The great gate and black birds

Clutches of black cormorants make Bethsaida a site for the winter birdwatcher as well as for those keen to taste the history of the Golan.

hiking 88 248 (photo credit: Stephen G. Rosenberg)
hiking 88 248
(photo credit: Stephen G. Rosenberg)
As the early Christian pilgrims would wend their weary way from west to east around the Sea of Galilee, they would pass from Tiberias on to their final destination at Kursi, passing at least four Jewish fishing villages known to Jesus. But before reaching their destination, they would first have to cross the northern Jordan, probably in one of those little boats, like the so-called Jesus boat now in the Yigal Allon Museum at Ginossar, at a place they thought was Bethsaida, which they would venerate as another fishing village known to the master. Here, according to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus fed a crowd of 5,000 with five loaves and two fishes, and here, according to the Gospel of Mark, he restored the sight of a blind man. Most miraculous of all, also according to Mark, Jesus came down from the mountain and here, to reach his disciples, who had already set sail by boat, he overtook them by walking on the water. The pilgrims will have venerated this place for the sake of their master, without realizing exactly where that Bethsaida fishing village had been, or that it had once been a major city of the 10th century BCE, in the heart of the land of Geshur, to which King David became affiliated by marriage with the daughter of its king, Talmai. The pilgrims may have found the right village where the northern Jordan flows into Kinneret, but today the ruins of Bethsaida lie two kilometers north of the lake, as the shoreline has been moved by the accumulation of debris and soil from the earthquakes (major ones in 363 and 551 CE) that shook this part of the great Rift Valley in the past. Excavations at Bethsaida started in 1987, directed by Rami Arav of the Golan Research Institute and the University of Haifa, who was soon joined by Richard Freund of the University of Hartford in the US. They started by looking just for the original Jewish village mentioned in the New Testament but, as the work proceeded, they found they were digging up a much earlier city of the Iron Age. After 13 seasons at the site they have revealed one of the largest cities of the 10th century BCE in northern Israel, one that continued into the Hellenistic period nearly a thousand years later, and was finally brought to an end in the third century CE, by which time the shore line of the lake had receded so far as to make the location redundant as a fishing community. THE IRON Age city had a fine wall of great width and strength that led to a massive gate, covering half a dunam, one of the largest in Israel, on a par with those at Hatzor and Tel Dan. It had four chambers which served as guardrooms but also storage areas, as one of them was a public granary, where one ton of burned barley was found. One of the forward chambers of the gate was covered in black ash and contained multiple arrows and spearheads, which pointed to evidence of the Assyrian conquest by Tiglath-Pileser III, who laid waste large swathes of northern Israel in 734 BCE, as recorded in the Bible and Assyrian annals. A unique feature of the gateway were two cultic installations, one on either side of the outer entry. On one side there was an angled recess with a shelf on which it is thought those entering would stop and make a small offering. On the other side was another recess approached by steps leading to a basin in front of an image which had been smashed to pieces. The object of the basin and the steps was clearly to induce arrivals to offer a libation to the image of the city god, in fact it may have been a compulsory act for any stranger who sought to enter the city. The excavators were able to restore the smashed pieces into the figure of a standing bull armed with exaggerated horns and a long dagger. Rami Arav says that it may have represented the moon god Sahar (Crescent), popular in Aram (Syria), who is known to have been represented by a bull-like figure. The exaggerated horns certainly look like the crescent moon. Here, standing at the entry to the city, the idol would have served as the guardian deity of the city, demanding a libation from all who tried to enter. The figure is now in the Israel Museum, and the excavators plan to erect a replica on the site one day. The excavation of the gateway was made more difficult by two more modern obstructions. One was a Syrian army trench, a considerable winding one, of the kind that was dug all over the Golan in the 1950s in anticipation of an attack from Israel. The other was the foundations of a Roman temple of the first century CE. It may have been constructed by Philip, one of the sons of Herod, who had been allotted to rule the northeastern territories after his father's death. In deference to his Roman sponsors, Philip renamed the city Julia, dedicating it to the wife of his patron Augustus, Julia-Livia. She had another named connection with the area, as her son was to become the Emperor Tiberius. THE ROMAN temple, which could well have been built to honor Julia, was decorated with fine basalt stones, with conventional floral carvings, found at the site. Similar stones were found at the Byzantine synagogue at Korazim, just five kilometers to the west, and it is thought that the material of the temple was used, after it went out of use, to build the synagogue in the fifth century. In spite of the large gateway, not much more of the oldest city has been revealed as it was extensively destroyed by the Assyrians and then built over in later periods, but one can see the remains of what is called a palace, consisting of a throne room, built with eight other rooms around it. It had thick walls which suggest a construction of two stories, and it may have housed the city governor, or even the king, as this city could have been the capital of the land of Geshur at the time of David's monarchy in the South. Small finds made inside the palace chambers are enigmatic and difficult to interpret. There were two seal stamps of a Phoenician type, which would have been attached to documents sent from the Phoenician coast; some small Egyptian figures of a household god, and an eighth century BCE potsherd inscribed with the name Akiva, the earliest record of this famous Jewish name. Clearly the city of Bethsaida, and indeed the land of Geshur, had direct communications with all their surrounding neighbors. The palace appears to have survived the Assyrian attack, but thereafter Bethsaida lost much of its importance and only continued on a smaller scale. However, after the death of Alexander the Great, when the area was disputed between the forces of the Syrian Seleucids and the Egyptian Ptolemies, Bethsaida revived somewhat and a large residential area was constructed, of which two important houses are to be noticed. One contained extensive fishing gear, and the other housed a cellar full of large wine jars. The fisherman's house contained lead weights and anchors, as well as fishhooks and needles, everything a fisherman and his wife needed for their trade. The wine merchant and his family had the necessary house cellar and will have drawn their stock of vines from the hills above the city, where the green valleys are both shaded and facing the sun, ideal for the vines of Roman times and likewise for those of today, which provide the fine wines of the Golan. TO SEE the wine merchant's house and the rest of historic Bethsaida, take the turning north from Route 87 at the Bethsaida junction, and continue up to the left turn into Jordan Park. After the toll gate, take the left fork down to the archeological site, where there is plenty of parking space and clean toilets. From the parking lot, you cross the city wall and come straight onto the Roman path that leads to the fisherman's and the winemaker's houses, and from there you come to the wonderful pergola lookout over the Kinneret. Admire the view and then climb down at the far end and turn round past the grove of eucalyptus trees and you come to the inner piazza of the great gate. Walk through on the basalt pavements, and access the front piazza to see the two cultic recesses on either side of the outer gate. Back at the grove of eucalyptus trees, in winter months, one can sometimes see a clutch of giant black cormorants. They fly out in the mornings to feed off the fish of the Kinneret and return at night to nest in the trees. This is a site for the birdwatcher as well as for those keen to taste the history of the Golan. The writer is a senior fellow of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archeological Research in Jerusalem.