“For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, and do not return there, but water the earth, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth” – Isaiah 55:10
Water, giver of life, falling from the skies: so precious that God likens his Word with its bounty. Israelis are usually thrilled when it rains. “I’m not made of sugar, I won’t dissolve,” say the local macho men, explaining why they scorn umbrellas. Neither, happily, will the ruins at el-Araj, the putative hometown of Jesus’ disciples on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, which waxed fat on the heavy rains this winter, swelled and, it turns out, flooded the site.
Visiting el-Araj for the first time following the rains, after being shut up at home for weeks because of the coronavirus, archaeologist Prof. Moti Aviam had quite the shock.
“Obviously I knew the Kinneret [Sea of Galilee] had risen, but I didn’t know how its rise would affect the excavation,” the Kinneret College professor tells Haaretz. “I don’t remember a thing like this in the last 30 years, though I don’t schlep over every year to check it. Even if it rains in April and May [and it did], by July or August the site dries out. But it never occurred to me that the lagoon would encompass the whole site of el-Araj.”
El-Araj, also known as Beit Habek, is a candidate for the site of the ancient Jewish fishing village of Bethsaida, recorded in the New Testament as the birthplace of three of Jesus’ disciples: Peter, Andrew and Philip. For the last 10 years el-Araj has been located a few hundred meters from the northernmost point of the lake, where the Jordan River spills into it.
Another candidate for Bethsaida is et-Tell, a little further north of el-Araj on the north shore of the lake. The excavation there and case for its identity as the Iron Age village of Bethsaida is spearheaded by the archaeologist Prof. Rami Arav of the University of Nebraska Omaha.
The team excavating el-Araj believe it is also the site where King Herod Philip built the Roman-type city (polis) of Julius.
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As the government-imposed coronavirus restrictions imposed were eased, Aviam left the house and traveled to el-Araj by jeep with Ehud, a local resident, because the access road was flooded.
“It was a real adventure getting there,” Aviam says. He wanted to check the condition of the site ahead of a visit by the Kinneret College’s collaborators in the excavation: Prof. R. Steven Notley of Nyack College, New York, and a bunch of student volunteers from the United States and Hong Kong.
Normally el-Araj is on land, surrounded by trees. Some are now sitting in water. Not all parts of the site are submerged, but it’s surrounded. The higher points – happily with some of the ruins on them – look like tiny islands. But the remains of the Byzantine structure that Aviam and Notley believe is the Church of the Apostles are underwater. Instead of archaeologists happily seeking new finds, it’s populated by catfish.
Rise and fall of a lagoon
Precipitation in general, and the level of the Sea of Galilee in particular, are a matter of national interest, even obsession. The popular press tracks the level of the lake religiously. (It is a freshwater lake, the name “Sea” of Galilee notwithstanding.) The last decade has been marked by drought and, though hardly tapped for drinking water anymore, the lake had been shrinking fast. Its rebound this winter to its highest level in 16 years was hailed nationwide, even if the masses were forbidden to go there – or anywhere else but the grocery – because of the coronavirus. The refilling of the lake was a point of light in a dark time for the people, the Kinneret College observes.
Rather less so for the excavators of el-Araj, perhaps. “At the moment, the water is 80 centimeters [2 feet, 7 inches] above the mosaic of the Byzantine church, which was built 500 years after Jesus’ time,” Aviam says. The archaeologists have tentatively identified that structure as the Church of the Apostles, which Christian tradition says had been built over the home of Jesus’ disciples Peter and Andrew in the village of Bethsaida. They identified it as a church by, among other things, gilted glass mosaic tiles that were only used in wall mosaics in churches; fragments of the chancel screen; and a fragment of a chalk carving featuring a cross. Also, it is the only Byzantine church found so far that fits the description given by a Bavarian bishop named Willibald who toured the Holy Land in the year 725. He wouldn’t recognize it today.
The church is only partly uncovered: its excavation was supposed to resume this summer. The archaeologists have been praying for inscriptions that could shed a more definite light on its identity, and had booked the students to help dig in the baking heat of July.
But when it pours lemons, Aviam is one who makes lemonade. “In my opinion, the flooding now strengthens our theory that el-Araj was the site of Bethsaida,” he says.
This is why? The water level at the start of the 2019 rainy season was 211.8 meters below sea level. This week, the water level is 208.9 meters below sea level. During the Roman and early Byzantine periods (the first to eighth centuries), the level of the lake was around the same level as last summer: around 211 to 215 meters below sea level, Aviam says.
The Roman layer at el-Araj is 211 to 212 meters below sea level and the Byzantine church is 209 meters below sea level, he tells Haaretz. Ergo, the village would have been on dry land: a village has been found from the Roman and Byzantine periods and, “obviously, the villagers weren’t living in the water,” Aviam says. “Their lagoon then couldn’t have reached their homes, which would have been 100 or 200 meters from the water, where their boats were.”
Prof. Arav counters that there’s a question when the Roman layer existed, and what the lake level was then. In any case, at this point Et-tell, the major competing site for the biblical Bethsaida, is not awash. The top of the mound is 169 meters below sea level, Arav tells Haaretz; the bottom of Stratum VI sits at 172 meters below sea level. The lake would have rise another 30 meters to cover the bottom of that site: “This is equivalent to a nine- to 10-story building. We have a long way to go,” he says.
Further arguing the case that et-Tell is Bethsaida, Arav adds: “Years ago, our geologists conducted a geophysical survey on the Bethsaida plain and found out that until the middle of the first century, there were lagoons at el-Araj. Severe climate change and drought in the middle of the first century reduced the level of the lake to 214 meters below sea level. This is the Roman settlement Moti [Aviam] discovered at 211 meters below sea level.”
According to Arav, historical documents say that Bethsaida existed from the late Hellenistic period – in particular, in the first half of the first century – when his geologists say el-Araj was covered by water. “Philip the son of Herod granting the old village rights of a Greek polis, and Jesus, were all in the first half of the first century, not the second half,” Arav winds up.
Aviam points out that they’re definitely excavating a major village, and it wouldn’t have been built in water.
The argument, therefore, partly centers on whether or not the Sea of Galilee was high during the period in question. It bears qualifying that Israel is riddled with faults and that Lake Kinneret formed in the massive Dead Sea Rift fault line. In fact, in the very distant past, the Sea of Galilee and Dead Sea were a large single lake called Lake Lisan, which existed between about 70,000 to 15,000 years ago. In other words, the whole area is seismically frisky, which can affect the level of the lake too – and very suddenly at that.
In the relatively recent past, the site of el-Araj housed the “winter palace,” Beit Habek – a two-story building from the Ottoman period. But that was blown up in December 1955 by Israeli paratroopers. The ancient ruins survived the fighting and for the last four years have been under archaeological exploration by the Kinneret College archaeological institute, run by Aviam, with Nyack College, under the leadership of Notley.
Aviam is confident the ancient village will survive the present inundation too. “The lakewater rises and falls over the ages, and no damage has been caused,” he says. “We conserved the mosaic floor of the church and the water standing on it won’t harm it. But even if the water level recedes by July, we won’t be able to continue excavation work because of the mud.”
So discovering more about the church and who exactly lived at el-Araj will have to wait for the summer excavation season of 2021, weather willing.