A City of Stature in Days of Old

About two weeks before the end of the last excavation season at Tel Hatzor, in July, a clay tablet with hieroglyphic was found. The tablet teaches how to forecast the future with an animal liver, a practice common in the ancient East.

The priests would examine the liver of an animal that had been sacrificed to the gods and use it to predict the future. The tablet found at Hatzor has not yet been deciphered, but its hieroglyphics are reminiscent of the style of early documents from the ancient kingdom of Mari on the Euphrates, in what is today Syria. Mari was an important political center during the Middle Bronze Age, in the years 2000-1500 B.C.E., and Hatzor was the only city in the Land of Israel that had connections with it at that time.

The ties between the two cities were described in 20 documents found in an archive in Mari. The documents from Mari address the importance of Hatzor, the commercial caravans that passed through it, the emissaries sent there and the musicians and singers who lived there. In the 18th century B.C.E., Hatzor underwent a process of expansion and growth. The city was apparently founded at the end of the Early Bronze Age, in the third millenium B.C.E., on the upper part of what is now the tel.

A terrible fire

Excavations in the 1950s and 1960s uncovered findings that testified to Hatzor's strong ties with its northern neighbors, and its significant role in the culture of northern Canaan. Hatzor's influence encouraged residents of the northern Land of Israel to move there; the city expanded onto the northern slopes of the tel and spread out over the entire area between the tel and the Hatzor River. In its heyday, the city covered about 800 dunams and the number of residents at that time, in the Middle and Late Bronze Ages, stood at 15,000-20,000.

The city was one of the most important not only in the northern part of the Land of Israel but in the entire Middle East. It was surrounded by a large rampart and wall, which were uncovered during excavations by Professor Yigael Yadin. The findings uncovered in site digs testify to its comprehensive ties not only with Mari but also with Egypt, the Hittite kingdom, Babylon, Crete, Greece and Cyprus. It is therefore not surprising that in the description of the conquest of the city in the Book of Joshua, it is written: "Because Hatzor before times was the head of all those kingdoms" (Joshua 10:11).

In addition to the large area that the city occupied, the buildings that were excavated also bear testimony to Hatzor's importance. The team, headed Professor Amnon Ben-Tor, has been digging at the site since 1990 and has uncovered large areas of the royal compound on the acropolis. The Hatzor excavations in honor of Prof. Yadin, supported by the Saltz Fund, are being carried out by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's archaeological institute, under the auspices of the Israel Biblical and Archaeological Society.

On the slope facing the lower city, close to the stairs which linked it with the upper city, a monumental building from the Late Bronze Age was uncovered. The building was constructed from polished basalt stones and large, chiseled lime stones.

Some of the basalt stones were used to pave the approaches to the building where a ritual dais was located, made of smoothed basalt stones. The dais itself consists of one basalt tablet weighing about two tons in which four indentations were made; researchers at the site believe they may have served to hold the legs of a throne on which the king sat or on which a statue of the god was placed. So far, there is no proof of either.

Another monumental building, found in the upper reaches of the city, dates to the Late Bronze Age. This was a palace in which yet another ritual dais was found - in the courtyard, close to the gate. The walls of the palace were built of bricks and their foundations were layered with polished basalt stones on top of which cedar beams were placed. In this palace, parchments with hieroglyphics were found, as well as stone statues, bronze and jewelry. Recently, a stone statue with Egyptian writing was also found.

Ben-Tor and his colleague at the site, Dr. Sharon Zuckerman, believe that the building in the upper city was a palace that served the kings of Canaanite Hatzor for ceremonies and rituals. The building has been covered in recent years to protect it from the vagaries of weather during excavations. Both monumental buildings on the tel were destroyed, along with other public buildings in the lower city, during a giant fire in the 13th century B.C.E. Judging by the findings - bricks melted into glass, clay vessels that melted, wooden beams turned to ash - the fire was fed by the large quantities of olive oil apparently kept in the palace, as well as by strong winds and wood in the walls. The temperature is believed to have reached 1,300 degrees Celsius.

A controversial question is who was responsible for that terrible fire. Yadin believed it was the tribes of Israel under the leadership of Joshua, who conquered the land at that time.

Ben-Tor tends to accept Yadin's viewpoint by a process of elimination: Hatzor's strength and status during the Late Bronze Age and the fortifications around it make it seem unreasonable that one of its neighbors attacked it and overcame it.

Outside forces, like the Egyptian empire, are reasonable candidates for the conquest of Hatzor, but there is no Egyptian document from the middle of the 13th century B.C.E. that depicts such an event. The seafaring nations that settled on the southern coast and in the coastal plain did not get so far north. On the other hand, an Egyptian document dating to the end of 13th century B.C.E. suggests that at that time there was an ethnic entity in the Land of Israel that the Egyptians called "Israel." For that reason, one should not dismiss those matters simply because they are written in the Bible, says Ben-Tor.

Where is the archive?

After the destruction, Hatzor was relinquished for a period of 100-150 years. The settlement at the site was reestablished during the Iron Age, in the 11th century B.C.E., but only in the upper city. The lower city was not resettled. The settlement at the start of the Iron Age was small and sparse. Most of the remnants from this period, some of which were uncovered this year, include thin walls with dozens of holes, whose purpose is not clear, which were filled with ashes and clay vessels. In two places on the tel, the remnants of ritual facilities were found that include monuments of basalt.

A hundred years later, during the unified kingdoms of David and Solomon, Hatzor once again assumed the status of an important city. The findings reveal that the city's homes were to be found only in the western part of the upper city, but they lend support also to the biblical account suggesting Hatzor was part of King Solomon's construction projects.

In Yadin's time, a gate with six cubicles was uncovered: two rows of three rooms, with a passage between them. Two towers flanked the gate. A fortified barrier ran alongside the gate - made from two walls, an exterior and an interior one, with divisions between the two that divided the space into cells, also dated to the same period.

An expansive living area, on whose floors were found instruments dating to the 10th century B.C.E., adjoined this wall by paving. Thus, the entire entity is dated to the 10th century B.C.E., the time of the unified kingdom.

Gates that strongly resemble the gate unearthed at Hatzor have been found at Tel Megiddo and Tel Gezer, which strengthens the assessment that all three were part of Solomon's construction enterprise, as Yadin suggested in the 1950s. "And this is the reason of the levy which King Solomon raised; for to build the House of the Lord, and his own house, and Millo, and the wall of Jerusalem, and Hatzor and Megiddo and Gezer." (I Kings, 9:15)

In the ninth century B.C.E., at the time of Ahab, the city doubled in size and a new wall was built, which defined the upper city area. An impressive water system was established as well as a fortress and storerooms. The city was in existence also in the eighth century B.C.E. and remnants of houses and facilities from that period were also uncovered in recent excavations.

In the coming seasons, Ben-Tor and Zuckerman are planning to dig under the houses close to the northern slope of the tel, in search of concrete evidence to prove the assumptions about the earlier layers from the Iron Age and the Bronze Age. They are hoping to find the Canaanite administrative palace and the archive of Hatzor, both of which the archaeologists have been seeking since they returned to the site.

There were also signs of destruction among the remnants of the buildings at Hatzor from the Iron Age. Contrary to the destruction from the Late Bronze Age, there is no controversy about that from the Iron Age. All attribute it to the Assyrian king, Tiglath Pileser III, who conquered Hatzor and Megiddo in 732 B.C.E. and then overran the entire Galilee and coastal plain and exiled all their inhabitants. "In the days of Pekah, king of Israel, came Tiglath Pileser, king of Assyria, and took Ijon and Abelbethmaachah and Janoah and Kedesh and Hatzor and Gilead and Galilee, all the land of Naphtali, and carried them captive to Assyria." (II Kings 15:29).

Following the destruction by the Assyrians, Hatzor did not return to its former might. In the upper part of the city, fortresses were built during the Assyrian, Persian and Hellenistic periods but Hatzor lost importance. Hatzor is the site where the Bible says the decisive battle was waged which opened up the land to Israeli settlement and where the destruction of the kingdom of Israel also began some 500 years later.

Ben-Tor expresses regret that modern-day Israel does not give the site the importance it deserves. Even though Tel Hatzor is a national park, only a few people visit the site because of distance from the center of the country, among other reasons. Tel Hatzor is a site where it is possible to study so much, Ben-Tor said, about the biblical period and the history of the land of Israel during the Canaanite and Israelite periods.

Relative to its importance, the number of teachers, pupils and tourists that visit Hatzor is even smaller. The difficulty that Tel Hatzor has in finding a fitting place in public awareness is particularly obvious when one takes into consideration the fact that UNESCO has declared Hatzor a World Heritage site, together with Tel Megiddo and Tel Be' er Sheva (as well as the Spice Route through the Negev which is a separate World Heritage site).

The ceremony declaring the three archaeological tels as World Heritage sites was due to have taken place at Hatzor in March. It was canceled because of stormy weather and has not been rescheduled yet.