Tour the well-fortified Tel Gezer, the biblical Canaanite holdout that wouldn’t fall
One of the rare sites with written evidence matching it to its Bible location, the massive 32-acre park is free for all and boasts layers of history down to King Solomon’s time
Rarely do archeologists and historians have written proof that positively identifies a Holy Land site mentioned in the Bible. That’s why the rock inscription discovered at Tel Jazer in the early 1870s made such a splash: the words written on the rock, in ancient Hebrew, read: “Boundary of Gezer.” Over the years, quite a few more Gezer boundary stones have been recovered on the tel, or hill.
The word “Gezer” appears in the Bible over a dozen times. Its third mention is within the context of the territories assigned to the Israelites who, after the Exodus and a 40-year sojourn in the desert, were primed to settle down in the land that God had said would be theirs. That Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey, was also filled with Canaanite cities that didn’t take the Israelite invasion lying down. And while the Israelites did manage to conquer a number of Canaanite cities, several others didn’t capitulate.
One of these was Gezer, which Joshua had assigned to the tribe of Ephraim. A large and important city, Gezer was part of the Egyptian empire and ruled by people who corresponded often with the Pharaohs. It was only during King Solomon’s reign hundreds of years after the Israelites failed to take the city that Gezer fell under Israelite control. Even then, this happened only because the reigning Pharaoh devastated the city, slew the inhabitants, and offered Gezer to King Solomon as a gift when the Israelite monarch married his daughter.
Except for a small attempt at agriculture there in the 19th century, Gezer has been virtually abandoned for at least two millennia. Its ruins are spread over 32 acres and are encompassed in Tel Gezer National Park.
Tel Gezer is special. Not only is it one of the largest such sites in the country, but it is open all day, and visitors don’t pay a fee to explore its antiquities. It also boasts a gate that dates back to a time when Solomon conscripted laborers to rebuild the city. In fact, except for trifling disparities due to differences in terrain, it is identical to the gates at two other cities that Solomon decided to rebuild: Megiddo and Hazor (1 Kings 9:15).
It seems safe to assume that an energetic King Solomon traveled the country checking on all of his extravagant projects (he also built a palace and a Temple), so once visitors cross the threshold they may be walking on stones trodden by Israel’s wisest king.
Every year in winter and spring a stunning collection of wildflowers blooms all over the tel, while in summer it is filled with dry, overgrown greenery. A few months ago, although a fire broke out at Tel Gezer, the archeological sites remained completely intact and the only evidence of the flames that covered the site are blackened weeds showing their usual summer desolation. By next spring, it is expected that the grounds will again be covered in multi-colored blooms.
Following a recent facelift, there is now a good road to the park and the trail leading through the tel is much easier to traverse than it was in the past (although it can still be a bit rocky and visitors should tread carefully). In addition, since last year, good walkers can now reach the largest Canaanite water system yet discovered.
Along the trail, Tel Gezer’s Canaanite tower is the largest fortification of its type in Israel. Built to protect the area of the Canaanite city gate, it is 16 meters (52.5 feet) wide and when constructed was 15 meters (49 feet) tall. Today only five meters (16.4 feet) remain in situ as the top 10 meters (33 feet), probably constructed of mudbrick, haven’t survived the elements. The tower would most likely have contained reception halls, military and/or administrative centers, and perhaps a home for the governor.
Easily visible from the trail are the Canaanite casement walls, rooms or homes built into the wall of the city to provide double protection for the inhabitants. As if the Gezer Boundary rock wasn’t enough to prove that this is the biblical city, there are still remains of destruction that dates to the years around 950 BCE, exactly the time when, according to the Bible, the Egyptian Pharaoh razed the city.
Most experts believe that the Canaanite water system nearby was carved out of limestone some 4,000 years ago and is the oldest and possibly the largest of its kind in the Middle East. Residents would have descended down a 40-meter (131-foot) shaft in order to reach the subterranean spring. Since the facelift, visitors can now take 175 steps down to the water.
Further along the trail, and located in a low saddle between different portions of the tel, are 10 monolithic rocks. While today this area of the tel is rather isolated, when Gezer was a flourishing Canaanite city, this was apparently the religious center of Canaanite society. A colonnaded structure with decorative roofs, columns and ritual areas would have surrounded the monoliths, often called Standing Stones.
No one knows for sure what pushed the Canaanites to build this site. 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 12 stone pillars representing the 12 tribes of Israel.” (Exodus, 24:4)
While the Canaanites could have prepared the site for a meeting between heads of the area’s different city-states, it is far more likely that ritual prostitution occurred at the temple. Gezer has always been a farming community and its goddesses represented fertility; appeasement of the gods was thought to result in fatter sheep and better crops.
Last on the trail is the Israelite city. Stones on each side of the gate are of a style called ashlar masonry, where they are cut into a uniform shape and size. During excavations over a hundred years ago, archeologist R.A. Macalister uncovered part of the gate and assumed it belonged to a Maccabee (Hasmonean) palace. But famous statesman and archeologist Yigael Yadin was familiar with the biblical passage in Kings, knew about similar gates at Megiddo and Hazor, and examined the site more closely. In 1958 Yadin declared this a Solomonic gate (it was uncovered in its entirety a few years later). One architect probably designed the gates at all three sites.
Under the street running between both sides of the gate there was a sewer, the trench you see today. At the time, of course, it was covered by a stone walkway.
Each side of the gate is lined with three guard rooms, one of those closest to the entrance with 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.
A unique find at Tel Gezer demonstrates the tangible connection between the past and the present. Known as the Gezer Calendar, it contains the earliest known specimen of Hebrew writing and lists the eight periods of the agricultural year. The stone tablet on which this is inscribed also notes the task associated with each stage. Farmers at nearby kibbutzim find this calendar particularly relevant because it proves that their ancestors reaped the same harvests then that they reap today, and processed the same wine.
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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.
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