'We're digging the gate where David entered' 3,000 years ago

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

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

The inner gate floor from the 11th-10th century BCE discovered in 2018 at the ongoing excavations at Bethsaida. (Hanan Shafir, the Bethsaida Archaeological excavations)
The inner gate floor from the 11th-10th century BCE discovered in 2018 at the ongoing excavations at Bethsaida. (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.

Located north of the Sea of Galilee, Bethsaida is famously known as the site of Jesus’s miracle of the loaves and the fishes, as recounted in the Gospels of John and Matthew. Arav’s excavation is one of two dueling potential locations for this historical site.

Thousands of years earlier, however, Arav hypothesized, it may have been called Tzer (mentioned only once in antiquity, in Joshua 19:35), and was the historical capital of the biblical settlement of Geshur.

The Davidic period gate was in use from circa 11 century BCE to 920 BCE when the settlement was destroyed, said Arav. The Geshur settlement, which became a fortified city with a well-preserved royal palace, was re-inhabited after 875 BCE. “During this approximately 50 year period, the site was laid in ruin and not inhabited,” according to the dig’s 2016 field report.

City wall from the 11th-10th century BCE, discovered in 2018 at the ongoing excavations at Bethsaida. A large stone tumbled off due to an earthquake in the region last week. (Hanan Shafir, the Bethsaida Archaeological excavations)

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, according to the website.

Taken from the 2016 report of the e-Tell excavation site of Bethsaida, Area A South, Stratum VI city gate. (courtesy)

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.

Bethsaida dig co-director Prof. Rami Arav. (courtesy)

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).

Rembrandt, c. 1650: Saul and David (Public Domain)

However, argued Arav, if one were to disregard the vocalization of the Hebrew, and understand that some letters, such as resh and daled, were often confused during the redaction of the Bible, the verse from Joshua could be read as pointing to four fishing villages, including “Tzer” (or, even better, perhaps Tzed), which may be an early form of “Beit-Tzaida,” the Hebrew name for Bethsaida.


It is also possible that, like a large stone which fell off the ancient city wall last week in the spate of earthquakes that rocked the region, this particular theory may crumble.

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