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First Season of Excavations at el-Araj

The Center for Holy Lands Studies joined with others in an archaeological dig this summer in Israel -- what did they discover?

The Assemblies of God Center for Holy Lands Studies provides a regular column to PE News that offers deep and sometimes surprising insight into the Word of God through close examination of the culture of the day, biblical sites, and archaeological records. In this article, Dr. Mordechai Aviam of the Kinneret Institute for Galilean Archaeology provides a report on the archaeological excavations being conducted at el-Araj by Kinneret College, Nyack College, and the Center for Holy Lands Studies, in hopes of proving it was the actual site of the biblical city of Bethsaida.


The site of el-Araj sits on the northeast shore of the Sea of Galilee, near the Jordan estuary to the Sea of Galilee. Since the late 19th century, el-Araj, along with et-Tel which sits two kilometers from the shore of the Sea of Galilee, has been identified as one of the main candidates for the ancient site of Bethsaida, the home of several of Jesus' disciples.


Over the last 30 years, Dr. Rami Arav has conducted large-scale excavations at et-Tel, where he discovered a layer of dwellings from the late Hellenistic and early Roman periods leading him to identify et-Tel as Bethsaida. He also did a small archeological sounding at el-Araj and suggested no settlement existed there prior to the Byzantine period.


In the summer of 2014, the Kinneret Institute for Galilean Archaeology and the Assemblies of God Center for Holy Lands Studies conducted "shovel testing" survey at el-Araj directed by Dr. Dina Shalem and Dr. Mordechai Aviam. Around the site, six squares were opened digging down 0.3 meters. The assemblage of pottery uncovered included a few potsherds from the late Hellenistic period, a dozen from the early Roman period, as well as remains from the Byzantine and Ottoman periods.


This past summer, the Kinneret Institute for Galilean Archaeology, in the Kinneret College on the Sea of Galilee, together with the Center for Holy Lands Studies and Nyack College and the Center for the Study of Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins conducted the first season of excavations at el-Araj.


The excavations opened two areas. The western area was located west of the remains of the Ottoman palace, which stood on the site of el-Araj until it was destroyed by the Israeli Defense Forces as part of a military operation in 1955. According to an eyewitness report from 1927, a colorful mosaic floor was seen under the building; and therefore, we decided to open an excavation area close to the remains. The first layer dated to the Crusader period, 13th century, by a lead token discovered on the floor. This building was most likely part of a sugar factory due to the typical clay vessels, sugar bowls and molasses jars that were uncovered.


Underneath the Crusader level we discovered remains of a dwelling dated to the late Byzantine-early Islamic period. An unusual large bronze jar was uncovered, which has been sent to the laboratory for conservation. Coins and pottery dating from the 6th-8th centuries were uncovered on the floors. The most surprising find was a group of gilded glass tesserae, which are used in the construction of wall mosaics. These type of tesserae are typical to large and important churches. Which means, even before finding the church itself, it is possible to suggest that in the Byzantine period, el-Araj was identified as a holy place, most likely Bethsaida. One of the walls contains a large, reused, monolithic, limestone pillar, and nearby, outside of the excavation area, there is another limestone double “heart-shaped” pillar, which are both typical to late Roman Jewish synagogues in Galilee.


The second excavation area was opened to the east of the destroyed Ottoman building. There we uncovered walls dating to the Byzantine-Early Islamic period.


Both areas yielded a large number of typical early Roman pottery. As of yet, structures from the early Roman period have not been uncovered.


After this initial season of excavation, our primary conclusions are: 1) the site of el-Araj was most likely identified as Bethsaida during the Byzantine period, and a church, probably a pilgrim monastery was erected at the site. 2) The site of el-Araj was inhabited during the early Roman period; therefore, it remains a good candidate for the identification of Bethsaida. 3) We will continue to excavate el-Araj in the coming years.

Note: The workers were students from the department of the Land of Israel Studies in the Kinneret College and American and Chinese students who came through the Center for Holy Lands Studies and Nyack College. The excavation was supported by donations from the Center for Holy Lands Studies, the Biblical Archaeology Society, and the Center for the Study of Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins. 

Mordechai Aviam

Dr. Mordechai Aviam heads the Kinneret Institute for Galilean Archaeology located on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in Israel.