Israel travels

Discover Gezer, Israel’s lost city

Today it looks totally desolate, but over 3,000 years ago, Gezer was a major Canaanite center. Archaeologists are uncovering its turbulent history

Standing stones (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Standing stones (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

“Here is the account of the forced labor King Solomon… conscripted to build… Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer. Pharaoh king of Egypt had attacked and captured Gezer… And Solomon rebuilt Gezer….” (1 Kings 9:15‑17)

After the exodus from Egypt and a sojourn in Sinai, the Israelites returned to the land promised to them and to their forefathers by Almighty God. But although they took over many a fortified Canaanite city in the legendary land of milk and honey, several remained tantalizingly out of reach.

One of these was Gezer, located on the edge of coastal plains in an area allotted to the tribe of Ephraim. True, Gezer’s King Horam was killed by Joshua when the king and his army went to the aid of another beleaguered city. But it wasn’t until Solomon’s reign, hundreds of years later, that Gezer became part of the Israelite empire. And it happened only because an Egyptian Pharaoh devastated the city, then offered it to Solomon as a dowry when the king married his daughter.

Archaeology buffs find Tel Gezer a fascinating site, featuring monumental columns from one of the largest Canaanite temples in Israel and an imposing Solomonic gate identical in almost every detail to the two gates at Hazor and Megiddo. Indeed, it seems safe to assume that an energetic King Solomon traveled the country checking on all of his extravagant projects, so visitors who cross the threshold no doubt walk on stones trodden by Israel’s wisest monarch.

Gezer was situated on an extremely strategic spot, above a coastal byway that serviced traders, warriors, and travelers for thousands of years. Thus, while just now Gezer looks totally desolate, over three thousand years ago it was a major city well-known to the Egyptians and ruled by people who often corresponded with the Pharaohs. There were strong commercial connections between Gezer and Egypt and pictures of the ancient city have been found in both Egypt and Mesopotamia (Iraq).

Over six millennia ago, nomads pitched tents and hunted here, as evidenced by flint arrows left from the period. Then, in about 4000 BCE, a small group decided to settle here permanently. They carried stones up the hill from the area down below and built mud-brick houses that fell into disrepair every few years. After they collapsed, settlers would level the stones and mud, dig new foundations, and build again.

Canaanite culture was particularly developed during the middle Bronze Age (about 1500 BCE), when the city was surrounded by massive stone walls and towers. Easy to spot, from ruins at the top of the tel, are portions of the Canaanite city’s southern wall and a water tunnel from the same era.

Carved out of limestone, the tunnel took advantage of a subterranean spring 29 meters deep, and was 67 meters long, four meters wide, and seven meters high. The tunnel has not been restored and cannot be entered. But its opening is clearly visible from the steps.

Tel Gezer (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Tel Gezer (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

A path next to the tunnel and parallel to the southern wall leads to the Israelite city’s entrance. Stones on each side of the gate are of a classic Solomonic style called ashlar — square stones arranged in a specific manner. Only part of the gate was exposed during the first excavations at the site, carried out over a century ago by R.A.S. Macalister, who thought it was a remnant of a Maccabean palace. But Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin was familiar with the biblical passage quoted above. Aware of the gate at Megiddo, and once he had discovered the gate at Hazor, Yadin decided to examine Macalister’s maps more closely. In 1958, he declared this a Solomonic gate, which was uncovered in its entirety a few years later. The same architect probably designed the gates at all three sites.

Each side of the gate is lined by three guard rooms. One of those closest to the entrance still contains a water trough that may have serviced people, animals, or both. Another guard room is surrounded by benches, perhaps to seat judges, prophets, and others who spent time near the gate.

Canaanite brick wall (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Canaanite brick wall (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Directly across from the dirt road leading to Tel Gezer stands a row of strange-looking stones. Called stelae, these “standing stones” rise alone above a pastoral valley. But three or four thousand years ago this was the religious center of Canaanite society. The stelae were probably surrounded by a colonnaded structure with ornamental roofs, columns, and ritual zones.

We can only speculate as to what impelled the Canaanites to build monumental stelae. Perhaps they felt a threat to their culture from the iron‑bearing Hittites, or feared tribes coming over the mountains from the desert. Whatever the reason, they would apparently hold a large religious gathering meant to unify the ranks. Each pillar may have honored the head of a different city‑state.

Erection of pillars to commemorate a religious experience seems to have been traditional among many people of the Middle East. The Israelites, too, commemorated their unity after receiving the Law of Moses by putting up standing stones: “[Moses]. . .built an altar at the foot of the mountain and set up twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel” (Exod. 24:4).

The Bible tells us that the Canaanites sacrificed children to their gods, and practiced ritual prostitution. Jars containing the skeletons of week‑old infants were found here and could conceivably point to sacrifice. On the other hand, these babies died before they were considered people and their sorrowful families may have buried them as close as possible to the gods.

A walk along the standing stones (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
A walk along the standing stones (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Unlike some biblical historical sites whose identity is uncertain, no one doubts that this tel is the biblical city of Gezer. For one thing, a layer of destruction was discovered here that dates to the years around 950 BCE, exactly the time when, according to the Bible, the Egyptian Pharaoh razed the city. Indeed, a mixture of Egyptian and Canaanite arrowheads from that very period were also found at that site. But the clincher came from the hill just opposite Tel Gezer. A number of stelae found standing in a row proclaimed the borders of Gezer in both Hebrew and Greek.

It isn’t at all easy to see today, but when first uncovered, there was a clear destruction level right here dating to 732 BCE. That’s when Assyria’s Tiglath Pileser III wreaked havoc on the Land of Israel. Gezer’s devastation is commemorated in a wall relief from that same year that is now located in Assyria (contemporary Iraq). It shows a city being battered by iron rams, Assyrian warriors attacking, and a Semitic-looking people defending the city. Above it are the words: “conquest of the city of Gazro.”

One of the most significant finds in the country was made somewhere on the tel. It is known as the Gezer Calendar, and is the earliest known specimen of Hebrew writing. The calendar lists the eight periods of the agricultural year, and notes the task associated with each. Contemporary Israeli farmers find this calendar particularly interesting because it proves that their ancestors reaped the same harvests as they reap, and processed the same wine.


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.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed