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The Early Bronze Age temple was initially discovered at Tel Megiddo a decade ago. When part of it was first unearthed in 1996, the researchers realized this was a very impressive structure. Since then, evidence accumulated supporting the estimated dimensions: In 2000, two large column bases were excavated.

Then last summer, most of the structure was excavated, and the researchers were surprised. The temple, it emerged, was built on a larger area than had been previously assumed, and is an artful construction of excellent materials.

Based on pottery shards and carbon-14 dating of olive pits found on the temple floor, the building was constructed shortly before the year 3000 B.C.E., during the Early Bronze Age. To date, it is the largest and most splendid structure of its sort to be found in the Near East.

The directors of the dig, Professor David Ussishkin and Professor Yisrael Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University's archaeology institute, say the building and its surroundings are the earliest evidence of urbanization in the region.

Two of the compound's walls - the facade and the rear walls - are well-preserved. The front wall is four meters thick. The rear walls of the temple compound are about 50 meters long. The stones of one of the side walls were stolen back in ancient times, and another wall has been deemed unlikely to be located.

In the hall between the walls, excavators found three pairs of large, well-worked basalt stones. In the hall's center sits a pair of round basalt stones, and two pairs of squared stones lie to the sides. In addition, smaller pieces of lesser-quality limestone were discovered in the center of the hall. The researchers are uncertain whether the basalt stones formed the bases of wooden columns or served as altars.

The site offers much evidence of animal sacrifices: Thousands of animal bones were found on the floors and in the corridors. The large number of bones and the monumental size of the structure led the researchers to conclude it was a temple. Dr. Paula Wapnish of Pennsylvania State University examined the bones and found that most came from sheep and cattle - domesticated animals. Only a few came from hunted animals.

During the period of the temple, says Finkelstein, the cultures throughout the Near East were taking first steps toward urbanization. Large central settlements arose around the rulers' dwellings, surrounded by smaller, agricultural communities. In recent years, evidence of monumental construction and central settlements of this sort has been found not far from Megiddo at Tel Rehov, near Beit She'an, and at Beit Yareah, near Lake Kinneret. But these are from later periods, and no structures equivalent in size to the one at Megiddo have been found.

To erect such a monumental structure, a very large workforce of laborers, planners, engineers, stoneworkers and artisans would have been needed, as well as a centralized government that controlled the area where all these professionals lived and could provide considerable material resources for the construction.

Finkelstein explains that the temple was built on the northern slope of the hill at Tel Megiddo. To construct such a large building on a slope, large quantities of earth had to be moved to level the area. Such an action could not have been accomplished without a strong central government. Such a government was also needed to transport the large basalt stones, which are not part of Megiddo's natural landscape.

The construction workers apparently lived in a community very close to Megiddo. A survey near the tel revealed that the territory to the west is sown with pottery shards from the period when the temple was built. An examination with the help of a magnometer, an apparatus used to find buried man-made structures, has revealed that during the Early Bronze Age, there was a settlement there on about 500 dunams of land, making it the Near East's largest settlement during that period. The monumental temple was built on the highest point at the edge of the settlement, like the acropolis in the city-states of Greece and throughout the East, and the inhabitants lived around it.

Apparently the rulers of Megiddo did not rely only on manpower from the city. This is evidenced by an extensive survey researchers conducted throughout the western Jezreel Valley, at the foot of the Carmel Mountain. They found an unparalleled flourishing of settlements dating to the period of the temple. Professor Arlene Rosen of the University of London, who specializes in climate research, found that at the end of the 4th century B.C.E. the conditions in the Jezreel Valley were well-suited to agriculture: a lot of rainfall, springs for irrigating fields and fertile soil.

However, in addition to the attractive conditions that drew people to the region, there was another factor that probably led to the temple's downfall: Tel Megiddo, says Finkelstein, sits on a geologic fault. The archaeological findings show the temple was abandoned at some stage, but there is no evidence of a fire or other violent event.

Geologists Dr. Shmuel Marco of Tel Aviv University and Professor Amotz Agnon of the Hebrew University have found evidence of a very strong earthquake that damaged the site, leading the inhabitants to abandon it. Megiddo was resettled, to a lesser extent, only 200 years later. These later inhabitants established new temples at the tel that were in operation until the end of the second millennium B.C.E.