A large Tell located on the south-west side of the Sea of Galilee. One of the most remarkable Early Bronze age sites in Israel. The city also flourished in the Hellenistic (named Philoteria) and Roman/Byzantine periods (named Synnabray).
- Biblical References
- Laurence Oliphant
Tell Beit-Yerach is one of the remarkable Bronze age sites in the Holy land. Its large size (80 acres), massive brick walls (8M width), natural protection (surrounded by water), strategic location (cross roads passing the southern side of the Sea of Galilee) – important factors that made it one of the strongest cities at the Early Bronze period, over 4 Millenniums ago.
The site is located on a hill on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, at the south-west corner. It stretches between the modern bridge of Degania, the high school of Beit Yerach on its south side, up north where the buildings of Ohalo is located, up to the Kinneret cemetery. The Tell is raised above the shoreline on its east side and the Zemach-Tiberias road on its west side.
The crossroads at this site were once the major trade highways of the ancient world, which made it important:
North (via Hazor to Damascus and Mesopotamia)
East (through Hammat) to Syria and Jordan
The following aerial view shows the points of interest. Notice how large the Tell of Beit Yerach, extending between the upper left and lower right corners, a stretch of 1.5KM.
Early Bronze period – Beit Yerach
The site was first populated at the Calcolithic period – about 40th century BC. It became a mighty city in the Early Bronze period (3150BC-2200BC) when the city was fortified. In ancient Canaan, during the 3rd Millennium BC, there were about 30 Mega-cities like Beit Yerach, with 8-10M wide walls and area of 40-70 acres, such as Megiddo and Hazor. The city prospered due to the trade with the large empires at the time – Egypt and Mesopotamia. The highlights of the civilization in Beit Yerach were the massive fortifications and its grand size, the public grain barns (“circles building”) and the special ceramics named after the city. These indicated that the city was rich and large.
The name Beit Yerach, “Moon House” or “Moon city”, may have been based on the worship of the moon by the Canaanites in the city, a common practice in these times. Another large Early Bronze city, Jericho, also apparently worshipped the moon (its name Jericho – Yericho – is also based on “Yerach” = moon). Other cities worshipped the Sun and were called “Sun City” (Beit-Shemesh, like a city nearby – as per Joshua 19:22 – and in Judea). There are no known documents on the city at this period, including the Bible, but the sheer size of the site and its achievements attest its glory.
The city was destroyed in the Middle Bronze age (start of 2nd Millennium BC) and waited more than a Millennium to be rebuilt on a small scale – during the Persian period (5th century BC).
Hellenistic period – Philoteria
A new city was established in the Hellenistic period) and was named Philoteria in the 2nd century BC by King Ptolemy Philadelphus II, Greek king of Egypt (281-246), after his sister. The fact that the city received a Dynasty-related name shows its significance. New walls were added on top of the Bronze age walls. The excavations revealed more than 1.5KM of walls, with round and rectangular towers. A secret pathway was found in the walls, used as a back gate during siege.
At the end of the 3rd century the peace between the Greek rulers of Egypt (Ptolemy Kings) and Syria (Seleucid Kings) has came to an end. Their battleground was the buffer zone – Israel – which was ruled at the time by the Egyptians. The Seleucid King Antiochus III, coming with his Army down south from Tyre, defeated the local Egyptian guard in Philoteria (218 BC). However, he retreated a year later after their defeat to the Egyptians in the southern city of Rafah. During 201 through 198 the Seleucid king continued to battle the Egyptians. Antiochus was finally victorious in the battle near Dan (198BC). Philoteria was listed by the Historian Polybius, who covered these campaigns, as one of the cities visited conquered during the intrusion of the Seleucid King Antiochus III (198 BC).
Hasmonaen – Sinnabray
The Hasmonaen Kings established an independent Jewish kingdom in Judea starting in 167BC, but captured the Galilee only in 103/4BC, after the battles of Aristoblas I. Their rule was further expanded in the west Galilee by Alexander Jannes in 103BC, and the whole region became Jewish.
The city was now named Sinnabray (Sinnabris), after it relocated to the north west, where Moshava Kinneret is located. This is a common transition in these times, since most of the old Tells were too small and did not fit the new design of the “Polis”.
Early Roman period – Sinnabray
In 63BC Pompeius conquers Israel and the city became a Roman city. It has relocated away from the Tell and past the ancient Jordan river outlet. It is a minor city, since Tiberias -the new established city (18AD) – became the main city in the region.
During the great Jewish revolt against the Romans, according to Josephus, the 3 legions of Titus camped in Sinnabray before capturing the revolting Tiberias (August 67 AD).
Roman/Byzantine period – Sinnabray
In later years, the Romans built a fortress and baths on top of the old layers, in the center of the Tell. An aqueduct was built to bring in water to the city and baths, tapped of the Tiberias aqueduct.
During the Byzantine period, in the 4th century AD, a grand synagogue was built inside the fortress area. The Jerusalem Talmud mentions two cities, Beit Yerach and Sinnabray, as being autonomous with special rights (see reference). Apparently, the two cities at that time are separated, but later are referred as Sinnabray only.
The Peutinger map (Peutingeriana tabula) of the 4th century Imperial Roman roads shows the two major roads from Tiberias (“Tyberias”): the south-eastern through the south of Sea of Galilee, across the Jordan to Gader (“Gabara”) and then south to Rabat-Amon; and the south road through Beit Shean (“Scytoplois”) and then to Jericho and Caesarea. Therefore, Sinnabray was an important city located on the side of major roads.
In the 6th century a church was built on the north side.
- Arab periods – Tell Kerach
After the Persians and then the Arabs take control in the 7th century AD, the city is demolished. In the early 8th century a winter palace is built for the Khalifs of the Omayyad dynasty, since the Sea of Galilee became a popular winter resort (such as Minya). The place was built on top of the church, but has been removed during the excavations.
During the 1,000 years of the Middle ages the city was forgotten. The site was called Kerach (city in Arabic and Hebrew), preserving the fact that once a mighty city was located on the hill.
In the 19th British map , the site is called Sinn en-Nabra.
Modern times – Tell Kerach / Kerak
The ruins of Sinnabray were called by the local Bedouins Mallacha. In 1908 the first Hebrew farm was built on it, then in 1909 Moshava Kinneret was established.
In 1919/1920 a new road was paved from Zemach to Tiberias, which carved through the Tell. This initiated an emergency excavation and brought the attention to the Mega Tell. The first excavations started in 1933 and since then dozens of excavation seasons have worked in the Tell.
The future – Beit-Yerach National Park?
The current state of the Tell is, shamefully, poor. Hopefully in the near future the modern buildings will be removed or changed, the excavated city will be restored and opened to the public as a national park, and the glory of this mighty “house of the moon” city will be restored.
(a) General view:
View of Beit-Yerach from the Sea of Galilee, as seen from the middle of the tell. One of the school’s buildings is seen on top of the hill, which used to be the center of the ancient city. On the far side, where the trees merge with the lake, is the north side of the Tell. The Jordan river used to flow at ancient times at that end, flowing west to the Tell (behind the trees).
Click on the photos to view in higher resolution…
On the photo below – a view towards the south side of the tell, as seen near the center of the site. The total length along the shore was 1.5KM, a very large city.
Today, the water flows to the Jordan river from the far south side, seen in the background. Since in ancient times the river flowed also on the north side, thus the whole tell was perhaps surrounded by water on all or most sides – providing a strong protection for the city.
When the sea level was low due to dry 1989 winter seasons, a 23,000 year old fishermen-hunter-gatherers village was found in the submerged area in front of the photo above. The excavated Bronze-age fishermen village included several huts, ceramics and stones, installations and tombs.
(b) Center of the tell:
The center of the tell is seen in the following photo, towering over the shoreline. The excavations identified about 20 layers of buildings, spanning over 30 centuries – starting from the 25th century BC (Early Bronze period) up to the 9th century AD (Arab). Most of the excavations have been either removed, to get to a lower level, or covered up in order to protect the site. As seen in the bottom of the photo, limited excavations are still in progress (Tel-Aviv University).
On top of the Tell are remains of a Roman bath and a Byzantine Synagogue, as well as Hellenistic and Roman era buildings. Few remains are seen today since most of the excavations have been covered. The photo below shows the view from the top of the hill looking east towards the Sea of Galilee and the Golan heights at the far background.
Under the recent layers of the Hellenistic and Roman/Byzantine periods, there were many layers of the Bronze and Iron ages. New excavations are seen on the hillside, revealing more of the earlier periods. Earlier digs unearthed the large Early Bronze age city, which was protected by massive brick walls, some reaching a width of 8M. The city stretched all the way up to the bridge over the dam – indeed a Mega-Tell.
The excavations also unearthed a grain storage complex (30M X 40M), which was based on 8 round stone barns, each barn a circle of 8M in diameter. The building is known as the circles building.
The Early-Bronze age city also produced fine ceramics, which have a a special red-black glaze, known as Beit-Yerach Pottery.
On top of the Tell are few remains of the 4th century AD Synagogue, one of the largest in Israel (22M x 37M). Its apse is on the south side – towards Jerusalem. The synagogue was protected behind walls in a 55M x 55M yard, protected on all corners by towers. Its entrance was from the south side, where additional towers protected the gate. This protection was required due to the friction with the Christian community; there is a record of an event of burning of a scroll during the Gallus revolt (352AD). The original use of the walled area may have been a Roman fort.
Parts of its colorful mosaic floor has been found, with designs of plants, horse and a human figure. Few of the structure’s base stones are left in the site (seen below).
Another column base is seen below, with an interesting carving. You can notice the faint lines on the top of the cracked stone, which have Jewish symbols : a seven-branched candelabrum (this is visible in the diagonal direction), in addition to a palm branch, citron and incense shovel.
Titus Arch, Rome, 70AD- Seven branched candelabrum on victory procession
(d) Roman baths and Aqueduct:
On top of the ruins of the “circles building”, the Romans built a bath complex. The water was brought by a aqueduct which was based on modular units made of basalt rock. The aqueduct was tapped of the “Bereniki” aqueduct which brought water from the Yavniel creek (west of the Tell) to Tiberias. It crossed under the ancient outlet of the Jordan river, north of the Tell, using a siphon type crossing. Inside the city the water was brought to the baths and to the houses using ceramic pipes.
The following photo shows sections of the aqueduct, on display in the entrance to the Yardenit baptismal.
(e) Byzantine Church:
In the north side of the Tell are the ruins of the 6th century AD Church. The photo below shows the foundations of the church, two of its 10 columns, and small rooms around the church. Its 3 apses are seen on the far center and right sides, facing the south.
Another view of the foundations of the Byzantine church, which was demolished by the Persians or Arabs in the 7th century AD. In the center of the church was the colonnade, where the bases of seven of the 10 columns can be seen.
Note that in the background is a large pile of stones, called the Herzel pile. It was erected by the Galilee settlers and the nearby Kinneret farm workers in 1909, honoring the “prophet” of the Jewish state.
A view of the west side of the church, where the front entrance (atrium) is located. On the floor of the closest room was a mosaic floor with a Greek inscription, taken from Psalms 121, 8: “The LORD shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore”. This is a common greeting in Synagogues and Churches – for example see the Beth Shean mosaic displayed in the entrance of Israel’s airport.
Another view of the north side of the church is seen below, with a view of the colonnade. Under the floor there are two tombs.
A forth apse of the chapel (Dioconicon) is located on the north side of the church, and is seen below. On the floor, currently covered, is a mosaic floor with a cross and a Greek inscription (528/9 AD) which starts with: “Jesus, help Theodore magistratos…”. The chapel was converted to a baptistery in the 3rd round of renovations, similar to the church in Kursi.
Cemetery: North to the church is a cemetery, with some of the famous figures in Israel’s history are buried, such as Berl Katzenelson – the founder of the Histadrut labor federation, who inspired the foundation of Ohalo center which is located on the Tell. It is recommended to visit at the grave of poet Rachel, where a book of her songs is attached.
The Bible does not mention the ancient city, since it did not exist during the Israelite period (Iron age period). The earliest texts that refer to the city, or actually to its new location at Sinnabray, start only from the early Roman period, as follows:
(a) Josephus Flavius (Antiquities of the Jews – Book III, 9, 7)
Josephus, in his classic writings almost 2000 years ago, describes the military campaign of Vespesian and his son Titus during the campaign of the crushing of the Jewish revolt (67AD). Sennabris, where the 3 legions camped, is called a “station”. He locates it as 30 furlongs (6KM) away from Roman Tiberias, which pinpoints it to the place of the modern Moshava Kinneret. Note that Jesus Ben Shapat in the text below is another person, leader of revolting Tiberias.
“But Vespasian … as soon as he was informed that Tiberias was fond of innovations, and that Tarichere had revolted, both which cities were parts of the kingdom of Agrippa, and was satisfied within himself that the Jews were every where perverted [from their obedience to their governors], he thought it seasonable to make an expedition against these cities, and that for the sake of Agrippa, and in order to bring his cities to reason. So he sent away his son Titus to [the other] Cesarea, that he might bring the army that lay there to Seythopous, which is the largest city of Decapolis, and in the neighborhood of Tiberias, whither he came, and where he waited for his son. He then came with three legions, and pitched his camp thirty furlongs off Tiberias, at a certain station easily seen by the innovators; it is named Sennabris. He also sent Valerian, a decurion, with fifty horsemen, to speak peaceably to those that were in the city, and to exhort them to give him assurances of their fidelity; for he had heard that the people were desirous of peace, but were obliged by some of the seditious part to join with them, and so were forced to fight for them. When Valerian had marched up to the place, and was near the wall, he alighted off his horse, and made those that were with him to do the same, that they might not be thought to come to skirmish with them; but before they could come to a discourse one with another, the most potent men among the seditious made a sally upon them armed; their leader was one whose name was Jesus, the son of Shaphat, the principal head of a band of robbers. Now Valerian, neither thinking it safe to fight contrary to the commands of the general, though he were secure of a victory, and knowing that it was a very hazardous undertaking for a few to fight with many, for those that were unprovided to fight those that were ready, and being on other accounts surprised at this unexpected onset of the Jews, he ran away on foot, as did five of the rest in like manner, and left their horses behind them; which horses Jesus led away into the city, and rejoiced as if they had taken them in battle, and not by treachery”.
Section of Titus Arch, Rome – the victory procession of Titus (on chariot, followed by Victory, people and Senate; on the outside are defeated Jews)
(b) Jerusalem Talmud (Scroll 1,1)
This text names two twin cities that were autonomous cities under the Romans. Kinnarim may have been wild fruits that grow in the area and are named after the place.
“From now there were two autonomous cities, like Beit Yerach and Sinnabray, that grew Kinnarim…”
Etymology (behind the name):
Tell – Mound in Hebrew and Arabic (see more about Tells)
Apse – rounded end of a church or synagogue
Yerach (Yerah) – moon in Hebrew.
Beit (beth) – house in Hebrew. Also used for name of cities.
Beit Yerach – “Moon city”, the name of the Tell implying worship of the moon.
Jericho – is also “Moon city” since its name – Yericho – is also derived from “Yerach”.
Kerach, Kerek – In Hebrew and Arabic – a large city. The name of the Tell in Arabic, preserving the memory of a mighty city.
Sinnabray – the name of the new Hellenistic city, whose center was north-west to the Tell. Origin of the name is unknown.
Sinnabris – Greek name of Sinnabray.
San Buryah – name of Sinnabray in 13th century Crusaders text.
Mallacha, Mallalah – The modern Arabic name of Sinnabray.
Ohalo – in Hebrew : “His Tent”. Ohalo (or Oholo) is the institution for the Hebrew worker in Beit Yerach, inspired after Berl Katzenelson, the founder of the Jewish labor organization. It is named such since Berl established the first agriculture farm while living in a tent nearby.
Links and References:
- Jordan river outlet – the article, based on acoustic imaging, shows that the present outlet is from the 13th century AD
- Tel Bet Yerah excavation – Tel Aviv University
- Vespasian Campaign – summary of the campaign during Jewish revolt
- A 23,000 year old fishermen-hunter-gatherers camp on the shore of the sea of Galilee [Haifa Univ]
- Hecht Museum display
Laurence Oliphant “Haifa, or Life in Modern Palestine” 
His article was published on Apr 15 1884 in the New York “Sun”, with the title “Visit to the Hot springs of Hammattah”, where he tells his readers about his trip to Hammat Gader. It is interesting to read his description of Beit Yerach, where he had to pass in order to cross the Jordan. He identified the ruins of Tell Kerach, by mistake, as Taricheae (Magdala). However, he provides a fascinating description of the site 125 years ago, when the area was deserted. Laurence, one of the first Bible-Walkers, was a dreamer, and his vision was that the site will be a rich site for exploration – which indeed happened many years later.
According to his description, there were two mounds, a section of an aqueduct, and a road that passed on arches across the Jordan river. This ancient bridge across the Jordan (near the Degania dam of today) was ruined and the water flowed around its ruins between the arches (it was called in Arabic: Umm el-Qanater – “mother of the arches”). The water stream was so strong, he had to use a raft and also walk his horses and mules through 80 yards of the gushing water. He described that the water turned around the south side of the Tell, going west and then parallel to the lake. Thus the water made the Tell an island, which can be only entered through the ruined arches of the bridge.
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This page was last updated on Oct 16, 2014