Excavations done at former Israelite capital Shechem

Palestinian authorities say archeological park at Tel Balata set to open next year.

July 25, 2011 04:24
3 minute read.
TWO PILLAR bases are seen in what was the inner sanctum of this Philistine temple from the 10th cent

Philistine Temple 311. (photo credit: Richard Wiskin)


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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.

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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 experts.


“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 understanding.”

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.

Tel 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.

Over the centuries the city has since spread, and ancient Shechem is now surrounded by Palestinian homes and car garages near the sprawling city’s eastern outskirts.

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.

The 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 capital.

From there it is a short walk to the ruins of the temple, with a stone stele on an outdoor platform overlooking Palestinian homes below.

For decades Tel Balata served as a kind of dumping ground for discarded vehicles.

“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 neighborhood.”

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