Fortifications Found Show Biblical Kingdom of Geshur More Powerful Than Thought

Vast 6-meter thick fortress walls and huge towers uncovered at Bethsaida, Galilee show the might of the Geshurite kingdom around 2700 years ago

The city gate of Bethsaida, capital of the Kingdom of Geshur. Middle-upper-left: A standing stele shows a bull figure that archaeologists believe represents the moon god. Sitting down, wearing shorts, a white T-shirt and a hat, boots and socks, is Dr. Rami Arav, director of the excavation since 1985.
The city gate of Bethsaida, capital of the Kingdom of Geshur. Middle-upper-left: A standing stele shows a bull figure that archaeologists believe represents the moon god. Hanan Shafir

Massive fortifications surrounding Bethsaida, the capital city of Geshur, indicate that the biblical-era kingdom had been a lot more powerful than assumed, archaeologists say. That conclusion is bolstered by the discovery of numerous monumental towers guarding the road to Bethsaida.

The ruins of Bethsaida sit on a basalt outcrop descending from the Golan Heights, about a mile north from the Sea of Galilee. Among the most striking finds at the site is the massive city gate.

The Kingdom of Geshur, located east of the Jordan River, coexisted with the kingdoms of Israel and Judah to its south, and with the kingdom of Aram to the north (in present-day Syria).

Scholars are confident Bethsaida was the capital of the biblical kingdom of Geshur. The real question remains who the Geshurites were: were they Aramean, Israelite or both.

Archaeologists note that information on what Aramean cities actually looked like is scanty because too little work on the topic had been done before the outbreak of civil war in Syria, and excavation there now isn't an option.

King David gets married

Who exactly were the Geshurites? We don't know. Some point out that a lot of seals found in Bethsaida are of Israelite origin. However, icons to the moon god point to an Aramean affiliation. Archaeological material such as pottery seems similar to that of other Israelite sites in the north, such as Tel Dan.

So the argument over whom the ancient Geshurites were affiliated with rages on – though the truth could be more prosaic, that they were affiliated with both, at different periods in time.

The bible relates that Geshur had been given to the part of the tribe of Manasseh which lived east of the Jordan River, and treats it as an early site of coexistence: "But the Israelites did not drive out the people of Geshur and Maakah, so they continue to live among the Israelites" (Joshua 13:13).

It was in Geshur that King David came to find a wife. He married the daughter of the King of Geshur, Maachah, who bore him Absalom and Tamar (2 Samuel 3:2,3)

The even older city beneath the old city

During the 30 years of digging, the archaeological team found an even more ancient city beneath Iron Age Geshur. The "modern" one dates to about the 8th century BCE and the even older city goes back over 3,000 years, to about the 10th-11th century BCE.

Most of the finds are fortifications and walls dating from the 8th century BCE.

Discerning the boundaries of the more ancient city has been challenging. However, the ruins of the older city started to emerge three meters below the level of the 8th century BCE capital with the discovery of a massive outer city-wall. That ancient wall had been built of massive boulder stones, says Dr. Kate Raphael said, adding, “We find lots of crushed mud-brick debris - evidence of destruction - so whoever rebuilt the city had to level out the destroyed city in order to build the 8th century city."

One of the massive towers built along the city wall surrounding Bethsaida, which archaeologists believe was the capital city of the Kingdom of Geshur. The sheer mass of the fortifications indicates that the biblical-era kingdom had been much more powerful than assumed.
Hanan Shafir

The "modern" city was built using repurposed stones from the older city, she explains.

Now, the archaeologists are searching for the 11th - 10th century city-gate. They haven't found it but have a good hunch where it might be. A drainage tunnel, pavement and a ramp from the 11th century BCE that have been discovered that probably connect to that older gate.

Monumental walls

Geshur had been surrounded by monumental walls studded by tall guard-towers at regular intervals, that, the archaeologists believe, based on structure and remains, were as much as three stories high.

“The city gate [of Geshur] is the largest Iron Age gate complex in the entire country,” Dr. Rami Arav of University of Nebraska, Omaha told Haaretz. "It represents the only preserved city-gate from a capital city in the region from that time."

A "city gate" in biblical times wasn't a mere passage point. It was typically a massive, often complex structure, consisting of an outer gate and an inner one providing a second line of defense, with a space in between. That space in between could be used for commerce, meetings and not rarely – a place for the ruler to meet with the commoners.

In Geshur, the most staggering discovery so far is the spacious, well-preserved city gate. Its inner space was divided into four chambers. Three had been used to store grain and barley, the archaeologists deduce from the large amounts of seed remnants embedded in the floors.

Feeding the god of the gate

Within the gate’s courtyard were two high places and five massive steles (standing stones), one decorated with a bull faced-warrior. (The original of that is on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem; the site has a replica, which seems to get serially vandalized by visitors.

The altars found at Geshur seem similar to the “high places of the gates” referred to in 2 Kings 23:8. ("And he brought all the priests out of the cities of Judah, and defiled the high places where the priests had burned incense, from Geba to Beersheba, and brake down the high places of the gates that were in the entering in of the gate of Joshua the governor of the city, which were on a man's left hand at the gate of the city.")

Closeup of the moon god stele found at Bethsaida, capital of Geshur.
Hanan Shafir

Apparently sacrificing at the gates was a practice of offering. At the back of the gate was a sacrificial high place and a three-meter deep pit filled with bones of kosher animals, next to a horned altar.

Inside one of the chambers of the gate, a paleo-Hebrew (or possibly Aramaic) inscription was found on a pitcher, next to an assemblage of vessels. The words Leshem was followed by an ankh-like symbol rendering the meaning: “Dedicated to the god whose named [ankh symbol]”, which is commonly identified as the moon-god.

“They had a domestic assemblage inside the chamber, like they were feeding the god of the gate. It was part of their ritual,” Dr. Carl Savage of Drew University told Haaretz.

The origin of synagogue worship?

Benches discovered in the courtyard indicate that the local court was situated at the gate (De. 16:18;21-18-20;22:15.)

The Book of Nehemiah 8:1 implies that the gate was a place where the Law was read to the congregated people. Some believe that the very concept of the synagogue may have originated from reading the bible at the city gates. 

In fact, the gates weren't only apparently a religious center. Much of the city's or kingdom's official business took place there, and transactions were recorded there.

The gates were in essence the center of public life. Travelers and merchants would necessarily have to pass that way. So would anybody who worked in the fields. The gates were where one would go to get the latest news.

Illustrative video showing the Bethsaida 8th century BCE city gate YouTube

On the defensive, maybe

In the 8th century BCE, massive six-meter wide walls protected the ancient city from intruders. The dimensions of the walls are unprecedented for the era, in the region. 

Whom they might have needed to wall themselves off from remains a mystery.

“The feeling you get is that they are either terrified of something on the outside or they are protecting something really valuable on the inside,” Raphael told Haaretz.

Theories range from the site being a huge granary coveted by surrounding states in times of famine, to an independent kingdom (i.e., not affiliated with the Arameans or the Israelites) with few allies to rely on, resulting in the need to take matters in own hands and protect themselves.

Whatever the reason they were built, the monumental walls stand as a reminder of great military achievement, and a highly advanced and organized society with the resources to build on a grand scale.

Yet even these high walls could not prevent the Assyrian king Tiglath Pileser III from conquering the city in 732 BCE. Evidence of fiery destruction, arrow heads, spear points and sling shots bear silent witness to the fierce battle that took place when the city gates were breached and put to the torch. In scenes eerily reminiscent of ISIS today, the pagan steles were decapitated, pottery and other possessions were violently smashed, and the whole city was put under the torch.

Bethsaida would never again rise to prominence. By the Roman era, it had become a negligible fishing village. Yet even so, it would become an iconic site for Christians, being the hometown of Jesus disciples Philip, Andrew and Peter.