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Archaeology in Israel: Biblical City of Beit Shemesh

Tel (mound) Beit Shemesh covers about 7 acres of a low hill, near the modern town of Beit Shemesh, some 20 km. west of Jerusalem. It overlooks the Sorek Valley, which widens here into a fertile valley.

The name Beit Shemesh (House of the Sun) is suggestive of the deity that was worshipped by the Canaanite inhabitants of the ancient city. Identification of the mound with biblical Beit Shemesh is based on its geographical description in the Bible, on the Onomasticon of Eusebius (4th century CE) and on the name of the Arab village Ein Shams, which preserves the ancient name.

The Bible mentions Beit Shemesh in the description of the northern border of the Tribe of Judah (Joshua 15:10-11) and as a Levitical city in the territory of Judah. (Joshua 21:16) Beit Shemesh is also mentioned in connection with the return of the Ark of the Covenant by the Philistines, who had captured it in the battle of Eben-Ezer. The ark was placed on a cattle-drawn cart in the Philistine town of Ekron and sent via Nahal Sorek to Beit Shemesh:

Then the cows headed straight for the road to Beit Shemesh and went along the highway, lowing as they went, and did not turn aside to the right or the left. And the lords of the Philistines went after them to the border of Beit Shemesh. -- (I Samuel 6:12-13)

At the beginning of the 8th century BCE, Beit Shemesh became strategically important, as it controlled the western approaches of the Kingdom of Judah, and the road to its capital, Jerusalem. It was here that the battle between Amaziyah, King of Judah and Jehoash, King of Israel, took place. (II Kings 14:11-13) Shortly thereafter, Beit Shemesh passed into Philistine control, but was restored to the Kingdom of Judah under Hezekiah. The town was destroyed by Sennacherib in 701 BCE.

Talmudic sources describe Beit Shemesh as a small village; in the Byzantine period a large, fortified monastery was built on the southeastern part of the tel.

Excavations conducted at Beit Shemesh at the beginning of the 20th century and during the 1930s exposed large parts of the tel, down to bedrock. Remains of several successive cities from the Bronze and Iron ages were uncovered. But these early excavations, in part tunnels dug along the city walls, did not produce clear results. The aim of the new excavations, begun in 1990, is to shed more light on the history of ancient Beit Shemesh.

The present excavations focus on the northern and southern sides of the tel, which remained largely untouched. In the very first season, the remains of several impressive Iron Age buildings were uncovered, indicating the importance of the city. In the coming years, the expedition plans to expose the remains of the Canaanite city that preceded the Israelite one.

The Period of the Judges (12th-11th centuries BCE)

Remains of a large structure, probably a public building, were uncovered on the slope of the tel. Its walls, built of large fieldstones, indicate that it had a second story. There was also a large stone-paved courtyard surrounded by many rooms. To the east of this building were many simple buildings with ceilings supported by wooden pillars on stone bases. Large grindstones and clay ovens attest to the daily activities of their inhabitants. This city was destroyed (the event is unknown) and its houses were buried under a thick layer of ash and bricks.

The pottery used by the inhabitants of Beit Shemesh during this period is in the Canaanite and Philistine tradition. But the bones of the animals they consumed attest to a diet typical of the Israelites who inhabited the hill country. Such finds indicate the cultural influences on the inhabitants of this border town; it is difficult, however, to ascertain their specific ethnic identity - Canaanite, Philistine or Israelite.

The Period of the United Kingdom and of the Kingdom of Judah (10th-7th centuries BCE)

In the 10th century BCE, probably during the reign of King Solomon, Beit Shemesh was rebuilt, and served as a regional administrative center of the Kingdom. The remains show evidence of considerable planning and financial investment in the buildings. The city was surrounded by massive fortifications and its water supply guaranteed by a subterranean reservoir. At the center of the densely built-up residential area was a large, well-constructed building (250 sq. m.) with several elongated halls, probably a public warehouse.

An elaborate system of fortifications, from the 10th century BCE, was discovered on the northeastern side of the tel. The main element is a tower with two very broad, perpendicular walls built of particularly large stones, each 1.5 m. long. A covered, hidden passage (postern) at the city wall, west of the tower, served as an escape route from the city. A casemate wall extending from the eastern side of the fortification is assumed to have surrounded the entire city. The massive tower was built of large stones, and projected outward. This wall, exposed during the previous excavations, was erroneously dated to the Bronze Age (2nd millennium BCE); it is now clear that it formed an integral part of the fortifications of the Israelite city.

During the 9th-early 8th century BCE, a gatehouse was built in the city wall where the Israelite fortification complex had stood. This gatehouse provided direct access to the perennial water sources in the Sorek Valley and to the road running through that valley. The gatehouse had two pairs of open chambers facing each other with a passageway between them; beneath the passageway, a water channel was built. The lower portion of the gatehouse was constructed of large stones, the superstructure of bricks. Inside the city gate was a plaza, which probably served as the center of the city's public life.

In the southern part of the site a large area used for commercial activity and for storage of goods was revealed. The buildings contained fragments of numerous pottery storage vessels destroyed in a conflagration at the beginning of the 8th century BCE.

During the 8th century BCE, the inhabitants of Beit Shemesh engaged in oil production, both for their own use and for export. Remains of oil presses containing large stone basins in which the olives were crushed, deep stone containers for the baskets with crushed olives, and heavy stone weights that were hung on wooden beams for pressing the oil from the olives, were found in the buildings.

The Water System

Beneath the plaza inside the city gate, the excavators found a large subterranean reservoir - a unique find - not encountered so far in any of the water systems of the biblical period.

The rock-cut reservoir is cruciform in shape (with four arms), coated with thick hydraulic plaster. The length of each of its arms is 9 m. and their width 2-4 m.; it is 6 m. high and has a capacity of 800 cu.m. From the top opening of the reservoir near the city gate, one may descend via a broad staircase, finely constructed of large stones, which makes two turns around a built pier. At the bottom is a narrow opening covered by three large and very carefully cut cigar-shaped stones. Through this opening one enters the northwestern arm of the reservoir, which was filled with rainwater collected from the plaza above (and flowed down the plastered staircase and a channel running alongside it). The channel under the city gate also emptied into the reservoir.

Beit Shemesh was destroyed by the Assyrian king Sennacherib in his campaign against Judah in 701 BCE, and abandoned. But in the 7th century BCE some Judean families returned, refurbished the reservoir and lived for a while in its vicinity. Many pottery vessels, broken while drawing water, remained imbedded in the thick layer of silt accumulated at the bottom of the reservoir. On a bench hewn in the rock inside the entrance to the reservoir, two jars and a cooking pot were found, obviously left there by the last inhabitants of Beit Shemesh.

This attempt by Judean families to settle in Beit Shemesh once more was resented by their Philistine neighbors and/or the ruling Assyrians. To ensure the abandonment of this border city, they deliberately blocked the entrance to the reservoir with 150 tons of earth and debris.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry