The city on the hill

Tel Hatzor boasts the remains of 21 cities and an intricate water system from the 9th century BCE.

tel hatzor 88 (photo credit: )
tel hatzor 88
(photo credit: )
The Canaanites who lived in Hazor during the biblical era were pretty smug. And for good reason: not only was Hazor a metropolis comparable in size to the biggest cities in powerful Babylonia and Egypt, but it towered above the Via Maris - the main trade route utilized in ancient times. They had other reasons to be complacent as well, for they knew that their military capabilities were formidable. Indeed, their fortifications were so daunting that they assumed any soldiers daring to try an attack would shiver with fear as they anticipated the burning tar, spears and arrows the defenders would throw down from the walls. Nevertheless, as the king of Hazor and other cities in the region watched the Israelites conquer area after area in the Promised Land, they became concerned. By now quite worried that he and his people could possibly fall into Israelite hands, King Jabin of Hazor initiated a union between his city and others in Galilee that "made camp together at the Waters of Merom, to fight against Israel" [Joshua 11:5]. But before the Canaanite armies had consolidated their forces, Joshua carried out a vastly successful surprise assault on Hazor. And when it was over, he commanded his soldiers to devastate the once proud city. "So Joshua and his whole army came against them suddenly at the Waters of Merom and attacked them, and the Lord gave them into the hand of Israel... Israel did not burn any of the cities built on their mounds - except Hazor, which Joshua burned" [Joshua 11:7-13]. After putting this important city to the torch, Joshua could finally settle the Land of Israel. "So Joshua took this entire land: the hill country, all the Negev, the whole region of Goshen, the western foothills, the Arabah and the mountains of Israel with their foothills, from Mount Halak, which rises toward Seir, to Baal-gad in the Valley of Lebanon below Mount Hermon" (Joshua 11:16-17). HATZOR IS accessible from a side road leading off of Highway 90 near Kibbutz Ayelet Hashahar. Follow the excellent signs. In 2005, UNESCO added Tel Hatzor to its list of World Heritage Sites of outstanding universal value, and over the last few years Hatzor has undergone an incredible face-lift. While in former years it featured only a few rather neglected excavations, today the area is a fascinating site with partially restored and reconstructed structures and excellent signs. It is also the largest biblical-era archeological site in Israel. No wonder UNESCO considers Hatzor "a testimony to civilizations that have disappeared... [and that it] exerted a powerful influence on later history through the biblical narrative." Together with Megiddo and Gezer, Hazor was mentioned in Kings (9:15) as part of Solomon's vast building and fortification program. The newly well-protected city now had everything it needed to survive as a settlement: fertile land, lush springs, a major thoroughfare and hills so high that its soldiers could spot an attacking army long before it reached the city gates. But there was still one glitch: Hazor's water sources were located outside the city walls. Enemies who couldn't charge up the heights, or make it through the massive gates, could simply lay siege to the city and wait until the inhabitants began dying of thirst! King Ahab, ruler of the northern kingdom of Israel, ordered his engineers to find a solution. The highly professional result, executed with hammer and chisel in the ninth century BCE, was a monumental, sophisticated water system that kept the water supply safe inside in the city. During this period Hazor doubled in size and became the greatest city in the land of Israel. Fortifications, the water system, and the loftiness of Hazor all proved useless when the Assyrians attacked in 732 BCE. After the battle, the people of Hatzor were led into exile. "In the time of Pekah King of Israel, Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria came and took Ijon, Abel-beth-maacah, Janoah, Kedesh and Hazor. He took Gilead and Galilee, including all the land of Naphtali, and deported the people to Assyria" (2 Kings 15:29). Hazor never recovered even a shadow of its former glory. All that remains are ruins from the 21 cities that stood here, one atop the other. In short - a veritable wonderland for archeology buffs. And if nature is your passion, do come in April. The gorgeous, delicate, Lortet iris, no longer visible from Highway 90, will be flowering in all its glory on the slopes across from the tel. ON YOUR tour of Tel Hatzor, begin with a lookout over the Lower City, which extended all the way to the trees you see to your north. Settled during the Canaanite period, the lower city boasted about 15,000 inhabitants. Among the most important finds uncovered in the lower portion of Hazor were remains from a Canaanite temple. Some experts believe that the Israelites, who lived in the wilderness for centuries after the Exodus, had few building skills and had to copy from what they saw around them. Thus Canaanite temples like this one, full of similarities with Solomon's Temple, could possibly have served as its prototype. Enter the Upper City through a gate typical of those also built by King Solomon in Megiddo and Gezer. It had six chambers and two towers: look for the casement wall (a double wall with rooms) to the left of the gate. Other highlights at Tel Hatzor include the fancy, Canaanite palace where two enormous column bases still stand at the entrance. The lower portions of the walls were covered by heavy, decorated basalt stones that today lack their ornamentation but give you the basic idea. The upper parts featured cedar wood; reconstruction illustrates a bit of its former splendor. A large cultic area lies below the palace, dating way back to the 18th century BCE. Note that a little table stands next to each cultic monument. Don't miss the jewel on Hatzor's crown: the monumental water system, consisting of a vertical shaft that reached through the earth for 46 meters, a 25-meter-long sloping tunnel, and a small pool. Walk all the way down and you will understand the immensity of King Ahab's project. Over in the Israelite area (which was carefully moved to a different location so that further excavations could be carried out on the tel) you will find a beautifully restored eighth-century BCE oil press, one of about 20 that have been discovered so far. Most were found in the north, and differ from oil presses in the center of the country and further south. Explore a typical "four-room" Israelite house, which had a central courtyard and rooms on three sides, and examine a large open structure with two long rows of stone columns. This was a public storehouse, and the pillars held up the mid-portion of the roof. The pillars were originally a great deal taller, making the center of the roof higher than its two sides and letting in air and light. A metal "soldier," visible from a distance, tops the Israelite Tower at the western edge of the tel. Constructed as the Assyrian threat became frightening reality, the tower was designed to protect this side of the city from invasion. Sadly, it was of no help, and the city's conquest signaled the beginning of the end of the independent northern kingdom of Israel. LOGICALLY, I would now send you to the Museum of Tel Hatzor Artifacts at Kibbutz Ayelet Hashahar, run by the Israel Nature Reserves and National Parks Authority. Unfortunately it is closed! And no one knows when it will reopen. So, instead, I suggest a visit to the nearby tomb of Honi Hame'agel in Hatzor Haglilit. Leave the tel, turn left, and return to Highway 90. Drive south about three kilometers and turn into little town. Take the main road all the way to the end, where a brown arrow points to a road ascending to the left. Soon you will reach two burial sites: the first belongs to Honi's grandchildren, Abba Hilkiya and Hanan Hanachba - and the second to Honi Hame'agel. Long, long ago, when the Maccabees ruled the Land of Israel, the Jews were in dire need of another miracle. For year after year rain had refused to fall, and now everyone and everything was parched and dry. Winter came again, but the drought continued. The fields were scorched and the troughs were dry. There was nothing at all to drink. In a modest little hut in Galilee there lived a man named Honi. He was considered something of a miracle worker, for he could heal the sick, strengthen the weak, and bring smiles to the faces of the miserable and depressed. One day the people came to him and begged for help. "Please make it rain," they said." Honi walked outside, raised his hands to the heavens and called out, "Lord, please make the wind blow, cover the sky with clouds, and command the rain to fall." But nothing happened. So Honi took a stick and drew a circle. He then stood in the middle and said, "Lord, I am not leaving this circle until it rains!" Suddenly, raindrops began to fall. Drop after drop, little by little. "Lord," cried Honi, "This is not what I asked for! We need tons of rain, strong rain to water the fields and the flowers and fill the cisterns! I am not coming out of this circle!" Torrents began pouring out of the sky, and it seemed the Deluge was about to occur again! "Lord," shouted Honi, "We need a wonderful, refreshing rain to wash away the dirt, and the dust, and to fill our troughs! I remain in the circle!" And then - a wonderful, thirst-quenching rain started to fall. Gardens began to bloom, the world seemed to sparkle and the land was cleansed. The drought was over! Honi came out of the circle, but would be known forever more as Honi the Circlemaker! Note: In Hatzor Haglilit you are on the edge of Biriya Forest, full of picnic sites and recreation areas. Drive through and take your pick, or have a snack at a picnic table near the tombs.