Bible and Beyond
Deserted Galilee testifies to Assyrian conquest of the Northern Kingdom

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Between 734 and 732 B.C.E., the Assyrian monarch Tiglath-pileser III campaigned to the west, from the Assyrian capital at Nineveh, cutting a swath into the northern kingdom of Israel as well as the southern kingdom of Judah. We know this from the Bible and from Assyrian records.
These texts tell us that Galilee, in northern Israel, was especially hard hit. Its people were exiled to Assyria—an exile, as it were, from which they never returned.

But how reliable are these records of deportation and exile? For this, we must turn to archaeology. From 1974 to 1984, I conducted an archaeological survey and a number of excavations in Galilee that not only answer this question, but open up a new chapter of research on the region.
The background to Tiglath-pileser’s devastation of Galilee is somewhat complicated. At the time, Assyria was the superpower of the day. As early as 738 B.C.E. the Israelite king Menahem was paying tribute to Tiglath-pileser (2 Kings 15-19–201), who reigned from 745 to 727 B.C.E. In 733 B.C.E. an alliance of vassals to the Assyrian throne, led by King Rezin of Damascus and including King Pekah of Israel, revolted. The kingof Judah, Ahaz, refused to join the alliance, however.a Damascus and Israel attacked Judah, and Ahaz appealed to Assyria for help (2 Kings 16-5–9). Tiglath-pileser willingly came to Judah’s aid, easily quelling the military assault from the north. He exacted revenge on the vassals who revolted, captured Damascus and devastated Israel.

According to Assyrian records, Tiglath-pileser defeated Pekah’s army and banished the Israelites from Galilee (exile was the standard Assyrian punishment for rebellion). Pekah was subsequently assassinated and Hoshea installed as a vassal of Assyria. Israel retained nominal independence until 722 B.C.E., when Tiglath-pileser’s successor, Shalmaneser V, captured Samaria, Israel’s capital, after a three-year siege, thus bringing the northern kingdom to an end (2 Kings 17-5–6).b
The banishment of Galilee’s Israelite population by Tiglath-pileser is dramatically confirmed by the archaeological evidence. Interestingly, the exile is reflected in the absence of evidence from the late eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E.—especially as contrasted to the periods before and after.
My archaeological survey concentrated on Lower Galilee. In addition to surveying, I excavated a number of important sites and led a major dig at a site called Hurvat Rosh Zayit.c

As shown on the map, Lower Galilee begins at the hills east of the Akko plain and extends east to the Jordan Valley. Bordered on the south by the ridge at Nazareth, it extends north to the Beth Hakerem Valley.

Most of the ancient sites were located in the central area because of its gentle topography (low limestone hills) and plentiful water. Only a few of the settlements date to the Late Bronze Age (c. 1550–1200 B.C.E.), the period just before the earliest Israelite settlement.2 Beginning in the late 13th century B.C.E., a handful of new settlements appeared, and in the following century more than a score of new settlements were established.

The Bible seems to indicate that these new settlers were able to support themselves by converting forested areas into farmland. When the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh complained to Joshua that they did not have enough land, he told them to clear the forests- “The hill country shall be yours, as well; true, it is forest land, but you will clear it” (Joshua 17-18).

This assumption has recently been questioned by some scholars. No doubt, Lower Galilee was originally heavily forested with oaks, stands of which still grow there today. But the new settlements, these scholars argue, were able to engage in productive agriculture only because of the land made available by terracing—the building on slopes of flat areas supported by stone walls.

Our research indicates, however, that terraces were not necessary for successful farming in this area. The location of the settlements from this period—near small springs and along wadis (gullies)—indicates that the new settlers farmed small pieces of land on sloping banks. These were planted with vegetable gardens and fruit trees and irrigated with water from the springs. (This traditional farming method could still be observed at some of these sites as late as the beginning of this century and is used sporadically today.) Wadi basins—especially in the so-called pocket valleys enclosed by the series of east-west ridges that characterize and subdivide Lower Galilee—provided fertile lands that could be easily irrigated by simple earthen aqueducts.

It seems, therefore, that agriculture in Lower Galilee was not dependent on terraces and that terrace building was not a major requirement for settling the area.

The largest ancient site in Lower Galilee is Tel Hannathon, which was occupied from the Chalcolithic period (fourth millennium B.C.E.) until the Ottoman period (1517–1917 C.E.). It lies on the edge of a valley, adjacent to arable land. It is also on an international caravan route leading to Akko, on the Mediterranean coast. The risks of trading on this road are apparent in one of the Amarna letters from the 14th century B.C.E., in which the king of Babylon complains that a royal caravan of his messengers en route to Egypt via Akko was attacked near the city of Hannathon.d The Bible refers to Hannathon as a city in the inheritance of Zebulun (Joshua 19-14).

Southeast of Hannathon lies Tel Gath-Hepher. The Bible also places Gath-Hepher in the territory of Zebulun (Joshua 19-13) and identifies the site as the hometown of the prophet Jonah (2 Kings 14-25). Not surprisingly, local tradition has named a sacred tree Butmet Nebi Yunas, the Prophet Jonah Oak.

Another major site is Tel Qarnei Hittin, the Horns of Hattin, which lies west of Tiberias, overlooking the Sea of Galilee. The tell is actually a twin-peaked volcanic hill. I conducted a small excavation here and found a walled city from the Late Bronze Age encompassing the southern summit. A major conflagration destroyed the city in the late 13th century B.C.E. A 12th-century B.C.E. collar-rim jar, typical of Israelite settlement sites, was found in a pit dug into this destruction layer, suggesting that the Israelites conquered the city. A second wall, which encloses the entire site, dates from the tenth to the eighth centuries B.C.E. and points to the existence of an Israelite city, built on the remains of the Late Bronze Age city, comparable in size to Megiddo. This city, however, remains unexcavated.

In addition to the major sites, many smaller fortified cities were established at this time. Rural villages sprung up around almost every water source.

The archaeological evidence from these sites and others (Tel Mador, Hurrat H. Malta and Hurvat Rosh Zayit) shows that Lower Galilee reached the peak of its development during the United Monarchy, in the tenth century B.C.E. Then there is a large gap in occupation in Lower Galilee beginning in the late eighth century B.C.E. We observed this break not only in the pottery collected during the survey, but also in the excavations at sites such as Tel Mador, Hurvat Rosh Zayit and Tel Gath-Hepher. A similar occupational gap has been confirmed at major sites in Upper Galilee, such as Hazor and Kinneret. The flourishing settlement system that had lasted for more than two centuries was destroyed and abandoned. Lower Galilee was practically deserted by the end of the eighth century.

The destruction of the region almost certainly resulted from the large-scale campaigns carried out by Tiglath-pileser III.

According to the Bible, Tiglath-pileser captured the cities of “Iyon, Abel Beit-Maachah, Yanoah, Kedesh, and Hazor” (all in Upper Galilee), the region of “Gilead [in Transjordan] and Galilee, including all the land of Naphtali” (probably the Galilean hill country) (2 Kings 15-29).

Assyrian records tell a similar story. They refer, for example, to the Assyrian king’s conquest of Gilead and Abel Beit-Maachah, located, one tells us, on the borders of Beit Omri (the House of Omri, the Israelite dynasty) and Beit Hazael (the House of Hazael, the Aramean dynasty). The Assyrian text also mentions the reigning Israelite kings, Pekah and Hoshea.3 Another Assyrian source mentions the conquest of major cities in Lower Galilee- Hannathon, Kana, Yotba, Aruma and Merom.

The Assyrians implemented a mass-deportation policy in conquered lands to consolidate their rule. Tiglath-pileser’s annals record 13,520 prisoners taken from the cities in Lower Galilee. The Bible, too, mentions that the Assyrians exiled the inhabitants of the conquered territories to Assyria, although no figure is given (2 Kings 17-6).

Based on our demographic analysis of the survey and excavation findings, the population of Lower Galilee in the eighth century B.C.E. prior to the destruction was about 18,000.4 Thus it appears that Tiglath-pileser exiled the bulk of the population. The archaeological evidence—or lack of evidence—signaling a break in occupation indicates that no people were brought in to replace the Israelites. Tiglath-pileser’s policy contrasts with that of his successor, Shalmaneser V, who brought people from the east to settle in Lower Galilee when he conquered the Israelite capital at Samaria in 722 B.C.E., thus ending the northern kingdom.

The tenth- to eighth-century B.C.E. fortified cities of Lower Galilee that were destroyed by the Assyrians, such as Tel Mador and Tel Gath-Hepher, were not reoccupied until the Persian period (mid-sixth to late-fifth century B.C.E.). Moreover, the reoccupation of these sites was different, being rural in nature. The ruined city walls were reused only as terrace walls.

Thus, from the archaeological viewpoint, it is evident that the Assyrian campaigns led by Tiglath-pileser III marked the end of the Iron Age in Lower Galilee. The region remained relatively deserted during the seventh century B.C.E.

The settlements of the Persian period represent a new phase in the settlement history of Lower Galilee. Where did this new population originate? Were they, like the new settlers in Judah, deportees returning from exile in Babylon, or did they come from the Phoenician coastal plain?
Perhaps some of the new settlers were returning deportees. But the most significant element of the population appears to have come from the west. Pottery from Lower Galilee exhibits a direct connection to pottery from the Phoenician coastal plain. It appears, therefore, that the establishment of settlements in Lower Galilee during the Persian period was related to the cities the Phoenicians had founded on and near the Mediterranean coast, such as Achziv, Akko, Tell Keisan, Tell Abu-Hawam and Tel Shiqmona. Lower Galilee served as their agricultural hinterland.

a. See Robert Deutsch, “First Impression- What We Learn from King Ahaz’s Seal,” in this issue.

b. Some scholars identify the Assyrian monarch who conquered Samaria as Sargon II; however, this is now an increasingly minority view.

c. See Zvi Gal, “Cabul- A Royal Gift Found,” BAR 19-02.

d. EA 148 (EA refers to the Amarna letters, a collection of almost 400 letters discovered by a peasant at Tell el-Amarna, Egypt, in 1887; the archive includes diplomatic correspondence addressed to the 14th-century pharaoh Akhenaten and his father, Amenhotep III, as well as four letters from Akhenaten himself)

1. In some places in the Bible, as here, Tiglath-pileser is referred to as Pul, a nickname derived from the element apil in the Assyrian spelling of his name.

2. This is contrary to a view propounded by the late Yohanan Aharoni. See Zvi Gal, “The Period of the Israelite Settlement in Lower Galilee and the Jezreel Valley,” Maarav 7 (1991), p. 104.

3. Yohanan Aharoni, The Land of the Bible (Philadelphia- Westminster, 1979), p. 372.

4. Demographic counts are based on estimates of population density, which vary from between 25 to 40 people per dunam (about 11,000 square yards or 900 square meters) for settled sites. For a recent demographic study of Iron Age Israel, see Magen Broshi and Israel Finkelstein, “The Population of Palestine in Iron Age II,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 287 (August 1992), pp. 47–60.