Ein Hatzeva: An Israelite Fortress
on the Border with Edom
Remains of several Israelite fortresses at Ein Hatseva (Ein
means spring in Hebrew) are located on a low hill in the Arava
Valley, some 35 kms. south of the Dead
Sea. The spring – a source of
fresh water in this desert region – and the strategic position of the
hill at the intersection of the main Arava road and the Negev-Edom road
were the reasons for the building of consecutive fortresses on this spot
over the course of about 1,000 years. Each fortress served as the military
and administrative center for the region as well as a caravan station.
The ruins of Hatseva had already been surveyed at the
beginning of the century and identified as the Biblical Tamar: The
border shall be even from Tamar by the waters of strife in Kadesh
(Ezekiel 48:28) and as the Roman Tamara. The identification was confirmed
in the course of excavations conducted between 1987 and 1995.
The 10th century BCE fortress
This fortress, dating to the reign of King Solomon, was
a small fortified structure, part of the network of fortifications built to
secure the southern border of the united kingdom (before it split into
Israel and Judah) and to exercise control over the trade routes leading to
the Gulf of Eilat. (1 Kings 9:16-18)
The 9th - 8th centuries BCE
As the previous fortress was considered inadequate to
serve its purpose, a new fortress was built and surrounded by a 50 x 50 m.
fortified wall. A short time later it was expanded and became a mighty
fortress with massive defenses, reaching the peak of its importance as a
central component in the border defenses of the Kingdom of Judah. It served
as a way station on the trade routes along which valuable goods (spices and
perfumes) were transported from Arabia to this region. The fortress was a
square, 100 x 100 m. structure, comparable in area to a town, such as Beer
Sheva, during that period.
The earlier, smaller fortress including its gate thus
became an inner fortress. In its courtyard were located the royal stores
and silos, where food for times of siege was stored; remnants of wheat and
barley were found at the bottom of one of the silos.
The casemate wall of the enlarged fortress was some
three meters thick, the casemates filled with packed earth for added
strength; ramparts protected its foundations. Massive, protruding towers
rose above the corners, and the walls between them were buttressed. A
well-fortified gate in the northeastern corner of the fortress still stands
today to an impressive height of three meters. It was a four-chambered
gatehouse, a type common in that period, and consisted of two pairs of
chambers on both sides of a four-meter-wide central passageway. A paved
ramp led from outside to this gate; from its roof the approaches were
visible to a great distance.
This 9th - 8th centuries BCE fortress is one of the
largest and most impressive one dating to the biblical period of the kings
of Judah. It was probably built at the initiative of Jehoshaphat, King of
Judah (867-846 BCE), in his attempt to renew commercial links with southern
Arabia via the Gulf of Akaba. (1 Kings 22:49) Another possibility is that
the fortress was built by King Amaziah (798-769 BCE) or his son King Uzziah
(769-733 BCE) who fought against Edom and strengthened the fortifications
along the long southern border of the Kingdom of Judah. (2 Kings 3:4-15;
14:7; 2 Chronicles 26:2, 10)
The fortress was apparently damaged in the earthquake
which shook Judah in the mid-8th century BCE. (Amos 1:1) The weakening of
the kingdoms control in the Negev made Edomite expansion possible, which
resulted in the destruction of the fortress towards the end of the 8th
The 7th century BCE fortress
The fortress at Hatseva was rebuilt on a smaller scale
during this period, but only portions of its eastern side, including the
wall and towers, have been preserved; most of the structure was destroyed
when the Roman period fortress was constructed.
The 7th century BCE Edomite Temple
A unique hoard of ritual vessels was found in a
repository in the open-air cultic shrine north of the fortress. Over the
years, dozens of ritual clay vessels and several stone altars accumulated
in this Edomite temple. Outstanding among them are bowl-shaped incense
stands on high, round, fenestrated bases; from one such bowl, tiny clay
pomegranates, symbols of fertility, are suspended on hooks. Particularly
impressive are the anthropomorphic stands. Limbs and facial features of
human figures were molded separately and affixed to vessels, painted in
reddish hues. Upon the heads of the figures are bud-decorated bowls, used
for offerings and the burning of incense. One of the stands depicts two
goats facing each other with two identical anthropomorphic figurines
between them; a bowl to which flying doves are affixed sits atop this
It appears that Hatseva of the 7th century BCE had been
an open-air Edomite temple, which served the traders on their way from Edom
to the Negev. It was probably destroyed – and the ritual objects broken
– during Josiahs religious reforms at the end of the 7th century BCE.
The Bible recounts (2 Kings 22-23) that during purification of the Temple
in Jerusalem the Torah (Pentateuch) was rediscovered and that King
Josiah ordered all pagan cultic sites destroyed.
The fortress from the Roman
and Byzantine period
This fortress was part of the network of fortifications
guarding the border of the Negev, to prevent the penetration of nomadic
tribes and to safeguard the profitable trade routes leading to the
Mediterranean ports. Next to the fortress, a large bathhouse was
constructed in the third or fourth century for use of the troops and of the
travelers who stopped to rest.
After excavation, the remains of the Hatseva fortress
have been partly restored and the site is now open to visitors traveling
along the Arava road on their way to and from Eilat.
The excavations were directed by R.
Cohen and Y. Yisrael on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
Source: Israeli Foreign Ministry