Bethsaida (Khirbet et-Tel) is an ancient city 2 km north side of the Sea of Galilee in the fertile delta of the upper Jordan river, where it enters to the sea of Galilee. Bethsaida is in the southeastern section of Jordan Park. The coastline of the delta area has migrated north due to the drop of the water level caused by either tectonic rifting or sedimentation. Bethsaida is east of the Jordan Park and 4KM northeast to Capernaum. The name means “the house of hunting” or fishing. The New Testament describes this area as a desert but should be understood as “grazing or pasture land”. The Arabic name of the area is el-Baṭeiḥah.
First Temple Period – Iron Age
Archaeologist have uncovered here a fortified city, founded in the 10th C BCE with a gate leading to a paved square and a huge palace. This may have been the capital city of Geshur, and was identified as the city of Zer (or Zed). Geshur was the country of King David’s third wife, Maacha, mother of Absalom (2 Samuel 3:3). It was here that Absalom found refuge after murdering his elder brother Amnon (2 Samuel 13 37-38). The city was divided into two parts: a lower city, extending over most of the mound; and an upper city – the acropolis – on the higher, northeastern part of the mound. The city gate complex discovered on the eastern side of the tel consisted of an outer and an inner gateway. The outer gateway included a passageway between two massive towers. A unique feature of the Bethsaida gate is the variety of cultic installations in front of the inner gate.
The city was destroyed by Assyrian king Tiglath Pileser III during his campaign in the region in 734 BCE. (II Kings 15:29-30; 16:7-9)
Second Temple Period – Helenistic Period
During the Hellenistic period, starting at the 3rd C BCE, the ruined city was rebuilt. Bethsaida was given (in 30 CE) to the Tetrarch Herod Phillip II, one of the sons of Herod the great. He fortified the city and renamed it to Julias in honor of Caesar’s daughter Livia-Julia, the powerful third wife of Augustus. In the early stages of the Great Revolt of the Jews against the Romans the town was destroyed in a local battle in which the Jewish troops were led by the historian Josephus Flavius (Yosef Ben Matityahu).
What is the location of Beth Saida?
The location of Beth Saida has been uncertain for centuries and has been a recent topic of academic debate. There are two predominant views on the location of Bethsaida.
- The Bethsaida Excavation Project (BEP) is conducted excavations at Bethsaida-Julias, a site also known as et-Tell. Bethsaida-Julias is located 1.5 miles north of the Sea of Galilee on the eastern side of the Jordan River.
- A second proposed site for Bethsaida is el-Araj, located almost due south of Bethsaida-Julias, and on the modern shore of the Sea of Galilee.
There are many problems with the identification of et-Tell with Bethsaida, including:
- Distance from the Sea of Galilee
- Elevation of the site, about 20 feet (7 m) above the level of the lake in ancient times
- Lack of ancient remains from the 1st century A.D., including significant pottery and coins
- Lack of buildings from the New Testament period. After nearly 20 years of digging, excavators have identified only one Roman period house and another building they identify as a Roman temple. This latter identification is dubious.
Bethsaida is mentioned in the New Testament in conjunction with two of Jesus miracles:
- Healing the blind man (Mark 8 22:”And he cometh to Bethsaida; and they bring a blind man unto him…..”)
- Miraculously feeding of the 5,000 multitude with five loaves and two fish (Luke 9 16: “”And the apostles, when they were returned, told him all that they had done. And he took them, and went aside privately into a desert place belonging to the city called Bethsaida…”).
According to the New Testament, Beth Saida was the birthplace of the Apostles Andrew, Peter, and Philip (John 1:44): “Now Philip was of Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter”.
Jesus cursed Bethsaida since its Jewish residents had lack of faith and did not follow his teachings (Matthew 11 21: “Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes”).
Bethsaida is one of the most frequently mentioned towns in the New Testament. Bethsaida, Chorazin and Tabgha constitute the ‘evangelical triangle’ with Capernaum as the base’s midpoint, within which approximately 80% of Jesus’ public ministry was exercised.
The city was destroyed during the 4th Century.
During the Fifth Crusade, the well-mounted crusader army led by King Andrew II of Hungary defeated Sultan Al-Adil I at Bethsaida on the Jordan River on 10 November 1217. Muslim forces retreated in their fortresses and towns.
This hill of et-Tel was used as a Syrian bunker before 1967. Only after the 6-day war there was access to the area east of the Jordan river, and the archaeological quest began.
The excavation site of Beth Saida at et-Tell is located in a public recreation area known as Jordan Park, close to the Yahudia Junction at the intersection of Routes 87 and 92.
Points of Interest
- Fisherman’s house: 4,300 sq. feet. Finds -weights for nets, iron anchors, needles and fishing hooks
- Winemaker’s house: 2,700 square feet. Site includes an undisturbed wine cellar with four completeceramic wine amphorae and several vine pruning hooks.
The Beit Saida Vista Point offers a stirring view of what’s left of the Kinneret. A signposted path at the site leads to the fascinating findings and to an observation pavilion overlooking the Jordan Park and the Sea of Galilee.