Israeli Soldiers Dig Up Watchtower From King Hezekiah’s Time in Their Firing Zone

Somewhere by an army base in southern Israel, 2,800 years ago, Judahite soldiers could keep an eye on the Philistines, and communicate by smoke and fire

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Base of 2,800-year old watchtower that probably stood 2 stories high
Base of 2,800-year old watchtower that probably stood 2 stories highCredit: Valdik Lifshitz
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Israeli paratroopers working under the guidance of archaeologists have excavated the ruins of a watchtower from King Hezekiah's time that was discovered inside their firing zone, the groups involved in the archaeological exploration announced Wednesday.

The latter-day army base with its newly unearthed 2,800-year-old watchtower are somewhere in southern Israel. The army won't say exactly where, disclosing only that it's on "a high geographic site". Israel doesn’t have Himalayan peaks, so this was a hilltop, which suits the interpretation that the edifice was used as a watchtower and means of communication by beacons – smoke by day and fire at night - between the border of the Kingdom of Judah and far-off Jerusalem, from which the king reigned.

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The tower was massive. Estimated to measure at five by 3.5 meters at its base, the ruins of its walls rise as high as two meters. The stone blocks used in construction had been monumental, weighing as much as eight tons.

Based on the sheer dimensions of the base, the original structure had likely been as much as four meters high, meaning two stories, says Sa’ar Ganor, who along with Valdik Lifshitz is co-director of the excavation on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority. This also lends credence to the thesis that it had been a watchtower from which the soldiers could monitor the surrounding areas, and communicate with other bases and with Jerusalem.

Massive stones at the base of a watchtower from King Hezekian's time, excavated by soldiersCredit: Valdik Lifshitz

The bible itself mentions the use of beacons (or "pillars") to communicate between military forces, albeit couched in slightly more romantic terms:

“The Israelites had arranged with the ambush that they should send up a great cloud of smoke from the city, and then the Israelites would counter attack. The Benjamites had begun to inflict casualties on the Israelites…But when the column of smoke began to rise from the city, the Benjamites turned and saw the whole city going up in smoke” (Judges 20: 38-40).

The tower has a crucial view of the Hebron hills, the Judean plain and a clear view of Ashkelon, said Ganor. “King Hezekiah was sitting in Jerusalem. How could he control his boundary? By placing watchtowers with beacons in the hills, that would monitor the area around him and report back,” he elaborated.

The tower’s dating is based on pottery found on the base, which is characteristic of the late 8th century B.C.E., which was during the reign of King Hezekiah, Ganor told Haaretz. “I found similar things in Lachish, in the part of the city destroyed by the Assyrian king Sennacherib in the year 701 B.C.E.”

The project was conducted under the aegis of the "Nature Defense Forces - Commanders Take Responsibility for their Environment" project, an initiative undertaken by the Israeli army’s Technology and Maintenance Corps. Participants included but were not confined to the army itself, the Defense Ministry, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Antiquities Authority.

Paratroopers working with archaeologists, excavating a 2,800-year-old watchtowerCredit: Valdik Lifshitz

Keeping up with the Philistines

How do we know the site was Judahic, and not part of the Philistine war machine? Ganor lists the reasons, one being that such watchtowers were scattered throughout the border area in Judah from this time, and this one was inside the area known to belong to the Kingdom of Judah, not a Philistine-ruled province.

Also, the Philistines pottery is unmistakable and this wasn’t it: “The pottery found on the base was typical of Judah,” Ganor says. “Clearly the people using the tower were Judahic soldiers, not Philistines.”

As said, the tower had a clear view of the coastal city of Ashkelon, which was a stronghold of archenemy Philistines. “In the days of the First Temple, the Kingdom of Judah built a range of towers and fortresses as points of communication, warning and signaling, to transmit messages and field intelligence,” Ganor says. This tower is likely one of these observation towers.

More evidence of the ancient use of fire and smoke beacons appears in a letter inscribed on clay, found at the biblical city of Lachish. The letter ends: “May Yahweh cause my lord to hear reports of good news this very day …. Then it will be known that we are watching the (fire) signals of Lachish according to the code which my lord gave us, for we cannot see Azekah.”

This letter clearly shows that the existence of the beacons and a language of fire and smoke signals were part of the Judahic defense system in the Iron Age. If so, such towers should abound. But isolated edifices like watchtowers are not a priority in archaeological circles, Ganor explains. Archaeologists would naturally prefer big splashy sites. In a sense, the serendipitous juxtaposition of this military ruin with present-day paratroopers with time on their hands enabled this rare excavation to be pursued.

The bible tells that Sennacherib rolled over 46 cities and 2,000 villages and farms, destroying almost all of Judah – but not Jerusalem. Why the Assyrians, known for their might and their cruelty, did not raze the city and take their revenge against the capital of the truculent vassal kingdom of Judah is a matter of speculation. One theory is that Jerusalem was saved by rodents who infected the Assyrians with plague. Another is that the terrified Hezekiah bribed them richly to spare him and the city. But the watchtower, by that time, was gone.

One lesson we can learn from this ruin dating to our distant origins is that some things never change. Our means of communication have improved, but to this day soldiers watch the enemy from watchtowers, and enemy soldiers back. Aside from alleviating the tedium, this knowledge gave the latter-day soldiers who excavated the site a sense of continuity. They identified with their ancestors who manned this watchtower.

“The archaeological excavation was a routine break from my point of view,” admitted second lieutenant Roi Ofir, commander of the recruit team of the Paratroopers Brigade Reconnaissance Battalion. “The connection to the land, and the fact that there were Jewish fighters [here] in the past, gave me a sense of purpose.”

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