Biblical Tels - Megiddo, Hazor, Beer Sheba

Since 2005 • Cultural

Tels (prehistoric settlement mounds), are characteristic of the flatter lands of the eastern Mediterranean, particularly Lebanon, Syria, Israel and eastern Turkey. Of more than 200 tels in Israel, Megiddo, Hazor and Beer Sheba are representative of those that contain substantial remains of cities with biblical connections. The three tels also present some of the best examples in the Levant of elaborate Iron Age, underground water-collecting systems, created to serve dense urban communities. Their traces of construction over the millennia reflect the existence of centralized authority, prosperous agricultural activity and the control of important trade routes.

The three tels (prehistoric settlement mounds) represent an interchange of human values throughout the ancient Near East, forged through extensive trade routes and alliances with other states and manifest in building styles which merged Egyptian, Syrian and Aegean influences to create a distinctive local style.

The tels are scattered across the State of Israel. Tel Hazor is in the north, 14 km north of the Sea of Galilee; Tel Megiddo is just north of where the Qishon River reaches its northernmost point; Tel Beer Sheba is to the north of the Negev Desert in the south of Israel. These are three of over 200 tels in Israel. Tels form a distinctive and prominent feature of comparatively flat landscape areas of the Levant - Israel, Lebanon, Syria and eastern Turkey. They represent large and multi-layered settlements, which persisted for several millennia. The tels have a characteristic shape, conical in profile with a flattish top. They reflect nucleated settlements that continued over time in one place, often because of the strategic advantages of the site in terms of communications and, more crucially, the availability of water supplies in what were fairly arid areas at certain times of year. This is supported by the impressive remain of their underground water catchment systems, which reflect sophisticated, and geographically responsive, engineering solutions to water storage.

A considerable number of the tels are the remains of cities and settlements mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible, revered by both Jews and Christians, and acknowledged in Islam as a fundamental source. It is for this reason that they are referred to as 'biblical' tels.

Tel Megiddo was one of the most powerful cities in Canaan and Israel, controlling the Via Maris the main international highway connecting Egypt to Syria, Anatolia and Mesopotamia. It is also mentioned once in the New Testament as Armageddon. Its 20 major strata contain the remains of around 30 different cities. During the Iron Age the water systems at Megiddo reached their most sophisticated phase. The water came from a spring at the foot of the mound, accessed by a concealed passageway from within the city under the city wall. In its final manifestation, the water system consisted of a cave hewn round the well, with an 80 m long aqueduct carrying water to the bottom of a vertical shaft in the city.

Tel Hazor is strategically sited at a major cross roads, dominating the trade and military. In the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC the whole enclosure of the lower city was enclosed by earthen ramparts, 9 m high, with a brick core and earthen outer skin and protected by a deep moat. There were at least two monumental gates. During the middle and late Bronze Age, several palaces and temples were erected in both the upper and lower city. In the first Israelite city, attributed to the time of King Solomon, there is a massive six chambered stone gate within a casemate wall encircling the western half of the tel. A noteworthy element is the water system built to supply the city's needs under siege. The late Bronze Age system consists of a 30 m descending tunnel leading to a trefoil-shaped cave and a vaulted corridor. The Iron Age system drew water from beneath the city: it consists of a 20 m vertical shaft, and a sloping 25 m tunnel with steps and a pool.

Tel Beer Sheba is at the intersection between roads leading north to mount Hebron. The main period represented in the tel was founded in the 9th century BC by the Judahite monarchy and then rebuilt three more times until its final destruction at the end of the 8th century. This very last Israelite city was destroyed in a fierce fire during the Assyrian campaign. Beer Sheba was a planned city rather than one that evolved gradually. The Iron Age plan has been nearthed almost in its entirety. The outline is oval, encircled by a wall and gate to the south. The city was divided into three blocks by peripheral streets and the residential quarters were of uniform size. All streets lead to a main city square. Beneath the city streets was an elaborate drainage system of plastered gutters that collected water from houses and channelled under the outer wall to a water cistern, outside the city. Notable structures were six storehouses and the Governor's Palace of three elongated halls and ancillary rooms. Beer Sheba had two water systems: a well outside the city wall and, within the city, a reservoir for times of siege. The well water was some 69 m below the surface.

Historical context

The early history for each of the three cities is covered above.

Tel Megiddo

Tel Megiddo has been excavated three times. The first work was from 1903-5 on behalf of the German Society for Oriental Research, the first major excavation of a biblical site. In 1925 the work was renewed by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. This major work persisted until 1939 and revealed most of the Iron Age site. In the 1960s and early 1970s a series of short excavations were carried out by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and since 1994 Tel Aviv University has been working there in alternate years, led by Professors Israel Finkelstein and David Ussishkin, reinvestigating former work to inform debates about the chronology of the Iron Age strata and the extent of King Solomon's kingdom.

Tel Hazor

The earliest excavation at Tel Hazor was carried out in 1928 by the Department of Antiquities of the British Mandate, but it was in the 1950s that the major excavation campaign was carried out under the leadership of Yigael Yadin of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Excavations were resumed in 1990 as a joint project of the Hebrew University and the Israel Exploration Society, with the object of identifying the extent of Solomon's city and checking earlier chronology.

Tel Beer Sheba

Tel Beer Sheba was excavated as part of a regional study in the 1960s, which continued until the 1970s. This excavation focused on Beer Sheba as part of a frontier area, which consisted of a collection of tels in the biblical "Negev".

Justification for being a World Heritage Site

Criterion (ii): The three tels represent an interchange of human values throughout the ancient near-east, forged through extensive trade routes and alliances with other states and manifest in building styles which merged Egyptian, Syrian and Aegean influences to create a distinctive local style.

Criterion (iii): The three tels are a testimony to a civilisation that has disappeared –that of the Cananean cities of the Bronze Age and the biblical cities of the Iron Age-, manifest in their expressions of creativity: town planning, fortifications, palaces, and water collection technologies.

Criterion (iv): The biblical cities exerted a powerful influence on later history through the biblical narrative.

Criterion (vi): The three tels, through their mentions in the Bible, constitute a religious and spiritual testimony of outstanding universal value.

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