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Scholars’ Corner: Network of Iron Age Fortresses Served as Military Signal Posts, BAR 9:02, Mar-Apr 1983.

Map showing locations of Israelite fortresses in the Judean hills.The quick transmission of messages over long distances was as important in ancient warfare as it is today. In ancient times, visual or aural signals communicated messages from point to point. This is documented both in the Bible and in other ancient Near Eastern texts.

For example, an aural signal is mentioned in Jeremiah 6-1- “Blow the trumpet in Tekoa [where Amos lived], and raise up a signal on Beth ha-kerem, [probably to be identified with Ramat Rahel, outside Jerusalem].”

In clay tablets from Mari (18th century B.C.), we read of “fire signals” from one site to another. The writer of one tablet-letter complained that “so far, I have not ascertained the meaning of those signals,” indicating that messages must have been sent by fire signal according to a prearranged code.

The best-known example of this kind of signal is from the last line of a sixth-century B.C. Hebrew letter found at Lachish and recently discussed in a BAR Jr. column (November/December 1982)-
“And let [my lord] know that for the beacons of Lachish we are watching, according to all the indications which my lord hath given, for we cannot see Azekah.”

This letter was written just before the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. In Jeremiah 34-7, we learn that at one point in the struggle, “Lachish and Azekah were the only fortified cities of Judah” that had not yet fallen before the Babylonian onslaught. When the Lachish letter quoted above was written, Azekah had already fallen, for its signal could not be seen. The letter itself was apparently written at a site from which a signal from both Lachish and Azekah could be observed.

In a recent article in the Palestine Exploration Quarterly, Amihai Mazar of Hebrew University analyzes Iron Age fortresses in the Judean hills around Jerusalem and suggests two possible sites for the fortress from which the famous Lachish letter was written.a The only two possible candidates, he says, are fortresses at Khirbet Abu et-Twein and Khirbet Tibneh. “Both could provide fast communication by using fire signals from Lachish to Jenusalem,” says Mazar. Mazar excavated the fortress at Khirbet Abu et-Twein and describes it at some length.

But this fortress is only one of many. As Mazar notes, “Other fortresses in the Judaean mountains show that during the period of the monarchy there was a whole system of such fortresses, spread over the entire country.” Using these fortresses as guides, Mazar is able to reconstruct lines of visual communication between various parts of Judah and the capital at Jerusalem.

Mazar notes that although Jerusalem is built on hilltops or ridge-tops, the city is in fact surrounded by still higher mountains and ridges that prevent a direct view for long distances from the city itself. Thus, transmission points had to be located on higher ridges surrounding the city. Several of these points have been discovered; the most important of these is the fortified palace-citadel at Ramat Rahel.

These fortresses throughout Judah are probably what the Bible refers to as biraniot (singular, biranit); for example, see 2 Chronicles 27-4. The word is often inaccurately translated as “castle.” Built over a period of hundreds of years (from the eighth to the sixth centuries B.C.), these biraniot each had an inner courtyard and towers (migdalim- singular, migdal). The Bible also refers to migdalim.

The fortresses come in a variety of sizes and shapes. All, however, contain storerooms, workshops and living quarters; they obviously served a military function. Built on prominent ridges overlooking long distances, these fortresses acted as signal stations in a large defensive network.

Mazar notes that there was an occupation gap between the cities on the watershed ridge that runs through central Palestine (Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron, etc.), on the one hand, and the densely settled foothills to the west (the Shephelah), on the other. The area between the two was isolated, lacked water, had little good land and was therefore sparsely settled throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages. The occupation gap between the two densely settled areas was somewhat bridged, however, by these fortresses. Sometimes, small villages developed outside the fortresses.
Mazar speculates that these fortresses could also have been used as royal storehouses outside major fortified cities.

In any event, these fortresses must have been constructed according to a plan initiated by the central authorities of the kingdom. Indeed, the fortresses that Mazar examines may well be those described by the Chronicler as the work of King Jotham and King Jehosaphat. Of Jotham, we are told-

“He built towns in the hill-country of Judah, and in the woods he built fortresses (biraniot) and towers (migdalim).” (2 Chronicles 27-4).

Mazar agrees with the Chronicler that this area was forested in ancient times.

Before Jotham, King Jehosaphat “stationed garrisons throughout the land of Judah … Jehosaphat grew greater and greater, and he built fortresses (biraniot).” (2 Chronicles 17-2, 12).

Two thousand seven hundred years later, archaeologists are unearthing these fortresses and explaining how they operated within ancient Israelite society.

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