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Tel Arad

Tel Arad National Park holds the archaeological remains of the ancient biblical Canaanite city of Arad.

Tel Arad is one of the most important archaeological sites in Israel, on which were found the remains of a fortified Canaanite city and and an Israelite fortresses.

The Canaanite city was located mainly on the southern slope of the hill.

In the Early Canaanite period, Arad was a large, fortified and prosperous city and was the only large city in the Negev.

It served as the capital of the important Canaanite kingdom, which ruled over a large part of the northern Negev.

The residents earned their living from growing field crops, like wheat, barley, peas, and chick peas.

They also constructed earth dams in the wadis (dry river beds) to increase the amount of water for the orchards, mainly olive groves.

According to experts, at that time the Negev had twice the amount of rain than it does today the agriculture possible.

The city was located at the crossroads of two main trade routes which also contributed to the prosperity of ancient Arad.

Numerous vessels made in Egypt, and a fragment of a ceramic storage jar bearing the name of Pharaoh Narmer, show that they had close trade relations with Egypt.

Arad is mentioned in the Bible in the story of the failed attempt to reach the Promised Land (Numbers 21:1) and in the list of the Canaanite kings defeated by the Children of Israel (Joshua 12:14).

However, this creates a historical-chronological problem with this biblical account, since Caaanite Arad was abandoned, for reasons unknown, and remained desolate for about 1,500 years.

Scholars suggest that the King of Arad mentioned in the Bible was in fact the ruler of the Kingdom of Arad, “the Negev of Arad” (Judges 1:16), whose capital was another city.

At the beginning of Israelite period, a small settlement was established on top of the hill, at the north-eastern corner of Canaanite Arad.

The houses of which were built in a cluster around a central courtyard. This style of settlement is usually attributed to the Israelite settlement period.

Later, six Israelite fortresses were built on this place, one on top of the other during the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah periods.

Fortresses were also built here during the Persian, Hellenistic and Roman periods.

Pieces of broken pottery with writing called ostraca were discovered in the Arad Fortress: about 100 in Hebrew, about 85 in Aramaic, and a few in Greek.

Ostraca were also found on the tel from the Persian period, indicating that at that time Arad served both as a military citadel and a way station.

What to see

The Canaanite City

Canaanite Arad was a planned city from the beginning of the Canaanite urbanization period. 

It is surrounded by a wall and is divided into public buildings and residential areas. 

The rich findings discovered in the excavations demonstrate a range of economic resources such as agriculture, non-irrigated farming, grazing, art, and trade. 

Arad was an urban center for the inhabitants of the region.

It declined and was abandoned around 2500 BCE.

The reasons for this are not completely clear, but it is assumed that the climate became hotter and drier making agriculture nearly impossible.

Also, the nomadic populations of the Negev probably endangered the trade routes, and the security of the city’s population.

Residential homes

The residential area was densely built-up, with streets and alleys between the blocks of houses.

The houses in Arad were built uniformly, aside from their size, in a style called the “Arad House.”

They were broad stone structures built so that the rainwater draining off the slope was collected in a reservoir.

Each house had a walled courtyard, one or two rooms, and a small utility room or kitchen.

The typical living room in an Arad house was rectangular and had with a wooden door that opened into the courtyard.

However, it slightly below the level of the courtyard, so it was reached by going up two or three steps.

Along the walls were low stone benches and in the center of the room was a stone base with a wooden pillar to support the roof. The roof made of wooden beams, bundles of straw and plaster.

Alongside the central hall there were often one or two side rooms, which probably served as storehouse and kitchen.

Grinding stones and a stone mortar for crushing grain were embedded in the floor.

Containers made of dried mud for the storage of grain and clay stoves for heating and cooking were also found in the houses.

A small clay model of a living room was found in one of the houses, showing the ceiling-high entrance and the flat roof.

Only the bases of the walls of the Arad houses have survived, so most of what is known is from this, which is on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

The Palace

The palace of the kings of Canaanite Arad was a large complex of many rooms cubicles and courtyards. 

At its center were the royal chambers which included several large rooms.

Around them were courtyards with groups of rooms, which probably served as administration offices and servants’ quarters.

In the palace grounds stood the royal storehouse, in which storage installations and a large numbers of ceramic storage vessels were found.

In the palace’s central room, a flat piece of chalk was found, on which two human figures had been incised.

One of the figures lying horizontally, the other standing upright, their hands raised, with fingers outstretched and heads depicted as ears of grain.

The scene is known from religious art of the ancient world and is interpreted as representing the Mesopotamian god Tammuz in two phases of the endless cycle of nature.

The standing figure represents the half year of regeneration and growth – life.

While the supine figure symbolizes the half of the year during which plants wither – death.

The Temples

Close to the Palace, surrounded by a stone wall, were temples.

Similar temples were found at En Gedi and at Megiddo

The temples consist of a broad room with a yard, similar to the “Arad Houses”. 

Alongside the temples were found stone monuments, altars for sacrifices and ceremonial basins. 

The multiplicity of temples may indicate the worship of several gods.

Israelite Fortresses

During the period of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, successive fortresses were built on the hill of Arad.

They were a part of a series of fortifications protecting the trade routes in the Negev and the southern border of the kingdom against marauding nomads.

The first of these citadels was built by King Solomon.

It had two parallel walls with cross-walls between them and with a gate protected by two towers in the corners and along the wall.

Inside the citadel were quarters for the garrison, storerooms, and a temple.

In the 9th century BCE, a new fortress was built, surrounded by a massive thick wall.

This fortress, with various modifications, remained in use until the Babylonian conquest.

The Israelite Temple

The remains of a temple were found that was in use at the same time period as the Temple in Jerusalem and served as a roadside temple for travelers, merchants, and the garrison of the fortress.

This is one of the few temples remaining from Biblical times and is the only one known outside of Jerusalem.

The temple in Arad was built according to the plan of the Mishkan described in the Bible, and consisted of three parts: the inner courtyard, the temple and the Holy of Holies.

In the heart of the courtyard there was a square altar, built of small stones, and faced with unchiseled stones.

It was probably similar to the altar described in the Bible (Deut. 27:5) and to that in the Temple in Jerusalem. (II Chronicles 6:13)

This altar complies with the Biblical prohibition against building an altar of stones chiseled by means of a metal tool.

Three steps lead up from it to the Holy of Holies, with two incense altars on the side of the entrance.

Within the boundaries of the temple were found pottery shards with inscriptions, on which were written the names of the priestly families mentioned in the Bible.

The use of the temple appears to have been discontinued in the 8th century BC.

This may have been because of Kings Hezekiah and Josiah stopped the worship in the outlying cities and concentrated it in Jerusalem.

The altar at Tel Be’er Sheva was also dismantled in that period.

Elyashiv House

Close to the southern wall of the fortress an archive containing over 100 ostraca was found, written mostly in ancient Hebrew script.

This is the largest and richest collection of inscriptions from the biblical period ever discovered in Israel.

The letters are from all periods of the citadel’s existence, but most date to the last decades of the kingdom of Judah.

Dates and several names of places in the Negev are mentioned, including Be’er Sheva.

Among the personal names are those of the priestly families Pashur and Meremoth, both mentioned in the Bible. (Jeremiah 20:1; Ezra 8:33)

17 ostraca were addressed to a person named Elyashiv ben Ashiyahu, apparently the commander of the fortress at Tel Arad.

They address the distribution of bread (flour), wine and oil to the soldiers serving in the fortresses of the Negev.

Seals bearing the inscription “Eliashiv ben Ashiyahu” were also found.

Three seals bearing his name were found in the house.

Some of the commander’s letters were addressed to his superior and deal with the deteriorating security situation in the Negev.

In one of them, he gives warning of an emergency and requests reinforcements to be sent to another citadel in the region to repulse an Edomite invasion.

Visit Tel Arad

Like most every where in the Negev and Judean Desert, it is much easier to get here by car.

For those interested, Tel Arad has a camp site called the Canaanite Khan.

If you are going to Masada from Arad you also can stay at the Masada Campgrounds which can only be reached from Arad and Beer Sheva.

See the Tel Arad National Park webpage for more information such as open hours and entrance fees.

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