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The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East What is This? Provides comprehensive coverage of the history and scope of archaeology in the Near East.


site located 2.5 km (12 mi.) north of the Sea of Galilee and a few hundred meters from the Jordan River (map reference 209 × 257). Following the death of Herod the Great In 4 BCE, the region of Bethsaida became a part of the tetrarchy of his son Philip (Josephus, Antiq. 17.189; Lk. 3:1). Sometime during the second decade of the first century CE, Jesus withdrew to Bethsaida upon hearing of John the Baptist’s death (Lk. 9:10) and performed some of his “mighty works” there. Toward the end of Jesus' ministry in the area, when he realized that not many would follow him, he condemned Bethsaida to humiliation, along with Capernaum and Chorazin (Mt 11:21; Lk. 10:13). [See Capernaum; Chorazin.]

In 30 CE, Bethsaida was elevated to the status of a Greek polis by Philip Herod and renamed Julias, after Livia-Julia, Augustus's wife and Tiberius's mother, who had died a few months earlier (Josephus, Antiq. 18.28; War 2.9.1). Josephus's statement that the renaming was after Julia, Augustus's daughter, should be corrected based upon numismatic evidence. Philip died In 34 CE in Bethsaida and was buried in a magnificent funeral (Antiq. 18.108).

In 65–66, the Roman armies of Agrippa II clashed with rebels in a series of battles that failed to result in a clear victory for either side (Josephus, Life 71–73). The archaeological evidence is that the city was destroyed and never rebuilt.

Bethsaida is mentioned by biblical interpreters and in pilgrims' accounts beginning in the fourth century. Most of these descriptions point to a few locations at the north of the Sea of Galilee, perhaps neither to the correct site. A scholarly controversy over its identification began at the end of the sixteenth century. Based on John 12:21, which places Bethsaida in Galilee, and Josephus (Antiq. 18.28) and other Gospel citations, which place it in the Golan, scholars deduced that there were two such places: one named Bethsaida in Galilee—namely, on the west side of the Jordan River—and the other, Julias—on the east side. The quest for the proper site reemerged with the rise of modern biblical research. In the first half of the nineteenth century, a few scholars proposed identifying Bethsaida with a large mound named et-Tell at the northern corner of the Bteḥa plain, 2.5 km (1.5 mi.) from the Sea of Galilee. In the 1880s Gottlieb Schumacher maintained that it was implausible for a fishermen's village to have been located so far from water. He proposed two sites located on the shore: el-Araj, a few hundred meters from the mouth of the Jordan, and el-Mesadiyeh, a small ruin father to the southeast. [See the biography of Schumacher.]

In 1987 the archaeological investigation of the site of Bethsaida began on behalf of the University of Haifa. Probes were carried out at Tell Araj and et-Tell. As et-Tell alone yielded levels dating to the period in question, excavations have continued exclusively there. In 1991 a consortium of university scholars for the excavations of Bethsaida was formed, headed by the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Et-Tell/Bethsaida is the largest mound near the northern Sea of Galilee. Its ancient ruins lie on a basalt hill, an extension of the lava plains that form the Golan Heights. The mound (450 × 200 m) rises 25 m above its surroundings. Two peaks and a saddle form its summit, and steep slopes descend from all sides, except at its northern corner. A spring, now hidden by bushes, flows down its western slope toward the Jordan. Probes opened on the summit revealed four periods of occupation.

The first settlement dates to the Early Bronze I period (3100–2850 BCE) and continued uninterrupted through the EB II (2850–2650 BCE), when the settlement was surrounded by a very thick wall built of huge boulders. Parts of this wall have survived to a height of 1.30 m.

The next period of occupation at the site of Bethsaida occurred during the end of Iron Age I and the beginning of Iron Age II (eleventh century BCE). This was a very intensive period of occupation and constructions. Although segments of the Early Bronze Age city walls were put back into use, particularly as revetment walls, a new city wall was constructed. It was built as a series of offsets and insets on the exterior and the interior faces of the wall. In addition to this, towers were constructed. The width of the city wall varies between 6 and 7 m. The tower that was discovered at the east added 2 m to the city wall.

The northeast area of the mound forms the summit of the site and the upper city. New revetment walls were built there to loop large basalt bedrock boulders that could not be removed. This area was filled with red clay material and formed the platform of the upper city, where new constructions were added. A tower that was excavated at the southern revetment wall may indicate that few other towers were constructed astride this wall. Thus far, excavations at the summit reveal two main structures: one in the north and the other in the south of a large plaza, adjacent to the city wall and tower. The massive structures were of large and heavy basalt boulders that measure 1.4 m in width and indicate that they were built for public purposes.


BETHSAIDA. Figure 1. Faience statuette of the Egyptian dwarf god Pataekos. Iron Age II period. (Courtesy R. Arav)

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The building at the north was a rectangular structure of 20 × 30 m in the form of the Aramean-Assyrian palaces known as bit-ḫilani. Architectural elements, such as a porch, that preceded the facade were thoroughly destroyed by later constructions and a modern Syrian military trench. At the facade a rectangular vestibule room with two antae and a single large pillar out of presumably two, have survived. Behind the vestibule a large rectangular room was discovered that is interpreted to be a throne room. West of the vestibule a rectangular service room has been discovered and at the east, another room was found. This room contained an Egyptian statuette known as Pataekos, highly competent artistically (see figure 1). A row of four smaller storage rooms were unearthed at the northern side of the palace. One of these rooms contained more than twenty complete vessels; some of them are Cypro-Phoenician and Samarian ware. In addition, an Israelite bulla in Phoenician style testifies correspondence with Samaria and an existence of an archive were also discovered.

In the eighth century the palace may have gone out of use as the modification and alternation of its rooms may imply. The throne room was divided into two halls by a relatively thinner partition wall. Large numbers of loom weights and spindle whorls suggest that some sections of the palace were utilized for a garment industry. Other changes included blocking the entrances to the back storage rooms, installationsat the vestibule, and two brick benches in the northern of these aforementioned halls.

In front of this building there was a large, well-paved piazza. The plaza contained a canal that led to a row of three standing stones in the form of stelae. At the east the piazza reached the city wall and at the south there was another public building. The city wall was constructed by large boulders at the exterior and the interior faces. The core of the wall was made of large field stones. The width of the wall varies from 5.5 to 6.5 m. A strong tower was added to the wall east of the piazza and created a majestic width of 8 m to the wall.

The building at the south was built by large boulders and was preserved at one point to an elevation of 2 m. The function of this building is yet unclear. Thus far the facade of the structure has been entirely excavated. It contains an entrance 1.7 m wide built in an impressive wall. A large, broad room, divided in a later period into two sections, is behind the entrance. A column base and a column drum that were found in a later deposit may originate from the area of the entrance or belong to the missing porch of the bit-ḫilani. A large cavity was excavated in front of the entrance during the last period of the Iron Age and the entire floor and whatever was in front of it were removed.


BETHSAIDA. Figure 2. Cellar with winejars. Found adjacent to a Hellenistic-Early Roman courtyard house in area C. (Courtesy R. Arav)

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Bethsaida was not abandoned at the end on the Iron Age. A small but distinctive layer of occupation during the Persian period was discerned during the dig. Unfortunately, this layer was too poor and its remains too fragmentary to retrieve a comprehensive ground plan. However, the settlement resumed to a remarkable extent when the next period, the Hellenistic, emerged. The ancient city walls most probably remained at a fairly high level and therefore were reused, as were other sections and walls of the old Iron Age public buildings. The overall view of the settlement during the Hellenistic and Early Roman periods seems to be thoroughly different from the Iron Age. Simple private homes occupy the summit; the former Iron Age upper city remains were observed and reused. The impression was of a peculiar combination of a fishing village within city walls. A few private houses were excavated thus far. Two of them were preserved fairly well and present a similar ground plan. They were built in the typical courtyard pattern. The main core of the building is a central courtyard where most of the home activities, perhaps, were carried out. The kitchen is the next largest room, occupying the eastern section of the house. The residential quarter is located at the north. The southern courtyard house contains many fishing implements, including lead net weights and other implements indicative that the owner of the house was a fisherman. The northernmost of the houses was preserved to a better state. It contained four iron sickles for harvesting grapes and a wine cellar (see figure 2). These finds imply that the owner of the house was a wine dresser. An interesting discovery at this house was a cross incised on a sherd of pottery, discovered next to the entrance to the residential quarter. In addition, architectural elements and remains of a monumental building were discovered scattered on the surface. The location and the function of this building are still unknown.

The later history of Bethsaida is a history of destruction and ruin. Throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries CE, the site suffered severely from intensive stone looting. Limestone blocks, columns, capitals, architectural elements and decorations, and perhaps statues and sculptures that once adorned the town were taken away. In addition to this, hundreds of bedouin tombs were dug in the mound in the last few centuries. The excavations have uncovered over one hundred tombs dug into the walls and floors of the Iron Age and Hellenistic buildings. However, the most destructive period for the site occurred rather recently, when the mound served as a Syrian military stronghold until 1967. Military trenches, bunkers, and positions of all kinds crisscross the site, leaving upheaval and destruction.

In antiquity the Bethsaida plain was a bay of the Sea of Galilee. Geological investigations reveal that landslides in the upper Jordan River gorge blocked the river and formed catastrophic floods. Torrents of gravel and mud filled the bay and isolated the fishing town of Bethsaida, leaving only a small lagoon between the town and the Sea of Galilee. Another flood during the second century CE filled the lagoon almost entirely and shifted the seashore away from the city.


  • Arav, Rami. “Et-Tell and el-Araj.” Israel Exploration Journal 38 (1988): 187–188; 39 (1989): 99–100; “Bethsaida, 1989” Israel Exploration Journal 41 (1991): 184–186; “Bethsaida, 1992” Israel Exploration Journal 42 (1992): 252–254.
  • Arav, Rami. “A Mamluk Drum from Bethsaida.” Israel Exploration Journal 43 (1993): 241–245.
  • Arav, Rami, and Richard Freund. Bethsaida, A City by the Shore of the Sea of Galilee. Kirksville, Mo., 1995.
  • Arav, Rami, and John J. Rousseau. “Elusive Bethsaida Recovered.” The Fourth R 4.1 (January 1991): 1–4. Short summary of Bethsaida research, including a survey of excavation results.
  • Arav, Rami, and John J. Rousseau. “Bethsaida, ville perdue et retrouvée.” Revue Biblique (1993): 415–428.
  • Kindler, Arieh. “The Coins of the Tetrarch Philippus, Son of Herod I, and the Renaming of Bethsaida/Julias.” Cathedra 53 (1989): 24–26 (in Hebrew). Presents numismatic evidence for the renaming of Bethsaida after Livia-Julia in 30 CE.
  • Kuhn, H.-W., and Rami Arav. “The Bethsaida Excavations: Historical and Archaeological Approaches.” In The Future of Early Christianity: Essays in Honor of Helmut Koester, edited by Birger A. Pearson, pp. 77–106. Minneapolis, 1991. Detailed survey of research, including a preliminary report on the first three seasons.
  • McCown, Chester C. “The Problem of the Site of Bethsaida.” Journal of the Palestine Oriental Society 10 (1930): 32–58.
  • Pixner, Bargil. “Searching for the New Testament Site of Bethsaida.” Biblical Archaeologist 48 (1985): 207–216. The last study prior to the excavations.
  • Robinson, Edward, et al. Biblical Researches in Palestine and the Adjacent Regions: A Journal of Travels in the Years 1838 and 1852. 3 vols. 2d ed. London, 1856. For et-Tell, see volume 2, pages 412–414; for Tabqa as Bethsaida, see volume 2, pages 404–406, and volume 3, page 358.
  • Rousseau, John J., and Rami Arav. Jesus and His World. Minneapolis, 1995.

Rami Arav

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