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Archaeology in Israel: Gezer

The tel (mound) of the Biblical city of Gezer is located on the western slopes of the Judean Hills, midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Built on a hill overlooking the fertile Ayalon Valley, the importance of this city was its strategic location at the intersection of the road from Egypt, along the coastal plain northward, and the road leading to the Judean Hills and Jerusalem. The ancient name of Gezer is preserved in the Arabic name of the tel: Tel el-Jazari. Verification of the site comes from Hebrew inscriptions found engraved on rocks, several hundred meters from the tel. These inscriptions from the 1st century BCE read "boundary of Gezer."

The tel covers an area of over 30 acres. Part of this area was excavated between 1902-1909, when archeology was still in its infancy, and caused considerable damage to the site. Since the 1960s, new excavations have been conducted in several areas of the tel. The rich finds discovered in these excavations attest to the importance of the city in antiquity and constitute a unique contribution to the study of past material cultures of the Land of Israel.

Bronze Age

Inhabitants of the first settlement established at Tel Gezer, toward the end of the 4th century BCE, lived in large caves cut into the rock. At the beginning of the Early Bronze Age (beginning of the 3rd millennium BCE), there existed an unfortified settlement covering the entire area of the tel. Following its destruction in the middle of the 3rd millennium BCE, the tel was abandoned for several hundred years.

Then, in the Middle Bronze Age (first half of the 2nd century BCE), Gezer became one of the foremost cities in the Land of Israel. The entire tel was surrounded by a massive wall constructed of large blocks of stone 4 m. wide, with strong towers erected at intervals along it. This fortification wall (known as the "inner wall") was protected on the outside by an earthen rampart some 5 m. high, consisting of compacted alternating layers of chalk and earth covered with plaster. The city gate was located near the southwestern corner of the wall and consisted of two towers and three pairs of pilasters on which wooden gates were mounted (as was common in that period).

At the center of the northern part of the tel was an unusual cultic area. A row of ten monolithic stone steles - the tallest 3 m. high - stood at its center, oriented north-south. A large, square, stone basin that has been interpreted as serving for libations in cultic ceremonies, was found in front of one of the steles. This is a unique Canaanite temple of mazzeboth (standing stones), both in terms of the number of steles and their size. The researchers suggest that the stones represent the city of Gezer and nine other Canaanite cities; rituals related to a treaty between these cities were probably performed here. The Canaanite city at Gezer was destroyed in a violent conflagration, traces of which were found in all excavation areas of the tel. It is assumed that the destruction was the result of the campaign of the Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose III.

The importance of Bronze Age Gezer (2nd millennium BCE), is attested to in the many references to the city in Egyptian sources. In an inscription of Thutmose III, Gezer is mentioned as being conquered from the Canaanites in his campaign in 1468 BCE. In the archives of el-Amarna in Egypt, dating from the 14th century BCE, there are ten letters from the kings of Gezer, assuring loyalty to the Egyptian pharaoh whose vassals they were.

The Late Bronze Age (second half of the 2nd millennium BCE) is represented by a wealth of finds, many imported from the Aegean islands, Cyprus and Egypt, from both within the city and in tombs. During this period, a new fortification wall was erected around the city (the "outer wall"), which was some 1,100 m. long. This wall, 4 m.-thick, was constructed outside the earlier wall, on lower ground. This is one of the only fortifications known in the Land of Israel from the Late Bronze Age, providing further proof of the special political status of Gezer in southern Canaan during the period of Egyptian rule. In the 14th century BCE, a palace building was constructed on the high western part of the tel, its acropolis. It appears to have had two storeys; its walls were built of stone and covered with white plaster and in the courtyard were water cisterns. Remains of another large structure, probably the house of the governor of Gezer, were found in the northern part of the tel. Toward the end of the Bronze Age, the city declined and its population diminished. The victory stele of Merneptah (from the end of the 13th century BCE) for the first time specifically mentions "Israel" as a nation, which was defeated and goes on …Canaan was plundered… and Gezer was captured. Clear evidence of the Egyptian destruction of Gezer was found in the remains of the town.

Iron Age

According to the Bible, Joshua and the Israelites defeated the King of Gezer (Joshua 10:33), but the Book of Judges (Judges 1:29) relates that the Tribe of Ephraim did not drive the Canaanite inhabitants from Gezer and that they remained in the city among the Israelites.

The strata which represents the 12th-11th centuries BCE of Gezer show several phases of intensive construction. A large, well-constructed building that included many courtyards and rooms on the Acropolis, where grains of wheat were found among the sherds of storage jars and grinding stones, must have been a granary. Next to it was a large plastered surface that served as a threshing floor. After it went out of use, two dwellings were built on top of the granary, each consisting of a courtyard surrounded by rooms. A street ran between the dwellings. Local, as well as Philistine, vessels found there attest to a mixed Canaanite/Philistine population at that time.

At the beginning of the 10th century BCE, Gezer was conquered and burned by an Egyptian pharaoh (probably Siamun), who gave it to King Solomon as the dowry of his daughter. Pharaoh King of Egypt had come up and captured Gezer; he destroyed it by fire, killed the Canaanites who dwelt in the town, and gave it as dowry to his daughter, Solomon's wife. (I Kings 9:16)

King Solomon (10th century BCE) rebuilt Gezer as a royal Israelite center on the border with Philistia. The impressive series of fortifications consisted of a double wall with gates; at the center of the southern wall was the main gate with three pairs of chambers and a central passage between them. The gate was expertly constructed of well-trimmed stones, the corners of large ashlars. It was originally two storeys high and roofed. Plastered stone benches were placed along the walls of the chambers and below its floor and the entry threshold was a deep drainage channel that carried rainwater out of the city. An outer gate, consisting of two towers, protected the approach to the main gate; from it extended a solid wall with numerous towers, built on the foundations of the "outer wall" of the previous period. Similar fortifications of this period were found at Hatzor and Megiddo; they cast light on the biblical description of these three administrative centers of Solomon's kingdom: This was the the purpose of the forced labor which Solomon imposed: It was to build the House of the Lord, his own palace, the Millo and the wall of Jerusalem and [to fortify] Hatzor, Megiddo and Gezer. (I Kings 9:15)

Gezer appears to have been destroyed soon after the death of Solomon and the division of the United Kingdom, during the campaign waged by Shishak King of Egypt against King Jeroboam in 924 BCE. (I Kings 14:25)

Researchers attribute the famous Gezer Calendar, found in excavations conducted at the beginning of the 20th century, to the Solomonic period. The calender is a small limestone tablet on which a list of agricultural chores performed during the different seasons, identified by months, is engraved. The Gezer Calendar is regarded as one of the earliest paleo-Hebrew texts known, and testifies to the use of Hebrew writing as early as the the 10th century BCE.

The material culture found at Gezer shows that after the division of the kingdom, Gezer was part of the Kingdom of Israel, on the border with the Kingdom of Judah. During those years, the Solomonic fortifications continued to defend the city, though the gate was rebuilt as a gateway with two pairs of chambers only. It was probably during this period that a water system was constructed, similar to those found at Hatzor and Megiddo. It consisted of a wide shaft, 7 m. deep, with a staircase inside the city, and a tunnel at a 45-degree angle which led down to the water source; its purpose was to guarantee the water supply of the city in time of siege.

The conquest of Gezer by the Assyrian ruler Tiglath Pileser in 733 BCE is depicted in a stone relief found in the ruins of the palace of the kings of Assyria at Nimrud in Mesopotamia. In this depiction, a battering ram is seen hitting the wall of the city while some of the town's defenders on the wall surrender to the Assyrian Army. The name of the conquered city, in cuneiform, is Gazaru. Later on it served as the center of the Assyrian administration in the Coastal Plain. Two clay cuneiform tablets were uncovered in the excavation; they are documents from the year 651 BCE and are typical of Assyrian texts dealing with the purchase of land.

By the end of the Iron Age, when Gezer was under the control of the Kingdom of Judah, the city was no longer a major center. During the 5th-4th centuries BCE, it was part of the Persian province of Yehud. In 142 BCE, Simon the Hasmonean conquered Gezer and built a royal palace there. (I Maccabees 13:43-48) The Iron Age fortifications were restored and semi-circular towers added. Evidence of a Jewish population during this period includes several stepped pools for ritual bathing (mikva'ot). During the reign of King Herod, Gezer lost its importance as a border town and until the end of the Second Temple period (70 CE), it was a private estate, its boundaries marked by inscriptions on rocks, "boundary of Gezer."

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry