This view of Tel Hazor from the road illustrates strategic location and the defensive advantages of a steep hill

Cities - the archaeology of biblical cities


There cannot be a city without people. People need water, food and security. Unless they can grow, or raise, all their own food in the neighborhood they need to produce goods for trade. Where these requirements are met a city can grow. Palestine is dry, so a city can only begin where there is a permanent supply of water. Springs were best, but sometimes cisterns to store the periodic rain sufficed.

Defense meant that cities tended to be built "on a hill". For example Jerusalem grew first on a ridge near the Gihon spring.

These are enduring criteria for the site of cities, at least until the modern period (when high capacity pumping of water became possible and hills no longer improved defensibility). Cities, therefore tended to be built on the ruins of older cities. This is how tells were formed.

The gate of the Israelite fortress at Tel Arad (partially reconstructed)


As a settlement grows it can afford to improve its defenses with a wall and gates. Such defensive measures are usually the responsibility of a ruler who builds a palace, while the ordinary folk build humbler houses.

Few cities before the Greek period show much sign of planning except in public areas. Tel Beersheba for example has a space round its circumference inside the walls allowing people to access different buildings, but otherwise the houses seem to be placed wherever there was a space.

From time to time if a city grew the walls might be extended, but often the lie of the hill meant that such growth was limited.

Destruction and Rebuilding

Excavations of Canaanite area of Tel Megiddo (strata of the walls somewhat eroded by wind and rain). Several meters of later cities are evident above this Bronze Age layer.

Megiddo, Canaanite temple areaCities make attractive prizes for foreign armies (smaller cities even for bandits or tribal vendettas). As well as carrying off booty such victors often left the city in ruins. Sometimes cities were abandoned for a time - perhaps due to drought.

Whatever the reason, sand and dust carried by the wind fills in between the fallen masonry. Crumbling mudbricks and the debris left by the inhabitants (broken pots etc.) leave the hill a little taller.

Since the site remains a good one, sooner or later new inhabitants begin to live there, or the old ones return. A new city, quite literally, grows on the remains of the old. In this way a "tel" is formed.

This page is part of the Hypertext Bible Commentary - Amos,

© Tim Bulkeley, 1996-2005, Tim Bulkeley. All rights reserved.