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Archaeology in Israel: Ancient Arad

Ancient Arad is located in the Negev, some 30 km. northeast of Be'er Sheva, on a hill that rises 40 m. above the surrounding plain.

During the 18 seasons of excavation conducted from 1962-1984, it became clear that the remains of ancient Arad are located in two separate areas and are from two distinct periods. The Canaanite city (3rd millennium BCE) was located mainly on the southern slope of the hill. On the summit of this hill, several fortresses were built in the period of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah (10th-6th centuries BCE) and also later, during the Persian, Hellenistic and Roman periods (5th century BCE to 4th century CE). In the Early Arab period (7th-10th century), a fortified caravansary was established to protect the trade routes which passed there.

Arad is mentioned in the Bible in the story of the failed attempt to reach the Promised Land (Numbers 21:1) and in the list of the Canaanite kings defeated by the Children of Israel. (Joshua 12:14) There exists, however, a historical-chronological problem with this biblical account, as there is no evidence that Tel (Heb., mound) Arad was inhabited during the Late Bronze Age. Scholars suggest that the King of Arad mentioned in the Bible was in fact the ruler of the Kingdom of Arad, "the Negev of Arad" (Judges 1:16), whose capital was another city.

The Canaanite City

During the Early Bronze Age (2950-2650 BCE), Arad was a large, fortified and prosperous city. It served as the capital of the important Canaanite kingdom, which ruled over a large part of the northern Negev. The growth of Arad was part of the rapid urbanization of the Land of Israel during the 3rd millennium BCE. Technological development, such as the use of metal for plowing, the domestication of animals and the planting of fruit trees, created conditions for the establishment of large cities, even in outlying areas such as Arad.

The climate in this region is hot and dry and the amount of precipitation is minimal, but the prosperity of a large Canaanite city must have depended on an established agriculture. In the view of experts, the Negev enjoyed in the past twice the amount of rain that falls today, thus making intensive agriculture possible. The Canaanite inhabitants of Arad grew wheat, barley and beans in the valley, and constructed earth dams in the wadis (dry river beds) to increase the amount of water for the orchards, mainly olive groves. Bones of goats, sheep and cattle, found in the ruins of the city's houses, attest to another element in the inhabitants' diet. The city was located at the crossroads of two main trade routes - the one southward from the Judean Hills to the Negev and Edom, and the other westward from the shores of the Dead Sea, across the Negev, to the southern coast - which also contributed to the prosperity of ancient Arad.

Canaanite Arad developed close trade relations with Egypt, evidence of which are the numerous vessels made in Egypt, and a fragment of a ceramic storage jar bearing the name of Narmer, King of Egypt, found at Arad. Copper objects from the royal mines in Sinai were acquired by the inhabitants of Arad, and probably paid for with agricultural products, olive oil and livestock. Bitumen originating from the Dead Sea, used for the sealing of sailing vessels as well as storage jars, and possibly also for mummifying, also made its way from the Dead Sea via Arad to Egypt.

Canaanite Arad covered an area of about 25 acres and had an estimated population of 2,500. The city was surrounded by a fortified wall, some 1,200 m. long and 2.4 m. thick, with many semi-circular or rectangular towers projecting from it. Two gates and two posterns have been found thus far in the wall.

The city itself was very carefully planned, with a network of streets. Along the inside of the wall was the main ring road; and from the gates ran cross streets towards the topographical depression at the city's center, which drained rainwater into a large reservoir, thus guaranteeing continued water supply during the long summers. The part of the city which has been excavated, was divided into quarters, each with a specific function: in the western part was the temple complex; in the south the residential areas.


The residential area was densely built-up, with streets and alleys between the blocks of houses. Dwellings were of many sizes, the smallest ca. 50 sq.m. and the largest ca. 150 sq.m., but similarly planned: a walled courtyard, one or two living rooms and a small utility room or kitchen.

The typical living room in an Arad house was rectangular and had an opening to the courtyard in one of its long walls. The room, slightly below the level of the courtyard, was reached by descending two or three steps. The opening was closed with a wooden door, which pivoted in a socket in the stone threshold. Along the walls were low stone benches and in the center of the room was a stone base, on which a wooden pillar stood, supporting the roof which was made of wooden beams, bundles of straw and plaster. Grinding stones and a stone mortar for crushing grain were embedded in the floor. Containers made of dried mud for the storage of grain and clay stoves for heating and cooking were also found in the houses. A small clay model of a living room was found in one of the houses, showing the ceiling-high entrance and the flat roof.

Temples and a Palace

The sacred precinct and the palace complex of the kings of Arad extended over enormous areas - each about 1,000 sq.m. - in the western part of the city. The sacred precinct included two twin temples dedicated to the gods of the city.

The larger of the twin temples had two halls, one divided into three rooms, the smallest of which was the holy-of-holies. In one of the rooms, a well-trimmed stone stele was found standing upright, probably representing the god's presence in the temple. In the courtyard stood a stone altar, and next to it a sunken, ceremonial basin lined with stones, probably for ritual immersion.

The palace of the kings of Canaanite Arad was comprised of several units. At its center were the royal chambers - several large rooms. Around them were courtyards with groups of rooms, which probably served as administration offices and servants' quarters. In the palace grounds stood the royal storehouse, in which storage installations and a large numbers of ceramic storage vessels were found.


In the palace's central room, a flat piece of chalk was found, on which two human figures had been incised: one of the figures lying horizontally, the other standing upright; the hands raised, with fingers outstretched; the heads depicted as ears of grain.

The scene is known from religious art of the ancient world and is interpreted as representing the Mesopotamian god Tammuz in two phases of the endless cycle of nature: the standing figure represents the half year of regeneration and growth - life; the supine figure symbolizes the half of the year during which plants wither - death.

Arad declined and was abandoned in the middle of the 3rd millennium BCE. The reasons for this are not completely clear, but it is assumed that the climate became hotter and drier, adversely influencing the settlements on the fringe of the desert. Also, the nomadic populations of the Negev probably endangered the trade routes, and the security of the city's population.

The Israelite Citadel

During the period of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah (10th-6th centuries BCE), successive citadels were built on the hill of Arad as part of a series of fortifications protecting the trade routes in the Negev and the southern border of the kingdom against marauding nomads.

The first of these citadels was built by King Solomon (10th century BCE). It measured 55 x 50 m. and was surrounded by a casemate wall (two parallel walls with cross-walls between them) 5 m. thick, and with a gate protected by two towers in its eastern side. Large towers protruded from the corners and along the wall. Inside the citadel were quarters for the garrison, storerooms, and a temple. A water reservoir cut into the rock beneath the citadel was filled with water from a well dug into the Canaanite reservoir south of the citadel. This well was 4.60 m. in diameter and 21 m. deep, to groundwater level, the upper part carefully lined with stones. The water drawn from the well was carried up the hill by pack animals to an opening in the wall of the citadel, and from there flowed in a channel to the reservoir.

In the 9th century BCE, a new citadel was built, surrounded by a massive, 4 m.-thick wall. This citadel, with various modifications, remained in use until the Babylonian conquest of the Kingdom of Judah in 587/6 BCE.

The Israelite Temple

Located in the northwestern corner of the citadel, the temple comprised three rooms along an east-west axis: ulam (entrance hall), heichal (main hall), and dvir (holy-of-holies). To reach the dvir three steps had to be mounted to an elevated platform, on which a one-meter high stone stele, painted red, stood. Stone altars, 50 cm. high, flanked both sides of the entrance to the dvir. The tops of the altars were concave and in them burnt organic material was found. At the center of the large courtyard in front of the temple was an altar built of bricks and stone, measuring 2.5 x 2.5 m. (5 x 5 biblical amot). It was probably similar to the altar described in the Bible (Deut. 27:5) and to that in the Temple in Jerusalem. (II Chronicles 6:13)

The Israelite temple discovered at Arad is the only one known outside of Jerusalem. It was part of the first Israelite citadel there and served as a roadside temple for travelers, merchants and the garrison of the citadel. This temple was destroyed, apparently as a result of the religious reforms of Hezekiah, King of Judah, at the end of the 8th century BCE. (II Kings 18: 4, 22)

Ostraca (inscribed potsherds)

Over 100 ostraca inscribed in biblical Hebrew (in paleo-Hebrew script) were found in the citadel of Arad. This is the largest and richest collection of inscriptions from the biblical period ever discovered in Israel. The letters are from all periods of the citadel's existence, but most date to the last decades of the kingdom of Judah. Dates and several names of places in the Negev are mentioned, including Be'er Sheva.

Among the personal names are those of the priestly families Pashur and Meremoth, both mentioned in the Bible. (Jeremiah 20:1; Ezra 8:33) Some of the letters were addressed to the commander of the citadel of Arad, Eliashiv ben Ashiyahu, and deal with the distribution of bread (flour), wine and oil to the soldiers serving in the fortresses of the Negev. Seals bearing the inscription "Eliashiv ben Ashiyahu" were also found.

Some of the commander's letters (probably "file" copies) were addressed to his superior and deal with the deteriorating security situation in the Negev. In one of them, he gives warning of an emergency and requests reinforcements to be sent to another citadel in the region to repulse an Edomite invasion. Also, in one of the letters, the "house of YHWH" is mentioned.

Inscription 1

To Eliashib: And now, give the Kittiyim 3 baths of wine, and write the name of the day. And from the rest of the first flour, send one homer in order to make bread for them. Give them the wine from the aganoth vessels.

Inscription 24

From Arad 50 and from Kin[ah]...
and you shall send them to Ramat-Negev by the hand of Malkiyahu the son of Kerab'ur and he shall hand them over to Elisha the son of Yirmiyahu in Ramat-Negev, lest anything should happen to the city. And the word of the king is incumbent upon you for your very life! Behold, I have sent to warn you today: [Get] the men to Elisha: lest Edom should come there.

Inscription 40

Your son Gemar[yahu] and Nehemyahu gre[et] Malkiyahu; I have blessed [you to the Lor]d and now: your servant has listened to what [you] have said, and I [have written] to my lord [everything that] the man [wa]nted, [and Eshiyahu ca]me from you and [no] one [gave it to] them. And behold you knew [about the letters from] Edom (that) I gave to [my] lord [before sun]set. And [E]shi[yah]u slept [at my house], and he asked for the letter, [but I didn't gi]ve (it). The King of Judah should know [that w]e cannot send the [..., and th]is is the evil that Edo[m has done].

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry