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Archaeology in Israel: Megiddo

Tel (mound) Megiddo (Heb. ?????), known as Tel-el-Mutesellim (Hill of the Ruler) has been identified as one of the most important cities of biblical times. Located on a hill overlooking the fertile Jezreel Valley, approximately 22 mi. (35 km.) S.E. of Haifa, Megiddo was of great strategic importance, as it commanded the eastern approaches of Nahal Iron (nahal, a dry river bed), part of the international highway which led from Egypt, along the coastal plain to the Jezreel Valley, and thence to Damascus and Mesopotamia (the highway became known later as Via Maris, Way of the Sea). Numerous battles fought for control of the city are recorded in ancient sources; in the New Testament (Revelations 16:16), Armageddon (believed by some to be a corruption of Har Megiddo - the hill of Megiddo) is named as the site of the Battle of the End of Days.

One of the largest city mounds in Israel (covering an area of about 15 acres) and rich in archeological finds, Tel Megiddo is an important site for the study of the material culture of biblical times. A total of 20 cities were built at Megiddo, one above the other, over the course of 5,000 years of continuous occupation; from the time of the first settlement at the end of the 6th millennium BCE to its abandonment in the 5th century BCE.

The site was excavated in 1903–05 by G. Schumacher, but the most important excavations were conducted by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago between the years 1925 and 1939, under the direction of C.S. Fisher, P.L.O. Guy, and G. Loud. All four of the uppermost cities of the tel, dating to the first half of the 1st millennium BCE, were excavated by this expedition. Several sections excavated to bedrock exposed the remains of the earliest city. Small additional soundings were made by Y. Yadin in 1960 and later years.

A Tel Aviv University-led expedition under the direction of I. Finkelstein and D. Ussishkin renewed the excavations in 1992. Excavations at Megiddo were renewed in 1994, with the aim of clarifying the tel's stratigraphy and chronology and of obtaining further information about architectural and cultural remains at the site. The excavations revealed the existence of more than 20 levels, beginning with the Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods. The finds corroborate written evidence concerning the importance of Megiddo, first as a royal Canaanite city, then as an Egyptian stronghold and administrative center, later as a chariot city of the kings of Israel, and finally as the controlling city of Assyrian and Persian provinces.

Tel Megiddo was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2005.  

A Royal Canaanite City and an Egyptian Administrative Center

A village had been established on the hill of Megiddo at the end of the 6th millennium BCE, but the first fortified urban settlement, remains of which were uncovered on bedrock in the eastern part of the tel, dates from the beginning of the 3rd millennium BCE. Within its walls was an elongated rectangular temple, with an altar opposite its entrance; it had a low ceiling, supported by wooden columns placed on stone bases. The renewed excavations have exposed several long, parallel stone walls, each 4 m. thick, the lanes between them filled with the bones of sacrificed animals. Over the next 2000 years, a series of Canaanite temples were built, one on top of the other, on the site of this ancient temple.

At the end of the 3rd millennium BCE, a circular bama (altar) of fieldstones, 8.5 m. in diameter and 1.5 m high, was built. Seven steps led to its top, upon which sacrifices were offered. This is an excellent example of the cultic bamot (altars) frequently mentioned in the Bible. (e.g., I Samuel 9:12-15) Then, at the beginning of the 2nd millennium BCE, a complex of three identical temples was added at the back of the bama, forming an impressive Canaanite cultic precinct. Each of these megaron-type temples consisted of a rectangular room with a bama at its back and an open courtyard at its façade, where a pair of round stone bases indicate pillars. Toward the end of the 2nd millennium BCE, a new Canaanite temple was built on the ruins of its predecessors; it had especially thick walls and included a small cultic chamber with two towers protecting its façade.

From the beginning of the 2nd millennium BCE, Megiddo was an important military center. The city was surrounded by mighty stone fortifications, strengthened by earthen ramparts with glacis (a sloped hard and smooth coating). The area within the walls was carefully planned and divided into several clearly defined quarters: the royal quarters containing the palaces; the administrative quarter; and the residential quarters. This plan did not significantly change until the 12th century BCE.

Toward the middle of the 2nd millennium, a new gate of unusually large dimensions, built of large ashlars on trimmed basalt foundations, was built in the city's northern wall. It included two pairs of chambers with a broad passage between them, providing convenient access to chariots. Next to the gate in the eastern wall stood the palace of the Canaanite kings of Megiddo. This was a very large and splendid palace, its rooms built around a courtyard. Gold jewelry and ivories found in the palace treasury provide evidence of the wealth of the kings of Megiddo and their political and commercial links with neighboring lands and cultures.

Megiddo is mentioned many times in Egyptian royal inscriptions from the 15th to the 13th centuries BCE. They attest to the city's importance as the center of Egyptian administration in Canaan and as a logistical base on the road north. A statue of an Egyptian official called Thuthotep, which was found in the excavations, was interpreted by some scholars as indicating that an Egyptian governor probably resided there at that time. The transition from the Middle to the Late Bronze was seemingly peaceful. In approximately 1469 B.C.E. Pharaoh Thutmosis III appeared before the walls of Megiddo, after passing through the Aruna Valley giving the city access to the coast. He overcame a coalition of Canaanite city-states and captured the city after a siege of seven months. From then until Stratum VII the city remained under Egyptian sovereignty.

Inscriptions in the temple of the god Amon at Karnak (in Upper Egypt) describe the first military campaign of Thutmose III in Canaan, at the beginning of the 15th century BCE. According to this description, the Egyptian army crossed the hills of Manasseh and then advanced via Nahal Iron to the Jezreel Valley. The united army of the Canaanite kings, surprised by this military move, was soundly defeated; Megiddo was conquered after a seven-month siege.

His majesty [Thutmose III] speaks to his generals:
That wretched enemy [the Canaanites]... has come and has entered into Megiddo. He is there at this moment. He has gathered to him the princes of every foreign country that had been loyal to Egypt, as well as those as far as Naharin and Mitanni [in today's Syria]...
Then his majesty issued forth at the head of his army... He had not met a single enemy. Their southern wing was in Ta'anach, while their northern wing was on the south side of the Qina Valley... Thereupon his majesty [Thutmose] prevailed over them [the Canaanites] at the head of his army. Then they saw his majesty prevailing over them, and they fled headlong to Megiddo with faces of fear. They abandoned their horses and their chariots of gold and silver...

Six letters found in the archives of the Egyptian kings at el-Amarna, dating to the 14th century BCE, were sent by the king of Megiddo to his overlords, the kings of Egypt. In these letters, Biridiya, king of Megiddo, describes the growing threat to his city at the hands of Labayu (king of Shechem) and pleads for help:

To the king, my lord, and my Sun-god, say: Thus Biridiya, the faithful servant of the king. At the two feet of the king, my lord, and my Sun-god, seven and seven times I fall. Let the king know that ever since the archers returned [to Egypt], Labayu has carried on hostilities against me, and we are not able to pluck the wool, and we are not able to go outside the gate in the presence of Labayu, since he learned that thou hast not given archers; and now his face is set to take Megiddo, but let the king protect the city, lest Labayu seize it. Verily, there is no other purpose in Labayu. He seeks to destroy Megiddo.

With the decline of Egyptian control in the 12th and 11th centuries BCE, struggles for power took place among the Canaanites, Philistines and Israelites which left their mark upon the remains at Megiddo. The city was finally conquered by King David, who established it as an important regional center of his kingdom.

The Monarchic Chariot City

Megiddo reached its peak under King Solomon in the 10th century BCE. He rebuilt it as a royal city, administering the northern part of the kingdom. The building of Jerusalem, the capital, and of Hatzor, Megiddo and Gezer, as part of centralized urban planning, is recounted in the Bible:

And this is the reason of the levy which King Solomon raised; for to build the house of the Lord, and his own house, and Millo, and the wall of Jerusalem, and Hatzor, and Megiddo, and Gezer. (I Kings 9:15)

Architectural features characteristic of the royal centers of the monarchic period have been found in all three cities. In the Megiddo excavations, such elements were encountered in the palaces, buildings, fortifications, administrative buildings, storehouses, stables and the water system. According to archaeologist Yigael Yadin, the Iron Age gate with three guardrooms is identical in plan with the gates at Hazor and Gezer and therefore should be related to the biblical testimony on the building activities of King Solomon.

During the reign of Solomon, Megiddo was surrounded by a sturdy casemate wall (two parallel walls with partitions between them, creating rooms). The casemates served as barracks for soldiers and for storage of equipment. A new city gate was constructed on the remains of the Canaanite gate in the northern part of wall. It included three sets of chambers with a passage between them; for additional security, towers and an outer gate were added outside this gate.

Within the city, large palaces were built, and next to them identically planned administrative buildings: a series of rooms around an open central courtyard. These were very well built, with extensive use of large ashlars, the thick walls supporting a second story. Atop the doorposts were Proto-Aeolic stone capitals, with stylized volutes. A rock-cut water installation, probably built in the days of this city, consists of a shaft 81 ft. (25 m.) deep, with stairs leading to a horizontal tunnel 224 ft. (70 m.) long and to a spring in the slope of the hill, which was thus connected with the city inside the walls.

While Yadin associates the palaces with King Solomon, other scholars date the Megiddo gate to the ninth or eighth century and the two palaces to the ninth century. According to this view they should be associated with the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Megiddo was destroyed in the military campaign of Pharaoh Shishak in 926 BCE, and restored during the reign of Ahab, king of Israel (ca. 874 - 852 BCE) who made it a royal chariot city. The new city's walls were 3.5 m. thick, constructed with offsets and insets and incorporating the Solomonic city gate. Noteworthy among the structures from the period of Ahab are several large, identical buildings, covering large areas of the city. Some archeologists believe they were storehouses, barracks or market-places, but most researchers regard them as stables.

The next city at Megiddo was largely occupied by two units of five rectangular stables and one unit of two stables. The southern stable complex is divided into several compartments, each subdivided into three long, parallel halls: the outer halls for stalls, the corridors between them for use by the stable hands. The ceiling of the stables was supported by large, square stone pillars. Massive stone troughs stood in the stables, as well as perforated stones for tying the horses. In the middle of a large courtyard, surrounded by a stone wall, was a watering pool. It is estimated that Megiddo's stables could have accommodated 450 horses; the adjacent structures undoubtedly housed dozens of battle chariots - an impressive quantity in terms of the period. Based on the biblical account, the stables were first dated to the reign of Solomon, but new evidence has established their date as early 9th century BCE, in the reign of King Ahab, who rallied 2,000 chariots against Shalmaneser III at the Battle of Karkar. Other scholars date them to the days of Jeroboam II, in the first half of the eighth century.

To safeguard the city's water supply in times of siege, a subterranean water system was hewn in the rock in the western part of the city, which made it possible to reach the spring at the foot of the hill outside the walls without being seen by the enemy. This project required considerable engineering ingenuity and an enormous amount of hard labor. The water system consists of a square, 25 m.-deep vertical shaft and an 80 m.-long horizontal tunnel. In order to hide the source of water from the enemy and to protect the users of the water system, a particularly thick wall, camouflaged by a covering of earth, was constructed at the entrance to the cave from which the spring emanates, blocking access from the outside.

Megiddo continued to serve as the seat of the royal governor during the reign of Jeroboam II, king of Israel. This is attested to by a seal, found in excavations at the beginning of the 20th century, bearing the inscription to Shema, servant of Jeroboam. During the rebellion of Jehu, Ahaziah, king of Judah, fled to Megiddo and died there of his wounds. (II Kings 9: 27)

The Last Days of Megiddo

The Israelite city perished in 732 B.C.E. with the conquest by Tiglath Pileser III (II Kings 15: 29). The Assyrians made Megiddo the royal city of their province in the north of the conquered kingdom of Israel and rebuilt it in their finest architectural tradition. An orthogonal grid of streets divided the city into quarters. In the south of the city, a round, subterranean stone-lined silo, 11 m. in diameter, with two narrow flights of stairs along its sides, was found. At the end of the 7th century, apparently during the reign of Josiah, king of Judah, a rectangular fortress was constructed on top of the eastern side of the tel, but it remained in use only until Josiah's fall in 609 BCE, when it was destroyed.

King Josiah of Judah was killed by Pharaoh Necho at Megiddo (In his days Pharaoh Necho, king of Egypt, went up against the king of Assyria to the river Euphrates: and king Josiah went against him; and he slew him at Megiddo, when he had seen him, II Kings 23:29). To this event can be attributed the association of war with the Megiddo Valley in Zechariah 12:11 and with Armageddon in Revelation 16:16.

From then on, Megiddo fell into decline; it was finally abandoned during the Persian rule, in the 5th century BCE.

Field Marshal Allenby defeated the Turks at Megiddo in 1918.

On his visit to Israel in 1964 Pope Paul VI was received by President Shazar at Tell Megiddo.

In 2005 Megiddo, along with the other two Biblical tels were registered as  UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

UNESCO World Heritage Designation

Criterion (ii): The three tels represent an interchange of human values throughout the ancient near-east, forged through extensive trade routes and alliances with other states and manifest in building styles which merged Egyptian, Syrian and Aegean influences to create a distinctive local style.

Criterion (iii): The three tels are a testimony to a civilization that has disappeared - that of the Cananean cities of the Bronze Age and the biblical cities of the Iron Age - manifests in their expressions of creativity: town planning, fortifications, palaces, and water collection technologies.

Criterion (iv): The Biblical cities reflect the key stages of urban development in the Levant, which exerted a powerful influence on later history of the region.

Criterion (vi): The three tels, through their mentions in the Bible, constitute a religious and spiritual testimony of Outstanding Universal Value.


All components of the tels are included in the property. The three tels have preserved substantial remains of cities from the Bronze and Iron Age with biblical connection. Each tel relates to the overall property through its temples, fortifications and gate system, palaces, water systems, town planning and prominence in the Bible. None of the attributes are under threat.


All three tels have been generally left untouched and intact since their decline, and subsequent abandonment, between the 10th and 4th centuries BCE. Over time they have retained their authenticity, and acquired the characteristic appearance of a conical shape, with a flattish top, protruding above the surrounding countryside. From the beginning of the 20th century Tel Hazor and Tel Megiddo have been the subject of archaeological investigation, with Tel Beersheba being first excavated during the 1960's.

In the interests of safety and interpretation, some interventions have been made to the water systems at all three sites, but these do not seriously affect the authenticity of the overall system.

At Tel Hazor an unconventional approach was taken to dismantle and rebuild a storehouse and residential building elsewhere on site. These two Iron Age buildings had been excavated in the 1950's and had remained exposed to deterioration on an "island" as excavation work proceeded into earlier archaeological levels. This action was considered justified as it also permitted the completion of the site excavation, and the consolidation of earlier evidence around and beneath the two structures.

Protection and management requirements

The State of Israel owns the three tels. They are designated National Parks administered by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA), and protected under the 1998 National Parks, Nature Reserves, National Sites and Memorial Sites Law. Tel Megiddo and Tel Hazor are located in the Northern District, and Tel Beersheba in the Southern District, of the INPA.

The Planning and Development Forum of the Director General of INPA approves all significant plans regarding activities in the National Parks. In addition, there is an internal World Heritage Site Forum under the chairmanship of the Authority's Director of Archaeology and Heritage. This body coordinates and monitors activities at all the inscribed sites. It is also concerned with their management, and that of those on the Israel Tentative List.

In order to achieve a comparable conservation standard across the three sites that comprise the property a comprehensive conservation plan and monitoring programme is desirable.

Sources: Ministry of Foreign Affairs;
P.L.O. Guy and M. Engberg, Megiddo Tombs (1938);
H. May, Material Remains of the Megiddo Cult (1935);
R.S. Lamon, The Megiddo Water System (1935);
R.S. Lamon and M. Shipton, Megiddo I (1939);
G. Loud, Megiddo II (1948);
Y. Yadin, "Megiddo of the Kings of Israel," in: BA (1970);
ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: I. Finkelstein, D. Ussishkin, and B. Halpern, Megiddo III (2000); idem, Megiddo IV (2006).