Megiddo, Bible city, archaeology

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Reconstruction of the palace at Megiddo

ancient Megiddo

Ancient Altars

Blazing fire

Ancient Sacrifice

Seductive woman

Jezebel's story

Model of an ancient battering ram

Battering rams

Bible Archaeology
Temples, animal sacrifice, tantilising cult objects,religious beliefs






Megiddo: what happened there

Megiddo's story was shaped by its strategic location. It stood on the Megiddo Pass, a pivotal point on the great highway beside the fertile and well-populated Valley of Jezreel.

Megiddo was ancient and well-guarded. It had a stone gate from Canaanite times and a large Bronze Age altar, part of a religious complex from the third millennium BC. You can see images of both these structures below.

The earliest of the excavated altars is extraordinarly large, 10meters in diameter. A staircase leads up to the altar, and small fence surrounds it. There are large concentrations of animal bones and ashes nearby.

In the 9th century BC, King Ahab, husband of Jezebel, built an enormous water system with a 30 meter shaft and a 70 meter tunnel (see photograph at the end of this page). The tunnel was cut through the stone from both ends at the same time, like Hezekiah's Tunnel in Jerusalem, and the builders were only 1ft. off when they met in the middle of the cutting. 

Location, location...

Megiddo: Map showing the position of Megiddo in ancient IsraelMegiddo guarded the pass of Wadi Arah, which formed a great defensive barrier across the ancient route connecting Egypt and Mesopotamia — Africa and Asia.  It had an age-long importance as a strategic, military, commercial and cultural centre between the countries of the Mediterranean and the lands that lay north and east.


The site, 13 acres in area, was dug before World War I by a German expedition led by Schumacher and afterwards by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago (1925-39). 

Megiddo: Aerial photograph of the excavated site of Megiddo

Aerial view of the excavations at Tel Megiddo

At first, the American expedition worked on the Iron Age levels over the whole surface of the tel. Later, efforts were concentrated on three limited areas: "AA", in the northern quarter, where the town gates had been, together with the palace of the Canaanite kings nearby; "BB", the 
"temenos" or sacred area, the only portion to be cleared right down to bedrock; and "CC" on the south side which was abandoned after a time. The three areas are shown cut into the sides, and on top of, the model reconstruction below. The top layers are Israelite; the lower are Canaanite.

Megiddo: Scale model of the city of Megiddo

Model reconstruction of the city of Megiddo, showing administrative and storage buildings, 
circling walls, and the sophisticated and intricate gate complex at the entrance to the city. City walls, ramparts and gateways were built to withstand battering rams.


Twenty layers of continuous occupation were discovered, the earliest being a settlement of the Neolithic period (which ended around 4000 BC). This was continued in a Chalcolithic village (end of the 4th millenium BCE) which contained an interesting temple, 4 metres by 12, with an altar facing east towards the plain of Jezreel, and a doorway opposite it in one of the long sides.
The next three layers (Strata XVIII to XVI) revealed early Bronze Age towns, dated by the excavators between 2500 and 1950 BC, in pre-Patriarchal times. A large altar for burnt offerings which had formed part of a "bamah" or high place, was discovered in Stratum XVII. The inhabitants of the succeeding city (Stratum XVI) continued to make use of the bamah, altering it, however, in certain respects.


Megiddo's Temples

Megiddo: Photograph from above of the circular altar and sacred area in one of the lower levels at Megiddo

Excavation of the round stone altar and sacred area at Megiddo. 
Notice the depth of accumulated debris that archaeologists had to dig down to reach the altar.

Megiddo: Excavated sacred area and round stone altar, with the fertile plain in the distance.

The excavated round altar at the centre of the image. Megiddo's strategic position is evident in this photo overlooking the fertile plain of Esdraelon, with Mount Tabor in the distance. Nazareth lies in the hills on the left of the picture. See the depth of the excavations: top right shows the original height of the tel.

Megiddo: Photograph from above of the sacred area at Megiddo

The remains of the temples are shown with the round "bamah".

The excavated level called Megiddo XV belongs to the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age (around the 19th century BC).Though it was built over in later reconstructions of the city, the round altar of the "high place" was preserved, probably out of respect for the ancestral cult. It continued to be used on certain occasions (see the photograph above). 

However, these later cities contained three new temples. Two temples were built first, side by side. Then a third was erected, at a slight angle to the other two and over the ruined wall of one of them. This is the best preserved. It contains two rooms, an altar room and a porch, one behind the other, lying north and south. The altar is a rough square, about 2.50 metres on each side. It is made of uncut stone reminiscent of the biblical prescription in Ex. 20:25, although unlike Israelite altars, four steps lead up to the top of it.  

Next to this altar and in the same room, stood a much smaller altar, showing that more than one deity was worshipped in this temple, or that the smaller altar was consecrated to the consort of the principal deity. In front of the altars were the bases of two columns, both well carved, which suggest that there was a second storey to the temple. The porch, which was probably uncovered, was reached by a central door. 

At the outer edge were the bases of two more columns. Probably these had no architectural function but, like Jachin and Boaz in Solomon's temple, served as symbols of the god and his power. East of the altar room was a side room and there may have been other rooms in the second storey. The very thick walls of the temple suggest that, like the Temple of Jerusalem, this one could also serve as a last-resort fortress in times of emergency.

Egyptian Execration Texts

Egyptian execration figurine of clayThere are traces of Egyptian occupation in this and other levels at Megiddo. The best evidence for Egyptian involvement in Canaan is provided by the so-called execration texts of Sesostris 111 (1887-1850 BC) and other Egyptian kings.

These are hieratic (cursive) inscriptions naming the leaders of different cities or certain groups of people, found on clay pots or statuettes (see an example of an Egyptian execration figurine found at Sakkara, at right) which may have been deliberately broken as part of a magic ritual intended to bring about the destruction of the enemies named. For a period when other sources for the history of the land of Canaan are very scarce, these texts have significant value.

The most revealing feature of the later level XIII city (Middle Bronze) was found in the area around the town gateway, where a part of the town wall, the gateway and steps leading up to it were uncovered.

Megiddo's Golden Age

The cities which follow, XII to X, belong to the latter part of the Middle Bronze Age (18th-15th 
centuries BC, corresponding to the Patriarchal period) when the Hyksos ruled Egypt and Canaan. They represent a Golden Age for Megiddo, not again equalled until the time of Solomon.

There was considerable dislocation of life in Palestine in the period immediately following the Hyksos domination (1720-1570 BC). More control was established under the Egyptian pharaoh Thutmosis III. In the "Annals" which he had inscribed on the walls of the temple of Ammon at Karnak (see below), he describes the decisive battle at Megiddo in 1479 BC. The Egyptians faced a strong coalition of Canaanite princes under the leadership of the Canaanite king of Kadesh-on-Orontes. Their forces were drawn up in the Jezreel Valley awaiting an Egyptian onslaught from the south. Instead, the Pharaoh took a direct route through a valley near Megiddo which he calls the valley of the Kenites. (There may be an echo of this group in the story of Deborah, where the commander of the Canaanite forces, Sisera, was killed by Jael, wife of Heber "the Kenite".

Thutmosis III holds a great bundle of the heads of his enemies, among them Canaanite heads from the city of Megiddo

Thutmosis III holds a great bundle of the heads of his enemies, among them Canaanites from Megiddo

The Canaanites, on this earlier occasion, abandoned their chariots and fled before the Egyptian army into the walled city of Megiddo. They might have won had not the Egyptian soldiers stopped to plunder. Instead of a lightning campaign, the king had to organize a siege which lasted for months. 

In the end, the town fell and was destroyed. In the Karnak inscription the Pharaoh gloatingly includes a long list of booty of different kinds, a good indication of the commercial and military importance Megiddo at that time. It is hardly surprising to read that "his Majesty appointed princes anew ... now the fields were made into plots and assigned to inspectors of the palace . . . in order to reap their harvest". The valley of Jezreel very likely remained a royal domain during much of early biblical history as a result of the measures of Thutmosis III.

Megiddo: Massive stones formed the gateway to Megiddo; the inner chambers are still visible

The gates of Megiddo as they are today, with human figures showing the scale of the walls; 
see another image of this gate further down the page

Megiddo: Artist's impression of the successive gateways through which an enemy passed before entering the city of Megiddo

Drawing of the successive gateways through which an enemy passed before entering the city of Megiddo; visitors to the city could be interviewed and processed in the first courtyard, shown above

Megiddo: Archaeological sketch of the six-chambered gateway to the city of Megiddo

Archaeological sketch of the six-chambered gateway to the city of Megiddo. See impressive photographs of the massive stone six-chambered gateway, architectural reconstructions of the city, and the cavernous water storage system that kept the city safe during a siege at   BIBLE ARCHITECTURE: MEGIDDO

Having destroyed the resistance of the Canaanite coalition, Thutmosis went on to the Euphrates, fixing the borders of the Egyptian empire in western Asia. Megiddo itself was rebuilt (Stratum VIII) on much the same lines as the earlier city IX, and became a key-point of 
Egyptian rule, although it was not garrisoned by the Egyptians as was nearby Beth-Shean. Its well-made gateway (see above) is still visible while, in the old temple-district, a new temple was erected, very simple in plan but with extremely thick, strong walls. 

This temple is interesting because it tells us so much about the religion of the Canaanites. There is one main hall, with a shallow niche in the back wall that presumably housed the cult-object. There is nothing resembling a "Holy of Holies" and worshippers were apparently admitted directly into the presence of the deity. Two small rooms on either side of the entrance may have served as priests' rooms or storerooms. 

The Amarna Period

Among the Tel el Amarna letters dating from the first half of the 14th century BC, are some written by Biridiya, king of Megiddo. These provide a vivid picture of life in the Canaanite city at a time when it was threatened on all sides, and near-anarchy prevailed in the whole country. We know this because of the hoard of treasure (see the photographs below) found under the floor of the royal palace in Stratum VIII, hidden just before the palace was overrun by enemy soldiers.

Megiddo: One of the Megiddo ivories. This one shows a female winged sphinx with elongated neck and delicate features and hands

Megiddo, Stratum VIIA, Late Bronze Age II, 13th century B.C.  These delicate carvings 
belong to a group of ivories discovered at the site of Megiddo, in Palestine. 

Megiddo: A beautifully wrought gaming board of ivory and gold

A gaming board found in Stratum VIIA at Megiddo, from the Late Bronze Age II period, 
13th century BC.
 This is one of four similarly-shaped gaming boards for the "game of 58 holes."


Canaanite Art Treasures

The hidden hoard of gold, precious stones, ivory and cosmetic jars of a familiar Egyptian type also included personal ornaments (beads, gold headbands) suggesting that it was all the property of one of the ladies of the court. The whole collection is of immense value for the history of the art and culture of Canaan on the eve of the Hebrew conquest.

The next stratum, Megiddo VII, disclosed the base of a statue of Ramses VI (about 1148-1142 BC). The treasure house of the royal palace of this city was found to contain a large number of ivory objects, discarded by the invaders who overwhelmed Megiddo in the mid-12th century BC. Outstanding among these is an ivory plaque, the "Celebration of Victory" (see the ivory with a seated figure and a harpist, below).

Megiddo: A Megiddo ivory showing a court or religious ritual in which a deity or king is offered gifts, including enemy captives

Pre-Israelite ivory plaque from Megiddo. A harpist plays for a prince, much as David did for Saul

This shows a Canaanite king sitting on his throne at a feast and leading prisoners who are naked but for their headresses, which are similar to the ones used in Egyptian representations of the Beduins called Shosu. In an Egyptian letter (Papyrus Anastasi I from the time of Ramses II) there is a reference to the Wadi Ara near Megiddo which is "dangerous because of Beduins (Shosu) hidden under the bushes." The plaque may celebrate a successful raid against them.

Megiddo's Water Supply

Stratum V11 also had a water system consisting of a 30 metre shaft, connected to a tunnel about 60 metres long which led to a spring. This extraordinary feat of engineering was designed to provide an emergency supply of water — there are richer springs nearer the town — and was constructed on a plan used in Mycenaean towns.

Megiddo: Diagram of the plan of the water system at Megiddo

Diagram of the water system at Megiddo

Megiddo: Photograph of the entrance to the water system of tunnels at Megiddo

The tunnel leading down into the water supply at Megiddo


Israel at Megiddo

The late Bronze Age Megiddo V11 was totally destroyed, a 2-6 foot thick layer of ashes separating it from the next town which made no use of earlier foundations. This destruction may have been the work of the Philistines. There is nothing in the biblical record to suggest that it was the work of the Israelites. 

For some time Megiddo lay a deserted heap of ruins. It was apparently no longer a fortified Canaanite town in the days of Deborah (see Judges 5:19, Song of Deborah).

Distinctive Philistine pottery found at MegiddoEventually another, modest town was built on the site (Stratum VI), its inhabitants following a way of life much like that of their predecessors. Megiddo remained outside the Israelite commonwealth during the period of the tribal league, possibly because it was under Philistine control during much of the time. Typically Philistine pottery (see right) was found in this level, although there is no way to be sure whether this reflects Philistine occupation or merely trade with them. 

This occupation level at Megiddo seems to have lasted until it too was destroyed in about 1000 BC and the area left unoccupied once more. There is no evidence that this was due to Israelite activity, although the Israelites may have taken over control of the territory during the period of its abandonment.

Megiddo in the Israelite Kingdom

Although it is nowhere recorded in the Bible, the incorporation of Megiddo into the Israelite kingdom must have taken place during the period of David's expansion northwards. Israelite influence however, does not seem to have made itself strongly felt in the town (Megiddo V, 10th century BC). The inhabitants continued their way of life and a number of Canaanite cult objects were recovered.

Afterwards, Megiddo became one of the "store cities that Solomon had, and cities of his chariots and cities for his horsemen" (I Kings 9:19). Under Solomon's administrative reform, Megiddo was made the capital of the important 5th district. 

The city's monumental gate (see more images above) similar to those at Gezer and Hazor confirm the Bible statement that Solomon and his successors employed Phoenician builders.

Megiddo: Massive stone gateway makes an impressive and somewhat daunting entrance to the ancient city of Megiddo

The gates at Megiddo; see more images and diagrams of the gate at the top of this page

In spite of its casemate walls, formidable six-roomed city gate and northern fort, Solomon's city was destroyed, at least in part, by Pharaoh Shoshenk I (950-929 BC) as part of his unsuccessful drive to re-establish Egyptian rule in western Asia. A fragment of a stela bearing his name, found at Megiddo (see below), proclaims his conquest of Megiddo.


Megiddo: Large fragment of a stele erected at Megiddo by Pharaoh Shoshenk of Egypt Megiddo: diagram of inscriptions on the stele found at Megiddo

Fragment of a stela erected at Megiddo by Pharaoh Shoshenk of Egypt, 
proclaiming his conquest of the city

The outstanding feature of the city that rose after this (Stratum IV) is a solid city wall of the "offset and inset" type, partly built on top of the remains of the casemate wall. The acropolis of Megiddo, like Ahab's Samaria and, perhaps Jerusalem and Lachish, was occupied by a complex of government buildings which dominated the town. The earlier German expedition found the famous seal of Shema (at right), servant of King Jeroboam I, with the lion, which belongs to this period.Seal of Shema

During the revolt of Jehu against Ahab, Ahaziah, king of Judah, was killed in Megiddo. The destruction of this city (Megiddo IV A) was probably the work of King Hazael of Damascus.
Megiddo III was a modest city, built after King Jehoash of Israel recovered the cities lost by his father. It remained an important centre, a large brick-lined grain silo showing that the peasants of the Jezreel Valley were expected to pay regular taxes to the city governor.

In Assyrian Times

The conquests of Tiglat-Pileser III included Megiddo (734 BC). A new city (Stratum 11) became the capital of the Assyrian administrative region of Megiddo, from which they ruled Galilee. While the Assyrians were attacked by the Medes and Babylonians prior to their collapse in 612 BC,Statue thought to be a portrait of Pharaoh Necho II Josiah, king of Judah, seized what seemed to be an opportunity to recover the northern area. 

Whether or not he actually fortified Megiddo, he chose it as the spot at which to oppose the Egyptian army which Pharaoh Neco (see right) took through Palestine on his way to help the Assyrians recoup their losses. Josiah fell in the battle (609 BC). Again the site lay deserted 
until some time after 450 BC (the Persian period). In the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, a modest village grew up there.

Following Alexander the Great's conquests, Palestine became part of his empire and new settlers from Syria and Macedonia came to Megiddo. As elsewhere, the top of the mound of the old city was too small for extensive development and a new city was founded a few miles away, at the site of the present Arab village Lajjun (called this by the Roman Legion who built their walled camp there). The history of Megiddo had come to an end. 

But its name remained a powerful symbol. In Christian writings, the hill of Megiddo (Har-Megiddo in Hebrew) seemed a fitting place for the last battle on earth. The kings of the earth "will be gathered to the battle of that great day . . . into a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon." (Revelation 16:14, 16).

Parts of this article are from G. Cornfeld, Pictorial Biblical Encyclopedia, 1964


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