Ancient City Gate Uncovered in The Galilee May Have Tie to Biblical King David

Site where Jesus performed the miracle of the loaves and the fishes was possibly the biblical-era city Tzer, where the Bible's most famous king once claimed a bride
The inner gate floor from the 11th-10th century BCE discovered in 2018 at the ongoing excavations at Bethsaida. Photo: Hanan Shafir, the Bethsaida Archaeological excavations

A 10th century BCE Galilee city gate through which King David may have walked to claim a bride was uncovered by archaeologists at the recently finished 2018 season of the Bethsaida Excavations Project, excavation director Prof. Rami Arav told The Times of Israel.

Standing at 3 meters, “it is the largest and the best preserved city gate [in Israel],” said Arav. Likewise, this year’s excavation provides evidence that Bethsaida, an Aramean settlement, houses one of the earliest towers incorporated in city walls in Israel, he said.

“In the entire archaeology of the Land of Israel from 10-8th century BCE, there are no towers on city walls. Israelites did not have this feature. This is the first example of towers surrounding a city in Israel,” Arav said.

The excavation is located in the Bethsaida Valley Nature Reserve and headed by Arav, professor of Religion and Philosophy at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, who has excavated the site since 1987. He is the head of the Consortium of the Bethsaida Excavations Project, which consists of scholars from 20 international institutions. This year’s dig was sponsored by the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem.

At the site, one can see the remains of a 3,500-year-old Bronze Age settlement, in the form of ancient dolmens (tombstones). According to its website, the excavations have uncovered a prosperous Hellenistic community. In addition to the city gate and wall excavation, this year’s dig also explored under the floors of a Roman temple uncovered in an earlier season. The temple is Phoenician in orientation, said Arav, and was probably dedicated to the worship of Julia, the daughter of Caesar Augustus, mentioned in Josephus’s “Antiquities.”

The site also displays a Jewish community in the Hasmonean and Herodian periods, occupation in the Early Roman period, settlement in the Mamluk period, and a village in the late Ottoman period.

Marriage with Geshur bridges two kingdoms

As early as the late 11th-10th century BCE, the time of Kings Saul, David, and Solomon, Bethsaida was the heart of the small kingdom of Geshur, populated by Arameans.

Through the politically-motivated marriage of Geshur King Talmai’s daughter Maachah to King David, 10th century BCE Bethsaida allied itself with King David and his dynasty. (It is perhaps noteworthy that the sole potential evidence for the historical veracity for King David — the Tel Dan Stele, which was written after 870 BCE and mentions a triumph over the “House of David” — was discovered at another Aramean settlement in the kingdom of Aram in northern Israel.)

Maachah was the mother of Absalom, who murdered his half-brother Amnon and fled to his mother’s homeland, Geshur. Ties were reformed when Absalom’s daughter Maachah married Solomon’s son Rehoboam, king of Judah.

Arav amusingly recounted his impression of the royal courtship: King David entered the gate to meet the king of Geshur to ask for the hand of his daughter. Maachah looked at him like a “hill-billy” mountain guy, but for the sake of inclusion into the Bible, went through with it. “So we’re digging the gate where David entered,” said Arav, laughing.

This year’s dig concentrated on the city gate and wall, which surrounded the settlement in the 10th-8th centuries and holds the first example of guard towers. An “unusual feature,” at intervals of 20 meters, said Arav, the city wall builders placed each tower.

It is interesting, said Arav, that the Arameans and Israelites of the period used different architectural styles in the city walls. Israelite settlements, he said, have left no evidence of guard tower use. He said, however, that this use of towers elsewhere in the Holy Land may explain the reference in the biblical verse ostensibly written by David’s son Solomon, in the Song of Songs 8:10: “I am a wall and my breasts are like towers.”

Other biblical connections are a bit more tenuous, such as the name Tzer for the settlement. The word appears only once in a verse from the Book of Joshua. The Septuagint, a mid-3rd century translation of the Hebrew to Greek, changes the spelling of many of the place names in the verse from Joshua. Further, it erases the name “Tzer,” confusingly replacing it with “Tsor” (Tyre).

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