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Jerusalem, golden lilies


Beersheba, Bible city



Hazor: the city burns


Hebron, clay bowl


Herod's palace at Jericho, model


Ivory carving from Jezreel


Lachish temple plan


Ivory carving excavated at Megiddo


Nazareth: women carrying water jars


Mosaic from Sepphoris, head of a woman





















Ancient Bible Cities

In biblical times, a city was a large cluster of buildings surrounded by walls. It had these features:

  • a massive entrance gate

  • the palace

  • the main temple with perhaps some smaller subsidiary buildings

  • the central administrative buildings and 

  • housing for a whole range of trades and services: craftsmen, traders, priests and tax collectors.

The cities in the north of Israel were larger and richer, because the land was more fertile. Bigger crops meant more taxes and larger cities, with massive walls to protect them. Megiddo, in a key location with fertile land, was 10 hectares/25 acres. Ai, Gezer and Arad were only 6 hectares/15 acres. Wealthy Jerusalem in the south was the exception. Its surrounding land was not very fertile, but it was the religious center to which all Jewish people were drawn.

The photograph below is not, of course, an ancient Israelite city. It is Carcassonne in France. But it shows the traditional layout of a fortified city. An encircling wall encloses

  • sacred buildings 

  • a royal palace

  • houses for people who acted as royal 'back-up': public servants, military personnel, craftsmen and traders.

This, on a smaller scale, was the layout of cities in the biblical world.

Aerial photograph of the city of Carcassonne in France, showing layout of a walled city

Aerial photograph of the city of Carcassonne in France

An ancient city was protected by a ring of walls, with a rampart leading up to the city gates. Inside the walls were houses of varying shapes and sizes, but also monumental buildings which covered a substantial part of the walled area. Among these were the temple and the palace, often at the center of the settlement or in a prominent position. All the houses were accessible via narrow alleys.

A city had to be situated near a water supply, with wells in the nearby plains or valleys.

  The water system at Hazor

The water system at Hazor

The earliest cities had mudbrick walls from 2 to 6 metres thick on stone foundations, with projecting semicircular or rectangular towers. The gate had towers flanking it on either side.

The earliest type of house was the wide-room house. Its basic design has changed very little (see the interior of a mudbrick house Interior of a mudbrick house with wooden roof and small shuttered windowswith small shuttered windows and a wooden roof, below). The floor was below ground level and you entered it by two descending steps. The entrance from the street was in the shorter wall. Rooms had benches running along the walls. 

This basic design could be enlarged by the addition of annexes.

Until the beginning of the 1st millennium BC, the city states were independent of each other and, if we can judge from the amount of attention lavished on the walls and fortifications, often warring with each other. 

For much of the time there was an imperial power lurking in the wings - usually Egypt. This power exercised a certain amount of control, for though the land was not rich, and not really worth conquering in its own right, it lay on important trade routes between Egypt and the north and east.

In the struggle for power between Egypt and Syria or the rulers of Mesopotamia, it was important to control the route up the coast, which turned inland near Megiddo via the Plain of Esdraelon and crossed the Jordan on the road to Damascus. In times of peace, the area was no less important, since it was a center of thriving trade. 

Israelite Cities

Map of the main Israelite cities and geographical areasUnlike the cities of the Canaanites, Israelite cities were not independent states but part of a larger political unit. In the days of the Judges, this was the tribal federation; later on it became the central government in Jerusalem, then the two capitals of the divided monarchy.

Many Israelite cities were built on the sites of Canaanite cities and the newcomers used the existing installations as far as they could be repaired. Such places acquired their Israelite character only over a period of time. Many others, however, were built in the unpopulated hill country.

Water Supply 

The first requirement was the establishment of a reliable water supply. This prompted the widespread use of plastered cisterns, which were apparently introduced at the time of the settlement of the Israelites in the land. 

The availability of water remained, as in Canaanite times, the essential factor in the choice of the site for a new city while the size of the water supply remained decisive for the development of the city. The installations at Megiddo make it clear that as early as Canaanite times, care was taken to ensure safe access to water while the city was under siege or attack.

In Lachish and Jerusalem, the system of making underground tunnels to bring water into the citadel was further developed.


Where the Israelites found the fortifications of a city still in good repair, they were content to maintain them. If the fortifications had been destroyed, or in new settlements, the Israelites established their own system of defences. If a site had no natural defence (e. g. the slope of a hill), a thick bank of earth would be raised and the wall itself constructed on top. This is illustrated by the gateway of Megiddo (see below). 

A model of the Megiddo tel showing the walled city, main administrative buildings and the complex gate system at the entrance of the city

A model of the Megiddo tel; a high bank of rock and earth supports the entrance road and gates

An ancient tel and the city on its top would have looked something like this 
minus the window-openings in the city wall

Before the monarchy, walls were made of unbaked bricks on a stone foundation. In the early days of the monarchy, casemate walls were constructed. These were made of two parallel walls, the outer one thicker than the inner, connected by a series of cross walls about 1.50-2 m. long which gave the whole system the appearance of a series of rooms.

Casemate wall (double wall with central hollow space between the walls) in the ancient city of Hazor, photograph of excavations

Casemate wall (double wall with central hollow space between the walls) in the ancient city of Hazor

 Apparently these could be filled with earth in times of siege to make a strong defence against battering rams and similar siege engines. They also formed an inner ring road circling the town, for in several Palestinian cities houses were built up along it close to the inner wall. Later on, the casemate walls of a "royal city" like Samaria, built by Omri and Ahab of Israel (1 Kings 16:24), supported imposing superstructures, shops and a palace overlooking a paved courtyard. No attempt appears to have been made to add buttresses to the walls.

Reconstructed Iron Age wall at DanTypes of fortification were improved during the monarchy and another very popular form of city wall developed, made up of a massive "broken line" of alternating recesses and salients (see the reconstructed Iron Age wall at Dan, right). This meant that attackers approaching the inside of the recess were exposed to the defenders standing on the salients on either side. 

In the early days, walls of this kind were built without towers. The form was used in the Megiddo of Jehu's dynasty. Recesses in the wall built by Solomon were blocked on the inside and strengthened and the flanking salients enlarged to serve as the basis for a tower. This made for more effective defence and also a simpler construction of the massive gateway.

Fortified Gates

The gate was the key to a city's defence and potentially its weakest point. Walls were broken for gateways only very reluctantly and then great care was given to their situation. Jerusalem had a number of gates, all mentioned by name in the Bible, but most Israelite cities had only two, one for wheeled traffic and the other, on the opposite side, for pedestrians only. 

The road which led to the main gate was planned, wherever possible, with wartime exigencies as well as peaceful uses in mind. An army marched to the attack with the soldiers holding their weapons in their right hands and their shields in the left. Wherever possible, accordingly, a city gate was placed so that anyone coming up the road had the wall and its defenders on the vulnerable right-hand side. 

Where, as in Megiddo, this was physically impossible, a second outer gate would be built to protect the entrance to the city (see below). This bastion, guarding the approaches to the city, helped to overcome the intrinsic weakness of a system which allowed enemy soldiers to come up close to the walls, protected by their shields.

In the Israelite period, city gates were part of a strong, massive tower, through which the road ran, narrowed by two or three embrasures and closed during the night or in time of war.

Two drawings of a reconstruction of the gates at Megiddo, with floor plan showing guardrooms

Two drawings of a reconstruction of the gates at Megiddo, with floor plan showing guardrooms

Reconstruction of the gates at Megiddo, with floor plan showing guardrooms

The door itself was guarded by two or more pairs of massive piers, forming the guardrooms between them. Behind the first set of piers hung the door, with a huge vertical beam at each side, strengthened by strips of bronze. It moved on hinges fitted into hollowed out stone door sockets on either side of the piers, i.e. at each end of this doorsill of the Lachish gate. The friction between the hinge and the socket (see dotted line) naturally wore out the stone so door sockets might be protected by bronze covers.

The sockets for city gates and the doors to other important buildings had to be replaced frequently. For this reason, many more worn-out door sockets than city gates have been unearthed in Israelite cities. Sometimes the socket stones were used in later buildings.


The gateway was usually further protected by towers. These might be built over the doorway, as in Megiddo, or jutting out from it as in Hazor. A ramp or stairway led up to the tower from the foot of the hill, or the bottom of the earth foundation on which it stood. The top sometimes had an outwork on it.

Egyptian wall relief of Ramses III attacking a Syrian town

This wall relief of Ramses III attacking a Syrian town shows towers with wooden or stone transoms

Egyptian reliefs such as this showing Ramses III attacking a Syrian town (above) show that this outwork often took the form of a wooden or stone transom. Although rare in the Late Bronze Age, such devices became general later on. Additional towers might also be built some distance from the gate at strategic points for the defence and control of the city and its neighbourhood.

The Hyksos gave their cities the added protection of an artificial slope or glacis with a ditch at the bottom, and the system survived in some Israelite cities such as Tel Sheikh Ahmed-el-Areyny (Gath).

Photograph of excavations show Hazor: an artificial slope or glacis with a ditch at the bottom

Hazor: an artificial slope or glacis with a ditch at the bottom

City Architecture

Walls and large buildings in the Israelite cities were made of hewn stone frequently inferior in quality to that used in the preceding Canaanite constructions. The stone used for house building varied from common field stones or bigger roughly shaped quarry stones held
together with plenty of clay mortar, to carefully wrought dressed quarry stone. A typical Israelite wall was made of a mixture of hewn wrought and unhewn stones, the wrought stones being used for corners (cornerstones) and as headers and stretchers at fixed intervals; the space between them was filled by rough stones embedded in mortar. This was a quick and cheap method of building. City walls may have been topped by wooden palisades.


In the earliest Israelite cities (Iron Age 1, 12th to mid-10th century BC) streets were almost unknown. Although Canaanite cities had streets and sewers, these disappeared. Instead the city became a haphazard grouping of family units, "beit-ab" or patriarchal houses. 

Photograph of a 19th century Arab village with small flat-roofed buildings similar to villages in Bible times

Photograph of a 19th century Arab village with flat-roofed stone buildings and small windows 
similar to villages in Bible times

Each of these was a collection of dwellings built around a central courtyard which would be used for all household tasks such as preparing and cooking food. Around it, on the ground, floor, were workshops and storerooms containing, for instance, the great jars in which oil and grain were stored, while in the upper storey the family slept, four to six to a room, in winter. In summer, they slept on the cool, flat roofs.

Large earthenware jars used for storing various items of food and drink. The photograph shows the jars as they were when originally excavated.

 Jars as they were when originally excavated

This system of building seems to have been developed in answer to the country's shortage of long straight timbers. Standing timber such as pine and cypress was mostly used up in the spate of house-building during Iron Age I when settled life extended through Palestine and villages grew into towns. No timber was imported from neighbouring countries except for public buildings erected by the Kings - for example David and Solomon

In the hilly regions there is some evidence that almond wood was used for building in the 10th century BC. As ruined houses of the period rarely have the upper parts of the walls or the roofs still in place when excavated, there is much uncertainty about the appearance of the upper parts of these dwellings.

In the lower storeys the rooms were plastered and of medium size, generally a square of 4 or 5 metres. A house would serve an entire family, from grandparents down to grandchildren. From the limited number of rooms in each dwelling it seems likely that they housed between one and two dozen people. One of the rooms on the ground floor was usually reserved for livestock while provisions were often stored in the living rooms.

Artist's impression of a typical village house, with flat roof and central courtyard

Artist's impression of a typical village house, with flat roof and central courtyard

The houses were probably arranged according to the groupings of different families, the "beit-ab" for the whole clan being in whatever was considered the best or most prominent position, a rural organization being thus gradually transplanted into urban conditions. 

In one arrangement, the main courtyard was surrounded by a collection of rooms or huts built on pillars. Beside this, there were other more modest dwellings, like these rooms and group of houses from Megiddo. Houses like these appear to have been more numerous. A private lane connected the "big house" and its dependent smaller ones, while each grouping was separated from the next by an alley. The only means of communication through the town was along these alleys or, more probably, through the courtyards. Strict privacy within the family was not something to be looked for in a town of this period.

The lay-out of walled cities of the period is repeated in many instances. Inside, and a little distance from the walls was the ring road with houses, the gap between them and the wall being used as storage silos. Within this frame, the centre of the city followed no discernible plan, but was a closely-built maze of cramped alleys and dwellings. 

While the family and clan remained the central units of Hebrew society, such town-construction was appropriate. During the 12th, 11th and 10th centuries BC, however, tribal bonds weakened and were replaced by a central government. This gave cities and their organization a new status. They now featured public buildings and narrow streets.

Economic Development

The change-over from the tribal system was accompanied by economic developments inside the cities. As their population increased, so their wealth grew and created new demands. The proportion of the inhabitants engaged in occupations other than agriculture rose. The shops on the ground floors of the houses produced and sold a variety of products and craftsmen of every sort began to be found in the towns. 

Each particular craft or manufacture became established in a particular quarter of the city, and among the workmen a solidarity developed which is reminiscent of the craft guilds of a later age. 

This too strengthened the ties which linked the different inhabitants of a town, loosening the old tribal bonds and fostering a community of interest which could even tempt a city to develop its own foreign policy, independent of the central authority, or to separate entirely. At the earliest stages of urban settlement, during the days of Judges, there was no question of a dominant, national government. 

Later on, Jeroboam's separation of Israel from Judah was economic as well as political.

Similarly, the towns east of the Jordan in the early days of the monarchy were completely controlled by their own wealthy class who held sway far from Jerusalem. The separation of the Samaritans was also the result of political and social, as well as religious, factors.

Cities of the Later Monarchy - Mid-10th-6th century BC

The havoc and destruction of the Aramean Wars of the 9th and 8th centuries BC were followed by the prosperous period of the reign of Jeroboam II in the Northern Kingdom and Uzziah and Azzariah in Judah. Cities built during this time reflect a distinct pattern belonging to Iron Age II. 

Streets reappear. Sometimes they follow a deliberate plan, as at Tirzah (Tel Far'ah), sometimes they follow the natural line of the hill, as at Debir (Tel beit-Mirsim). 

In Megiddo, Debir and elsewhere, sewers have also been discovered. A palace for the governor or a central administrative building was frequently erected near the main gate, as at Megiddo or at Mizpah. These new features probably had no great impact on the mass of the population. Even in the most "modern" of the cities of the period, alleys still separated groups of buildings, as they had done in the past.

The proper planning of streets and quarters on a regular basis did not come until the Hellenistic period, at which time independent government and policy for each city reached its peak.

Water Supply and Sewage

The cities obtained their water from rain water stored in cisterns under the houses and from public springs or wells within the city limits, from which water was taken each day in pitchers and jars.

The disposal of sewage, from combined bath and toilet rooms, mainly in the better class houses, is indicated, by clay and stone sewers and pipes found in the foundations of Canaanite and Israelite cities. The sanitary facilities, bath-tubs and squatting oriental style toilets must have looked much like the remains of the bathroom in the palace of Lachish (8th century BC). A drain passed through the bottom of the wall; a water-closet fitted against it on the other side (see parallel stones, centre). A large tub would be used for cold water, the small one for hot. After a bath, the water could be run off through clay pipes into a drain or cesspool. The toilet was flushed from a ewer of water and emptied directly into the sewer. Sewers and pipes (see below) would be cleaned at intervals.

Photograph of archaeological evidence of drain and sewage channels in an ancient Middle Eastern city

Archaeological evidence of drain and sewage channels in an ancient Middle Eastern city. Some modern archaeologists state that sewage, including human faeces, was simply hurled into the street and left there. This of course is nonsense. Every small village had a manure pit at its edge. To test this statement, try leaving household rubbish and faeces at the entrance of your own dwelling for a week. 
People in the ancient world were not idiots.

Social and Economic Life

The life of a city was then —as now — influenced by many factors. 

  • If it was a place of pilgrimage or a commercial centre on one of the great highways, then its development would be greatly fostered by the wealth accruing from these activities. 

  • Border towns had strong fortifications and garrisons, with the house of the commander acting as one of the centres of the city life. 

  • Port towns also had a special role. 

  • Some other cities were centres for a specific activity, like the "store-cities" mentioned in the Bible. 

  • The names of four Judean cities, Hebron, Socho, Ziph and Mamshit, have been found on the royal stamps on the handles of storage jars found in excavations. These suggest that the cities had a special function or prestige.

The City Gate

The social and economic life of the city centred around the gate. In peacetime, this was much more than the entrance to the city. There or close nearby was the market where outsiders could bring their merchandise to sell and could buy provisions. There the citizens came to take part in buying and selling, and to meet and gossip.

Gateway to the city of Megiddo

Gateway to the city of Megiddo

Rich and Poor

With internal security and stability, the pace of urban development was accelerated and, with it, new problems arose. The growth and increasing power of a commercial class created the possibility of class conflicts between its members and the poorer people, or the hierarchy of the city temple, whose status also advanced. The tensions thus created are expressed by the prophet Amos. They also gave rise to anti-urban movements such as the Rechabites. The 8th century BC level of Tirzah (Tel Farah) shows a group of excellent private houses with a courtyard flanked on three sides by rooms, divided by a long, straight wall from a quarter in which smaller houses are closely huddled together. This evidence of social inequality reflects the denunciations of the prophets on the rich for trampling upon the poor. 


The city was ruled by elders who, in turn, were subject to the king. He would send a governor to watch over royal interests, especially the payment of taxes. In many cities, the provincial governor's palace has been found, usually a large building consisting of many rooms which might house the city garrison as well as the governor and his retinue. In other cases, the soldiers were garrisoned nearby, as was the case at Megiddo

Even with the expansion of alternate occupations, the bulk of the population continued to live by working in the fields around the town. Many peasants also lived outside the city walls, retiring within them for protection only in times of danger. There were also "daughter-towns" or small, unwalled villages within the district, which were dependant upon and controlled by the city.
Tax collection, accordingly, might be quite a complicated business, and storehouses and storepits had to be prepared to, receive the taxes which were paid in kind by the people.


The remains of such storehouses have been uncovered in Jericho, Gezer, Megiddo, Beth-Shemesh, Beth-Shean, Tel Kassileh and other cities, some of them even containing traces of grain. Most of them date from the Middle and Late Bronze Age (17th-14th centuries BC) and had been cut out of the soft rock on which the city stood. 

It seems probable that their upper part was shaped like a beehive but in every case the domelike superstructure has disappeared. Their dimensions varied. The best preserved ones range from 4 to 11 metres in diameter, 3.75 to 7 metres deep, with capacities from 40 to 450 cubic metres. They were usually built on stone foundations, with a brick floor. Very often the storehouse was part of the defences of the town, serving the needs of the local garrison. One of the best examples is that discovered in Megiddo with two flights of steps, one used for people and loads going up, the other down.


See other fascinating links between 
Archaeology and the Bible





Cities in ancient times  - Beersheba, Dan, Hebron, Hazor, Jericho, Jezreel, Lachish, Megiddo, Nazareth and Sepphoris: Bible Archaeology, Study Resource 

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