Tag Archives: Archaeology

Exploring Hazor

From the top of the tel, overlooking the Hazor Valley and the mountains of the Galil
Springtime in the Hazor Valley, looking towards the mountains of the Galil from the tel.

The story of Biblical Hazor starts in the Book of Joshua. The Israelites had conquered the Canaanites in the south of the country, from Kadesh-Barnea to Gaza. “And it happened that Jabin King of Hazor heard” (Joshua 11: 1). He sent messages to all the other kings in the north, who gathered with their armies to fight the Israelites. But with G-d’s help, the Israelites won the battle. Joshua then captured Hazor, which had been the leading army of the Canaanite forces, and burned it. .

Allen and I visited Hazor as part of my Tour with Text course. We had been studying the first book of Kings since the end of October. Three weeks studying a section of the text were coupled with a bus tour to see how the story played out against its geographic background. On our last trip we went to the Galil, to the northern part of the country to see cities Ahab, King of Israel, had built or fortified. Hazor was our last stop.

After ascending the tel, we entered the ancient city through a six-chambered gate. By this time, everyone in our group recognized its significance. Although most cities of the time had four rooms in their gates, three cities built by Solomon had six rooms: Gezer, Megiddo, and Hazor. These three gates are mentioned in Kings (9:15). Today, the only ancient cities in which Israelite six-chambered gates have been found are these three from the Kingdom of Israel and Lachish, which was in the Kingdom of Judea.

We entered a large Canaanite structure, which is thought to have been the palace of the Canaanite kings. The entrance is flanked by two stone columns, as was common among many of the earlier cities of the area. These columns reminded me of the columns between which the Philistines chained Samson, much to their regret.

Wall of large Canaanite building, showing strip of burned wood between stones and mud bricks
Wall of large building, showing strip of burned wood between layers if stone and mud bricks

The foundation of the building is stone and above the stone the walls are mud brick. At one time, a strip of wood lay between the layers of stone and brick. Now wood ash sits in that space. That wood ash is evidence of a terrible fire that burned the city in the 13th century BCE, around the time Joshua was leading tribes of Israel in their conquest of the land.

In front of this structure is a large bamah, a high place or altar used for religious purposes. A large statue of Ba’al was found here, decapitated. Decapitated statues of gods are signs of religious wars. When the god of a place is unable to protect it, its worshipers lose. The winners then destroy god the losers had worshiped.

In our travels around the country we have seen the remains of many stone and mud brick buildings, but this was the first time we had seen such detailed evidence of the Israelite conquest. The soot that has marked the stones and brick for over 3200 years is a direct link to our past. Joshua and the Jews who came out of the desert into the land become more real to me with every bit of evidence I see.

Hazor did not just suddenly spring up in Joshua’s path. At that time it had already been an important Canaanite city for over 500 years. It occupies a strategic location at the eastern end of the Via Maris, the route near the coast used by ancient traders and armies moving between Egypt and Mesopotamia. Besides being mentioned in the Bible, it is referred to in the Egyptian El Amarna letters and stela. To the north, the archives at Mari, a Babylonian city along the Euphrates River, also mention Hazor. 

Strategic sites retain their importance no matter who rules the area. After each conquest, sooner or later, destroyed cities are rebuilt by new rulers. That’s how tels develop, as each new city is built on top of the ruins of the previous ones, until a small hill along a trade route becomes a prominent height overlooking much of the route’s length, or even a whole valley.

Historic periods often mingle on a tel, as the basement of a later structure is dug down into the main room of a an earlier one. At Hazor, we saw that the middle chamber of one side of the gate rests on black stone. The stone is basalt; Solomon’s gate was built atop the threshold of a basalt Canaanite temple. Or building stones in good condition become incorporated into later walls. At Hazor, this secondary use of materials is evident in several places. The midsection of an Egyptian basalt statue of a lioness became the door jamb of an Israelite house.

Such secondary use of materials and intermingling of historical periods is not restricted to the ancients; we see it in Jerusalem today. Today’s Damascus Gate into the Old City, built by Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century stand on the remains of the Roman gate and the rooms where the Roman guards rested between their shifts. Under the Hurva synagogue, paving stones of a Byzantine era street partially cover an even older mikve, a ritual bath from the Second Temple period.

Hazor was a large city under King Solomon, and King Ahab enlarged it. But it never again reached the size it had been when the Canaanites controlled it. Then it had been a huge city with an estimated population of about 15,000. Although it was smaller when rebuilt, nonetheless archaeologists have found several large buildings, temples, granaries, and city walls and gates dating from the time of King Ahab. The site is the largest tel in Israel and it has not been excavated completely Archaeologists still hope to find a Canaanite or Israelite archive.

Walking around the site, we came across a roped off shallow pit in

Israelite matzevot (sacred standing stones) at Tel Hazor
Israelite matzevot at Tel Hazor

which stood many upright stones of various sizes. A standing stone is called a matzevah, or monument, and differs from an altar, or mizbe’ach, in that an altar is built of many stones. Today, matzevot are erected as small memorials to an event or used as tombstones, but in earlier times they had sacred purposes. For example, the temple on Tel Arad contains a matzevah within its holy of holies. These were acceptable in early Jewish history, but later were much less so.

Any city has to have a good source of water. In ancient times when water was not pumped over long distances, the water source had to

Descent to the water tunnel at Tel Hazor, discovered by Yigal Yadin
Descent to the water tunnel, discovered by Yigal Yadin

be close to the city. Many of the most strategic locations for cities were on hilltops, but the nearest water source was in the valley. For many cities, such as Jerusalem, Megiddo, and Hazor, this situation caused a large problem in time of war. One solution to this problem was to build a tunnel that starts inside the city walls so the people could retrieve water without exposing themselves to the enemy. The tunnel and wall around the water source also protected it from being captured or used by the enemy. We’ve walked through such tunnels in Jerusalem, and at Megiddo and Tel Sheva. In Hazor, we stood at the top of the shaft and looked down. It was late afternoon on a very hot day, and no one had the energy to descend hundreds of metal stairs into the water tunnel, no matter how cool it promised to be in there. The walk back up would not have been worth the effort.

Instead, we slowly walked down the path on which we had ascended the hill, admiring the view of the Hazor Valley.

Where this Biblical site is located:

Ein Kerem

Stiars to Ein Kerem ceramics studio
The cat watches for visitors to an Ein Kerem ceramics studio

Ein Kerem means Spring of the Vineyard, which reflects its role as a wine producing town in the Second Temple Period. At that time, it was a small town, a long four and a half mile walk from Jerusalem through the mountains of Judea. Today it is a neighborhood within the city known for churches and its artists.

To get to Ein Kerem, you head west on Herzl boulevard, one of Jerusalem’s major thoroughfares, past the military cemetery, and turn onto a small road that winds its way through the Jerusalem forest. At certain points, almost hidden by trees, you can see the golden domes of the Muskovia Church that sits on the southern slope of the neighborhood. The church, built in the 1900s, is visible for great distances, identifiable by the golden light reflecting from its domes.

Tile by Ruth Havilio
Tile by Ruth Havilio

I went to Ein Kerem not to see a church but to visit Ruth Havilio, a ceramicist who specializes in making decorative tiles. Many of her tiles feature the flowers and birds she sees around her. She feels a deep connection to Ein Kerem; she loves the ancient terraces on which the grape vines grew and draws inspiration from the unspoiled Biblical landscape. The bright colors and open feeling of her tiles distinguish them from the more common Armenian tiles one sees on display in tourist shops and as nameplates on doorways all over Jerusalem.

A sabra, she relates how her father, Shlomo, almost missed his own wedding. As a young man, he had been an officer in the Haganah, the precursor to the IDF. In 1948, he was commander of the Jewish forces assigned to the defense of several neighborhoods in Jerusalem. Not blessed with the gift of prophecy, he and his fiancée had decided to get married on the day the War of Independence broke out. He was so busy organizing and checking the city’s defenses, he forgot what else he had been supposed to do. Although later in the day, he did remember the important event he had scheduled, he arrived late. His bride, also a Haganah officer, waited.

His service to Israel did not end with the establishment of the state. For many years, he was Israel’s ambassador to Cameroon. Ruth grew up in Africa, and then studied art and architecture in Paris. Her work shows an African influence, reflecting her childhood.

The major influence on her art, however, is the landscape around her. She and her husband bought the building she lives and works in 27 years ago. Before 1948, Ein Kerem had been an Arab town. Buildings were constructed on top of the ruins of what had been built before. Houses were not planned; as more space was needed, rooms were added. During the renovations to their house, which they bought from a Moroccan family, Ruth and her husband discovered it had been built on top of Byzantine ruins.

David Kroyanker, an architect who has studied and written about the architecture of Jerusalem, has described Arab rustic architecture. Originally one story homes were built, with one large arched room. The residents lived in this room with their animals, which were brought into the house for warmth. As the family grew, and the people could afford it, a second story was added, where the people lived, separated from the animals.

Ruth describes how they removed a hundred truckloads of dirt from under their salon on the entrance level to reveal the original room. For a while their salon had no floor; they walked on a plank from the doorway to the kitchen. Her mother was too afraid to enter her house for months. Gradually they discovered the large room below. She showed photos of the excavation in progress, and what it looks like now. The once filthy walls are painted white, and they curve near the top to form the high arched ceiling. The photos show a lovely room, but visitors are not allowed in because it is her teen-aged daughter’s bedroom.

On the outside of the house, stairs follow the curve of the arched entry and lead to the flat roof, which is vital part of the home. Here food was stored. In hot weather, people slept on their roofs to be cooler. For security reasons, the stairs do not go all the way to the ground. Every family had a ladder to get to the roof, and at night they would bring the ladder in so no stranger or thief could get into the house.

Many houses were built with special niches in the outer walls to attract doves, which were raised for food. The niches are still visible in the walls. Although doves and pigeons occasionally nest in a the niches, Ruth’s family does not dine on their meat.

Often a guest room was built on an additional floor. It would have its own entrance with stairs leading up to it from the inner courtyard. This is the room that Ruth has converted into her ceramics workshop and showroom.

The story of her home is the story of many houses in Ein Kerem. The town has been continuously inhabited for over three thousand years; layers upon layers of buildings and ruins have been excavated and rehabilitated. Just last week, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced the discovery of a Second Temple Period mikve under the living room of a family that lives nearby.

During World War II it was a very busy town, with a population of over 4000, making it one of the largest Arab towns in British Palestine. A center of Arab nationalism and terrorism, it was approximately two-thirds Christian and one-third Muslim. After the Irgun attack on Deir Yassin, another Arab town just outside Jerusalem, the Arabs panicked and fled. The only residents who remained were the monks and nuns.

After the War of Independence, the state of Israel took possession of all abandoned Arab properties. Houses in many formerly Arab neighborhoods in and around Jerusalem became homes for immigrants. The Jewish Agency brought bus loads of new olim, primarily from Morocco, Yemen, and Romania to Ein Kerem. The new olim, however, took one look at the town as they were driven through it, noticing how rundown and neglected it was. They refused to get off the bus. Then, one day, an elderly Yemenite man stood up and declared, “This is Jerusalem!” He descended from the bus, followed by the rest of his family.

Others followed them, and Ein Kerem became a thriving community. He received a heavenly reward for his pioneering spirit. He fathered a child at age 90, and lived to the age of 102.

For many years Ein Kerem remained a small neglected town outside Jerusalem. Its residents were primarily poor olim who arrived in the country with no resources. The town had poor roads and homes lacked electricity and indoor plumbing. Very gradually it was modernized as the standard of living increased.

Today, although incorporated into modern Jerusalem, Ein Kerem retains some of its rural feel. The hilly streets wind through the town, down to the valley and up its hills. 

Mary's spring in Ein Kerem
The spring in Ein Kerem

On the southern end of town the original spring, now channeled  into a fountain, still flows. The house where the Sheikh used to live is nearby. After being used by the IDF for many years, it has been turned into a music center, which holds concerts on most Friday and Saturday afternoons throughout the year. Hadassah Hospital, one of the largest medical centers in the Middle East, sits on the neighborhood’s southwestern edge.

Many artists and craftspeople work in Ein Kerem, in studios attached to their homes. Periodically, real estate developers put forth proposals to build large apartment complexes in the area, with the backing of the city government. So far, the residents have been able to block these projects, because even one such building would destroy the views and rural feeling that give the area its appeal.

For the artists like Ruth, who take their inspiration from the forest and hills around Ein Kerem, that is just fine.

The Kishle: A Look at Jerusalem’s Past

Herod's Palace under the Kishle.
Excavation of Herod’s Palace under the Kishle.
photo (c) Oded Antman

One of the fascinating things about living in Jerusalem is watching history unfold in front of me. I do not mean current events which rapidly become history, although that happens too, but the discovery of our history through archaeological findings. Many of these are changing our view of the history of the city and of the country. This week we visited the Kishle, a place that has been in plain sight for hundreds of years. Its significance, however, was only revealed recently.

The Kishle sits not far from the Jaffa Gate, just past the Tower of David museum. Anyone coming into the city through Jaffa Gate walks or drives past it. And most of us don’t pay any attention to it. But underneath, it contains some remarkable structures which are causing historians to redraw maps of Jerusalem from both the First Temple and Roman periods.

It was originally built as a Turkish army barracks. The British also used it as a jail and police station, and since the early 1970s it has been used as the Old City police station. In 1999, the Tower of David Museum decided to renovate the unoccupied section of the complex to use for public events. This section was connected to the Crusader moat around the museum, which would make access to it easy for museum goers. Since, by law, in Israel one must check under any building site for antiquities, a salvage dig was performed. Everyone expected a quick excavation that would find nothing. So responsibility for it was given to Amit Re’em, a young archaeologist. What he found surprised him.

It also surprised us when we visited it this week, on a tour sponsored by the Tower of David Museum. Most of the people in the group were members of an extended family, with the addition of a few others like Allen and me.

From the Crusader moat, we climbed stone stairs to the top of the 16th century city wall. From there, metal stairs wind and climb up to the ramparts around the Kishle complex. We turned away from the city wall and climbed a few more steps to a wooden door, which Rickie, our guide for the morning, unlocked.

I had seen pictures of the room in the newspaper; it looked very long and deep. But, as usual, the photos do not have near the impact of seeing the site in person.

stairs into Herod's palace under the Kishle in Jerusalem
Descending the stairs into Herod’s palace under the Kishle

We stood on the metal balcony at one end of the room, looking towards the far wall, about how many 160 feet away. The arched ceiling is at least 60 feet above the floor. The upper walls have a golden glow from the reflection of the electric lights on their stones. The ceiling is vaulted, and there are two rows of brown spots along its length. Metal stairs and walkways lead down into the room. It was huge, a fitting palace for Herod.

We descended to the far south end of the room where Rickie explained what had been found. Why had Re’em concluded he had found Herod’s palace?

What he found were huge stones under the Ottoman walls, stones cut in the Roman Herodian style, placed on or around stones cut as in Hasmonean times. The lowest layers of stone were imperfectly cut; the sides not absolutely straight, some of the angles not true, some with defects in the surface. These were the foundation stones, stones that would not show when the structure was completed. The wall was packed with earth to support a heavy structure. Higher up, the walls are constructed of classic Herodian stones, up to ten feet or more long. The palace wall served as the Western wall of the city. This is not the only place we have seen remains of a Hasmonean city wall or building, with a Herodian wall or structure on top of or outside it. In Jerusalem at least, Herod seemed determined to rebuild what the Hasmoneans had left, to show physically that he had taken their place.

We walked back to the entrance slowly, while Rickie pointed out interesting findings. At one point we looked down on the intersection of the bases of several walls. The uppermost wall was Herodian, around a Hasmonean wall.

The wall is pierced by a hole, the entrance to a tunnel. This was part of the sewage system, which ran east-west, to drain into Gai Ben Hinnom, the Hinnom Valley. During the excavations, many coins were found in this tunnel, including a ceramic jar full of Roman coins. It supports the story about a certain priest, Channan, who escaped from Jerusalem during the Roman siege of the city by crawling through the sewers into the valley, taking his money with him.

Next to these walls is one from the First Temple Period. This seems to be a continuation of the city wall built by King Hezekiah to protect Jerusalem from capture when it was threatened by Sennacherib of Assyria. The plaster on this wall is almost identical to that used on the interior of Hezekiah’s water tunnel. A long section of Hezekiah’s broad wall was uncovered near the Cardo in the Jewish Quarter in the 1970s, confirming the size of Jerusalem in his time. But if this wall, near the Jaffa Gate, is part of that wall, then First Temple Jerusalem was larger than has been thought. Archaeologists are now busy looking for more evidence of First Temple life in more parts of the city.

rust spots on ceiling from when Kishle was used as British prison
Ceiling of Herod’s palace, with rust spots from British prison bars

Closer to the entrance, on the other side of the walkway, is a series of eight holes. These round basins were carved into the floor during the Crusader period, and when excavated still held bits cloth fibers and red pigment. They had been used for dying.

About two-thirds of the way up the stairs, we stopped at what at one time was the building floor. The floor, removed during the excavation, had been the floor of the Turkish and British prison. The brown spots on the ceiling are all that is left of the bars of cells which had held prisoners. Carved higher on the right hand wall is the symbol of Etzel. Also know as the Irgun, Etzel was a group dedicated to the overthrow of British rule

Etzel insignia scratched onto Kishle prison wall
Etzel insignia scratched onto Kishle prison wall

in the Palestinian Mandate territory. The symbol was carved into the wall by Shmuel Matza, an Etzel member, while he was imprisoned here for terrorist activities.

Baedeker’s Guide, Jerusalem and its Surroundings: Handbook for Travelers, says in the 1876 edition, that south of David’s Citadel is “an open space with barracks.” Today we know the barracks covered history of Jerusalem from First Temple times to the current day. If only he had known what lay beneath, he could have written so much more.

Walking on Tel Dan

Dan River flows on Tel Dan
The Dan River at the end of a good winter

Allen and I went to Tel Dan with my class on Kings I to see one of the religious centers for the people of the Kingdom of Israel. After the death of Solomon, the Davidic kingdom was split in two. His son Rehavam ruled Judea in the south and Yeravam I (Jeroboam) ruled Israel in the North. Yeravam established two cultic centers to keep the people in Israel from returning to Jerusalem to pray at the Temple. One of the cultic centers, with a golden calf and an altar, was built in the city of Dan, which sat on high place along the Dan River.

For most of the year, rivers in Israel are small sluggish streams. But we were at Tel Dan in late March, at the end of a winter of good rain, and the Dan River was noisily rushing. We walked along the river for some distance and I was amazed. It was the first time I had ever seen a rushing stream, flowing through woodlands, in all my time in Israel. It felt more like the Appalachian mountains of Pennsylvania than the foothills of the Mount Hermon.

Looks more like Pennsylvania than northern Israel
Looks more like Pennsylvania than northern Israel

The Dan rises from the largest karstic spring in the Middle East, in the highlands of the northern Galil. Even in dry years it has a decent flow–approximately 230 million cubic meters a year. That’s close to 608,000 gallons, enough water to supply six average American households for a year. The Dan joins the Banias and Hasbani Rivers to form the Jordan just north of the Hula Lake. The Jordan then drops below sea level to flow into Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). It remains below sea level for the rest of its length, down the rift valley into the Dead Sea.

The city of Dan has a long history. It was built on the site of the earlier city of La’ish. La’ish or Dan is mentioned several times in the Bible, in the books of Joshua and Judges, as well as in Kings.

After 1948 Tel Dan was within Israel, on the Syrian border. Because of the danger of Syrian attack, archeologists did not explore the site. But in 1966 people who lived in the area noticed the IDF digging defensive trenches near the Dan River. They called the archeology department at Tel Aviv University and notified them, pointing out that the IDF did not care about antiquities. If the past was to be uncovered and saved, some trained archeologists needed to come north quickly.

Avraham Aviram organized the 1966 excavation and continued to explore the archaeological site at Tel Dan for the next 40 years, until his death. Even today, we do not know exactly how large the city was at its peak. Dan was probably not a government center, but it was an important city on the border, and a cultic center. But excavations are continuing, and the city’s borders may yet be discovered. Even without knowing the city’s size, we have learned many fascinating things from the digs here.

In one spot, a deep pit reveals the first layer of the city, from the era of settlement in the time of Joshua, about 1400 BCE. Part of a victory stela (inscribed stone slab) was also found, carved in ancient script. The stela dates from about 50 years after King David (around 850 BCE). Although much of the inscription is missing, what remains is significant. On the stele, the King of Aram boasts of having beaten the armies of his two southern neighbors, and killing the kings of Israel and Judea. According to current thought, the stele celebrates the victory of Hazael of Damascus over King Jehoram of Israel and King Ahaziah of Judah. What makes the stele important is that is the first written reference to the Davidic dynasty outside the Bible.

The major importance of Dan lies in its role a cultic center. Cultic centers tend to retain their holiness even when the governing culture and religion change. For example, the Temple Mount, has successively housed the Jewish Temple, a Roman temple, a mosque, a church, and today another mosque. At Megiddo, several different types of altars have been found in one small area.

So too at Tel Dan. Today the cultic site is a symbol of idolatry and the breakup of David’s kingdom. Archeologists have uncovered layers at this high place from the time of King Yeravam I, King Ahav, and the Greeks. We saw the foundations of a large square altar, topped by the metal outline erected to show the dimensions of the original altar. It was much larger than the other altars I’ve seen in Tel Arad,

Shulie Mishkin, our guide, at the Jewish altar on Tel Dan archeological stie
Shulie Mishkin, our guide, at the Jewish altar on Tel Dan

Tel Sheva, and the Israel Museum. It stands within a square courtyard, surrounded by small rooms whose function is unknown. Perhaps the small rooms were where the sacrifices were prepared. Or maybe the priests changed their clothes in them. On one side of the altar complex are earthworks and stone steps on which the people probably stood to watch sacrifices. It is also on the east end of the tel, as altars were in those days.

From the high place we turned and walked south to the Israelite period gate. Like many remains from ancient times, the gate shows an amalgam of history. Part of what can be seen today is the original gate and part of it is from King Ahav’s rebuilding (both from First Temple period). Part of the gate dates from the Greek (Second Temple) period.

Gates were significant places in earlier time. Much of the life of the city occurred here. They were a major site for commerce—we read of Abraham buying the Cave of Machpelah at the Hevron city gate. This is where the Judges and elders sat, as we read in the Book of Ruth. Traders conducted their business at the city gates. As evidenced by a small altar nearby, gates were also religious sites. Travelers could offer a small sacrifice to thank the city’s god for bringing them safely to their destination.

From the Israelite gate we walked downhill and to the east until we arrived at the older Canaanite gate. This section of the archaeological site was discovered only ten years ago. It was identified as being of Canaanite origin from two characteristics. It is outside the Israelite gate. It is built of the Canaanite mud bricks common in the 18th century BCE. When the Israelites built their gate, they filled in the opening of this one because it was no longer needed. Thus it was preserved through the centuries of earthquakes and neglect.

3800 year old Canaanite arched gate  at the archeological site on Tel Dan
3800 year old Canaanite arched gate

The most remarkable thing about the Canaanite gate is its shape. It is an arch. Until this gate was discovered, intact, many people thought the Romans invented the arch. (The Romans may have learned about arches from the Etruscans.) But here at Tel Dan, stands an arch built between 1550 and 1800 years before the earliest Roman one. Canaanite arches had previously been found in Ashkelon and Gezer, but the Dan gate is the first complete arch that has been found.

In unearthing the past of this land, archaeologists are changing our understanding of the past as well. History does not remain static. In walking the land, our conception of the past continuously changes.

Where the archaeological site is located:

Tel Megiddo’s Archaeology

Jezreel Valley, from Megiddo, site of Armegeddon as described in Christian Bible
The Jezreel Valley, as seen from Tel Megiddo

The three most important factors in valuing real estate, as any realtor advises, are location, location, and location. It’s not a recent phenomenon; the ancients knew it as well.

The most important thing to consider before building a city was proximity to a source of fresh water. Additionally, from the site, they had to be able to see people approaching from a distance, so overlooking a valley was good. And if that valley was trade route, all the better.

Megiddo meets all these criteria, which is why it was almost continuously inhabited for over 4000 years, from the Neolithic period (about 6000 – 7000 BCE) to the end of the Israelite period in 732 BCE.

For much of its history, Megiddo overlooked one of the major trade routes in the Middle East. The two big powers in the area were traditionally Egypt to the southwest and the Hittites, Assyria, and Babylonia. The Hittites, Assyrians, and Babylonians were ascendant during different periods, and held different territories, but they were all to the northeast. They used the land bridge along the Mediterranean to wage war against Egypt. Commerce between the east and west was conducted on two north-south routes: the Via Maris (sea route) near the coast or the Kings Way, along the Jordan River Valley. The best way to get from one of these routes to the other was through the wide flat Jezreel Valley, in the Galil.

And overlooking the Jezreel Valley sits Megiddo, with its own water supply, in a spectacularly beautiful location.

Because of its strategic location, it had both economic and military significance. Thus, many battles have been fought here. It is the site of one of the earliest battles in recorded history , when Pharaoh won a decisive victory in the 14th century BCE. The Bible reports Deborah and Barak beat Sisera at Mount Tavor on the other side of the valley (Judges 4-5). King Saul fell in battle against the Philistines on Mount Gilboa (Samuel I: 31). General Allenby beat the Turks and Germans here; when knighted by the King of England, he chose Viscount Megiddo as his title. And according to Christian tradition, the last battle at the End of Days will occur here. It doesn’t take much of an accent make Har Megiddo sound like Armageddon.

With all that history, it has lured multiple archaeologists to its heights. In the 14th century, this particular hill at the edge of the Jezreel Valley was identified as the site of a Roman army camp. But it was not identified as Biblical Megiddo until the mid 19th century.

The first modern excavations took place under the auspices of the German Society for Oriental Research (1903 – 1905). Gottlieb Shumacher, the expedition’s leader, discovered a palace and tombs from around 1000 to 2000 BCE.

John Rockefeller sponsored the next important expedition. It was mounted by the Institute of Oriental Research in Chicago. Their goal was to excavate the whole site, down to bedrock, which was too ambitious for them to accomplish. The site is vast, and there are 30 layers of different civilizations within it. But in the 14 years they dug at the Tel, they uncovered many significant finds. Unfortunately, in their zeal to uncover the site, they also destroyed many things. Like many early archaeologists, the Chicago group took some of their best discoveries home with them. Most ancient cities in the Middle East had four-chambered gates. The outside Canaanite gate at Megiddo

Stairs leading to Canaanite gate at Megiddo
Stairs leading to Canaanite period four-chambered outer gate

has four rooms, as do Tel Sheva and Tel Arad. But Megiddo also once had a six-chambered inner gate dating from the Israelite period. We viewed one side of this city gate; the other three rooms are in a museum in Chicago. (At one time, archaeology was practiced not to uncover history, but to further enrich a country or organization rich enough to finance it. Thus, most of the marble frieze from the Parthenon in ancient Greece is in London. The ancient Egyptian obelisks known as Cleopatra’s needles are in Paris, London , and New York.)

This gate is one of the pieces of evidence in a long controversy in interpretation of archaeology. One of the biggest questions still outstanding is the nature of the Israelite kingdom. Were David and Solomon rulers of a large kingdom or were they small tribal chieftains? How literally should we take the Bible?

Yigal Yadin, a famous military leader and archaeologist of Israel’s early years, is famous for his work on the Dead Seas Scrolls. He also excavated at Masada, Hatzor, and here at Megiddo. He notes that six chambered gates have been found at Hatzor and Gezer, cities dating from the time of Solomon. Thus, the similar gate at Megiddo is evidence that it also dates from Solomon’s time. The inner gate is evidence that Solomon’s kingdom was large.

Because the foundations of the gate rest within earlier layers of the tel, it is hard to date them exactly. They could have been built during the same period as the palace, or from the same period as the stables, several hundred years later. David Feinstein, from Tel Aviv University, holds that the gate is not from the early period. Rather, it is part of the building done at Megiddo later, in the period of King Ahav.

We walked past the half gate to the eastern corner of the Tel, to the cultic area. In this spot remains of many altars belonging to several different cults, from different times,  were found. One of the largest altars is a huge round platform with steps leading to its

Cultic site at Megiddo where many ancient altars were found
Round pagan altar at Megiddo

top, clearly not used by Jews to sacrifice to G-d. No square Jewish altar with horns, with a ramp leading to the top, has been found here, not even from pre-Temple times.

On the other side of the cultic area is an open trench, dug down to bedrock. It was left exposed to show the 30 layers of civilization built up here over the centuries. I could see several layers, identifiable by the different shades of beige and brown/ However, I could not count all of them. Either my color discrimination or my appreciation of archaeological details is deficient. It’s enough for me to know that that those who do appreciate the subtleties can count them.

We then walked across the site to the stable area. The stables are also used as evidence in the dating controversy. If the palace at Megiddo is from the time of King Solomon, as Yadin believed, then the stables were built by King Ahav. But if, as Feinstein claims, the palace was built by King Ahav, then the stables date from King Yeravam II. Today the stables are easily identifiable—black iron horses stand in several spots. But when it was being excavated, the experts were not sure what it was. One day a college aged volunteer mentioned that she was working in the stables.

The veteran archaeologist told her she should not say that; they were not yet sure what the area had been used for. The stone troughs could have been used for other purposes, such as kneading troughs in a large communal bakery.

“Oh, no,” the young volunteer replied. “I grew up on a farm. We had many horses, and those marks on the edges of the stone troughs are the teeth marks of horses.”

The archaeologists looked more carefully at the marks. The young inexperienced volunteer was right. They set the troughs in rows between the stone posts, which they now realized the horses had been tied to. Later someone added the wrought iron horse silhouettes to the area. Now visitors who can’t identify horse teeth marks or kneading troughs can easily see what the area once was.

No city can exist without a source of fresh water, but so far we had not seen any water on the tel. We walked towards the south and came to a large open pit, 25 meters (82 feet) deep, with steel stairs winding down around its inner edge. We’ve been to enough Biblical sites to know what we were looking at. This was the access within the city walls to the source of water located outside the city walls. The steps are narrow and the descent steep. But it was only 183 steps down and 80 back up at the other end, according to the sign at the top, and most of us still had energy left. Besides, it was hot. Walking through the ancient stone tunnel was bound to be cooler than walking back down the path we had taken to the top of the tel.

As we entered the stone tunnel itself, a few people made expected comments about the “original Israelite period electric lights.” We walked through the tunnel on a boardwalk, built to allow tourists a safe path above the rough stone floor. The original chisel marks on the walls and ceiling were easily visible. This tunnel, like the access tunnels to the water sources in Jerusalem, Tel Sheva, and Hatzor, had been dug out by hand, by men using chisels and hammers. It would have been slow painstaking work, a few inches a day, through the solid bedrock. But it enabled the cities to survive for hundreds of years, withstanding sieges and droughts.

The only water in the tunnel today stands in a small pool at the far end. Over the centuries the water has found new paths. Earthquakes changed the original outlets. Debris has blocked feeder channels. New settlements and cities have tapped upstream sources. None of these factors, however, changes the achievement of the ancient engineers and builders, who managed, without today’s science or technology, to build the water tunnels. As I took a sip of water from my bottle after emerging from the tunnel, I once again marveled at the ingenuity and ability of the ancients to provide for their needs.

Jerusalem Archaeology: Givati Lot

Excavation at Givati Parking Lot, just south of Old City walls of Jerusalem
Archaeological dig just south of Jerusalem’s Old City walls

Until about seven years ago, the best place to park close to the Western Wall of the Temple Mount was the Givati Parking Lot. It was across the street and just slightly downhill from the Dung Gate, one of the seven gates in the Old City walls.

But the city has condemned the parking lot to build a museum and archeological center. In this country, before you build up, you have to dig down, to uncover the history of the area. The digging is done by archaeologists under the supervision of the Department of Antiquities. And at the Givati Parking Lot the digging has hit pay dirt.

For over a hundred years, historians and archaeologists  believed that the City of David (Ir David), extended west only as far as Ma’aleh Ir David street. This street, south of the current old city walls, was believed to follow the route of the Tyropean Valley. The Tyropean, or Central, Valley, was one of the original three deep valleys of Jerusalem. It was the western edge of ancient Jebus, which became the City of David. The valley was filled in as the city grew, and by the time of Solomon’s Temple it was only a shallow depression. Today, its exact location is unknown.

Our guide to the Givati excavations, Aviv Benedix, used to work at the dig. He was able to point out some of the fine details and explain the archaeological process to us as we stood on the wooden walkway above the edge of the excavation. Aviv explained that this dig is a salvage excavation. It was undertaken to see what can be salvaged before it is all irretrievably covered up by a building. Because of its location, archaeologists did not expect to find very much. The dig, however, has led to one surprise after another. The excavation, which at 3500 sq. meters is the largest active dig in Jerusalem, was expected to last little more than a year. It has now been ongoing for seven years.

But they can’t keep digging here much longer. The archaeologists are working under a deadline and must complete their work soon. Whatever is still undiscovered at that time will remain undiscovered. The funders of the museum want to see it built. And digging is slow painstaking work. The goal is to excavate 15 to 20 cm. daily (about 6 to 8 inches).

One discovery was that Ma’aleh Ir David street, which divides the Givati lot from Ir David, is not built over the Tryopean Valley. Now it seems that the valley ran a little further west. If this is correct, then ancient Jerusalem was much larger in the periods of King David and Solomon than was thought. Some scholars suspect that they will uncover King David’s administrative center here.

But to get to Davidic remnants, they first have to work slowly and painstakingly through the remnants of later periods that lie on top of them. Archaeology is a process of discovering history from the surface down. It views history backwards as newer artifacts are found before older ones.

First they removed the modern Israeli parking lot and dug out several centuries of dust, debris, and trash. The most recent remains found were oil lamps and jugs from the Abbasid Muslim period (661 – 1099 CE). The archaeologists believe there may have been a market on this site. There are four Muslim Palaces from the earlier Umayyad Muslim period close by. Because no Umayyad remains have been found, they think the Givati lot was a garden area of the Umayyad city.

Almost nothing has been found from the Byzantine period. The majority of the excavated houses date from the earlier Roman period. In the 3rd century CE, a massive Roman villa was here. It had two courtyards with columns, similar to a Roman villa found in Aleppo. The Romans built the villa over a Hasmonean building. That building had been built by the Seleucids, who ruled the area from around 200 BCE until the Hasmonean revolt in 165 BCE. At the moment, the mosaic floor of the Roman villa is visible. Once the archaeologists are sure they have found all the Roman remains, they will remove the mosaic to a museum. They will then excavate further to learn what, and who, were there before the Romans. Most of the rest of the Roman villa, however stands directly on bedrock, and will remain where it is.

An earlier Roman era building was found in another corner of the dig. The archaeologists think the large building is one of the three palaces of Queen Helene of Adiabene. After her husband, King Monbaz, died she and her sons, King Izatas and Monobazus (or Monbaz), converted to Judaism. They supported many Jewish institutions in Jerusalem, providing food during a first century famine and a menorah for the Temple. Queen Helene spent her last years in Jerusalem, and is buried here. A wide wall from her palace demonstrates that this area immediately south of the Temple was a neighborhood for the rich.

Other Roman structures uncovered during the dig include a Herodian mikveh, partially covered by a Roman bath, and a Roman cistern. First century cooking pots were found in the cistern. These pots are evidence that Jews hid in the water system during the great revolt of 66 to 70 CE.

Among the important finds in the area were roof tiles imprinted with the seal of the Roman Tenth Legion. When the legions were not fighting, the soldiers had to be kept busy. One of the things they did was manufacture roof tiles. Remains of a Roman roof tile factory were found during the salvage dig prior to building  the International Convention Center almost 2 km from Ir David. A portion of the floor in the entrance to the ICC is plexiglas; below it some Tenth Legion roof tiles and tools used to make them are visible.

In monetary terms, one of the most valuable finds was a gold earring, set with pearls and emeralds. Although it was in a Byzantine structure, it was probably made about 300 years earlier. It would have been handed down as a family heirloom. (The Ir David Gift Shop sells 24 carat gold, pearl, and agate copies of the original, to wear as a necklace, for $1054. It also sells gold-plated brass earrings with pearls and agate for $95).

Queen Helene’s earring

Another valuable finding was a hoard of 264 gold coins found in a Byzantine structure. The coins, dating from around 613 CE, were in excellent condition. Perhaps the owner of the coins hid them when the city was about to be captured by the Persians. But the Persians destroyed Jerusalem after conquering it; the owner never returned to retrieve his treasure.

Even more interesting than findings from the Roman period is a Hasmonean building. Josephus and older sources wrote that the Hasmoneans erected many buildings in the city in the second century BCE. But until 2013 there were no archaeological findings to confirm if. Now we can see remains of a 64 square meter house (almost 800 sq. feet) with 4 meter (about 13 feet) high walls. The walls are hewn limestone and very thick—about a meter. The builders used the header and stretcher construction distinctive to the Hasmonean period.

Aviv mentioned that even more remarkable findings have been uncovered. He hinted that artifacts from the First Temple period may have been found. But archaeology is like any other science. No one makes their findings public until a third party verifies it and it is  published in a peer reviewed journal. So all we know is that fairly soon remarkable discoveries will be announced. Aviv is very excited about them. Now that we know to watch for it, we are too.