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The Divided Kingdom: A Field Trip to Tel Beth Shemesh and Tel Azekah

Posted by on Feb 4, 2015

The Divided Kingdom: A Field Trip to Tel Beth Shemesh and Tel Azekah

On a beautiful Friday, this past December, our group of international archaeology students made history, well… memories of our own! With our lecturer and guide, Dr Omer Sergi, we took to the road and toured archaeological sites that we’ve been studying in our classes. We visited Tel Beth Shemesh, and Tel Azekah in the Shephelah (“the lowlands”), relevant to our studies of Iron Age II (or ‘the Divided Kingdom’ in biblical terms). 

We’ve all heard the biblical story of the Divided Kingdom; King Solomon ruled the glorious ‘United’ Kingdom of Israel from Jerusalem, but following his death, his son Rehoboam is unable to ‘win over’ the entire nation and the country is divided into two kingdoms – Israel in the north and Judah in the south. So with the Bible, archaeology and all the other sources we can muster, what do we know of this period?

Heading into the Shephelah (view from Azekah looking north)

 

Visiting the House of the Sun

Our first stop was Beth Shemesh. This important biblical site was named after the Canaanite sun god, Shemesh, and the name still means ‘House of the Sun’ today. The city (both ancient and modern) overlooks the fertile Sorek Valley and, along with Azekah, lies at the junction between the low and high foothills. This location meant Beth Shemesh was an important border town between the local culture in the coastal plain and that of the hill country; between Philistia and Judah. The site is currently being excavated by Tel Aviv University and boasts plenty of insights into Bronze Age Canaanite culture and the transition into later Iron Age Judahite culture. Its fortifications are impressive and we all had a lot of fun trekking through its ancient, monumental water system.

Dr Omer Sergi explaining the water system of ancient Beth Shemesh before we made our way down!

 

Tel Azekah 

Our second visit, Tel Azekah, was a real treat,  as come July 2015 we will all be excavating here, putting all our hard efforts in the classroom to good use. Tel Azekah sits high above the Valey of Elah, known from the Bible as the location of many battles, including that of David and Goliath. With its steep slopes and monumental fortifications, it is amazing to think of the end of the Judahite Monarchy, and the city’s fall to Assyria. In fact, it is possible the Assyrian siege ramp remains to this day, and some of us will be excavating its likely location in the coming summer.

Dr Omer Sergi explaining the significance of the location of Azekah amidst the great valleys of the Shephelah

The Realities of the Divided Kingdom

So what can we say of the realities of the ‘Divided Kingdom’ spoken of in the Bible? There is no doubt Israel and Judah existed side-by-side for centuries during the early first millennium BCE (during Iron Age II). We have archaeology, Biblical and extra-Biblical sources which demonstrate this. But beyond this, what light can our studies of archaeology and history shed on this period?

The efforts of previous years at Azekah – The Late Bronze Age City (the value of ‘a life in ruins!’)

It appears the Middle East was no less complicated in ancient times than it is today. For instance, it turns out that prior to its downfall, the large and troubled Kingdom of Israel described in the Bible was actually a truly strong and mighty nation, controlling the trade routes between Egypt and Mesopotamia, and powerful enough to lead a number of allied small kingdoms to defeat the mighty Assyrian army. Likewise, the smaller (supposedly spiritually superior) Kingdom of Judah described in the Bible was, in fact, a small and weak nation, whose survival depended on alliances and diplomacy. This small kingdom posed little to no threat to its surrounding kingdoms. However, archaeological findings reveal this is only part of the picture… Early in the days of Judah and Israel, there were two more kingdoms within the borders of modern Israel which were neglected in the Bible! An independent chiefdom located in the Negev, based at Tel Masos, controlled copper mining operations in the Levant, primarily at Timnah (another Tel Aviv University excavation!), and in the Shephelah, the giant and powerful city of Gath (Tel es-Safi) dominated the region. Judah was unable to expand into the Shephelah as long as Gath thrived as a city. However during the 9th century BCE, Gath was destroyed by the Aramaeans from Damascus, leaving a power-vacuum in the region which Judah was eventually able to fill. Thus, the story of the fall of Gath is also the story of the rise of Judah. Modern Middle Eastern politics and state-formation is every bit as complicated and intertwined as in the ancient past!

The view of Ancient Gath from Azekah

With this fresh burst of enthusiasm gleaned from taking to the road in this amazing country, I’m certain all of us here at the international program are eager to ‘dive into the dirt’ this summer and take an active part of the field research illuminating the history of this ancient land.

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