Tel Megiddo is finally receiving the world attention it is due. The Tel served a central role in different eras of history in this country, and was often the final, decisive battleground of great wars. If that’s not enough, according to Christian faith, it is the site of the Armageddon, where the greatest battle of all time will be fought - that between the forces of good and evil.
“You’re now in the 8th Century BCE. Hop up here on this next ledge and whoops! There you are in the century before. What do you say we visit the late Bronze period, 3,500 years before our time?” says Norma Franklin, my guide and an archeologist from Tel Aviv University. She leads me around Tel Megiddo, the latest winner of the Oscar of archaeological sites: It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site last July.
Franklin takes me on this strange trip through time on one of the hottest days in July. The flaming sun sets the tone for this tour, bringing to mind the apocalyptic Christian vision of what is to take place on this hilltop. The battle between good and evil is called Armageddon because it is an Aramean/Greek mishmash of the name of its prophesied location: Tel Megiddo.
I can envision Bruce Willis leaping from stone to stone behind the Tel. According to the Hollywood version, the hero manages to save mankind from the giant asteroid that threatens it. But that vision looks like child play next to the mother of all battles on Judgment Day that John the Baptist foresees in the Book of Revelations in the New Testament.
That book was probably written in the 1st Century C.E., when the Romans were persecuting the first Christians. That seems to have been the thematic backdrop to the world war between the armies of God and those of the earth, backed by demons.
During the tour I learned that Tel Megiddo was the trigger to some of the most central events, both locally and internationally, that took place in this part of the Levant over the past few thousands of years. Tel Megiddo hides many more treasures and questions within its layers than it does answers.
Not easy being important
If we speak in marketing terms, then Megiddo is one of the strongest brand names in the cultural history of our area. It is mentioned in just about every single early historical source, including the Bible and the New Testament, and then in Egyptian, Hittite, Assyrian and other sources as well.
For the almost 7,000 years of history, the Megiddo site has been built, and then built upon, city on top of city, at least 25 times. I stop the car slightly before the Megiddo junction and ask Norma why Megiddo exactly?
“Because of money and special interests,” she answers me.
“In ancient times there were two basic principles in building cities in our area: strategic location and water sources.” Megiddo was plentiful in both of these areas. There’s a rich spring in the area that has given water to the city’s residents for thousands of years, and the location is excellent.
Ancient Israel was a narrow corridor of sorts that connected the prosperous ancient civilizations in the area of Mesopotamia and Egypt. With the development of writing and commerce, large amounts of people and goods began to move in both directions. Merchants that set out from the Egyptian kingdom, for example, went in the direction of El Arish and Gaza and from there north to Yavneh, Afek, Tul Karm and Jatt. All the way up to the area of what is today Kibbutz Barkai, and from there east over the Jordan River, ending up in the lands of Perath and Ahidekel.
That route was traversed for thousands of years by long convoys of people, bringing wealth through goods and knowledge to the large cities that lined the route.
But there were some drawbacks to being the most important spot along that route. Some of the cities along the route were often attacked by local marauders or imperial armies that swept through the area every once in a while, destroying everything in their path.
Pages of history
The first references to the existence of the settlement of Megiddo are as far back as the dawn of history, in the Calcolithic period when agriculture was the primary form of occupation. Later on, in the Bronze period, the whole area began to quickly urbanize. Walled cities began to spring up along the route, among them Megiddo.
Archeologists and historians have trouble identifying the nations that populated these ancient cities. Franklin says, “the only thing we can say with a measure of certainty is that in the early Bronze Period, some 4,000 years ago, Megiddo was already a wealthy and powerful city-state to be reckoned with.”
It’s easy to understand the archeologist’s frustration. The Tel is a mound of dirt about 60 meters high, which contains the remains of thousands of years of civilization within it. Think of it as pieces of old, torn pages scattered on the ground.
Although reading them is fascinating and they tell an incredible story, the only way you can read it is by gathering them all up, putting them back in order and rebinding them. The binders, in this case, are the archeologists.
One of the many difficulties in this task of putting everything in order is between the “binders” themselves:
The archeologists who have dug and who continue to dig at Tel Megiddo are often unable to agree on the dates of artifacts found at the site or of their significance. This is of double, if not triple, importance, because it isn’t only the beginning of a Middle Eastern civilization that is at stake here, but rather one of the most important periods of our history as a nation: biblical times.
In the middle of the 2nd millennium BCE a dramatic event occurs at Megiddo. A confederation of Canaanite kings decides to revolt against the Egyptian hegemony, and they suffer a crushing defeat at the hands of the Egyptian pharaoh’s (Tutankhamen the 3rd) brothers-in-law.
The battle they fight is the first battle ever to be recorded in human history. Its description appears on victory inscriptions found in the Karnack temples in Upper Egypt.
Wadi Ara attack
According to the inscriptions, Tutankhamen managed to get his horsemen up from Gaza to the Megiddo area within 11 days. Shortly before he charges, Tutankhamen consults his generals over from which point to launch the attack. From the different suggestions offered, he chooses to advance through the main road (what is today Wadi Ara) and so manages to surprise the enemy, which was expecting an attack from the flank.
More than 3,500 years later, Megiddo became the site of another decisive battle. In 1918, British General Allenby brought his cavaliers from Egypt to Megiddo, and in a daring battle crushed the Turkish army to complete the conquest of Israel. Those of you that appreciate the symbolism of the event will be happy to know that this battle was the last great battle in history that involved horsemen.
Not long after, General Allenby was promoted to Field Marshall and acquired the title ‘Lord’ from the king. It was then that he asked to be called Lord Allenby of Megiddo.
We continue our wanderings over the Tel to a beautiful lookout point. The Tel is the gateway to the Jezreel Valley, and from its vantage you can see the Gilboa Mountains, Nazareth and of course, Mt. Tabor. Norma points out the ruins of a magnificent altar, finding it hard to conceal her excitement.
Archeologists speak in the language of stones. Signs that don’t mean anything to us can tell them marvelous tales. The ritual altar is from the Bronze period, and bones of small animals that were sacrificed by the local priests were found nearby.
From the lookout point we can also see the northern stables, whose story have bedeviled Israeli archeologists for decades, and continue to do so.
Prof. Yisrael Finkelstein gives a gripping account of it in his book “Reshit Yisrael.” Finkelstein is one of the leaders of the Megiddo dig from the Tel Aviv University (TAU has been digging at the site since 1992), along with Prof. David Ussishkin, and Baruch Halperin from the University of Pennsylvania.
On a dig in the 1920s and '30s, a group of archeologists from the University of Chicago discovered a series of structures. Each building was sectioned off into three long and narrow spaces that were separated by low stone walls and arches. The structures were identified as stables and were seen by its discoverers as a clear sign of the wealth of Solomon’s kingdom.
Archeologist Yigael Yadin decided that the stables were actually from the time of King Ahab, who ruled the northern kingdom at the beginning of the 9th century BCE. Later on, Finkelstein wrote in his book that he dates the stables to the time of King Jeroboam the 2nd, from the 8th century BCE.
To add to the confusion, the main problem surrounding the discovery was that nothing to connect the place with horses or carriages was found anywhere around it. Today it seems that that can be explained by the Assyrian army’s conquest of the city, in which they likely cleaned the stables out completely. But the drama doesn’t end there.
In the early 8th century BCE, the city was recaptured and became an Assyrian province. Around 610 BCE, the city is referred to in the biblical book of Kings II. There the author recounts how the Egyptian pharaoh comes to help the Assyrians battle the rising empire of Babel, and on his way he passes through Megiddo and for reasons that are unclear, kills the Judean King Josiah. Elsewhere the canon describes it as an epic battle between kings.
The best part now, for the modern visitor, is clearly the large water cisterns. In Tel Megiddo, as in Hazor and other places, the citizens had to create a safe underground passage to the water springs that originated out of the city. Franklin leads me to a deep shaft and takes us 30 meters down a set of modern stairs, to a rocky platform. Then we set off along a tunnel large enough to fit several people in at a time, leading to the natural cave along the side of the Tel.
I imagine for a moment the slow, grinding and dusty work that must have gone into this tunnel without the benefits of modern technology, but the reality is very different. The tunnel was dug out by people with a great deal of imagination and knowledge about building, with technologies and tools that are as yet unknown to us today. And they reached the exact spot they were headed to.
There are several versions to the dating of this tunnel as well. The Chicago group that discovered the platform dated it to the late Bronze period, around 1300 BCE. Yadin, however, claimed that it was dug out in the 9th century BCE during the biblical kingdom of Omri.
Interestingly, the kings of that period, Omri and Ahab, are given a bad name in the bible. But according to archeologists they are the kings who brought about unprecedented advances and made the kingdom highly influential in the area.
Finkelstein says the water system was built later than that, possibly in the time of Jehoash or Jeroboam II. Franklin feels it was likely built before that - perhaps early Bronze, around 1600 BCE.
A quick calculation shows a disparity of up to 800 years among the various assessments of the water system’s date of origin. That fact alone shows how Megiddo continues to guard her secrets carefully beneath the earth, and that there is much to still discover.
Tel Megiddo National Park
- To get there: From Megiddo junction (from the west, road #65) turn left (north) to road #66. After two kilometers (1.2 miles) turn left and then immediately left again.
- Opening hours: April-September: Sat- Th: 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Fri until 4 p.m., October- March: the park closes at 4 p.m. weekdays, and Fridays at 3 p.m.
- Fees: Adults NIS 23, kids 5-18 years NIS 12. Group rates available
- Handicapped access to the water system is available, but must be arranged in advance.
- Other facilities: exhibit, short movie about the Tel, signs and detailed explanations about the site. Guided tours are available for a fee and with advance reservations.
- Tel's tel: +972.4.649.0316