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Archaeology in Israel: Hatzor

The tel (mound) of the ancient city of Hatzor is the largest and richest archeological site in Israel. It is located in the upper Galilee,14 km. north of the Sea of Galilee.

The mound rises only slightly above the fertile plain surrounding it and consists of two parts: a lower tel with an area of some 170 acres and the acropolis to the south with an area of about 30 acres.

Many large areas of both mounds were excavated during 1955 and 1958, again in 1968 – 1969; excavation was resumed in 1990, on the upper tel only.

Hatzor was the largest Canaanite city of the 2nd millennium BCE. It maintained trade links with Mari on the Tigris River, as mentioned in 18th century BCE documents found there. Fourteenth century BCE documents, from the El Amarna archive in Egypt, also mention Hatzor as an important city in Canaan; they also include the name of its king, Abdi-Tirshi, who had sworn loyalty to the pharaoh of Egypt. He is the only Canaanite ruler referred to as "king" in those documents. The excavators hope that comparable archives will be found in Hatzor.

Thus far, only several documents in cuneiform script on fragments of small clay tablets, have been found in the upper city of Hatzor. They are similar to the Mari and El Amarna documents, both in content and date. One of the Hatzor documents mentions Ibni Addu, whose name also appears in a Mari document. In the semitic languages, the name is reminiscent of that of the last Canaanite king of Hatzor, Yavin, known from the Bible. Texts of an administrative and economic nature discovered in Hatzor strengthen the assumption that the palace now being excavated on the acropolis will eventually yield a wealth of such documents.

The Canaanite City

The fortified Canaanite city of Hatzor (19th – 13th centuries BCE) comprised both the upper tel (acropolis) and the lower tel (lower city). The rectangular shape of the lower mound resulted from the huge earthen rampart which was constructed at the beginning of this period along the western and northern sides of the city. The eastern side, above a steep slope, was protected only by a wall; here two city gates were located with gatehouses consisting of two rectangular towers with a passage between them, narrowed by three pairs of pilasters that supported doors.

The fortified area of lower Hatzor contained dwellings and public buildings. A very large Canaanite temple was uncovered in the northern part of the city. It appears that four consecutive temples were built one on top of the other, between the 17th and 13th centuries BCE. The first of these was modest, the last attained its greatest size in the 14th century BCE. It consists of three large rooms built in a row, from south to north. The entrance hall in the south leads to a central hall, behind which was the holy of holies, the northernmost and the largest room of the temple. In its northern wall is a rectangular niche in which the statue of a god may have stood. This Canaanite temple reminds one of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem, which, according to the biblical description, also included three rooms in a row.

A unique technique was employed in building this Canaanite temple at Hatzor: the inner sides of the walls were lined with orthostats, trimmed rectangular basalt slabs, which strengthened the brick walls. A large basalt orthostat, with a lion depicted on it in relief, was found; it is probably one of a pair that stood on either side of the entrance. In the ruins of this temple, which was destroyed by fire, a variety of statues, cult vessels, libation tables and a deep basalt bowl decorated with running-spiral motif were found. Of special interest is a square basalt altar for burning incense. On one of its sides, a circle with a cross in the center – the divine symbol of the Canaanite storm god – is carved in low relief.

In the western part of the lower city, a small 14th century BCE temple built into the earthen rampart was uncovered. At the back of the building stood a row of basalt steles, one with a pair of hands raised in prayer and above them a crescent and disk, presumed to represent divine attributes. Also found here – of basalt – were statuettes of a seated figure and of a lion.

The most important discovery of recent years was the Canaanite palace on the acropolis. It is the largest and most elaborate of this period so far discovered in Israel.

At the center of a large courtyard in front of the palace stood a raised platform, probably for cultic use. Two enormous stone bases, which once supported massive columns, were found on the facade of the entrance hall, from which several steps led up to a 12 x 12 m. room – assumed to have been the throne room.

The walls of the palace were up to 3 m. thick, built of bricks reinforced with cedar-wood beams, their bases lined with basalt orthostats. Since the palace and the building style bear similarities to those found in countries to the north of Israel, it is assumed that during this period Hatzor had cultural and economic ties with these lands.

The palace was destroyed with the rest of Hatzor, apparently in a conflagration that fired the bricks into very hard material. The remains of the Hatzor palace were covered with ash and debris which contained fragments of Egyptian sculptures, ivory artifacts, jewelry, bronze figurines and statues and more. One stone statue, cracked by fire and broken into many pieces, was over one meter high, thus making it the largest statue from the Bronze Age so far found in Israel.

Northeast of the palace was a Canaanite temple with clear north-Syrian architectural influences. It consists of a single large hall with a courtyard in front of it. This was probably the private, royal temple.

The uncovered fortifications, elaborate palace, temples and buildings, together with the written documents and other finds, indicate Hatzor’s importance among the Canaanite city-states of the 2nd millenium BCE. It illuminates the biblical passage which describes Hatzor as "the head of all those kingdoms." (Joshua 11:10) This flourishing city was totally destroyed by fire at the end of the Late Bronze Age (around 1200 BCE). The conflagration is mentioned in the Bible, emphasizing the complete destruction of Hatzor during the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites: But as for the cities that stood still in their strength, Israel burned none of them, save Hatzor only; that did Joshua burn. (Joshua 11:13)

The Israelite City

For some 200 years after the destruction of the Canaanite city, only an insignificant Israelite settlement existed here. A royal city was founded on the upper tel in the 10th century BCE, during King Solomon’s reign, as recounted in the Bible: And this is the reason for the labor force which King Solomon raised: to build the house of the Lord, his own house, the Millo, the wall of Jerusalem, Hatzor, Megiddo and Gezer. (1 Kings 9:15) It is noteworthy that fortification systems and administration buildings identical to those found at Hatzor have also been found at Megiddo and Gezer.

A casemate wall surrounded only the western half of the upper tel. The eastern gate consisted of three pairs of chambers and two outward projecting towers. At the western edge of the city stood a mighty fortress, probably serving also as the residence of the governor appointed by the king to rule over the northern part of the kingdom.

In the 9th century BCE, during the rule of King Ahab, Israelite Hatzor became a great, royal city, grandly planned. The eastern part of the upper tel was surrounded by a solid wall and the early casemate wall in the west was filled in with stone, resulting in a massive, strong and uniform wall surrounding the entire city. A new citadel measuring 25 x 21 m. with two-meter thick walls was erected in the western part of the city. It had two long halls with rooms on three sides and a staircase of long, trimmed stones which led to the second story. The main, western entrance to the citadel consisted of two stone pilasters bearing carved proto-aeolic capitals which once supported the doorway’s lintel. Such capitals, with two large, carved volutes, are among the hallmarks of Israelite royal architecture.

Within the city and near the gate, a variety of administrative and private structures were built. A storehouse structure with two rows of monolithic stone pillars that supported a roof is noteworthy among these. This building was dismantled in the renewed excavations and reconstructed nearby so as to allow the excavation to continue to lower levels.

A water system of amazing size and engineering complexity was constructed at Hatzor during the reign of King Ahab. It is located in the south of the city, opposite the natural springs in the valley at the base of the mound. The main component of the water system is a broad, rectangular shaft, cut into the rock to a depth of 30 m. A 3 m. wide winding staircase along the walls, leads to the bottom. The lowest flight of stairs continues in a southwesterly direction into a sloping, 4 m. high and 25 m. long tunnel, which leads to a water chamber cut into the aquifer. This unique water system ensured the continued water supply to the city even in time of siege, hidden from the enemy’s view.

In the 8th century BCE Israelite Hatzor lost its importance and declined. It was conquered by Tiglat Pileser III of Assyria in 732 BCE. (2 Kings 15:29) Traces of the destruction have been found all over the city. Hatzor never regained its past glory; only a small settlement continued to exist there, until that too was abandoned in the Hellenistic period.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry