Category Archives: ISRAEL

1,200-Year-Old Soap Factory Unearthed in Negev Desert

1,200-Year-Old Soap Factory Unearthed in Negev Desert

Israel’s earliest soap factory, dating back approximately 1,200 years, was uncovered in the Bedouin city of Rahat, the Israel Antiquities Authority reported on Sunday.

According to the report, hundreds of local youths were involved in the IAA dig, whose purpose was to re-establish the connection between the community and the history of the area.

It is an indication of Islam’s influence in the region, even when it started making roots in Israel, that the soap was made of olive oil.  “This city has [deep] Islamic roots and we are proud of these roots,” said Mayor of Rahat Fahiz Abu Saheeben in an IAA Hebrew-language video.

During the Abbasid Era, olive oil soapery was founded, archeologist Dr. Elena Kogen-Zehavi told The Times of Israel. The Abbasids were one of the first Arab rulers to bring Islam to Israel. The soap was a precious product for exports and traveled to Egypt and other Arab lands, she said.

The key to the production of this soap is olive oil as its fatty base, as opposed to the pig fat used in Europe of the same period, which is anathema to Islam.

Aerial view of Rahat, a Beduin city in the Negev Desert. 

The Arab conquest of the Holy Land took place in 636, but Islam only became the majority religion in the ninth century. An earlier 2019 excavation in Rahat has shown, however, that Islam came early to this region of the Negev. IAA archaeologists uncovered a rare, very early rural mosque, dating to circa seventh-eighth century CE. It is one of the earliest known examples in the world.

The new find of industrial soap production was uncovered in a large pillared structure that the archaeologists believe belonged to a wealthy family who made its living by soap production, local sales, and potentially even export. The harsh desert conditions, including wind and dust storms, made good personal hygiene a necessity, not just during today’s coronavirus, said Kogen-Zehavi in the IAA video, but also 1,200 years ago.

For millennia, Kogen-Zehavi told The Times of Israel, residents of the Middle East and elsewhere used olive oil in their hygienic practices. She said that while bathing is documented in Babylonian and Greece records, the concept was entirely different. Rather than washing up with a soapy lather, these ancient peoples would anoint themselves in oil, which was scraped off their bodies.

The industrial production of soap only truly began in the Middle Ages in Europe, she said. While Christians could use lard, which was easier to manipulate, making olive oil into hard cakes is much more complicated. The expertise in producing this olive oil soap is carefully guarded until today and passed from generation to generation, said Kogen-Zehavi. A modern olive oil factory in the Arab city of Nablus continues the meticulous ancient methods.

Israel Antiquities Authority excavation of the earliest soap factory in Israel, in the Bedouin city of Rahat in the Negev Desert. 

According to the IAA press release, the Rahat complex includes all the facilities needed for the making of olive oil soap. Additionally, researchers were able to obtain organic samples that allowed them to identify materials used in the production process.

The archaeologists found that to make this special soap, olive oil was used as the base and mixed with ashes from the saltwort plants, which contain potash and water.

“The mixture was cooked for about seven days, after which the liquid material was transferred to a shallow pool, where the soap hardened for about 10 days, until it could be cut into bars,” according to the press release. The bars were then dried for a further two months, prior to export.

“This is the first time that a soap workshop as ancient as this has been discovered, allowing us to recreate the traditional production process of the soap industry. For this reason, it is quite unique. We are familiar with important soap-making centers from a much later period – the Ottoman period. These were discovered in Jerusalem, Nablus, Jaffa, and Gaza,” said Kogen-Zehavi in the press release.

Mayor of Rahat Fahiz Abu Saheeben said in the press release that he was pleased “the excavation has revealed the Islamic roots of Rahat.” The dig took place in cooperation with the IAA, the local Bedouin community and the Authority for Development and Settlement of the Bedouin in the Negev, ahead of the construction of a new neighborhood in Rahat. “We hope to construct a visitors’ center that tourists and the local community will be able to enjoy,” said Abu Saheeben.

Assuming the community center is built, in addition to possible souvenirs of ancient olive oil soap, visitors will be able to play one of the two ancient games discovered in an underground chamber at the site.

One of the board games is called the Windmill, a game of strategy known from excavations from the Roman period in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.

The second is a board game with dice or sticks called Hounds and Jackals or 58 Holes, which was played in early Egypt and spread to the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia in circa 2,000 BCE, according to the press release.

The ‘Windmill’ game board in Rahat, a Bedouin city in the Negev Desert.

Early Neolithic Cremation Burial in Israel Examined

Early Neolithic Cremation Burial in Israel Examined

Ancient people in the Near East had begun the practice of intentionally cremating their dead by the beginning of the 7th millennium BC.

According to a study published on August 12, 2020, in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Fanny Bocquentin of the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and colleagues.

Excavations at the Neolithic site of Beisamoun in Northern Israel have uncovered an ancient cremation pit containing the remains of a corpse that appears to have been intentionally incinerated as part of a funerary practice.

Picture of bones in situ: A. Segment of the axial skeleton: ribs and vertebrae exposed in the middle of the structure. B. Right coxal in situ; preserved almost complete by a piece of collapsed mud wall (see Fig 2D). C. Four right pedal proximal phalanges found directly under the right coxal.

These remains were directly dated to between 7013-6700 BC, making them the oldest known example of cremation in the Near East.

The remains comprise most of one skeleton of a young adult. The bones show evidence of having been heated to temperatures of over 500°C shortly after death, and they sit inside a pit that appears to have been constructed with an open top and strong insulating walls.

Microscopic plant remains found inside the pyre-pit is likely leftover from the fuel for the fire.

This evidence leads the authors to identify this as an intentional cremation of a fresh corpse, as opposed to the burning of dry remains or a tragic fire accident.

This early cremation comes at an important period of transition in funerary practices in this region of the world. Old traditions were on the way out, such as the removal of the cranium of the dead and the burial of the dead within the settlement, while practices like cremation were new.

This change in the funeral procedure might also signify a transition in rituals surrounding death and the significance of the deceased within society.

Further examination of other possible cremation sites in the region will help elucidate this important cultural shift.

The Beisamoun pyre fields, where the cremated burial was discovered, during the crepuscular hours.

Bocquentin says: “The funerary treatment involved in situ cremations within a pyre-pit of a young adult individual who previously survived from a flint projectile injury— the inventory of bones and their relative position strongly supports the deposit of an articulated corpse and not dislocated bones.” She adds, “This is a redefinition of the place of the dead in the village and in society.”

Middle Paleolithic Site Discovered in Southern Israel

Middle Paleolithic Site Discovered in Southern Israel

A mid paleolithic flint knapping site that occurs between 250,000-50,000 years ago has been found in recent excavations undertaken by the Israel Antiquities Authority, in conjunction with local youth in Dimona, in preparation for construction of solar energy, funded by the electricity company.

The youth from the city who were interested in the exploration as a summer work during the economically challenging period of the COVID-19 helped discover the unusual prehistoric site.

The site near Dimona was newly found to be small. Prehistoric human beings apparently came here and made their tools from the abundant natural flint they made

The site here is unique because of the flint knapping technology, known as ‘Nubian Levallois,’ which originated in Africa.

Researchers trace the path of this technology to understand the migration routes of modern humans from Africa to the rest of the world, about 100,000 years ago.

According to the excavation directors, the prehistory researchers Talia Abulafia and Maya Oron from the Israel Antiquities Authority, “This is the first evidence of a ‘Nubian’ flint industry in an archeological excavation in Israel.

The knapped flint artifacts remained right in the first place where the humans sat and created the tools. This manufacturing is identified with modern human populations who lived in East Africa 150-100 thousand years ago and migrated from there around the world.

In the last decade, quite a few Nubian sites have been discovered in the Arabian Peninsula. This has led many scholars to claim that modern humans left Africa through the Arabian Peninsula.

The Dimona site appears to present the northernmost example of Nubian flint output found in situ, thus marking the migration route: from Africa to Saudi Arabia, and from there, perhaps, to the Negev.

The excavation took place while dealing with the challenges presented by COVID-19, which affect the health and economy of Israeli citizens in general, and the residents of Dimona in particular.

According to Svetlana Talis, Northern Negev District Archaeologist at the Israel Antiquities Authority, “Dimona is one of the most severely affected towns in the second wave of the Corona outbreak and was even on the verge of lockdown.

After wondering what to do about summer holidays, local youths from Dimona came to the excavation to work and help their families, and to uncover a site of particular importance.

All of this is part of a project promoted and directed by the Israel Antiquities Authority in recent years, which seeks to bring our youth closer to their cultural heritage.”

Massive Kingdom of Judah government complex uncovered near US Embassy in Jerusalem

Massive Kingdom of Judah government complex uncovered near US Embassy in Jerusalem

Researchers in Israel have discovered a stunning ancient site near the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. The discovery was made in Arnona, the affluent neighborhood in southern Jerusalem where the embassy is located.

The Israeli Antiquities Authority has sent a message to Israel’s times saying that archeologists have uncovered an “extraordinarily large structure” with concentrated walls. Some 120 jar handles were also found bearing seal impressions with ancient Hebrew script.

A seal or bulla was used to authenticate documents or items in ancient times. According to the Israel Antiquities Authority, many of the handles have the inscription “LMLK,” (to the king), along with the name of an ancient city.

Other inscriptions have the names of senior officials or wealthy people from the First Temple period between 960 BCE and 586 BCE.

The site is believed to be a storage facility from the time of the ancient Judean kings Hezekiah and Menashe.

The site is believed to be a storage facility from the time of the ancient Judean kings Hezekiah and Menashe.

“This is one of the most significant discoveries from the period of the Kings in Jerusalem made in recent years,” said Neria Sapir and Nathan Ben-Ari, directors of the excavations on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, in the statement. The site was used to store food supplies, they explained.

Small statuettes made from clay were also discovered at the site. “Some of the figurines are designed in the form of women, horse riders, or as an animal,” said Sapir and Ben-Ari, in the statement. “These figurines are usually interpreted as objects used in pagan worship and idolatry – a phenomenon, which according to the Bible, was prevalent in the Kingdom of Judah.”

“It seems that shortly after the site was abandoned, with the destruction of the Kingdom of Judah in 586 BCE and the Babylonian exile, the site was resettled and administrative activity resumed,” they added.

“During this time governmental activity at the site was connected to the Judean province upon the Return to Zion in 538 BCE under the auspices of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, which then ruled over the entire ancient Near East and Central Asia.”

Two-winged royal ancient Hebrew ‘LMLK’ seal impression — ‘Belonging to the King’ — found at the 2,700-year-old administrative complex in Jerusalem’s Arnona neighborhood.

The U.S. embassy in Arnona opened in May 2018 to coincide with the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence.

Israel continues to reveal new aspects of its rich history. Hidden underground chambers dating back 2,000 years, for example, were recently discovered near the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Clay figurines of women and animals found at the Arnona, Jerusalem excavation site.

Earlier this year, an international team of archaeologists uncovered an ancient Biblical era temple in what is now National Park Tel Lachish.

In another project, an Iron Age temple complex discovered near Jerusalem is shedding new light on an ancient Biblical city.

Last year, the room in Jerusalem venerated as the site of Jesus’ Last Supper was revealed in stunning detail thanks to remarkable 3D laser scanning technology.

A Christian holy site, the Cenacle (from the Latin for ‘dining room’), is located on the upper floor of the King David’s Tomb complex on Jerusalem’s Mount Zion.

Israeli archaeologists unearth 1,500-year-old Byzantine church

Israeli archaeologists unearth 1,500-year-old Byzantine church

The remnants of a church of the 6th century — possibly a monastery — were discovered during an Israel Antiquities Authority salvage excavation in the Galilee town of Kfar Kama.

The site adjacent to Mount Tabor is holy to Christians, who since the early Byzantine era have identified the area as the site of the New Testament account of the transfiguration of Jesus.

Mount Tabor is noted in the books of Mark, Matthew, and Luke as the site where Jesus took his disciples Peter, James, and John when they witnessed the face and clothing of their teacher glow with dazzlingly bright light.

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Feast of the Transfiguration “celebrates the revelation of the eternal glory of the Second Person of the Trinity, which was normally veiled during Christ’s life on earth.”

Based on the excavation’s findings, the IAA researchers and Prof. Moti Aviam of the Kinneret Academic College believe the church compound was likely a monastery that was built on the outskirts of the ancient village.

With what he called “great and unusual cooperation,” the IAA excavations were joined by Aviam, who is heading a long-term research project with Jacob Ashkenazi, also of the Kinneret Institute of Galilean Archaeology. Their wide-ranging research on churches in the Holy Land and the eastern Mediterranean is supported by the Israel Science Foundation, which also aided in funding this Kfar Kama excavation.

“Our research is trying to find the connection between the town/village and the hinterland,” said Aviam. “If Kfar Kama in antiquity was an important town, what is the connection to villages around it? What is the connection of the town to the monks?”

Aerial view of 1,300-year-old church in the village of Kfar Kama, near Mount Tabor.

Another 6th-century church, dedicated to the female St. Thecla, was previously excavated in Kfar Kama in the 1960s. While a saint’s reliquary was also discovered during the current dig, archaeologists have yet to uncover which saint’s bones were once stored in the small stone box. Likewise, no inscriptions or coins were found at the site to aid in dating and identification.

“Part of the ‘glory’ of our field of archaeology is that we know nothing before we dig — and sometimes we continue to know nothing after we dig,” laughed Aviam. “It’s like a detective story; we piece it together.”

While surveying the area ahead of construction of a new playground in the now largely Circassian-populated town in the Lower Galilee, the Israel Antiquities discerned the outline of a badly damaged, 12×36 meter (40×118 foot) church.

Upon further investigation, the archaeologists headed by Nurit Feig discovered that the church had three apses — similarly to approximately half the churches of the area, said Aviam — and that the compound included a large courtyard, a narthex or antechamber foyer, and a central hall.

According to the IAA press release, there are additional, as yet unexcavated rooms at the site that were identified during a ground-penetrating radar survey that was conducted by the IAA’s Dr. Shani Libbi.

During excavations of the church remains, the archaeologists unearthed pieces of colorful floor mosaics depicting geometric shapes, and blue, black, and red floral patterns.

Mosaic floor of 1,300-year-old church in the village of Kfar Kama, near Mount Tabor

If Aviam has his way, children and parents visiting the new playground will soon gaze upon some of the remains of the 6th century church, if the project is greenlighted by the Kfar Kama Local Council and the Jewish National Fund, which initiated the excavations. Perhaps a recent visit of Catholic Archbishop Youssef Matta, head of the Greek Catholic Church in Israel, to the site will inspire the authorities to preserve the ruins.

Aviam said that researchers are aware of a few cases of monasteries found near cities and towns.

Based on the pottery typography, this church was built in the 6th century and abandoned in the 7th. Aviam said the building boom of Galilee churches was in the 6th century, but there are a few earlier examples, such as a Nazareth chapel dating to the 4th century and a few others dating to the late 4th and beginning of the 5th century.

“We’re trying to collect all the evidence from the field. All the information is important to build the story of the Galilee of the Byzantine period,” Aviam said.

The site was likely a popular destination for pilgrims and was well-funded by the Byzantine empire

Millennia-Old Rock Art in Israel Offers Window Into Lost Culture

Millennia-Old Rock Art in Israel Offers Window Into Lost Culture

The chance discovery of lines carved into the boulders of an ancient tomb in what is now the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights could offer new insight into an enigmatic culture that thrived thousands of years ago.

Archaeologists discovered rock art engraved inside this 4,000-year-old stone monument in northern Israel. Illustrations highlight the herd of horned animal figures etched into the boulder

In a small clearing in the Yehudiya nature reserve, between yellow weeds and shaded by eucalyptus trees, huge dark basalt boulders and slabs form a small roofed chamber that opens to the east. The megalithic structure is one of the thousands of so-called dolmens scattered around northern Israel and the wider region, burial tombs erected some 4,000-4,500 years ago in the Intermediate Bronze Era.

Today, on the plateau captured in 1967 from Syria, with Israeli soldiers securing the frontier just 23 kilometers (14 miles) away, scientists seek to shed light on the region’s distant past. The identity and beliefs of those who built the monuments remain largely unknown. But a recent serendipitous finding of rock art might change that.

The rock art findings — published in a recent article by Sharon and Berger in the journal Asian Archaeology — display the animal drawings in this ancient culture for the first time.

About two years ago, “when one of the rangers here in the park walked her daily walk, she looked inside and saw something carved in the walls,” recalled Uri Berger, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The ranger contacted the IAA, and “when we looked inside we saw this is not just lines carved or some stains on the wall, this is rock art,” Berger said. The lines form the shapes of six horned animals of varying sizes, three facing east and three facing west, with two of them — likely a male and female — directly facing each other.

Another horned animal is carved into the interior of one panel, facing the other six. The zoomorphic depictions, hidden in plain sight since the study of the dolmens began 200 years ago, were the first to be discovered in the region and a major development for Berger and his research partner, Gonen Sharon.

Sharon, an archaeology professor at the Tel-Hai college in northern Israel, is responsible for a previous landmark discovery. Just north of the nature reserve, outside the northern Galilee Kibbutz Shamir, Sharon was hiking with his children in 2012 on a field with some 400 dolmens spread across it.

The capstone of a dolmen at Kiryat Shemona features three straight lines carved in an approximation of a human face.

Crawling into the shade of the largest monument, Sharon sat down, looked up at the huge slab roof of the dome, and said he noticed “weird shapes” that didn’t look like natural formations.

“It looked like someone made them,” he recalled.

The markings were found to be a series of man-made carvings resembling tridents.

“It turned out this was the first artwork done in the context of dolmens in the Middle East,” Sharon said. The Shamir carvings, unnoticed by generations of researchers, reinvigorated archaeological study in the area. One of the sites revisited was inside an industrial zone near Kiryat Shmona, a town northwest of Shamir, where three small megalithic structures that survived the zone’s development a few decades ago are surrounded by circles of stones.

On the relatively rounded capstone of the largest dolmen there, two sets of short parallel lines are carved into each side of the rock, with a longer line carved below creating the image of closed eyes and a grimacing mouth facing the sky.

“The grooves don’t seem to be functional,” said Sharon. “To us, they look like a face.”

The stone monuments have “altered the landscape” of northern Israel, said Berger. But their prominence has also made them targets for antiquities theft, which largely stripped remains that could provide clues to their creators.

Small pieces of ceramics, metal spearheads and daggers, bits of jewellery and beads, and some bones are found at the sites from time to time, Sharon said. “But it’s very rare to find” anything, and such finds are very scattered.

“We know very little of the actual culture of the people who built them.”

With the discovery of the art carved into the stones, “we can say something that is much more than what we knew for 200 years,” said Berger.

The rock art findings — published in a recent article by Sharon and Berger in the journal Asian Archaeology — display the animal drawings in this ancient culture for the first time and present the larger pattern of visual presentation in the region.

Berger said the drawings raise new questions about the people who created them.

“Why those animals? Why in these dolmens and not others? What made this one special?”

The slow but steady accumulation of artistic finds brings scholars “closer and closer” to the subjects of their research, “to the civilization you’re looking to know about,” Berger said.

To Sharon, “this is like a letter from the past starting to suggest what was the world of culture and symbolism beyond just building and erecting very large stones.”

15,000 Years Ago, Humans in Israel Ate Snakes and Lizards

15,000 Years Ago, Humans in Israel Ate Snakes and Lizards

New research suggests ancient humans living in what is now Israel regularly dined on lizards and snakes, reports Luke Tress for the Times of Israel.

These people may have developed a taste for reptiles in order to find enough food as they transitioned to living in more permanent settlements ahead of the advent of agriculture.

Published last week in the journal Scientific Reports, the study examines 15,000-year-old fossilized lizard and snake bones found at the el-Wad Terrace cave near Mount Carmel in Israel. El-Wad is situated within the Nahal Me’arot Nature Preserve, which contains a network of caves that provides a window into 500,000 years of human evolution, according to Unesco.

Researchers with the University of Haifa dig up Natufian remains in the Mount Carmel area of northern Israel.

The research centers on excavations at a more recent site attributed to the Natufian culture, which was active in modern-day Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine between 15,000 and 11,500 years ago, per the University of Haifa’s Zinman Institute of Archaeology.

The Natufians are thought to be among the first humans to construct permanent houses and cultivate plants as food, reported Daniel K. Eisenbud for the Jerusalem Post in 2017.

To date, digs at the el-Wad cave have yielded flint and grinding tools, human burials, architectural remains, and animal bones. Though archaeologists can use markings on the bones of larger animals like rabbits or bears to discern if they were butchered for human consumption, smaller lizard and snake bones are more difficult to assess, according to the Times of Israel.

“From the beginning, our excavations in the site of el-Wad Terrace revealed lots of bones of snakes and lizards, usually the vertebras,” study co-author Reuven Yeshurun, an archaeologist at the Universit of Haifa, tells Rossella Tercatin of the Jerusalem Post. “We found them almost every day. We became really curious to understand if people ate them or if they had gotten there by some other process.”

Vertebrates of reptiles studied by University of Haifa archaeologists

To investigate the reptilian vertebrae’s origins, the team conducted a rather unorthodox set of experiments aimed at determining how different processes changed the bones’ structure and appearance.

“We roasted modern snakes’ vertebras in the oven; we tried to chop them and so forth,” Yeshurun tells the Jerusalem Post.

He and his colleagues also exposed the bones to acids that approximated digestion, trampled them, and exposed them to various weather conditions.

After comparing the modern bones with the ancient samples, the researchers posited that the Natufians did, in fact, dine on the many snakes and lizards found near their settlements. Per the paper, reptile species on the group’s menu included the European glass lizard and the large whipsnake.

The legless European glass lizard (Pseudopus apodus) was likely a part of the ancient human diet.

“They were still hunter-gatherers and did not know how to produce food, but they still lived in permanent small communities,” the team tells the Jerusalem Post.

“For this reason, they really needed to come up with numerous methods to procure food. One of the things they did was capturing and eating almost everything. Now we can add a new item to their menu.”

The reptile remains found at el-Wad may represent a combination of leftovers from ancient feasts and animal bones that accumulated naturally over time, reports the Jerusalem Post.

Though the team detected signs of human consumption on nonpoisonous species’ remains, they were unable to identify similar markings on poisonous species, suggesting these reptiles may have died of natural causes.

“We know from historical sources that people ate snakes in the Middle Ages, but until now there was no evidence that they did so 15,000 years ago,” Yeshurun tells the Times of Israel. “It’s very possible that with the help of the method we have developed we’ll find even earlier evidence.”

Village Where Jesus’ Disciples May Have Lived Flooded by Rising Sea of Galilee

Village Where Jesus’ Disciples May Have Lived Flooded by Rising Sea of Galilee

Rain, the life-giver, falling from the sky; so precious that God combines His Word with His bounty. Israelis prefer to be happy when it rains. “I’m not made of sugar, I’m not going to melt,” 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.

El-Araj’s site, also known as Beit Habek, is located near the sea of Galilee, which is often referenced in the New Testament. It is believed that this was a Jewish village called Bethsaida.

In the First Temple era, it was known as Zer and it was a strategic city in the time of King David. It was originally a non-Hebrew city-state that later became part of Israel when it was renamed Bethsaida.

The identification of Bethsaida is important because it was the birthplace of three of Jesus’ Apostles – Peter, Andrew, and Phillip. In the New Testament, it is here that Jesus performed the miracle of the five loaves and fishes . It is interesting to note that Jesus also cursed the town of Bethsaida because its inhabitants refused to repent.

Prof. Moti Aviam and his colleagues from the local Kinneret College have been working at the site for several years and are very familiar with the area. 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,’ according to Haaretz.  While it is sometimes flooded, it is mostly dry by April and May.

However, this year is the first time in many years that the Sea of Galilee has risen, much to the relief of the Israelis who are very concerned about water scarcity because of climate change.

Prof. Aviam decided to visit el-Araj before he and some American collaborators returned to work on the site. He found that it is now badly flooded and lies under a shallow lagoon, so the planned excavations cannot go ahead. He is quoted in The Christian Post as saying that “I don’t remember a thing like this in the last 30 years.”

The site is currently under water.

The professor conducted a quick survey of the site and saw that some of the higher points at el-Araj are still standing above the waters with their ruins. However, the ruins of a Byzantine church are now under the water. According to Haaretz because of the flooding ‘Instead of archaeologists happily seeking new finds, it’s populated by catfish’.

The church at el-Araj dates to some 500 years after the birth of Jesus and was built during the Byzantine period when it became an important pilgrimage center.

The archaeologist is quoted by Haaretz as saying that “At the moment, the water is 80 centimeters [2 feet, 7 inches] above the mosaic of the Byzantine church.” This church still has many of its original features and even mosaic tiles. Thankfully, Aviam told The Christian Post that “We conserved the mosaic floor of the church and the water standing on it won’t harm it.”

The Byzantine church is currently under more than two feet of water.

Prof. Aviam and his American colleague Steven Notley believe that the ruin is the Church of the Apostles. Local tradition has it that it was built over the family home of the Apostles Peter and Andrew. The archaeologists believe this because of the church’s design and also its location on the Sea of Galilee. They believe that the existing ruins fit the description written about the church in the 8th century AD by a German bishop.

However, a team led by Prof. Rami Avar believes that the true site of Bethsaida is et-Tell, located further north and near the Golan Heights. They have uncovered a city gate that they claim indicates it was the location of the Old Testament city of Zer.

Dr. Avar and his colleagues unearthed coins of Cleopatra and Mark Anthony and fishing equipment such as weights from the Roman Empire. These they believe lend credence to their claim that the et-Tell site is Bethsaida, the birthplace of three Apostles and where Jesus performed a miracle.

Aerial view of the Church of the Apostles, which is said to have been built over the house of Jesus’ disciples Peter and Andrew.

In comparison, Prof. Aviam believes that one good thing came out of the flooding. He is quoted by Haaretz as stating that “In my opinion, the flooding now strengthens our theory that el-Araj was the site of Bethsaida.” The inundation of the historic site shows that it was near the lake, especially during the Roman period, when the disciples were born.

Bethsaida was a fishing village and one would expect to find it flooded occasionally. This is not the case with the location at et-Tell, which is on a rocky height and away from the waters of the Sea of Galilee .

However, Prof. Arav, who maintains that et-Tell was Bethsaida, argues that the evidence from the period shows that in the Roman era the Biblical village was far away from the lake. This was in line with what geologists have uncovered and show it could not have been flooded. Arav argues that the fact that el-Araj is now under a lagoon shows that it is not the city where Jesus performed one of his most famous miracles.

While the controversy will no doubt continue, Prof. Aviam hopes to resume work as soon as possible. However, he expects the excavation to be deferred until 2021.

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.