7 Lesser-known Archaeology Sites in Israel

Archaeological sites in Israel you may not be aware of: An Assyrian stronghold in Tel Aviv port, the city that may or may not have been biblical Ziklag, where the Edomite gods met our Maker and more

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At the Byzantine-period Jewish settlement in Ein Keshatot
At the reconstructed Byzantine-period Jewish settlement in Ein Keshatot, Golan HeightsCredit: Gil Eliahu
Andrew Califf
Andrew Califf
Andrew Califf
Andrew Califf

Israel is a small country that has been trodden for more than 2 million years by humans and their predecessors. This land of clashes between human species and in more modern times, between religions, is the archaeologist’s dream but not all sites are equal, or equally accessible to visitors. Here are seven of some lesser-known sites in Israel, listed from north to south.

Ein Keshatot and the Torah ark

Ein Keshatot features the ruins of a Byzantine-period Jewish settlement abandoned after an earthquake in 749 C.E., and later obscured by an Arab village and a reconstructed ancient synagogue, one of the largest from the 5th century C.E. It is the only one known in the area of the Sea of Galilee and Golan Heights to be complete with a bima platform and Torah ark. The synagogue also had an upper level, unusual for the time and place.Situated in a shallow valley in the Golan, rows of columns guide visitors to the arches and vaults. The synagogue was built near a spring, giving the place the name Spring of Arches (Ein Keshatot). It seems the Jewish inhabitants of the village used the pools in the course of producing flax for textiles.

Ain KeshatotCredit: Gil Eliahu

Tel Qudadi: The Assyrian fortress and the power plant

Smack in the center of Tel Aviv Port is the ruin of an Assyrian fortress. It was built on the coast at the mouth of the Yarkon River and today is by a bustling pier and the Reading power station. One drawback is that most of it has been hidden by modernity, i.e.,: a boardwalk, but at least you can get a smoothie.

When first excavated in 1937, the structure was thought to have been built by the Israelites and its foundations were dated to the 10th-9th century B.C.E. (a span of dates due to a disagreement between the pair of lead excavators). Archaeologists assumed that it had been destroyed by the Assyrians led by Tiglath-Pileser III in 734 BCE, and then rebuilt by the Assyrians. But when analysis in 2016 of the previously excavated pottery showed all the pieces were from the Iron Age II (8th-7th centuries B.C.E.), archaeologists determined the site was not as old as previously thought and had been constructed by the Assyrians. Also, pottery originating in the Greek island of Lesbos has been found at this site, providing further indication of the extensive trading happening in the Mediterranean region in antiquity.

An Assyrian fort peeking through the boardwalk at Tel Aviv portCredit: Oren Tal

Khirbet el Rai, Ziklag to some

A site of potentially biblical fame is Khirbet el Rai, which some believe is the biblical city of Ziklag. Perched on a hill with a view of the Philistine city of Lachish, Khirbet el Rai seems to have been first occupied during the 12th and 11th centuries B.C.E. by Philistines. Aside from Philistine-style pottery, the site has yielded rare pieces of early Canaanite script, most notably an inscription on a sherd of jug potentially mentioning "Jerubbaal," associated with the biblical-era judge, Gideon. The piece was dated to the 11th century B.C.E. but it’s incomplete and not all agree what the letters actually are. However, a visit to the site won’t show you this controversial piece because its new home is a museum drawer.

Looking closely at a 3,100-year-old pottery sherd foung at Khirbet el-Ra'iCredit: Dafna Gazit, Israel Antiquities Authority

Many sites have been suggested as Ziklag, but the continuous settlement from the Philistine to the Judahite period supports the theory that Khirbet el Rai is the one, according to multiple archaeologists. According to the biblical tradition, David fled Judah in fear of King Saul, and the king of Gath offered Ziklag for his refuge. Archaeological evidence for a massive fire marking the transition to sparse putative Israelite habitation matches the biblical account of Ziklag’s destruction caused by the tribe of Amalek immediately preceding David’s coronation. This is the primary piece of evidence archaeologists are using to compete against the dozen other potential Ziklags.

At the site tentatively identified as Ziklag, by Kiryat GatCredit: MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP

Horvat Rehovot Ba Negev: Isaac woz ‘ere?

Water wells directed weary travelers through the arid desert, they dictated trade routes and Horvat Rehovot has a big one, supposedly dug by the legendary patriarch Isaac. Today a crumbling desert ruin, it was used both by Nabatean traders from at least 2,300 years ago through to the Byzantine Roman period. It is also considered to be the site of one of the biblical Rehoboths - the Bible mentions three different Rehoboths, and the only one with any substantial geographic information is where Isaac reportedly dug wells south west of Beer Sheva.

Less controversially, Horvat Rehovot Ba Negev experienced thriving periods of incense trade and transitioned to successful agriculture and wine production during the Byzantine period. The nature of the damage to the Byzantine structures, walls, arches and vaults, have provided valuable archaeoseismological data on the timing and intensity of earthquakes in southern Israel.

Horvat Rehovot BaNegev or Wadi er-RuheibehCredit: Uri Zakham

The site was abandoned in the Early Islamic period apparently after progressive desertification finally put paid to the local farmers, despite their remarkable irrigation and water-management systems. The desertification during this period is associated with heavy monsoon seasons over east Africa increasing the amount of sediments eroded and carried away by the Nile into the Mediterranean. These deposited sediments along the coast of Israel and Sinai were then blown inland threatening agricultural centers like Horvat Rehovot.

Shivta: The ‘Face of Jesus’

Shivta was a stop on the Nabatean trade network, bringing spice to the ports at Gaza and Jaffa. But the main attractions today are ruins from the Byzantine period , which were recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005. Despite the arid environs, Shivta had been a major center for wine production in the Byzantine period, and was a sizable settlement before its decline around the Early Islamic period. Excavations have found three Byzantine churches, and some even have traces of art remaining on their rough walls, one mural showing none other than the face of Jesus, according to Israeli art historian Emma Maayan-Fanar.

Mural at Shivta possibly showing the face of Jesus as imagined a few centuries after the eventCredit: Dror Maayan
ShivtaCredit: Dror Maayan

There is another purported picture of Jesus in another church in Shivta, but both are heavily weathered. Though of course they would have been painted centuries after Jesus’ death, and are therefore not considered to have any accuracy, if Jesus they show – they’re among the oldest visages of him in Israel, the earliest is currently thought to be in Syria.

During the Islamic period following the Byzantine period, a mosque was built next to one of the churches, which some archaeologists think demonstrates peaceful coexistence between Christian and Islamic communities. Others suggest that the mosques repurposed some of the church stone bricks, intentionally placing Christian symbols where they would be trodden upon, and therefore disrespected. The truth is out there but we don’t know what it was.

Ein Hatzeva: Trashing the Edomite gods

Low rough stone walls in the Arava Valley are all that remain of an Israelite fortress along a crucial trade route to Eilat, and the border between Judah and the Negev to the west and the kingdom of Edom to the east. Ein Hatzeva is believed to date to the 10th century B.C.E., the time of the legendary King Solomon, and remained in use for over a thousand years, until the Roman Byzantine period.

HatzevaCredit: Bukvoed

The site features a cache of Edomite artifacts in a trash pit and the remains of an Edomite temple. That has led archaeologists to surmise it was occupied by Edomites, or alternatively, that the governing Judean powers allowed the Edomite religion to be celebrated at the site – at least until the 7th century B.C.E., approximately when King Josiah is believed to have enacted the stern reforms mentioned in the Bible.

No other Edomite cultic artifacts were discovered outside the garbage pit. All the anthropomorphic figures, altars, incense burners and other cultic objects had been smashed and destroyed, leading archaeologists to suggest the destruction is associated with the Deuteronomic reforms reportedly executed by Josiah, which started in Jerusalem and then ended up ridding the whole kingdom of cultic and pagan objects and altars. In fact the crackdown is believed to be why Edomite cultic vessels are so rare in Judah’s archaeological record.

Ein Hatzeva may have been the biblical city of Tamar, some archaeologists suggest. The ruins have been dated to the 10th century B.C.E., theoretically the time of King Solomon, and excavation has found early fortified periods. Clearly the strategic location was used militarily throughout almost its entire history, first by Israelites and Judeans, then by Nabateans and finally by the Romans. During the Roman period, it was part of a chain of fortresses between the Negev and Jordan Valley that protected trade caravans from nomadic bandits.

Har Karkom, a prehistoric gallery

This mountaintop gallery of petroglyphs lies deep in the Negev and when the Israeli army closes Route 10 along the Israel-Egypt border, which happens a lot, it’s only accessible by jeep. Dating petroglyphs is all but impossible, but the slopes have yielded Paleolithic tools; and it is theorized to have been a ceremonial center for worship.

Some potentially biblical petroglyphs and a trick of the light which creates, in some eyes, a “burning bush” effect led archaeologist Emmanual Anati to argue that Mt Karkom is the biblical Mt. Sinai. It is not a widely accepted theory.

Petroglyphs in Negev, Mt KarkomCredit: Moshe Gilad
Petroglyphs at Mt KarkomCredit: Moshe Gilad

Sinai or not, Karkom has hundreds of sites suggesting habitation, thousands of rock engravings, burials, altars, standing stone shrines and geoglyphs. The geoglyph patterns are some of the most impressive in Israel and Karkom has the largest collection of rock art. These ancient images range in variety from zoomorphic to abstract. ibexes, camels, scorpions, snakes next to staffs, eyes, and either the Ten Commandments or an early version of tic-tac-toe are just some of the petroglyphs on the mountain.

Anati thought the snake and staff and “commandments substantiate his Mt. Sinai claim. Such abstract images and some zoomorphic symbols may once have been associated with ritual, but nothing whatsoever is known about these ceremonies. The inability to date these images also leaves a veil of mystery hanging over the barren site, leaving only one fact crystal clear: this site used to be a hub of artistic expression.

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