A century-long excavation at the ancient Israelite capital of Shechem wrapped up
this week, part of the Palestinian archeological authorities’ preparations to
open the site to the public next year.
The project at Tel Balata, two
kilometers from the West Bank city of Nablus, is being conducted by Dutch and
Palestinian experts under the Palestinian Department of Antiquities, established
in 1997 in the wake of the Oslo Accords.
Now in its 15th year, the
department has 130 workers, and conducts several dozen rescue digs annually at
sites under Palestinian Authority jurisdiction, Hamdan Taha, the department’s
director, told the Associated Press. The department is currently conducting 10
excavations, he said, all with the assistance of international
“Establishing a department of archeology was an important event.
It can be viewed as a revival of the Palestinian Department of Antiquities,
[which] ceased to exist in 1948.
At the same time it gives Palestinians
the opportunity to participate in writing or rewriting the history of Palestine
from its primary sources,” Taha told Al Arabiya television. “The role of
archeology should be preserved to understand the past, and we believe that
archeology can be also an important means for understanding, mutual
The ruins at Shechem show evidence of 4,000 years of
human habitation, and the city is mentioned in the thirdmillennium BCE Ebla
tablets discovered near modern Aleppo, Syria.
The Bible says God promised
the land of Canaan to Abraham at Shechem, and that the patriarch’s
great-grandson, Joseph, was buried there after his body was carried by
Israelites fleeing the bondage of Egypt.
Shechem was the first capital of
the northern Kingdom of Israel, but when the capital moved to Tirza – and then
Samaria – Shechem gradually fell from prominence. After the First Jewish-Roman
War laid waste to Samaria, the Romans created a Neapolis, or “new city,” two
kilometers to the west, the site where modern Nablus now stands.
Balata was first excavated in 1913 by a German team working under the auspices
of the Ottoman Empire. Work was resumed intermittently after World War I, but
most of the German texts documenting the excavation were lost during Allied
bombing in World War II.
US teams continued to work at Tel Balata in the
1950s and 1960s while the West Bank was under Jordanian rule. Once Israel
subsequently took control of the area in the Six Day War the site had been
largely untouched, as Israeli experts focused their attention on nearby Sebastia
(Samaria), a site now contained within Shomron National Park.
centuries the city has since spread, and ancient Shechem is now surrounded by
Palestinian homes and car garages near the sprawling city’s eastern
Joseph’s Tomb, on the outskirts of the city, has for years
been a flashpoint of conflict between Palestinians and observant Jews seeking to
pray at the shrine. In April, Ben-Yosef Livnat, nephew of Sports and Culture
Minister Limor Livnat, was killed when the car he was traveling in came under
fire from a Palestinian Authority policeman while leaving the site.
renewed excavations at Tel Balata and the establishment of the archaeological
park are being conducted jointly by the Palestinian Tourism Ministry, the
government of the Netherlands and UNESCO.
The remains of a Canaanite city
gate from 1600 BCE still stand at the site. A modern visitor can walk through
the portal, passing through two chambers to reach the ancient
From there it is a short walk to the ruins of the temple, with a
stone stele on an outdoor platform overlooking Palestinian homes
For decades Tel Balata served as a kind of dumping ground for
“Through the 1970s and 1980s quite a few visitors
came here, but on the other hand, at the same time it became neglected as well,
that means it became a garbage area. And that of course will no longer happen,”
said Gerrit van der Kooij of Leiden University. “The local population has
started very well to understand the value of the site. Not only the historical
value, but also the value for their own identity, because the local people have
to feel themselves responsible for the archeological heritage that is in their