Beit Shemesh Tel Yarmuth urban archaeology park test case for new cooperation

Archaeologists have been working for a decade to integrate a park located in the middle of a new religious neighborhood into the community

 Ramat Beit Shemesh view from Tel Yarmuth (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Ramat Beit Shemesh view from Tel Yarmuth
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Over the horizon to the southwest, past the string of looming red and blue construction cranes and recently built apartment buildings dotting the skyline of the new Dalet 1 neighborhood of Beit Shemesh, is the hill of Tel Azekah and the Ella Valley, where in the biblical account, David battled Goliath.

Continuing south are the nearby remains of the ancient city walls of Khirbet Qeiyafa, one of King David’s fortified cities that were uncovered during a joint Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Antiquities Authority (IAA) salvage excavation from 2007-2013. It has since been declared a national park, preventing expansion of Ramat Beit Shemesh to the south. The excavations at the site led by Hebrew University archaeology Prof. Yosef Garfinkel uncovered a 3,000-year-old Judean fortress.

Still further down is the Byzantine Church of the Glorious Martyr, whose impressive remains were uncovered in 2019, also in salvage excavations by the IAA in conjunction with the Israel Construction and Housing Ministry during construction work for yet another new neighborhood for the city.

On another hilltop some 20 kilometers outside of the new neighborhoods is Tel Lachish, today a national park run by the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority. Mentioned numerous times in the Bible, Lachish was an ancient Canaanite and Israelite city located in the lowlands of Judea and inhabited for some 3,500 years going all the way from the Early Bronze Age to the Byzantine Period.

 Tel Yarmuth Beit Shemesh (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Tel Yarmuth Beit Shemesh (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Eighteen ostraca, or inscribed pottery shards, found in the guardroom of the Lachish city gate provide a glimpse into the final days of the Kingdom of Judah just before the city fell to the Babylonian army of King Nebuchadnezzar II in 586 BCE, during the reign of King Zedekiah. One of the shards bears witness to the destruction of its sister city, Azekah, noting that its fire signals were no longer visible.

There is also Tel Beit Shemesh, a significant archaeological site of the remains of the biblical city that was situated on what was the meeting point between Canaanites, Philistines and Israelites, and where excavations have revealed extensive finds from various periods as early as the Iron Period (12th-7th centuries BCE).

“There are only a few places in Israel which have this number of archaeological sites in such a concentrated area,” said IAA Judea region archaeologist Anna Eirikh-Rose, standing at the top of the ancient Early Bronze age acropolis of the Tel Yarmuth archaeological site. The tel is completely encircled by the new and old neighborhoods of Beit Shemesh, and like in ancient days, can be seen from all the surrounding area.

Tel Yarmuth covers about 18 hectares (about 45 acres) of a green urban area in the middle of the expanding and largely religious city of Beit Shemesh with its some 140,000 residents, 50,000 of whom are slated to be living in the adjacent neighborhoods. The site includes the exposed stone remains of two ancient city walls, an entrance gate, a unique mosaic made of river or sea stones, and a large palace from the Early Bronze period from 3000 BCE located at the foot of the tel. In addition, the gorgeous expanse of open nature along the gentle slopes now verdant and covered with red anemones is home to a variety of wildlife.

Not very far from where Eirikh-Rose stands, along the ridge of the hill, a Bedouin shepherd herds his sheep around some trees, and for a moment it is easy to forget that here, at the top of the hill, you are standing in the middle of one of Israel’s fastest-growing cities.

ARCHAEOLOGISTS HOPE that the years-long cooperative work that has been undertaken with the municipality and the Construction and Housing Ministry will become a model of regular cooperation for the preservation of archaeological sites in face of the never-ending construction, not only in Beit Shemesh but in other cities throughout Israel.

“What is going on in the area of Beit Shemesh is a revolution. You need to realize that the area of Beit Shemesh is full of major archaeological sites, from biblical sites to modern times. Every green hill is actually an archaeological site,” said Dr. Amit Reem, IAA Jerusalem and Judean Hills regional archaeologist. “Add to this the fact that Beit Shemesh in the past 10 years has doubled itself and will be one of the largest cities in the Jerusalem area and you can understand that our hands are full in Beit Shemesh. They need more space to build in the green areas of the archaeological sites.”

 Flock of sheep at Tel Yarmuth (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Flock of sheep at Tel Yarmuth (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Even before the first bulldozer breaks ground for a new neighborhood, archaeologists are now the first in the field to explore the area, said Reem.

But whereas in years past this may have caused animosity among all the players involved, they have come to an understanding and created a model of workable collaboration.

“There is the dilemma because we find marvelous things, important sites, and yet people need to live. The future residents of Beit Shemesh need space, they need houses and you need to give them land. So you can say this is a contradiction between the IAA, the will of the municipality and the will of the people,” he said. “But we have learned to live together with the will of the people to grow. So I say this is a revolution and not a contradiction.”

Reem credits a lot of their success with the Tel Yarmuth archaeological park project – which is still in its final stages and may take about a year to be completed – to the strong partnership that was developed among Beit Shemesh Mayor Dr. Aliza Bloch who was elected in 2018, Beit Shemesh Councilman Zvi Wolicki who holds the portfolio for tourism and environment, and the IAA archaeologists working on the project.

“There is good will from all the parts I think,” he added. “We have established a good and meaningful relationship with the Construction and Housing Ministry and the municipality. There is an understanding of the value of antiquities, and we also know at the IAA that we can’t grab everything; we need to loosen the rope. You just need to explain to people about the archaeology, and if you do it well, they will understand and want to be with you. They listen, we listen and we meet in the middle. This is the way.”

Wolicki, who hopes also to use the archaeological sites to encourage a tourism industry for Beit Shemesh, has been an enthusiastic and hands-on participant in the project since taking on the portfolio in 2018.

“This is a very unique site. It is a very, very early site. There aren’t any other sites from this period that are so large, and not with a palace. It was an important place,” said Wolicki, who grew up in Canada. “When we develop the archaeology we are protecting our open spaces and heritage, and the environment.”

In a statement to The Jerusalem Post, Bloch said because Beit Shemesh is the fastest growing city in Israel, they have come to understand that they must at the same time create strong public establishments while also protecting the rich history in the region, making the city a leader in innovation and progress yet “protective” of their ancient roots.

For example, she said, the Byzantine Church of the Glorious Martyr is an important landmark, and they have cooperated with governmental authorities in order to preserve it as best as possible.

“Since there is constant development here, we often uncover fascinating relics and we must factor in delay time as we advance,” she said. “Overall and due to our excellent partners, we find creative ways to preserve and continue to grow. I am proud to lead a city which allows a place for anyone and everyone to run their preferred lifestyle and that definitely can be seen in all walks of life, archaeology obviously included.”

BECAUSE OF previous excavations at Tel Yarmuth almost 20 years ago by Pierre de Miroschedji, archaeologists already knew there were ancient ruins at the site, said Eirikh-Rose.  And they also knew that in order for the community to embrace the planned archaeological park as its own, they would need to reach out to the residents to become a part of the project of restoration and preservation.

It is a project that has occupied them for nearly 10 years, hosting holiday events and workshops, educational programs for schools, and opportunities for families to take part in the excavations, getting a largely religious population involved in something very new for them. Since the area is to be an unstaffed park, it was important to get the population involved already at the ground level so they can see importance in preserving it and taking care of it, noted Wolicki.

The entrance to the park will be easy to access off a main road in the new neighborhood, making it readily available for residents, and the park will be included in the city’s eruv (Sabbath boundary) so it can be used on Shabbat and holidays.

Omer Shalev, director of the IAA Jerusalem District Education and Community Unit has worked in conjunction with the Beit Shemesh field school and the Beit Shemesh Department of Education to develop educational and community programs to involve the community.

The city education department is talking about developing an archaeology major for high school, which would serve to connect students to the sites. It would also help some students in the Modern Orthodox school framework, who find it difficult to study indoors all the time, to complete their matriculation, said Wolicki. A yearly conference held to present the finds and work at the site also helps to keep local interest in the project.

“It is quite logical – you can’t develop an archaeological park if the community around it doesn’t support it. During corona, we all discovered the importance of the 100 meters next to our house. What we have here in Beit Shemesh is a wonderful present,” he said. “We’ve done this project for many years, but have increased its intensity as the development stage of the park is coming to its completion. We bring students from all of Beit Shemesh to learn about archaeology and the site, to work in the field and experience archaeology with their own hands.”

Often seen at odds with each other, Reem said the IAA has also learned to meet the predominantly Orthodox residents of the city at a place where both sides are comfortable.

“Archaeology is not always skeletons and graves,” said Reem. “That is only one percent of archaeology. Archaeology is also art, history, sacred sites. We understand the sensitivities of the community and the people who live in Beit Shemesh. We can tell them the archaeology of Israel in a way they accept it and enjoy it and learn.”

Glancing over at remains of an ancient wall at the entrance of the park, Eirikh-Rose noted that soon there will be paths and signs and even a three-dimensional display making it easier for people to imagine what the place once looked like. After the Construction and Housing Ministry clears away the construction debris that has piled up at the entrance area, the site will be turned over to the municipality so it can prepare the entrance to the site with benches and shading, giving the families of all religious stripes of the neighborhood a unique local spot to walk around on Shabbat.

“Antiquities are not like trees. When you uproot a tree, you can replant. But when you destroy an antiquity, you can never put it back,” said Eirikh-Rose. “This is one of our country’s resources. We need to cherish it. Those who work to preserve our antiquities keep our legacy. Awareness of this is growing, but we are still not there yet. Tel Yarmuth is the test case.”