Discovery Sheds Light on Ancient Jerusalem Under the Assyrians

The Kingdom of Judah administered the land from a monumental center at Jerusalem's Ramat Rahel. Now another has been found at Mordot Arnona. Why did it need two?

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
The Mordot Arnona site in southeastern Jerusalem.
The Mordot Arnona site in southeastern Jerusalem.Credit: Assaf Peretz / IAA
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

From humble beginnings as a city-state in the Bronze Age, the Assyrian empire began to emerge in the 14th century B.C.E. Its fortunes would wax and wane, but in the ninth century B.C.E. a new expansion phase began.

In about 745 B.C.E., under the legendary Tiglath-Pileser III, Assyrian forces roared out of north Mesopotamia, gaining sway over the Kingdom of Judah and subsequently rolling over the northern Kingdom of Israel and kicking out its people – thus creating the legend of the lost 10 tribes.

Beginning with the rule of the Judahite king Ahaz, no later than 732 B.C.E., Judah was a loyal vassal kingdom of the Assyrian empire and, as such, faithfully kept their overlords sweet with annual tribute.

But Judah would not remain subservient. In 705 B.C.E., the great and mighty Assyrians had a shock: their king Sargon II died – in battle against some picayune enemy no less – and the subjects became restless. Among those revolted was Judah’s King Hezekiah. The heir to the crown, Sennacherib, son of Sargon II, was outraged.

The kings of Judah

Sennacherib pointed out, according to the biblical description, that Hezekiah was a fool to defy him: “Now therefore let not Hezekiah beguile you, nor persuade you after this manner, neither believe ye him” (2 Chronicles, 32:15). He sent forces to besiege Jerusalem, yet the Assyrians did not capture Hezekiah. They did not destroy Jerusalem. Why that is, we do not know. Perhaps it was because mice plagued their camp and caused disease, as some surmise; or maybe the frightened Hezekiah gave them enough tribute to appease them. In any case, Judah would remain standing as a “client state” of the Assyrians and then of the Babylonians.

That is what had been known until now. Now a team of Israeli archaeologists, led by Jerusalem district archaeologist Neria Sapir and Nathan Ben-Ari of the Israel Antiquities Authority, with Prof. Oded Lipschits and Dr. Liora Freud of Tel Aviv University, report on an unusually intact site in Jerusalem called Mordot Arnona, in the city’s southeast, which casts the last 150 years of the Judahite kingdom in a new light. The paper appeared in Tel Aviv, the journal of Tel Aviv University’s Institute of Archaeology.

The new light is that Judah, when under the Assyrian yoke, didn’t have one vast royal administrative center near Jerusalem – it had two. Maybe more.

The archaeological site of Ramat Rahel located outside the Old City of Jerusalem (which may have been the place called Beit Hakerem in biblical times) served as a monumental administrative center for the Kingdom of Judah centered in Jerusalem, archaeologists have deduced. Taxes collected for the king were brought not to Jerusalem itself but to Ramat Rahel, in jars whose handles had been stamped with the Hebrew letters LMLK (“lamelekh” – “[belonging] to the king”).

LMLK stamped handle from Ramat RahelCredit: עודד ליפשיץ

What, by the way, were “taxes” collected in jars? What was in them? Costly liquids, Lipschits says – likely wine, olive oil and mead, as residue analysis of the jars shows.

Now archaeologists have discovered Mordot Arnona, which also evidently served as a monumental administrative center during its first phase (late eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E.).

About 200 stamped jar handles were discovered at Mordot Arnona, which is more than were found anywhere else in Judah beside Jerusalem itself, Ramat Rahel and Lachish. Taxes in jars were being brought to Mordot Arnona as well, not only Ramat Rahel. Why did the Kingdom of Judah, envassaled to Assyria, need two major administrative centers?

The excavation site at Mordot Arnona.Credit: Shai Halevi / IAA

A rare archaeological sequence

Mordot Arnona sits on a spur sloping eastward between the Old City of Jerusalem and Ramat Rahel. It is 3.5 kilometers (about 2 miles) south of the Old City and a hop, skip and jump, 750 meters, from Ramat Raḥel.

Happily for posterity, Mordot Arnona boasts undisturbed stratigraphy: a settlement sequence from the ninth century B.C.E. through to the fourth century C.E., that is: from the early phases of the Iron Age (something not common in Jerusalem and its environment) to the Late Roman period, the archaeologists say.

A nine-layer settlement sequence is unusual in Jerusalem, where ancient remains tend to have been reused, or disrupted by the unrest of the ages or are simply gone. “People tended to base the new buildings on the bedrock and reuse the building materials,” Lipschits explains.

Ramat Rahel is the modern name of a kibbutz built atop the Judahite ruins. One riddle that had been plaguing archaeologists since its discovery is when it was built during the Judahites’ time under the Assyrian yoke. Did it date to the late eighth century B.C.E. (before the 701 B.C.E. Assyrian campaign led by Sennacherib, during the time of King Ahaz or his son Hezekiah)? Or did it date to a somewhat later time, the early seventh century B.C.E. (the later years of King Hezekiah or the long 55 years of rule of his son Manasseh)?

Now it turns out, Lipschits explains, that Ramat Rahel and Mordot Arnona had been built at about the same time: in the early last third of the eighth century B.C.E., shortly after Judah became an Assyrian vassal kingdom, and during the early years of King Ahaz’s rule.

But the truly exciting discovery, he says, is that in Ramat Rahel’s case, there was only one phase throughout the 100 years that Assyria reigned over the land. At Mordot Arnona, there are clear finds for two different phases during this period.

The first was from the late eighth century B.C.E. – before the 701 B.C.E. Sennacherib campaign. The second was afterward.

Ramat Rahel survived when the Assyrians were bested and withdrew. Under the subsequent Babylonian regime, if anything it became even grander; then under the subsequent Persian rule, it became grander still. Not so Mordot Arnona, which after the Assyrian withdrawal from the Levant in the late seventh century B.C.E. was reduced to a small agriculture site, with wine presses and caves in which agricultural produce could have been stored, the archaeologists say. What happened?

An aerial view of Mordot Arnona.Credit: Assaf Peretz / IAA

Grabby in Assyria

For all that Jerusalem has been under archaeological excavation since the late 18th century, Mordot Arnona was only found in 2017 because the Israel Land Authority filed a development plan for the area. Ahead of development, the Israel Antiquities Authority surveyed the area and found hints that something extraordinary lay there, Sapir explains.

They dug trenches, began to excavate and gradually realized, Sapir says, that they had a major discovery. The subsequent paper relates to “Area A,” one of five loci excavated along the slope of the hill.

Area A of Mordot Arnona features a monumental structure that dates to the last third of the eighth century B.C.E., Lipschits says. It was covered in the early seventh century by the second phase of construction, starting with accumulating a huge pile of stones that functioned as a huge platform, on which new monumental building arose.

The site at Mordot Arnona. What role did it play for the Assyrians?Credit: Assaf Peretz/IAA

Ramat Raḥel clearly had been important, with architecture as befits a great kingdom (Assyria, not Judah), the archaeologists write, and evidently served as a Judahite administrative center starting under Assyrian rule and continuing throughout the Babylonian, Persian and Ptolemaic regimes.

Strategically located at a vantage point controlling the main roads into the city, Ramat Rahel may have helped ensure Jerusalem’s food supply, and tax payment to the Assyrian overlords. It may even have housed the imperial supervisor of the subordinated Judahite kingdom.

And while less is more, they say, that didn’t apply to taxing the subjugated populace and the center at Mordot Arnona may have been erected to expand the sway of the taxation regime to the east, west and south; to encompass more agriculture land and thereby increase the tax bite. In sum, to cement broader military, economic and administrative Assyrian control in the late eighth century B.C.E., during the reigns of the Judahite kings Ahaz and then Hezekiah.

Archaeologists working on the dig at Mordot Arnona.Credit: Benjamin Storchen / IAA

But after the Assyrians were kicked out in about 630 B.C.E., while Ramat Rahel continued, Mordot Arnona would be reduced to farmland. Why is not clear.

Adding in the palace recently discovered in Armon Hanatziv in southern Jerusalem, which existed in parallel with Ramat Rahel and Mordot Arnona, what do we have? A much grander and more complicated history of Jerusalem under the 100 years of Assyrian rule than had been thought. Possibly Mordot Arnona also served to house Jerusalem elites, toadies to the Assyrians – and once the overlords were toast, so were they.

And in the year 586 B.C.E., Jerusalem would fall after all following a siege by the Babylonians, again after the king – Zedekiah – rebelled. The city and its temple would be pulled down and that was the end of the more-or-less independent Kingdom of Judah.



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