Stories from Palestine

The history of Tel Megiddo / Tel el Mutaselim (Armageddon)

February 27, 2022 Kristel Season 5 Episode 7
Stories from Palestine
The history of Tel Megiddo / Tel el Mutaselim (Armageddon)
Show Notes Transcript

Tel megiddo is an archaeological site in the Jezreel valley (Marj bin Amer in Arabic) where they found 25 layers of civilizations. Megiddo is mentioned several times in the Bible and it is associated with Armageddon, mentioned in the book of Revelations, the last book of the New Testament of the Bible, as the location for a final battle. 

It is not for no reason that the writer of the book of Revelations chose to stage this battle at Har Megiddo (the mount of Megiddo, from which Armageddon is a corruption).  This is the site of many ancient battles because of its very strategic location. If you controlled Megiddo, you controlled the most important trade route of that time, the Via Maris.

The most famous battle is the battle of Tuthmose III, the Egyptian Pharaoh, who led his army through the very arrow Aruna pass (Wadi Ara) to surprise the Canaanite vasal kings who were preparing for a rebellion. 

In the 20th century the British army general Allenby, who read the stories of Tuthmose III, used the same strategy in World War I and he defeated the Turkish army at the same location, by coming through the same narrow pass.

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Tel Megiddo in the Jezreel valley, or in Arabic Tel el Mutaselim (the mount of the governor) in Marj bin Amer. 

This is an archaeological site with 25 layers of different civilizations. I have mentioned in previous episodes that they call this a tel, when cities were built and were destroyed or they fell into ruins after earthquakes and the mud bricks weathered down, new rulers and new inhabitants came and built new houses and buildings on top. And when they were attacked and their city was destroyed and the bricks or stones were built over and even stones were reused in the new buildings. That's what creates a tel. It is not a natural mountain, it is man made, we see superimposed cities. And today when archaeologists dig down into the tel, they found remains of different civilizations in the different layers or strata that they uncover. 

Megiddo is a very special site. Together with Jerusalem it is one of the places where most battles were fought. The city was besieged and destroyed and rebuilt over 20 times. And the reason for that is its very important strategic location, probably the most strategic location in the ancient world. 

Megiddo is overlooking a very fertile valley, the Jezreel valley, or in Arabic Marj bin Amer and in ancient Greek texts it is called the Aesdralon valley. This valley is surrounded by hills and mountains and is like a fertile oasis, very suitable for agriculture. But not only that, it is also an important part of the ancient trade route between Egypt and Mesopotamia. It connected the two big empires through this valley and the coastal road that became known as the Via Maris, the road of the sea. Imagine if you were a trader and you came from Egypt and you wanted to go to Damascus for example, you would take the route along the coast, it is flat land, much easier to travel then the mountain ridge, and there were plenty of water supplies from springs. But then going north you would hit the Carmel mountains and in order to avoid climbing the mountains you'd head east through some of the valleys to reach the Jezreel valley and continue through it towards the Lake of Galilee and around the lake to continue to Damascus. 

In order to reach the Jezereel valley the quickest route was through the Aruna pass. A very narrow passage of about 2 meters wide. And once you traveled through this pass you would see the city of Megiddo. The city that controlled the whole region. So it is no surprise that this city was always the target of new upcoming rulers who wanted to control the Via Maris trade route.

The first battle that was recorded in details happened in the 15th century before Christ. It was recorded in hieroglyphic writings in the Temple of Amon-Re in Karnak in Egypt. The story tells about Pharaoh Tuthmose III who heard about a number of Canaanite vasal kings who made a coalition under the leadership of the King of Kaadesh to rebel against the Egyptian rulers of the land. The King of Kaadesh had gathered a large army with chieftains from different city states and an estimated number of 15 thousand soldiers. They got news that the Pharaoh was on his way with an army of between 10 and 20 thousand men, cavalry and chariots and they decided to wait for them at the southern pass at Taanach. 

Tuthmose arrived close to the Jezereel Valley and to Megiddo and now he had to decide which route to take. The northern route from Tel Yokneam, the southern route from Taanach, both of these were longer but much easier to travel, OR the middle route through the Aruna pass. Today this is called Wadi Ara. If he took the narrow pass that meant his army had to walk part of it single-file. They would have to disassemble the chariots. The horses had to walk one after the other. If the enemy was waiting on the other end of the pass they would be slaughtered to pieces. 

The army generals advised him to take the longer route. But Tuthmose sent some scouts through the pass and after receiving information from them, he decided that he would do the unexpected. If his army generals advised him not to take this route then the enemy would not expect them to come from this narrow pass. So he lead the army through the Aruna pass, which must haven taken all day. When they arrived to the other side they had a clear view of Megiddo and there were no enemy armies waiting for them. They set up camp and the next day they decided to attack the army camps of the Canaanites and Tuthmose let his soldiers plunder the camps for charriots and armor. This was a great loss for the Canaanites but it gave their generals the chance to rejoin the defenders inside the city walls of Megiddo. Tuthmose lost the chance of a quick capture of Megiddo by allowing his men to plunder. He then besieged the city of Megiddo for seven months until he could capture it and he captured several other cities in the region and restored his control over the area. 

And Tuthmose realized how important it was to capture Megiddo and he said to his scribe: 

Taking Megiddo is like capturing a thousand cities

Now that he took it, he controlled the trade route and that meant financial and military security.

Jumping to the recent history for a moment, it is really interesting to know that the British general Edmund Allenby, during world war I in 1918, did the exact same thing as Tuthmose III. He had been reading a history book about the Battle of Megiddo and he remembered the strategic decision of Tuthmose and decided to take the narrow Arunah pass, Wadi Ara, and so he took the Turkish soldiers by surprise and then they named him Lord Allenby of Megiddo. So here you can see that you can definitely learn from the history.

But back to the ancient times. Megiddo was captured by Tuthmose III but it did not remain in the hands of the Egyptians. According to biblical accounts Joshua, the leader of the Israelites, captured the city about seventy years later. And archaeological findings show that a new gate and city walls were built around the time of King Solomon, although there are also scholars who think this gate is from the time of king Jeroboam who came after King Solomon.

When you visit Megiddo, the first things you will see are the two city gates that were excavated. There is a late bronze age time gate, the Canaanite city gate, that was flanked by four chambers. It seems like the city in that time did not have a wall so the gate was more of ceremonial importance then defensive. It probably served as an entrance to the palace complex that is right behind the gate. This palace was a huge structure. Only one massive stone wall remains of it. The palace was destroyed in a big fire in the middle of the 12th century BC. The excavators found hundreds of carved ivory artifacts. This finding shows that the rulers were very wealthy at that time.

When you walk up a little higher on the tel, you reach to the iron age time gate, the Israelite gate. It has long been attributed to King Solomon who is known from the Bible to have been a very powerful ruler, always praised for his wisdom and his wealth and the construction of several fortified cities. The Bible mentions that Solomon built the cities of Hazor, Gezer and Megiddo. But today's excavators think that the gate was built by King Jeroboam II in the 8th century BC, about 200 years later. 

The gate itself had six chambers. The outer gate had two chambers and if you passed through it you reached a courtyard in an L shape before you reached the inner gate that had six chambers. This was a much stronger fortified gate than the Canaanite gate. And because the Israelite Kings had a lot of horses and chariots they also had to built a ramp that you can see today, to have access to the city on the hill top. 

The horses needed stables in the city and they found two big horse stables on the northern and on the southern side of the tel. These stables show that Megiddo became important as a cavalry base or a center for commerce in horses. You can still see the big stones that were hollowed out to serve as mangers for the food.

And all these horses needed a lot of food so when the excavators found a huge grain silo, they imagined that this would not only be to feed the inhabitants of Megiddo but also the horses. The silo is dug down into the ground, about 7 meters deep and 11 meters in diameter. The walls of the silo are lined with small field stones. There are two staircases on the side of the circle shaped silo that lead down to the bottom where they found kernels of wheat and remains of straw. They could store up to 1000 tons of wheat here. 

Another very impressive finding is Megiddo's huge water system that was made during the period of the Israelite kings. They realized that their main water source would be out of reach in case the city was besieged by an attacking army. It was outside of the city walls down the hill. So they decided to dig from the inside of the city wall a deep shaft, 36 meters, almost straight down and from there a 70 meters tunnel dug out into the rocks horizontal towards the spring. The tunnel was cut on an incline so that the water would flow from the spring to the bottom of the shaft and the inhabitants could draw water while standing at the top of the shaft. On the end of the spring they had sealed the area with a massive stone wall that was covered with earth so that the enemy would not discover it. 

If you go to the top of the tel where you have an observation point looking out over the valley you can also see the deep trench that was dug in 1925 by the excavation team from Chicago. Here you can see the many different strata, the layers of the more than twenty cities that were built here on top of each other. They excavated down to the bedrock, to the first inhabited layer, back to the 7th century BC, the neolithic period. 

When they were digging here they realized they had found a cultic area that had been used from the 4th century BC to the early Israelite period, with a large number of temples that had been built, one atop the other, for worship and sacrifices to the Canaanite gods. 

From the observation point you look down onto a massive circular altar from the early Canaanite period that is eight meters in diameter. There are seven steps that lead to the top of the altar. The excavators found numerous animal bones here, the leftovers of the animal sacrifices that were done on the altar. In the early Canaanite period the rituals were performed in the open area. Later a tower temple, a fortress like temple, was built over the whole area, that included some other temples. This new temple had thick walls and towers to protect it. Such tower temples have been found elsewhere for example in Tel Balata, the archaeological site close to Nablus.

The city of Megiddo was captured many times. In fact I read that it was taken in all the famous battles that happened here. So despite the fact that it was on a hill and it was surrounded with a wall and towers, the city would fall under the attackers. 

When the Assyrians captured the city in 732 BC it became the capital of an Assyrian district that included the Galilee and the northern valleys. Then at the end of the 7th century it was taken by the Egyptian pharaoh Neco and for people who know the bible stories, this was the pharaoh who had King Josiah of Judah killed at Megiddo. 

The city did not survive the time of the Persian Empire. In the 3rd century BC there were only a few structures left and the inhabitants of Megiddo started to move away from the city to other places. 

During the Roman time, the Romans realized the importance of this strategic location and they station the sixth Roman legion here. Not on the mountain but on the foot of the moutain. They called the encampment Legio and it had about 5000 Roman soldiers. It was the biggest encampment outside of Jerusalem.

Very close to the Roman encampment there was a village called Kefar Othnay. 

In the British Mandate time a prison was built on the ruins of this early Roman time village. After the British left and the State of Israel was established the prison passed to the Israeli army and later the Israeli prison service. Many Palestinian political prisoners are kept in this prison. When Israel adopted new European standards for minimum space per prisoner, they had to move the prisoners to a different location, because the prison did not live up to the new standards. That's when they started excavations in the area of the prison and they discovered ruins of the 1st century Roman town. And while excavating they found a huge mosaic carpet, about 54 m2 in size, in a very good condition with what is probably the earliest mosaic text referring to Jesus as God. It says:

The god-loving Akeptous has offered the table to God Jesus Christ as a memorial,” 

Akeptous is believed to be the name of a woman who paid for a communion table that probably served for the Eucharist ceremony. 

The mosaic floor also features fish, which are considered an early Christian symbol.

The mosaic floor was found inside a room that was probably a residential room that was used as a place where Christians would gather. An early church building, but not yet an official public building, as Christianity was still a forbidden religion in the Roman Empire. These kind of early house churches seem to have been common in the early Christian time. For example in Capernaum near the Lake of Galilee where Jesus used to stay in Peter's house, seems to have been used as a place of gathering before the first church was built in Byzantine time. 

It is very interesting for scholars that this early Christian meeting place was found so close to a Roman legion camp. This may mean that despite the stories of persecution of early Christians by the Romans, there may also have been places like this that were tolerated and even some Romans may have converted to Christianity by that time. Don't forget that the Bible tells the story of a Roman centurion in Caesarea that had his whole family baptized after the apostle Peter came from Joppa to Caesarea to share the message of Jesus. I mentioned that in the episode about Caesarea.

Megiddo is usually identified as the Armageddon of the New Testament book of Revelation. In this book you can read the prophetic visions of the writer of the book, who calls himself John, but scholars do not agree on who the actual author of the book is. I am not a theologian so I will not try to explain or even understand the story of that book that involves a seven headed dragon, a serpent, a beast and angels. But since this is an ancient book, some scholars believe that the book refers to events that have already happened in the past, with the fall of the Roman empire, while other scholars think that this is a futuristic scene that still has to happen.

When you visit Megiddo you will find Christian tour guides and pastors at the observation point overlooking the Jezreel valley explaining to the visitors that this is the place where the last battle between armies in the end of times is going to take place. And after that will be the second coming of Jesus. 

The name Armageddon can be read in the book of Revelation in chapter 16 verse 16 and most scholars agree that this word Armageddon is a corruption of the Hebrew Har Megiddo which means the mountain of Megiddo.

And with such a long history of battles and such an important strategic place, it is not a surprise that the author of the book of Revelation would have taken Har Megiddo as the location for the final apocalyptic battle.