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:

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