The Biblical Tells and Ancient Water Systems -- Megiddo, Hazor and Beer Sheba are representative of tells that contain substantial remains of cities with biblical connections.
The three tells also present some of the best examples in the Levant of elaborate Iron Age, underground water collecting systems, created to serve dense urban communities. Their traces of construction over the millennia reflect the existence of centralized authority, prosperous agricultural activity and the control of important trade routes.
Map of Biblical TellsLoad map
I visited two of the three inscribed tels on my tour around Israel in November of 2019. The biggest and the most popular of them is Megiddo, in the Lower Galilee. It had been settled from Neolithic times through the Bronze and Iron Ages until about 3rd century BC. Excavations in the 20th century unearthed over twenty layers of cities successively built on this site. Beyond the gates to the site, the rest of it is low wall outlines and occasional stand-alone features. A casual visitor is unlikely to be able to find enough visuals to appreciate anything more than the vague yet obvious notion that this place is really really old. There are a dozen and a half designated points of interest on the walking circuit; having them explicitly named and dated by different eras, in my opinion, is somewhat disorienting - I recognize the attempt to cover more than a single stratum of history but it clashes with the notion that many different layers were built here, when one is emphasized.
Viewpoints above the Jezreel Valley are among the highlights. At the end of the walking circuit, you can descend into the underground water capture system built during the Israelite period around 8th century BC. The tunnel guided water from a spring outside of the city boundaries to a well inside the city walls, thus offering the residents access to fresh water without having to venture beyond the walls. It is probably the most remarkable surviving artifact of the city, even though it does not offer much to look at.
Another inscribed tel is Be’er Sheva at the edge of the Negev Desert. This site is significantly smaller than Megiddo but has a comparable history with the prime coming around 8th century BC. Be’er Sheva is mentioned over 30 times in different places in the Bible. As elsewhere, the outer gates are among the most impressive standing structures on the site, except here you can actually see with the naked eye where the original structure ends and the reconstruction begins. Although many of the walls have thus been visibly reconstructed since the excavations were started here in the 1970s, being able to discern the city plan makes Be’er Sheva a shade more interesting archaeological site to visit. The purpose-built observation tower allows for a good overview of the city anatomy. There is also a water capture system at Be'er Sheva, feeding an underground reservoir from the nearby river. Not much to actually see, but an opportunity to appreciate the industry of a civilization that existed nearly 3,000 years ago.
Both Tel Megiddo and Tel Be’er Sheva are a bit over an hour away from Tel Aviv by car in opposite directions. A true aficionado of archaeology can probably spend 3-4 hours at Megiddo, whereas most other people will cap the visit at about an hour-plus. At Be’er Sheva, an hour would be a stretch for a casual visitor. The third inscribed tel, Hazor, is located in the north of the country close to Tzfat and did not make the cut for my itinerary. If you have the "orange card" Israel Pass - which allows one entry to nearly all national parks in Israel over a period of two weeks - there is no additional charge for entry at each of these. Plenty of tourist traffic exists throughout a day at Megiddo, whereas at Be'er Sheva I had the site nearly to myself in the early morning.
Read more from Ilya Burlak here.
I visited Tel Megiddo during my travels through the Galilee in April 2019. The tel is quite imposing as I approach, as it's the lone hill on the flat Jezreel Plain. Hill look-alike, at least, because this tel is huge. It towers several meters higher than me, and walking up it really feels like walking up a small natural hill. But natural it is not. This tel is made up of 26 different layers of civilization, stretched between maybe 7 millennia all before the time of Jesus. It's been in ruins longer than San Marino has been a state, and inhabited even longer than that, so it's really a historic treasure. Anyway, a visit to the tel will always start at the gates to the city, dating back from the Late Bronze Age. For their age, the walls surrounding the passageway are surprisingly tall. Some layers of civilization have even been flattened to mere inches of thickness. This can be seen in the dug out portion where the Early Bronze Age temple, the site's most famous ruin, is located. The walls of this manmade depression still show several layers of the different cultures that have settled on this very spot. The site is really an interesting setting, with its palm trees all over the place and a view of the vast plains all around. A walk further brings me to 2 of the most impressive ruins: the grain silo and the water management system. I was actually able to climb down and through the water tunnel. It's an ingenious development made several millennia ago, and its scale is impressive until now. The end of the tunnel brought me outside the other side of the tel, and the path around (and over parts of) the tel brought me back to the parking lot.
Tels are a common accessory with ruins here in Israel, but none I've seen have been as interesting or impressive as Megiddo. Bet Shean actually has a large tel with Egyptian remains, but Megiddo has far more layers to it. Of course, there's Hazor and Beersheba, which I haven't been able to visit. From what I've gathered, these tels are really the best and most historically extensive tels in Israel, since Tel-es-Sultan in Jericho is in Palestine, and the 3 tels really provide an amazing show of the long and diverse history of this part of the world. Tels also don't seem to be common in other parts of the world, so these are indeed the best examples of the wonders of the tel in the world of archaeology.
Tels are hills or mounds created over centuries by communities building over the ruins and refuse of the previous structures. Archaeologists often liken tels to a layer cake with each layer being a different period of time. As the mounds grow, they usually become narrower, which eventually leads to a shrinking of the population, and eventual abandonment of the tel. This process, however, can take centuries.
This world heritage site consists of three different tels in different parts of Israel. While there are many archaeological tels in Israel, these three were chosen for World Heritage status because, 1) they all have at least a brief mention in the Old Testament, and 2) they all have extensive human-built water systems. The water systems for all three tels are quite impressive and not obvious when you first arrive at the site as they are underground.
I visited all 3 of the Biblical Tells during my 2016 trip to Israel. By far the most heavily excavated and visited is Meggido. Given its association with the Book of Revelations, it gets many religious tours who stop here on the way to Galilee. Ber Sheeba is very close to the city of the same name and gets many school groups. Hazor is the furthest away from anything and gets the least number of visitors.
Tel Megiddo, one of the three Biblical Tells (basically towns built right on top of each other over the span of hundreds to thousands of years, forming a mound) inscribed on the World Heritage List, is a deeply excavated site rich in history. I visited this tell in February 2015 as part of group tour of Israel with my church, and it was fascinating to see how much archaeological work has been done there. Because I was on a group tour, we didn't have time to tour the site individually, nor was there much discussion about the Bronze-age history. However, we did learn about the association many archaeologists have made of this site's growth during the reign of King Solomon, to include the installation of stables. We also walked through an ancient city gate en route to the top of the hill, to get a better understanding of the tell's strategic placement between the coast and the interior of the country. This advantageous location has led to battles in Biblical times and in more modern times--almost 100 years ago during World War I. Although I didn't get to see any other tells on the group tour, Tel Megiddo was an amazing site to visit.
Logistics: Tel Megiddo can be visited by private transportation or as part of a group tour.
Although this WHS has three locations (in different places of Israel), I visited only one – Megiddo. Megiddo is located in the area full of World Heritage Sites, around 40 km from Haifa, if I remember correctly. Visiting Megiddo may be easily combined with another WHS – Necropolis of Bet Shearim.
The site was firts settled around 9 thousand years ago and became an important point for all groups wanting to control Lower Galilee, such as Egyptians, Kanaans and of course Jews. It is traditionally identified as apocalypic Armageddon, where the final battle between Good and Evil should take place. The site is very well preserved and even for those not interested in archeology, when the weather is good it is a picturesque place worth seeing. Most of the walls, gates, observation points and stables remained in a relatively good condition so it is not difficult to imagine how the town looked like in the biblical times. I was particularly surprised with underground water supply system, which made Megiddo practically self-sufficient during the siege. Overall, from several archeological places I have visited in Israel, I found Megiddo the most interesting.
We visited all 3 Tels and didn’t find the “duplication” excessive – indeed the similarities and differences which emerged were of benefit in understanding the entire nomination. We gave Megiddo just over an hour – but ideally it needed more. Like the previous reviewer we came up against the “dragon at the desk”! We were early enough to get in but it was Shabbat and it was made clear that, even if the official closing time was 3pm, they really wanted us out at 2.45. Also the Water Tunnel closed at 2.30. Hazor took 50 minutes (but the water system unfortunately was closed because of roof falls – who knows when it will reopen). Finally, Beersheba took about an hour – but that was extended by our conversation with one of the young volunteers working on the site.
There are 2 background issues concerning these sites which it is perhaps worth bringing out at this point
a. They were originally nominated on 2 different sets of criteria. For their “Biblical Associations” under ii, iii, iv and vi and for their “Water Systems” under i, ii and iii. During the evaluation Israel asked that this second set not be considered and agreed to change the nominated name from “The Biblical Tels and Ancient Water Systems of …” to merely “The Biblical Tels of …”. Why this happened isn’t made clear in the AB evaluation. The Water systems do however represent a major aspect of what is “on show”
b. Israel has indicated that it might want to add yet more Tels to the inscription and a map in the Nomination File shows another 7 – including our “old friend” Tel Dan which has of course been (unsuccessfully) pursuing a separate nomination for just the Triple Arch Gate element of the Tel. The AB evaluation states that Israel was asked to justify further its choice of just the 3 Tels nominated but I haven’t been able to access its response. In any case, ICOMOS recorded that it “Encourages the State Party to explore the possibility of adding further tels to widen the serial nomination in the future”. Noriceably, of the other 6 only Beit She’an is represented on Usrael’s T List and that for its entire aspect from Tel to Roman City
So, what can you see at each site? Briefly
a. Megiddo. If you can only see 1 then this I guess is the one to see. In fact its most important aspects are those of a Bronze Age Canaanite city and the later Israelite remains are much less significant. The Water system which we had to rush to see consists of a 70 metre long tunnel down some 30 metres of steps. The “visit” is designed such that you exit the tunnel by a lower series of steps just beyond the Tel where you leave the site altogether to be picked up by your tour bus which will have driven to await you!! Alternatively you walk along a road outside the site back to your car. Neither of these options suited us at all as we wished to make full use of our constrained time by revisiting all the site’s elements so we returned along the tunnel and re-climbed the deeper steps! Another noteworthy aspect of the site is the enormous “cut” created by the Rockefeller-funded excavations of the 1920s/30s (Photo). This was "industrialised" archaeology!
b. Hazor. This is primarily another Bronze Age Canaanite site with some Iron Age Israelite elements. One element of note is the Canaanite (??) Cultic area with its stelum or “Massebah” (“You shall not erect a massebah that Yahweh your lord hates" - Deuteronomy 16:22). I would be interested in anyone commenting on the Forum about the Bible’s attitude towards “Masseboth” (plural!) as, from my limited investigations and understanding, it seems rather contradictory.
c. Beersheba. A “genuine” Israelite settlement from the Iron Age. If it is another “Tel” there must be another “Water System” - and indeed there is! For this one you are required to pick up a “hard hat” to protect you as you wend your way through the twisting tunnels. Apart from that this site is perhaps the least interesting of the 3.
I visited Megiddo and Beer Sheba. For Megiddo I needed to go twice, as unlike written in the lonely planet the site closed at 3pm! And the cold hearted lady would not let me in at 3.30pm. The site itself is rather unspectacular compared to Masada or Mamshit, but one can imagine how the city must have looked like. The highlight is the accessible irrigation system. Megiddo is about 30min drive from Haifa and easy accessible. Due to its proximity to the Haifa hotspot (Haifa, Acre, Carmel caves) I suggest Megiddo for all visitors with limited time resources.
Beer Sheba is smaller than Megiddo, but equally few is left. There is an observation tower in the middle and again the highlight is the irrigation system. My visit was quite pleasant and makes a good stopover on the Tel Aviv - Eilat route.
Hatzor user to be a major city spread over an area of 800 Dunam. The site is very much like the one in Megiddo (Armageddon) only larger. It retained an unbelievable underearth water cisterns which for me is the most remarkable discovery at the site. The landscape is beautiful as well. There is a nearby museum of the site at Ayelet Hashahar which was unfortunately closed on our visit.
Megiddo is situated on a hill overlooking the Yizrael Valley. The view is beautiful. The site is one of the most important ones in Israel. I found it a bit diappointing though. There isn't so much left of the city (which is typical for such early sites) and the most interesting artifacts were taken away either to the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem or to the University of Chicago which was responsible for digging the site. The part best preserved is the water tunnel which is remarkably impressive. It requires some effort in descending about 200 steps but the effort is certainly worthwhile.
We have visited all three of the listed tels in Israel, plus many more besides. These three all share the fact that the sites were first settled around 5000 years ago, and have experienced multiple layers of occupation since then; in the case of Hazor and Megiddo, around 20 layers, and Beersheeba about 9 layers.
Tel Hazor is the most northerly, located near Rosh Pinnah. Buses heading north towards Kiryat Shmona and Metulla can drop you at the access road, but do not get confused with Hazor kibbutz which is several kms south. It is a hot, dry and dusty site most of the time, but there are a number of excavations opened up. To find some shade at the site, you can descend into the water works chamber. There is an interesting museum a short distance away.
Har Megiddo (Mount Megiddo or Armageddon) overlooks the Jezreel Valley, and is best accessed by buses travelling between Haifa and Afula. We have been here several times and continue to find it fascinating. Of particular interest are the sunken grain silo, the huge water cistern, and the tunnel (which you can walk through in the shade) which leads to a spring outside the defensive wall. An important occupier was King Solomon, abouth three thousand years ago, who had most of the structures built that can be seen today. The most recent occupiers were the British forces during the First World War.
Tel Beersheeba, is about 5km away from the modern city of Beersheva, and is accessible by local bus. It is a large site comprising ruined streets and houses surrounded by a defensive wall, and showing sophisticated water and drainage systems. The site was occupied by the Ottoman army during the First World War, but they were defeated by ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) horsemen in 1917.
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