‘Royal estate’ that served biblical kings found in northern Israel
Archaeologists have uncovered a monumental complex in northern Israel that they believe served as a rural estate for ancient kings of biblical fame such as Omri, Ahab and their descendants.
The spectacular pillared building and a surrounding industrial zone have emerged at Horvat Tevet, an ancient site in the Jezreel Valley just outside the modern-day city of Afula. Around 2,900 years ago, the complex probably served as a key site for Israelite officials to collect and redistribute agricultural produce from the surrounding region, archaeologists say.
The ruins were uncovered during a salvage dig ahead of planned road construction. Despite the important discoveries, Horvat Tevet is set to join a growing list of ancient sites in Israel that are destined to be covered or destroyed by modern development projects – much to the chagrin of researchers and conservationists. Meanwhile, the findings are giving researchers clues about the economy of ancient Israel and how its early rulers maintained control over their fractious kingdom.
Horvat Tevet has been known to scholars for a long time, but the importance and age of the ruins were unclear. For example, archaeological surveys in the 19th century identified the large pillared building at the heart of the site as a Roman structure.
Not so, say the archaeologists who have been excavating Tevet for the past two years under a joint project of the Israel Antiquities Authority and Tel Aviv University. It turns out that the most prominent remains in the complex date back to the Iron Age and were constructed during the time of the Omrides. This dynasty ruled over the northern Kingdom of Israel in the 9th century B.C.E., and is known for building imposing palaces at other major biblical sites like Megiddo, Jezreel and their capital, Samaria.
“When you go inside the main building at Horvat Tevet, you are standing in the best preserved building of the House of Omri ever found in Israel,” says Dr. Omer Sergi, a Tel Aviv University archaeologist who co-directs the research of the site together with the IAA’s Karen Covello-Paran and Prof. Hannes Bezzel from the University of Jena.
“The century during which Horvat Tevet was a royal estate was also the century during which the Kingdom of Israel was born, and this opens up a window on the early relations between the clans of Israel, its birth as a kingdom and its political mechanisms of control,” Sergi tells Haaretz.
The rise of the Omrides
When we talk about the northern Kingdom of Israel, we refer to the polity that, according to the Bible, split off from its southern neighbor, Judah, sometime in the 10th century B.C.E., after the death of King Solomon. The existence and extent of the united monarchy under David and Solomon is still very much in question – and there are many scholars today who see evidence that the two Israelite kingdoms (Israel and Judah) developed separately.
But there is little question that the Kingdom of Israel did exist, emerging in the northern highlands of what is today the West Bank and slowly expanding into the Galilee and other areas of the southern Levant. And it was under King Omri and his successors that Israel grew to become a regional power.
The monarchs from the Omride dynasty are the first biblical rulers whose historicity can be confirmed, as they are mentioned in the records of neighboring peoples. King Omri is said by the Moabite Stele of Mesha to have conquered vast territories in Transjordan, while his son, the biblically infamous King Ahab, is mentioned in the Assyrian Kurkh Stele as a key member of a regional alliance that managed to – at least temporarily – halt the expansion of the Assyrian Empire into the Levant at the battle of Qarqar in 853 B.C.E.
The Omrides also engaged in large-scale monumental building, and the complex found at Horvat Tevet was no exception. The site was dominated by a large pillared building, measuring around 30 by 20 meters. The structure was divided into three spaces: two entrance rooms and a central hall divided into three naves by two rows of monolithic stone pillars, which still stand some two meters tall.
In one of the entrance rooms, the archaeologists uncovered a four-horned stone altar, which would likely have been used for sacrifices or libations, Sergi reports. The altar does not however mark the building as a temple, since at this time it was common for cultic activity to take place in administrative structures. Nor can we say which deity was worshipped at Tevet, as the early Israelites are known to have believed in multiple gods.
The belief in the existence of a single deity and the centralization of his cult at the Temple in Jerusalem was a slow, incremental process that took place over the subsequent centuries.
Turning back to Horvat Tevet, the building’s foundations were constructed with well-chiseled limestone blocks which must have been brought from afar (the local stone is basalt) and the floors were also elegantly paved – which is unusual for this period, when most interior surfaces were left bare, Sergi says.
Even though he hesitates to call it a palace per se, given the investment in materials and the visibility of the structure he is confident that the monumental building was some sort of administrative public center that represented the power of the House of Omri in the Jezreel valley.
Near this central building was a large industrial zone: the archaeologists have found pottery kilns, grinding stones to produce flour and textile workshops, Sergi says. Throughout the site, the researchers uncovered hundreds of large storage jars that were typical of the Omride period, which not only supports the dating of the complex, but also suggests its possible purpose.
These storage jars are known to have been part of the royal administrative system that redistributed food and other goods throughout the kingdom, and have been found at other Omride strongholds, such as Megiddo, Jezreel, and Rehov, in the Beth-Shean Valley. What is notable is that while a few dozens of these jars have been found at each of these large urban settlements, at the much smaller rural complex of Horvat Tevet they appeared in the hundreds.
“This suggests that Tevet may have been the point of origin for these jars, or rather, for whatever goods they contained,” Sergi posits. “It was a probably the location where the royal administration collected, stored and redistributed agricultural produce from the entire region.”
The Levantine kingdoms of the Iron Age were not centralized, bureaucratic states, but fairly loose coalitions of clans that remained faithful to the ruling dynasty as long as their needs were met, Sergi explains. The network that links Tevet to the other sites in the kingdom perfectly illustrates how Omri and sons maintained their power.
“We call this model ‘palace-clan relations.’ The palace – that is, the king – had to sustain his ties to different clans in the area,” Sergi says. “The monarchy’s ability to extract agricultural surplus from the local inhabitants and distribute it to its various clients and allies was the basic power of a kingdom in the ancient world.”
The Omrides fall
This system may have been a source of prosperity for the kings of Israel, but it was not a guarantee of stability, particularly in times of crisis. And the crisis came soon enough.
After only about a half a century of Omride rule, the Aramean king of Damascus, Hazael, defeated the Israelites around 840 B.C.E. and conquered large swaths of their kingdom. Layers of destruction dated to Hazael’s invasion – which is also recorded in the Bible – have been found throughout Israel, and now also at Horvat Tevet.
“The complex is contemporary to the Omride palaces in Samaria, Megiddo and Jezreel and is destroyed at the same time, which further links it to this dynasty,” Sergi says.
It seems that whoever was in charge at Tevet knew that the end was near, as the monumental building was largely evacuated and some of its entrances were walled. The arriving conquerors didn’t bother to break in, but simply set the building on fire from outside, which collapsed the roof but left most of the structure intact for archaeologists to find.
While researchers have found that most sites in the Jezreel valley remained uninhabited for a few decades after Hazael’s invasion, Tevet represents a rare exception. There a massive fortress was built almost immediately next to the ruins of the pillared building, together with large grain silos, suggesting the site was still used to exploit the area’s agricultural resources, Sergi says.
It is still unclear who operated Tevet under Aramean hegemony, but this attempt seems to have been unsuccessful, as the site was abandoned by the end of the 9th century B.C.E., possibly in connection to the resurgence of Israel in the area. The Israelite kingdom recovered relatively quickly from the Aramean blow, retaking control of the Jezreel Valley and expanding into territories ranging as far as modern Syria and Sinai.
The Bible says that this revival began with an act of extreme brutality, when, in the wake of the defeat against the Arameans, the Israelite general Jehu staged a coup against King Jehoram, the son of Ahab, seizing the crown and massacring all the remaining descendants of Omri (2 Kings 9-10).
The new dynasty did not rebuild the complex at Tevet, perhaps because it was too linked to the policies of the Omrides. Still, under Jehu and his successors, Israel would prosper for about another century, until its final destruction by the Assyrians around 720 B.C.E.
Horvat Tevet, which means ‘Ruins of Tevet’ in Hebrew, does not appear under this name in the Bible, Sergi notes. The area was part of the allotment of the tribe of Issachar, and a list in the Bible (Joshua 19:17-23) mentions various nearby settlements that were part of this clan’s territory. Some locations, such as Jezreel or Shunem, have been identified by scholars, and it’s possible that with further study we may be able to match one of the other names with the remains at Tevet, Sergi says.
Rule of Baasha: An earlier incarnation
While the monumental building is the most imposing ruin there, the site’s history began well before the time of the Omrides.
Below the main Omride building, the archaeologists have found the remains of an older pillared structure, which may have served a similar purpose for a previous dynasty of Israelite kings. Based on the pottery found in this layer, Sergi dates this earlier phase to the very beginning of the 9th century, B.C.E., more than 2900 years ago. This makes it contemporaneous to the development of Tirzah, a town near Nablus, in today’s West Bank, which according to the Bible was the capital of the Kingdom of Israel under one of its first rulers, Baasha.
The earlier monumental building did not survive long: it was destroyed at the same time as Tirzah, around 900 B.C.E., probably during the power struggle that ensued after Baasha’s death (1 Kings 16:8-22). The Israelite general who emerged from this conflict was none other than Omri, who went on to move the capital to Samaria and build his own monumental complex at Tevet – the one which is still largely visible today.
This short and violent cycle of building, destruction and rebuilding tells us a lot about the instability that accompanied the birth and expansion of the Kingdom of Israel. It paints the picture of a tribal entity slowly evolving into a state as rising local rulers vied for power, made alliances and frequently warred with each other, Sergi says.
“This is the archaeological evidence for the rise of new elites and structures of power, which are not particularly solid and don’t necessarily last long,” he says.
The dig at Horvat Tevet “is very important and gives us evidence and knowledge of the rural aspects of the early phases of this kingdom,” confirms Tel Aviv University’s Israel Finkelstein, one of the country’s leading biblical archaeologists. Finkelstein, together with colleague Assaf Kleiman, recently published a study that attempts to identify archaeological remains from the time of Baasha at Tirzah and other early Israelite settlements, and he agrees that Tevet may offer another rare window into the little-known pre-Omride period.
While the roughly 100 years during which Tevet was a royal estate – first for Baasha and then for the Omrides – were quite adventurous, for most of its history life there must have been relatively peaceful. The site was a small Canaanite rural community already in the early Iron Age, more than 3,000 years ago. After the Israelite period, it returned to being a village in the 7th century B.C.E., under the Assyrians and on into the Persian, Roman and Byzantine eras, Sergi says.
The archaeologists have found some 90 graves from these vastly different periods, which are yielding reams of information on the lives of these rural populations across history.
“This is another unique feature of Horvat Tevet,” Sergi says. “We have cemeteries from such a long period, which can open up a window on the social and cultural changes in the Jezreel Valley under different political hegemonies: Canaanite, Israelite, Assyrian, Persian and so on.”
Come see it – in 1000 years
You might think that with Tevet being such a unique historical site, especially for its insights into ancient Israel, the modern state of Israel would do its outmost to preserve and protect it. But you would be wrong.
The land on which the ruins sit was greenlighted for road development in the 1990s, even though, as mentioned, there was already knowledge of an ancient site there, Sergi says.
“Nowhere else can you go into a palace built by the House of Omri and see it like it stood on the day it was destroyed – there is no such thing in the country, and apparently there still won’t be,” he says.
The extraordinary finds will likely not be enough to stop the planned construction of a new route for Israel’s highway 65 that will bypass the nearby city of Afula, the archaeologist says.
“Ironically, the reason the monumental complex was constructed there in the first place is the same reason why the modern road is going to be built and the site destroyed,” he adds. “Because then as now this is the best route through the Jezreel Valley and north toward the Galilee and Phoenicia. The road has been passing there for thousands of years.”
Technically, the site will not be destroyed, but will be reburied before being paved over, providing some meager consolation to extremely forward-looking scholars: “Maybe in 1000 years someone can go and dig it up again,” Sergi says.
Horvat Tevet is one of many imperiled archaeological sites that have recently undergone emergency digs ahead of major infrastructure projects in Israel. Such salvage excavations are a legal requirement for construction projects that break new ground in the country.
Recent discoveries have included a huge Neolithic settlement in Motza, near Jerusalem, dated to about 9,000 years ago; a Bronze Age megalopolis mid-way between Haifa and Tel Aviv; First-Temple-era remains in Beth Shemesh and a large town from the Early Islamic period in the center of the country.
While in Beth Shemesh protests have pushed authorities and developers to somewhat scale down their plans, most of these discoveries are set to be destroyed or reburied.
Some archaeologists and conservation activists have argued that the Israel Antiquities Authority is too quick to release important ancient sites to developers, and more should be done to alter plans to preserve at least part of what has been discovered.
IAA officials counter that they must strike a balance between preserving antiquities and the needs of Israel’s growing economy and population. This, they say, is achieved by ensuring that large parts of the involved sites remain unexcavated while documenting as much as possible those areas that will be covered by development.
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