Is This Where the Israelites Camped on Their Way to Canaan 3,200 Years Ago?

Stone structures found in the Jordan Valley wasteland may have been erected by the Israelites crossing, very slowly, into Canaan, archaeologists postulate

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Exposed structures at Khirbet el-Mastarah
Exposed structures at Khirbet el-Mastarah: Any pottery that might have been inside the structures could have been washed awayCredit: The Jordan Valley Excavation Project

How did ancient Israel come to be? Did the early Israelites reach Canaan from the eastern wilderness by crossing the Jordan River opposite Jericho, as the Book of Joshua says? Or did the Israelites originate in Canaan in the first place, as part of the indigenous population?

No archaeological evidence has ever been found of the migration of the Israelites from the wilderness of Sinai via the Jordan Valley to the fertile land of Canaan, as described in the Bible. Nor has evidence of the pitched battles the Israelites were said to have had, as described by the Prophet Joshua, with the locals, whether in Jericho or elsewhere.

It is not odd that a migrating people would not leave evidence behind. By definition, nomads travel light and don’t build permanent structures. Except that some of the Middle Eastern ones did exactly that – live in tents themselves, but make stone fencing for their beasts. Today’s Bedouin tend to do the same thing.

And now archaeologists are excavating strange ruins previously found in inhospitable parts of the Jordan Valley, hoping to prove or disprove the theory suggested by the late archaeologist Prof. Adam Zertal of Haifa University: That the stone structures found there were erected by the ancient Israelites as they slowly crossed into Canaan 3,200 years ago.

Interestingly, if the Israelites did build these structures, they may have done so not to shelter themselves but their livestock, says Prof. David Ben-Shlomo of Ariel University.

A horrible place to live

The Jordan Valley is a stretch along the Dead Sea Transform, the yawning crack in the earth formerly known as the Great Rift Valley. Stretching over 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the Dead Sea to the Sea of Galilee, the valley is long, narrow, deep – and hot and dry. One side of the valley is in Israel and the West Bank, the other in Jordan.

This is not an inviting place to live on a permanent basis. Temperatures in the Jordan Valley can easily reach 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) in the summer and annual rainfall is wretched, at 100 to 200 millimeters (4 to 8 inches) a year.

Archaeologists therefore assumed that, given other options, people would not choose to settle in the Jordan Valley, except in spots fed by oases like Jericho – which is one of the oldest-known cities in the world. But north of it is precious little settled life, because the conditions are so nasty.

Yet a meticulous survey of 1,000 square miles of the western part of the valley, headed by Zertal and his team from 1978 onward, found the remains of hundreds of ancient settlements in the Jordan Valley. (One seems to be shaped like a foot, with toes and all.)

Of the hundreds, Zertal estimated that about 70 had been erected in the early Iron Age. That is, about 3,200 years ago, which is when the ancient Israelites were said to have been led by the Prophet Joshua from the wilderness to fertile Canaan, where summer temperatures were more likely to be in the 30s.

Khirbet el-Mastarah: Could have provided convenient place to rest for a whole people on the moveCredit: The Jordan Valley Excavation Project

No signs of the builders’ identity have been found as yet. The only reasons to associate the structures in the bitterly inhospitable valley with the ancient Israelites are their location and the estimated timing of their erection.

But Ben-Shlomo and Ralph K. Hawkins of Averett University, Virginia, are continuing where Zertal left off: they are excavating the sites, hoping to find more clues to their provenance and use.

They began with a large and very strange settlement called Khirbet el Mastarah (which could be loosely translated as “hidden ruins”).

While today the only sign of life there is the occasional Bedouin shepherd passing by with their herd, Mastarah seems to have once housed a large Iron Age village, says Ben-Shlomo.

It is the oddity of the settlement’s location that begs thoughts about its founders.

A small structure excavated at Khirbet el-Mastarah with walls made of standing stones: Maybe it corralled the ancient Israelites' domestic animalsCredit: The Jordan Valley Excavation Project

And how exactly does a significant village with stone houses square with the idea that the builders were a people on the move?

Strangely empty structures

The ancient mound of Jericho (Tell e-Sultan): It was built on a water source and there's precious little settlement in the arid wastes to the north of it in the Jordan ValleyCredit: The Jordan Valley Excavation Project

Khirbet el Mastarah is 8 kilometers north of Jericho and 2 kilometers from the outlet of a spring named 'Uja (or 'Auja). The whole Jordan Valley area north of Jericho is pretty miserable, says Ben-Shlomo: No reason for people to have decided to spend their lives eking out a living there. So there were few “fixed” towns. Yet one was Mastarah.

The mysteries at Mastarah are multiple. One is that it wasn’t built by a spring, as far as we can tell, yet seems to have developed into a respectable hamlet, some 2.5 acres square.

An aerial view of an early Iron Age site in the Jordan Valley found by Prof. Adam Zertal, nicknamed ‘Sandal’ site due to the shape of its confining wall: A sign of the Israelite crossing into Canaan?Credit: The Jordan Valley Excavation Project

A second oddity is that no sign of human habitation was found inside the stone structures, with the exception of grain grinding stones that could have been placed there later, or kept there.

What few pottery sherds were found lay outside the structures – which is spectacularly unhelpful to archaeologists trying to date a site. “Maybe somebody came by 1,000 years later and left them there,” Ben-Shlomo points out.

The archaeologists are, therefore, tapping other advanced techniques to date the site: they sampled soil beneath the walls to test with optically stimulated luminescence analysis – a technology used to date ancient materials based on the buildup of electrons that get trapped over the years and are released by exposure to light – and expect to get the findings in some months.

In normal towns, broken pottery sherds are found inside the houses, not outside. Yet that anomaly could be explained in a number of ways.

A domestic structure at the site of Uja el-Foqa, near Khirbet el-MastarahCredit: The Jordan Valley Excavation Project

The less likely possibility is theft over the generations since the town’s abandonment: robbing sites of antiquity goes back to, well, antiquity. However, Ben-Shlomo points out that thieves might steal whole pots but wouldn’t help themselves to fragments. Those would have remained behind.

A second possibility is that the pottery remains were washed away: a hot dry valley area is a recipe for flash flooding and the ruins had been on the surface, not buried under sand, the archaeologist notes.

A third possibility is that the structures were occupied by people for a short time, which fits with the theory of a migratory people taking a break for a decade or two.

A fourth possibility is that stone structures were for the animals, while the people themselves, as befits nomads, lived in tents.

The archaeologists hope to see whether the “homes” actually housed goats and the like by chemical analysis of the ground inside. Theoretically, if dung had accrued in them, the ground will, even thousands of years later, be richer in phosphorus.

There is precedence. Ancient and modern Near Eastern Bedouin, who tended to nomadic lifestyles, also seem to have lived in tents but to have housed their animals in stone compounds – to protect their precious livestock from rustlers.

But Mastarah’s key anomaly is where it was built. It nestles between a small hill to the south and the foothills in the northwest. It was built on a low spur 40 meters below sea level between two small tributaries of Wadi Nabiris, which is now dry.

In short, the settlement was topographically isolated. Its very name, Mastarah, means “hidden” in both Arabic and Hebrew.

Locating a new settlement not adjacent to a water source or a main land route and concealed from its surroundings is highly unusual. It could imply its inhabitants were a new population in the region, possibly hiding from a local hostile population.

The Jordan River, in the Jordan Valley, near the modern Abdallah Bridge: Away from water, the land is inhospitableCredit: The Jordan Valley Excavation Project

So it is possible that the ancient Israelites did come from the wilderness, did cross the Jordan Valley – and then stayed awhile, Ben-Shlomo explains. While the environs were not paradisal, at least there were not many people. The weary Israelites could rest, even for a generation or two, build up strength and then continue on.

Fortified city on a hilltop

Next year, the researchers plan to excavate the nearby site of ‘Uja el-Foqa, which lies on a prominent hill overlooking the Jericho Valley, from which the 'Uja spring can be controlled, Ben-Shlomo says.

The survey showed the site to be fortified, meaning it had strong syrrounding walls designed to drive any besieging enemy to despair. It has been dated it to the Iron Age as well – around 1,000 to 586 or 587 B.C.E. It seems to have had at least two phases of occupation.

'Uja el-Foqa has dozens of structures, some up to two meters in height, as well as a casemate wall. The ancient town could reasonably have been a regional administrative center for the Kingdom of Judah, since it controls an important water source and is one of the only large fortified sites from this period in the region.

Based on its location, Zertal suspected that 'Uja el-Foqa was the biblical town of Ataroth, which is mentioned in the description of the Manasseh-Ephraim boundary in Joshua 16:5 (note, tellingly, that it is on a hilltop and the Hebrew word ateret means “crown”).

“We plan a large-scale excavation of the site and will try to examine the nature of the site, it inhabitants, and the date of its founding, and to determine whether it could also be linked to the early Israelite settlement of the region in biblical times,” Ben-Shlomo says.

Thus, the answer to the puzzle of early Israelite origins may yet remain hidden in the sands.


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