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Archaeology in Israel: Ein Hatzeva

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 fortress

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 Be’er 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 kingdom’s control in the Negev made Edomite expansion possible, which resulted in the destruction of the fortress towards the end of the 8th century BCE.

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 unusual object.

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 Josiah’s 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.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry