Ancient city arouses controversy in Beit Shemesh

Archeological dig exposes conflicting interests with no simple solution

Archeological squares of the excavation of residential buildings of the city during peace time. (photo credit: ADI MALKA)
Archeological squares of the excavation of residential buildings of the city during peace time.
(photo credit: ADI MALKA)
We are lucky to live in the land of Israel, where every step we take is also a step into a thousand-year-old history. However, this often creates tension between the immediate needs of people living in the present and the imperative to preserve our ancient past.
At the moment, a remarkable drama is being played out in the city of Beit Shemesh. Netivei Israel (the road authority) has built much of – and is planning to complete – a full modern four-lane highway, Route 38, which has already been finished from Sha’ar Hagay to Beit Shemesh and is ultimately meant to reach Ramat Beit Shemesh. The road is critical to enable rapid and convenient transportation for the existing and expanding population of the city (currently about 120,000).
However, the planned road runs right through Tel Beit Shemesh, a well-known archeological site. The tel has been a known site for decades. By law, one must do a “salvage archeological dig” before building a road to determine whether there are important artifacts there. In the salvage digs carried out at a cost of more than NIS 60 million at Tel Beit Shemesh, Netivei Israel discovered findings far more extensive than they had expected.
Dr. Yehuda Govrin, the archeologist in charge of the dig on the eastern and western slopes, revealed that they uncovered for the first time the remains of an enormous and thriving Jewish city from the eight and seventh centuries BCE in the coastal plain, which until now was believed to have been abandoned by the Jews. The area was conquered in 701 BCE by Sennacheriv; all other known Jewish archeological sites from that era seem to have been destroyed and abandoned at that time.
The expansive ancient city, which was hidden under meters of dirt, is considerably more extensive than most currently excavated sites. It includes a large and teeming industrial zone, storage rooms, public buildings and 15 olive presses – more than in any other known Jewish city from this period. They also found a broad range of important artifacts, such as figurines, approximately 100 written seals from different kings of the period, an elaborate and a sophisticated irrigation system capable of storing hundreds of thousands of liters of water, perhaps the oldest known metallurgy workshop in the world.
A partially reconstructed jug – one of many artifacts found at the Tel Beit Shemesh site.
A partially reconstructed jug – one of many artifacts found at the Tel Beit Shemesh site.
The western site is multi-layered with cities excavated from the Canaanite, Philistine, early and later reoccupied Israelite period. They found there an early 16th century palace ruled by a Canaanite queen, perhaps the oldest Israelite temple known to exist, and other important archeological findings such as ceramics, burial plots and material culture of daily life.
These findings have entirely changed our view of the history of the time. Instead of Jews completely leaving the area at this time, it seems they relocated. Apparently, King Hezekiah’s – and later his son King Menashe’s – cooperation with the Asherites, the idolatrous ruling empire at the time, allowed the Jewish settlement here to thrive in safety, which is why they were able to move from the more fortified destroyed hills to the less protected valley. In the northern section of the site there are also fascinating and well-preserved findings that are historically layered from the period of the first Temple, second Temple, Roman and Byzantine eras, up to the Ottoman period. This was apparently a vital and heavily trafficked thoroughfare throughout history.
The finding is an enormous validation of the Bible and deepens our understanding of this critical period. There is a consensus among archeologists that this is an outstanding archeological site. The consensus is that it is highly worth preserving and saving.
It also provides an enormous opportunity to build a national park and museum in a central area in Israel where tourists, Israeli citizens, their families, and students can see with their own eyes the enormity and significance of the findings. Development of the site could also serve as a catalyst to increase tourism to the many magnificent but insufficiently utilized historical, cultural and natural treasures in this area. The local municipality wishes to save the site and ensure that it is connected to the city and not cut off by a major thoroughfare.
Yet the site is at risk of utter destruction.
The present plans for the road would decimate the site forever – a third destruction (churban shlishi) of a 2,700-year-old site. How does one weigh the immediate economic needs and those of the present community against the preservation of Jewish/Israeli history for generations? There are alternatives that would save the site entirely, such as building a tunnel underneath the excavations, building a bridge over the excavations or rerouting the road near Moshav Yishi. Each of these solutions poses problems, is expensive and will significantly delay the completion of the road. But they are not insurmountable. In contrast, this site is a non-renewable resource. Once destroyed, it will be gone forever.
The law calls for archeological findings of such value to be preserved for future generations with implementation of alternatives to be to meet modern needs. Archeologists agree that the site is of great significance; the final decision as to what action to take is to be made by Israel Hasson, the director-general of the Israel Antiquities Authority, who in principle is supportive. However, the pressure of achieving immediate results by finishing the road quickly, minimizing expense for the state and safeguarding profit for the construction companies is crushing.
The value of seeing and learning our history with our own eyes and giving our children and their children that opportunity must be weighed against the costs of building an alternative, the loss to the entrepreneurs building the road who also invested a lot of money in the salvage excavations and the delay of the much-needed road. Moreover, finding the funds to properly maintain and develop such a massive site poses a significant challenge.
In this and other cases nationwide, it is hoped that a reasonable, creative and comprehensive solution that addresses all germane interests can be found so that our archeological treasures can be available as a heritage resource so that all people can see, experience and understand our rich Jewish heritage.
For updated information about the excavations, pictures and information on how to become involved, see the Facebook group Abirai Hatal: