Archaeologists Solve Mystery of 2,700-year-old Fortress in Tel Aviv

Ancient fortress at Tell Qudadi at the mouth of the Yarkon River wasn't Israelite after all, say modern archaeologists who reopened old data.

Ran Shapira
Ran Shapira
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Tell Qudadi (pronounced Koo-daddy) is the stony bit featuring brush surrounded by the wooden planks of the Tel Aviv boardwalk. Some of the tell is covered over and some has apparently washed out to sea over the years. The white monument squatting on the tell was taken from the nearby archaeological site of Apollonia-Arsuf.
Tell Qudadi, the stony bit featuring brush surrounded by the wooden planks of the Tel Aviv boardwalk, by the Reading power station.Credit: Oren Tal
Ran Shapira
Ran Shapira

Only in Israel would a major power station be built around an ancient stone fortress dating back thousands of years.

Such is the case of the Reading Power Station, on the northern bank of the Yarkon River mouth in Tel Aviv, and right by the city's boardwalk. The fortress was first excavated almost a century ago, but its story – who built it, when and why, had remained unknown. Now Israeli archaeologists have a new theory for Tell Qudadi (pronounced "koo-daddy"), and it is differs dramatically from the initial interpretations of the findings.

"A few years ago we were talking about it. Maybe it was over a beer in the Tel Aviv Port next door," says Dr. Alexander Fantalkin, of the Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures, Tel Aviv University. Thusly Fantalkin and his partner to the conversation, Prof. Oren Tal, decided to reopen the old research on Qudadi.

Although the Turkish army actually used the ancient mound as a stronghold against Allied forces in 1917, the site was only recognized as an antiquities site in 1934, when the remains of the fort were discovered by J. Ory of the Department of Antiquities of the Mandatory Government of Palestine. (Today the site features an inscribed marble column which was taken from the nearby archaeological site of Apollonia-Arsuf, twelve kilometers north, to mark the famous battle from World War I, known as the crossing of the Auja - today the Yarkon River.)

Phoenician pillars in an Iron Age citadel

Enter the Russian-born Zionist Pyotr ("Pinchas") Rutenberg, the legendary founder of the Palestine Electricity Cooperation, the predecessor of the Israel Electric Company. Some years before Israel's establishment, he decided Tel Aviv needed a power station, which it arguably did. The result was the Reading Station, but before it could be built, a salvage excavation had to be conducted, which Rutenberg financed. That was done in 1937 and 1938.

During that preliminary dig in October 1937, Philip Langstaffe Ord Guy of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem found a stone wall reinforced by Phoenician-style dressed piers. A month later, some of the founders of the Israeli archaeology – Prof. Eleazar Sukenik, Prof. Shmuel Yeivin, and Prof. Nachman Avigad of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem – started an extensive excavation, which was concluded on Mach 1938.

It was the first archaeological excavation anywhere in Tel Aviv, but the findings were published only in a very preliminary form. It is only now, almost 80 years later, after Fantalkin and Tal dug into excavators' diaries and notes and studied the rich ceramic assemblages their predecessors had recovered, that we have a real idea who lay behind the ruins at Tell Qudadi.

What Sukenik, Yeivin and Avigad discovered was an Iron Age fortress. Actually, they found two, the "newer" one built on the older, original one. But most of their findings remained unpublished and unknown to the scholarly community.

Another dig, in 1941, found the foundation of the fortress. Some of the walls have survived to this day. They were made of kurkar (a brittle rock that is actually fossilized sand dunes). The maximum height surviving today is two meters, while the maximum width was around seven meters (around 23 feet).

Above the foundation, a row of rooms was built around a central courtyard (which is a common structure in both the ancient and modern Levant).

The excavators slightly disagreed on dating the earlier phase of the fortress. Yeivin estimated it was built in the 10th century BCE, some 3000 years ago, while Avigad believed it was built only in the 9th century BCE – about 2900 years.

As for the second phase of the fortress, kurkar stone battlements were found. The thickness of this wall was about 2.5 meters, and it rose more than 2 meters in height.

Sukenik, Yeivin and Avigad also found two burned layers which they believed to be associated with the second phase of the fortress, since they are above the rooms of the first fortress. They dated pottery found in the burnt layers to the end of the 9th and the early 8th centuries BCE.

In conclusion, the original excavators determined that the fortress belonged to the Israelite kingdom, and they attributed the destruction of its second phase to the campaign of the Assyrian conqueror Tiglath-Pileser III in 734 BCE.

File photo: An ISIS militant uses a power tool to destroy a winged-bull Assyrian protective deity at the Ninevah Museum in Mosul, Iraq.Credit: AP

Made in Lesbos

Fantalkin and Tal carefully reviewed the field notes of the original excavators, re-examined the ceramic finds from the fortress, which had been stored at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and came to totally different conclusions.

The pottery from both phases at Tell Qudadi had been brought to the fortress from various regions, some from Lebanon, others from the coastal area, from the Galilee, from the Shephelah and from the Negev. But all were from the time period dubbed the Iron Age IIB, which corresponds to the 8th and 7th centuries BCE – hundreds of years later than what Avigad, Yeivin and Sukenik had assumed.

This new theory is supported by a unique discovery from Tell Qudadi: a rather large fragment of an imported amphora (a vessel for liquid storage) which originated on the island of Lesbos in the Aegean Sea. The Lesbian amphora could be roughly dated to around 700 BCE, not before.

Likewise, an additional piece of imported Aegean pottery, found in the context of the second fortress, provides a secure date in the early 7th century BCE.

Broken pieces from the neck of a storage jar found at Tell Qudadi - that proved to have ben imported from Lesbos.Credit: Courtesy

Based on the pottery, the field notes of the excavators, and extensive knowledge regarding geopolitical developments that occurred at the Levant during the Iron Age IIB period, Fantalkin and Tal concluded that the Tell Qudadi fortress had first been built in the late 8th century BCE. It only functioned for about 100 years, over the time period corresponding to neo-Assyrian rule over the Levant.

Suggested reconstruction of the storage jar found at Tell Qudadi.Credit: Courtesy

The Neo-Assyrian Empire existed from 911 and 612 BCE, and from the second half of the 8th century BCE it rose to prominence as a vast – if relatively short-lived – regional power, gaining control over the Levant, including ancient Israel, and for some time even controlling Egypt. It covered all of today's Lebanon, Syria and Israel, vast swathes of Iraq, and reached as far east as the Persian Gulf. (Much evidence of the Assyrian and neo-Assyrian culture in Mesopotamia has recently been destroyed by ISIS.)

The Qudadi fortress was built in a strategic location, on the mouth of the Yarkon, the largest of the coastal rivers. It was also strategically situated on the main maritime and coastal route linking Phoenicia and Egypt.

The pottery assemblages discovered at the fortress and their date imply, according to Fantalkin and Tal, that the fortress was part of a logistical network of fortresses and administrative structures the Neo-Assyrian rulers built along the coast (using local labor, most likely). The citadel at Tell Qudadi evidently served as a sort of hub, storing foodstuffs and the like, which were then supplied to other neo-Assyrian strongholds inland and along the coast.

Tell Qudadi may have served as an administrative center, playing an important role in the routing of maritime commerce and its concomitant taxes that were collected by Assyrian representatives, Fantalkin and Tal also believe. It also provided services to other settlements and fortresses situated along the banks of the Yarkon River, including Tell Qasile, Tel Gerisa, Tell Abu Zetiun, and perhaps Tel Aphek.

The researchers presented their conclusions about the site, its foundation and its role, at a special conference on March 10, organized by Tel Aviv University and the Israel Antiquities Authority.

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