Excavating the possible home of the apostles
Hear from archaeologists, volunteers, and students excavating El-Araj in this exclusive video. This is the latest post in Bible History Daily’s ongoing series about excavating in the Bible lands.
Situated on the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, the archaeological site of El-Araj peeks out from the reeds and water-soaked ground. Since first being excavated in 2014, El-Araj is now one of the leading candidates for the biblical site of Bethsaida, the home of the apostles Peter, Andrew, and Philip (John 1:44), although the debate about this identification rages on.
Archaeological work at El-Araj has faced some unique challenges. Chief among them is how close the site is to the Galilee, which is dozens of feet higher today than it was in the first century. As a result, the excavations have to constantly battle with groundwater, which floods the lowest levels of the site, only allowing for the study of the oldest sections of El-Araj in years when the water table is lower.
Through six seasons of excavation at El-Araj, the project—led by Motti Aviam of Kinneret Academic College and Steven Notley of Alliance University—has uncovered a site dating back to the first century BCE. Around the turn of the era, the Galilean site was a simple Jewish fishing village, a fact alluding to its possible identification with Bethsaida, an Aramaic name likely meaning “House of Fish.”
Beginning in the first century CE, the site became a large Roman center. Excavations have revealed the remains of a rich and prosperous Roman polis, including a Roman bathhouse, a private residence, mosaics, and many small finds such as ceramics, coins, and weights for fishing nets. An electromagnetic survey further indicated the remains of an expansive Roman-era settlement. The finds have also added important information for the history of the geography of the Galilee region, as they have showed that the level of the lake was lower than previously thought, much closer to the modern level. The transition of the site from a Jewish fishing village to a Roman town fits the excavators’ theory that the site was Bethsaida, as according to Josephus (Antiquities 18.28), Herod Philip re-founded the village of Bethsaida as a Roman city around 30 CE. Herod Philip named the new city Julias, after the widow of Caesar Augustus and the queen mother of Emperor Tiberius.
The site of El-Araj was abandoned in the third century, only to be reinhabited in the sixth century. A number of important finds have been discovered from the Byzantine period. First among them is the discovery of a monastic complex and basilica. The basilica, which measures approximately 88 by 52 feet, was filled with mosaics as well as three mosaic inscriptions. One of the inscriptions mentions the construction of the basilica, while a second references major renovations carried out on the church. The third inscription, and perhaps the most important, records the name of a donor to the church and offers a petition to St. Peter, “chief and commander of the heavenly apostles.” The inscription is part of a larger mosaic floor in the church’s sacristy (a room for preparing the church service) that is partly decorated with floral patterns.
According to Notley, “This discovery is our strongest indicator that Peter had a special association with the basilica, and it was likely dedicated to him, since Byzantine Christian tradition routinely identified Peter’s home in Bethsaida, and not in Capernaum as is often thought today.” This identification is supported by many early Christian pilgrimage accounts, including the eighth-century writing of Willibald, the bishop of Eichstätt, who stopped in Bethsaida to visit the Church of the Apostles, built over the first-century home of St. Peter. The basilica at El-Araj was abandoned during the eighth century, although the archaeologists are uncertain why the site was abandoned.
During the Crusader period (c. 1099–1291 CE), El-Araj was the site of a large sugar factory. In the Mamluk and Ottoman periods, it served as a way station for Muslim pilgrims journeying to Mecca on the Hajj. In the 19th century, a wealthy landlord, Abdul Rahim Bek, who owned large sections of the Beteiha Valley and Golan, buil a house on the site, the ruins of which are still visible today. Excavations within the house have revealed an intriguing cache of Ottoman and French coins.
Dozens of archaeological digs in Israel, Jordan, and elsewhere are looking for volunteers to help excavate history. Whether you are interested in the worlds of Kings David and Solomon, want to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and the apostles, or work in an ancient Phoenician city, the Biblical Archaeology Society has a dig for you. Check out our digs page to see how you can get involved at sites like El-Araj and many others!
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