the historical, geographical or geological context of the site. For the dig day, it is like the icing on the cake, the “dessert” of the day’s learning experience.  For him, this was the perfect way to cap off the day. 

Late evening rolls around and its time to retire to bed in the dormitory. For Paul, this is about 10:00 p.m. There are five or ten minutes of evening conversation with his room mates. Two others share his room. For Paul, this makes the whole experience all the richer. In fact, every dig day is full of conversation and interaction with people from all over the U.S. and the world. It is hard to walk away from a dig without making new friends.

It will be a short night — by 4:00 a.m. the next morning, his alarm will sound again and it will be a whole new day — and perhaps an amazing new find or two. Why not?  According to Josephus, Bethsaida was the resting place of the 1st century tetrarch, Herod Philip. Perhaps he will stumble upon his tomb. Digs can be like that………..sometimes, reality can be more exciting than the imagination, and certainly more impactful than fiction.

On the weekend, a tour of Jerusalem awaits, and perhaps a dip in the waters of the Galilee upon return.

The Bethsaida Excavations Project conducts excavations every summer.  More information about the Project and how to apply can be obtained at http://www.unomaha.edu/bethsaida.

Never thought so much work could be so much fun.  Photo courtesy Shai Schwartz.


Cover Photo, Top Left: The 9th century BCE city gate at Bethsaida. Courtesy Shai Schwartz

Photo, Second from Top, Left: View of Kibbutz Ginosar. Reenem, Wikimedia Commons

Photo, Third from Top, Right: Sea of Galilee Boat as exhibited in Yigal Allon Museum. Wikimedia Commons

Photo, Ninth from Top, Right: Arrowheads/spearpoints left from battle and destruction during Assyrian campaign.

Photo, Thirteenth from Top, Left: The Pataekos figurine. Courtesy Virtual World Project and Bethsaida Excavations Project.

Photo, Twentieth from Top, Left: Four large wine jars found in a wine cellar of a large house, Roman period. Courtesy Virtual World Project and Bethsaida Excavations Project.

Dan McLerran

As Founder and Editor of Popular Archaeology Magazine, Dan is a freelance writer and journalist specializing in archaeology.  He studied anthropology and archaeology in undergraduate and graduate school and has been an active participant on archaeological excavations in the U.S. and abroad.  He is the creator and administrator of Archaeological Digs, a popular weblog about archaeological excavation and field school opportunities.