On Tell Bethsaida

Last week – when it was somewhat warmer than it is now – we visited the most likely site of ancient Bethsaida, near the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee.

I say likely because the precise location has long been disputed. According to the New Testament Bethsaida was one of the fishing towns frequented by Jesus and the home of three major apostles, Peter, Andrew and Phillip. In one Gospel story Jesus was seen walking on the Sea of Galilee from Bethsaida’s shores. The word ‘Bethsaida’ means ‘House of the Fisherman’. And yet the ruins now identified as those of the old town are set on a hill, more than a mile inland of today’s shoreline.

Bethsaida’s location has puzzled archaeologists for centuries. It was a prominent settlement well before the time of Jesus and for some time thereafter. The Bible locates the town in the territory of Geshur, which played an important role in the Kingdom of David. And according to Josephus Bethsaida featured in the opening battles of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome in 67CE. The second century Roman Emperor Hadrian spoke of its abundant fish and fowl.

Please click the images below for larger versions. Additional images can be viewed on Flickr.

But by the Middle Ages it had disappeared from history. There was no trace of a town commensurate with Bethsaida’s size on the north west coast of the Sea. It was not until the 19th century that it was suggested that a mound set back north of the Sea, known locally as e-Tell, might be the location. The hypothesis was controversial given the mound’s distance from the shore, but excavations carried out more than a century later – as late as 1987 – unearthed compelling evidence e-Tell was indeed the place. The consensus today is that the Sea of Galilee in antiquity was larger than its present size and probably included a series of estuaries leading off a large lagoon just north of the current coastline.

Standing on the highest point of ‘Tell Bethsaida’ today, it’s possible to imagine that ancient geography. The remains of the town are concentrated on the hill top, which falls sharply to a lush, marshy plain. One can visualise those who fished the lake walking down the hill to a harbour. Not much remains of the old town, but its ancient paths and roads have been identified, and the foundations of the impressive towers that guarded Bethsaida’s eastern gate. These date back to at least the eighth century BC, giving a sense of the town’s age. There’s a cleverly constructed vantage point on the southern edge of the hill, from which it’s possible to view the whole of the northern side of the shoreline, encompassing Capernaum, Chorazin, the Mount of Beatitudes and Magdala.

We were fortunate to visit on a quiet day in late December, wandering the town alone amidst late afternoon shadows.