Execration TextsThe importance of Jerusalem sprang from the cultural geniuses of old, the Jewish philosopher-kings and biblical prophets, who made Jerusalem their centre. From Jerusalem they gave forth their wisdom to the world—and changed it. As Isaiah proclaimed- “For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” Monotheism, the concept of good and evil, brotherly love, and the rule of law, these were the challenging precepts of the ancient Hebrews. Jerusalem was the platform from which they were launched.

The origins of the city are lost in the mists of antiquity, but from the style and make of pottery discovered on and around the site, and by additional scientific reasoning, archaeologists have concluded that the first settlement was established at the beginning of the third millennium BC. Its first appearance in the written records occurred a thousand years late, at the beginning of the second millennium BC, as a city of the Canaanites.

At that time, the land of Canaan was not a unified country but an agglomeration of semi-nomadic tribal confederacies and a few cities, each ruled by a “king” who was usually a vassal of one of the two great empires vying for hegemony of the Middle East. One was the Egyptian, in the south, the other was the Assyrian in the north. Canaan lay in between, and was thus a frequent battleground. Whichever empire was dominant at a particular period controlled Canaan. The vassals paid tribute to it, and were expected to be politically loyal to their overlords. They rarely were—particularly when they sensed that power was shifting, that the scales of strength were swinging to the other side, and that in the next conflict, the rival empire might win. This was always a cause of anxiety to the imperial monarchs.

One of the devices which Egypt used to keep her vassals in line was what has come to be known as the Execration Texts. Two sets have been discovered, and the Egyptian hieroglyphs deciphered. The first, belonging to the nineteenth century BC, are inscriptions on bowls. The second, written in the eighteenth century BC, are inscribed on clay figurines representing bound captives. These texts consisted of lists of names of distant cities and bound captives. These texts consisted of lists of names of distant cities and nomadic clans and their chiefs who were subordinated to Egypt. They are thus of considerable scholarly importance, since the existence of many of these cities at so early a period of history would not otherwise have been known.

Through these texts, the Egyptians sought to exercise political witchcraft, an early form of psychological warfare, against their actual or potential enemies. Smashing the bowl or figurine was held to smash the power of the enemy whose name was inscribed on the pottery. No doubt the threat to do so was considered to be sufficient. The mood of the times was hardly one of skepticism towards witchcraft. The knowledge by a provincial “king” contemplating disaffection that it was in the power of the pharaoh to do him harm by violent execration might well have prompted him to think twice and possibly influence him to remain friendly to Egypt.

The name of Jerusalem appears in the nineteenth-century BC group of Execration Texts- “…the Ruler of Jerusalem, Yaqar-‘ Ammu, and all the retainers who are with him; the Ruler of Jerusalem, Setj-‘ Anu, and all the retainers who are with him;…” (In Egyptian hieroglyphs, Jerusalem appears as Urushamem. In the Akkadian tongue it was Urusalim). It has long been believed that Jerusalem means “City of Peace,” the Hebrew name, Yerushalayim, as it appears in the Bible, stemming from the two Hebrew words Ir, which means city, and Shalom, which means peace. Modern historians, however, consider that the derivation is probably yara, which means founded, and Salem, which was the name of the local god, so that the meaning would be “Founded by the god Salem.”

The city seems to have had strong religious associations even for its earliest settlers, and there are clues to this in the Bible. The Patriarch Abraham appears on the scene in the eighteenth century BC and he meets “Melchi-zedek king of Salem,” as recorded in Genesis XIV, 18. The Bible adds that Melchi-zedek was “the priest of the most high God,” which suggest a central place of the city in the religion of the time.

Zedek is the Hebrew word for righteousness. It appears to have been a standard component in the name of the priestly rulers of Jerusalem and supports the thesis of the city’s religious importance even in the pre-Judaic times. In the period of Joshua, the name of the king is given in the Bible as “Adoni-zedek” (Joshua X, 1). Here, incidentally, he is referred to as “king of Jerusalem;” no longer is Salem used.

The eighteenth century BC saw the decline of Egyptian power, due primarily to internal political dissension and weakness. The provinces were quick to take advantage of enfeebled imperial control. In Canaan, moreover, the semi-nomadic chieftains had begun to settle down, establish townlets and emerge as petty kings. Jerusalem in the previous century had been on of the few cities in the land–as is evident from the first group of Execration Texts. In that lists, there is identifiable mention of only Jerusalem and Ashkelon as towns in Canaan; the rest are names of nomadic clans. In the eighteenth-century texts, however, the list of cities is longer.


It is in the period of Amenhotep III and his son Amenhotep IV, otherwise known as Ikhnaton, who reigned from 1379 to 1362 BC, that Jerusalem appears in the written records as more than just the name of a city. From them we learn something of its political life. The records are the Tel el-Amarna letters, clay tablets inscribed in the cuneiform script consisting of the correspondence between the two pharaohs and the vassal princes of the Egyptian empire. (Amarna is the site where the royal archives were found. It was excavated in 1891-2.)

Eight of the letters are from the local ruler of Jerusalem, and are typical, with duplicity, intrigue, and cunning apparent beneath the fulsome veneer of sycophancy. Each vassal was suspicious of his neighbor, often with justice, and would write to the pharaoh affirming his own loyalty, charging the other vassals with treachery and vehemently denying any such practice on his own part. The ruler of Jerusalem at the time and signatory to the letters is Abdu-Heba, and he opens his first letter with the usual terms of self-prostration and adulation of the pharaoh, continues with a defense against the accusations of a neighbouring chief that he has been rebellious, and ends with a plea for help if his lands are to be saved-

“To the king, my lord- Thus Abdu-Heba, thy servant. At the two feet of my lord, the king, seven times and seven times I fall… They blame me before the king, my lord, saying- “Abdu-Heba has rebelled…” Behold…the arm of the mighty king brought me into the house of my father! Why should I commit transgression against the king, my lord? … Let the king take care of his land… The lands of the king have all rebelled; Ilimilku [the ruler of Gezer, west of Jerusalem] is causing the loss of all the king’s land… let the king, my lord, send out troops of archers…if there are archers here in this year, the lands of the king, my lord, will remain intact; but if there are no archers here, the lands of the king, my lord, will be lost.”

In his other letters, Abdu-Heba continues to repudiate the slanders against him, warns of continued threats to Jerusalem and repeats his pleas for military aid. Several of them, however, contain references to incidents which offer enlightening clues to the political, military and economic circumstances of Jerusalem and to the powers of its local ruler. One speaks of the revolt of the Egyptian garrison. Another complains that Egyptian mercenaries have plundered the ruler’s own house and almost murdered him. There is a reference to the tribute paid by Jerusalem- “I have sent gifts to the king, my lord, …captives, five thousand silver shekels and eight porters for the caravans of the king,” That Abdu-Heba could send a caravan to Egypt suggests a certain importance to his own status and that of Jerusalem. That it was sometimes hazardous, reflecting an absence of order in the country, is indicated by the cry in one of his letters that a caravan was “captured in the plain of Ajalon. Let the king, my lord, know that I cannot send a caravan to the king, my lord. For thy information.”

These are the last documentary records which mention Jerusalem until we reach the biblical account of the Joshua conquest in the middle of the thirteenth century BC. Jerusalem was not taken by the Israelites at that time. It was held by the Jebusites, a people whose origins have been the subject of considerable scholarly speculation but still remain unclear.