The Canaanites who lived in Hatzor during the biblical era were pretty smug. And for good reason: Not only was Hatzor a metropolis comparable in size to the biggest cities in powerful Babylonia and Egypt, but it also towered above the Via Maris – the main trade route utilized in ancient times. They had other reasons for complacency as well, for their military capabilities were formidable and their fortifications daunting. It was obvious that soldiers daring to try an attack would shiver with fear as they anticipated the burning oil, boiling water, spears and arrows that the defenders would throw down from the walls.

But as King Jabin of Hatzor watched the Israelites conquer piece after piece of the Promised Land, he began to worry. To make certain that he and his people would never fall into Israelite hands, the king initiated a union that consisted of 10 kingdoms in northern Israel, who “made camp together at the Waters of Merom, to fight against Israel” [Joshua 11:5].

Despite the consolidation of their forces, Joshua managed to carry out a vastly successful surprise assault on Hatzor. And when it was over, he commanded his soldiers to devastate the once proud city. “So Joshua and his whole army came against them suddenly at the Waters of Merom and attacked them, and the Lord gave them into the hand of Israel… Israel did not burn any of the cities built on their mounds — except Hatzor, which Joshua burned” [Joshua 11:7-13]. After putting this important city to the torch, Joshua could finally settle the land of Israel.

In 2005, UNESCO added Tel Hatzor to its list of World Heritage Sites of outstanding universal value, and over the last few years Hatzor has undergone an incredible facelift. Today the tel is a fascinating site with partially restored and reconstructed structures and excellent signs.

An Israeli soldier 'on guard' at Hatzor (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

An Israeli soldier ‘on guard’ at Hatzor (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Together with Megiddo and Gezer, Hatzor was mentioned in Kings (9:15) as part of Solomon’s vast building, and fortification, program. The newly well-protected city now had everything it needed to survive as a settlement: fertile land, lush springs, a major thoroughfare, and hills so high that its soldiers could spot an attacking army long before it reached the city gates. But there was still one glitch: Hatzor’s water sources were located outside the city walls. Enemies who couldn’t charge up the heights, or make it through the massive gates, could simply lay siege to the city and wait until the inhabitants began dying of thirst.

King Ahab, ruler of the northern kingdom of Israel, ordered his engineers to find a solution. The result, executed with hammer and chisel in the 9th century B.C.E., was a monumental, sophisticated water system that kept the water supply safe inside in the city. During this period Hatzor doubled in size and became the greatest city in the land of Israel.

Touring the remains at Tel Hatzor (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Touring the remains at Tel Hatzor (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Fortifications, the water system, and the loftiness of Hatzor all proved useless when the Assyrians attacked in 732 B.C.E. After the battle, the people of Hatzor were led into exile. “In the time of Pekah King of Israel, Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria came and took Ijon, Abel Beth Maacah, Janoah, Kedesh and Hatzor. He took Gilead and Galilee, including all the land of Naphtali, and deported the people to Assyria” [2 Kings 15:29].

What remains from Hatzor, which never recovered even a shadow of its former glory, are ruins from the 21 cities that stood here one atop the other. In short – a veritable Disneyland for archeology buffs. Save this article – for if nature is your passion, you might want to wait to visit until next April. The gorgeous, delicate Lortet Iris, no longer visible from Highway 90, will be flowering in all its glory on the slopes across from the tel. Just now, there are large white wild carrots there, instead.

Temple prototype?

Tel Hatzor features a lookout over the Lower City, which extended all the way to the trees you see to your north. Settled during the Canaanite period, the lower city boasted about 15,000 inhabitants. Among the most important finds uncovered in the lower portion of Hatzor were remains from a Canaanite temple. Some experts believe that the Israelites, who lived in the wilderness for centuries after the Exodus, had few building skills and had to copy from what they saw around them. Thus Canaanite temples like this one, full of similarities with Solomon’s Temple, may have seem to have served as its prototype.

Visitors enter the Upper City through a gate typical of those also built by King Solomon in Megiddo and Gezer. It had six chambers and two towers. Look for the casement wall (a double wall with rooms) to the left of the gate. It was probably just like the one in Jericho, where Rahab hid Israelite spies and later “let them down by a rope through the window, for the house she lived in was part of the city wall.” [Joshua 2:15].

The palace at Tel Hatzor (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

The palace at Tel Hatzor (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Other highlights at Tel Hatzor include the huge, Canaanite palace where two enormous column bases still stand at the entrance. The lower portions of the walls were built of heavy, decorated basalt stones that today lack their ornamentation but give you the basic idea. Above them the walls were made of mudbrick, interwoven with cedar wood: reconstruction illustrates a bit of its former splendor.

Don’t miss the jewel on Hatzor’s crown: the monumental water system, consisting of a vertical shaft that reached through the earth for 46 meters, a 25-meter long sloping tunnel, and a small pool. Walk all the way down (200 steps) and you will understand the immensity of King Ahab’s project.

The oil press at Tel Hatzor (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

The oil press at Tel Hatzor (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

When you emerge from the water system, walk over to the Israelite area, which was carefully moved from its original site to permit further excavations. Here you will find a beautifully restored 8th century B.C.E. oil press, one of about 20 similar ones that have been discovered so far. Explore a typical “four-room” Israelite house, which had a central courtyard and rooms on three sides, and a large open structure with two long rows of stone columns. This was a public storehouse, and the pillars held up the mid-portion of the roof.

A metal “soldier”, visible from a distance, tops the Israelite Tower at the western edge of the tel. Constructed as the Assyrian threat became frightening reality, it was designed to protect this side of the city from invasion. Sadly, it was of no help to Hatzor, whose conquest signaled the beginning of the end of the independent northern kingdom of Israel.

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Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.