Bethsaida is situated on a tel (a large mound formed by the accumulated remains of ancient communities) 1.5 kilometers away from the northern shore of Lake Kinneret, in an area that is today part of the Jordan River Park. The city that [archaeologist Rami] Arav and his expeditions have worked to uncover since 1987 lays on a basalt outcrop that descends from the Golan Heights. The tel is also known by its Arabic name, Et-Tell ("the mound"). It is 400 meters long, 200 meters wide and 25 meters high. Deep down in the earth, at least two different cities lie on top of each other, after having existed at different periods in history.
One of the periods represented at the tel is the Hellenistic-Roman era (Second Temple) - from the fourth century B.C.E. to the fourth century C.E. At the outset of this period, the experts say, Bethsaida was a large, bustling fishing village. Toward the end, it was abandoned by its inhabitants. Says Arav: "The waters of the lake reached the shores of Bethsaida until the third century C.E.," but subsequently receded about 1.5 kilometers southward due to geological changes in the region. The fishing village had found itself without water.
The tremendous excitement of the Christian pilgrims who visited the site stems from the fact that, according to the historical sources, at least three of Jesus' apostles were born here: Peter, Andrew and Philip. Jesus himself probably visited Bethsaida in the second decade of the first century C.E. According to the New Testament, it was here that he performed several of his most famous miracles - healing the blind man and feeding the multitudes (the Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes) - and it was from Bethsaida that he was seen walking on water
Despite Bethsaida's popularity as a place of pilgrimage for Christians, the site is unknown to Israelis. Rami Arav, a graduate of Tel Aviv University, completed his doctorate in the ancient Middle East at New York University. He returned to Israel in 1986 and began to work as a researcher at an institute involved in studying the Golan Heights and to teach at the University of Haifa. As he scouted around for something interesting to research in the north, his eye caught the name Bethsaida.
Bethsaida is not just about Jesus. The researchers discovered that the city from the time of Jesus and Peter was built on the ruins of an older Bethsaida. In addition to the findings from Hellenistic-Roman times, the site has turned up remnants from an earlier period that is no less historically and archaeologically important: the First Temple period, from the 10th century B.C.E. to 732 B.C.E., when Bethsaida was laid waste by the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III. For part of this period, Bethsaida was a large and important city, which was crowned capital of the biblical Kingdom of Geshur.
The findings from this period is of vast importance in biblical contexts. Thus it turns out that Bethsaida is also of interest to Israeli visitors, who are not necessarily interested in Christianity: The Geshurites were not Israelites, but the palace that was uncovered at the site apparently belonged to the king of Geshur, Talmai, son of Ammihud (or Ammihur). So it is quite possible that it was to this palace that King David came when he asked Talmai for the hand of his daughter, Ma'achah, who became his wife and gave birth to his son Absalom and his daughter Tamar.
Arav asserts that this is "the best-preserved palace of its kind that has ever been discovered in Israel. It is an archetype that is identical to King Solomon's palace in Jerusalem (which has never been found). The palace at Bethsaida is a highly valuable find."
What led Arav to these far-reaching conclusions? He cites four main causes: the comparatively vast dimensions of the city, the way it was built, the paved road leading to it, and the evidence of the religious services and administration that the residents received, which are embodied in the findings. The historical importance of the findings far transcends the fact that they were simply uncovered at this particular site.
But his conclusions have not gone undebated.
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