Bible and Beyond

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BAR readers, as well as scholars, have long puzzled over the distinctive tripartite pillared buildings that have been discovered in so many excavations in Israel. Their architecture seems simple enough- long rectangular buildings divided into thirds by two rows of pillars that create a central hall and two side halls (hence the name tripartite). But what were they used for?

The first BAR article on the subject appeared in 1976, when BAR was still a little 5- by 8-inch magazine printed in brown ink on cream-colored paper. In it we summarized the views of the eminent American archaeologist James Pritchard, who argued that the buildings were simply storehouses.1 In the same issue the great Israeli excavator Yigael Yadin maintained that they were stables for horses.2

We returned to the subject in 1992 in an article entitled “Puzzling Public Buildings,” BAR 18-01.3 If there was one thing all could agree upon—as the title acknowledged—it was that these buildings were not private homes. The size of the buildings and the thickness of their walls make it clear that they were public buildings of some sort. Usually the side aisles were paved with cobblestones. The central hall was unpaved; the floor was beaten earth or crushed limestone.

I have now counted 35 of these buildings at 12 sites. I think I can demonstrate that they were neither stables nor storehouses. These tripartite pillared buildings—unlikely as it may seem—were the ancient equivalent of shopping malls!

I was led to a study of these tripartite pillared buildings when we found a beautiful example in an excavation I directed at Tel Hadar, a small mound on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, in the Biblical land of Geshur.4 Immediately adjacent to the tripartite pillared building was another structure, which actually shared a wall with the tripartite pillared building. The function of this building couldn’t be clearer- It was a granary. In its six compartment-like rooms we found carbonized wheat grains. That the tripartite pillared building and the granary functioned as a single unit was clear from the fact that they shared a common entrance- The granary could only be entered through the tripartite pillared building. In a sense, the granary and the tripartite structure were two wings of the same building.

To our amazement, beside this two-winged building we unearthed a second tripartite building, this one with solid internal walls instead of pillars. The discovery of storage jars leaning against each other on the floor led us to identify this building as a storehouse.

The granary contained little pottery because it consisted of storerooms for oose grain. In the tripartite pilared building, by contrast, we found nearly 120 complete vessels on the floor. This pottery assemblage is one of the largest and cleanest collections of pottery from the 11th century B.C. ever to be recovered in an excavation in this region. We shall have more to say about this pottery collection later. But first, let’s study the two tripartite buildings more closely.

If the tripartite building with solid walls was for long-term storage, for which no light or air is needed, what was the tripartite pillared building used for? One hint comes from a study of the architecture of these buildings, which date from the 11th century B.C. (the time of the Judges) to the 7th century B.C. (the Divided Monarchy). The pillars in these buildings consist either of stacked stones (especially in the earlier examples) or monoliths (mostly in the later examples). Why use pillars when walls would have been much easier to construct and would have been far sturdier? Long ago, the University of Chicago excavators of Megiddo considered this question and came up with the right answer- The rows of pillars allowed light and air to enter the side aisles through clerestory windows. In this type of construction, the center third of the roof is raised; the vertical sides of this raised roof are open to light and air. Since the interior of the building was divided by pillars rather than walls, the light and air would stream through to the side rooms, providing light and ventilation to the entire building.

If tripartite pillared buildings had clerestory windows, as certainly seems to be the case, then we can rule out the theory that they were storehouses. Storehouses, like granaries, are better off without light or moist breezes. Grain, like other perishables, keeps better in dark, airless areas. The architects at Tel Hadar understood this very well; that is why they used solid walls in the tripartite storehouse and built the adjacent granary without any windows or an outside entrance.Materials kept in storage jars were stacked in tripartite buildings with walls instead of pillars. At Hazor, too, a tripartite storehouse with solid walls was discovered adjacent to a granary and a pillared building.5 Indeed, solid-walled storerooms have been found at a number of sites, usually adjacent to a palace.6 Each building had its own function and designation, and together they formed the mercantile quarter of the town.

Now let’s consider what is found inside tripartite pillared buildings. As noted above, the floors of the building at Tel Hadar were literally covered with vessels. This was also true of the tripartite pillared buildings at Tell Abu Hawam, at Hazor and especially at Tel Beersheba, where approximately 150 vessels were found in each of the excavated buildings. This rules out the use of these buildings as soldiers’ barracks, as some have suggested. With all the storage jars, there simply would have been no room for soldiers to lie down to sleep. The same reasoning applies to the stable theory. (Jack Holladay, a leading protagonist of this theory, suggested that the pottery found in the Beersheba “stables” was left there by people who sought refuge in the walled city when the enemy was approaching.7 This far-fetched hypothesis was refuted when it became clear that the Beersheba case was not unique.)

There is something else noteworthy about the pottery we found in the building at Tel Hadar- There were no bowls among the 120 vessels. Bowls are the most ubiquitous household vessel in ancient residences in Israel. The lack of even one indicates that no one lived in this building.

Looking at the pottery assemblages that have been found in tripartite pillared buildings, we noticed that the oil lamps and the cooking pots had no soot on them. They had never been used. They were apparently unsold at the time the building was destroyed and abandoned.

Further examination of the pottery at Tel Hadar provides some of the best evidence as to what the building was used for. The percentage of imported vessels is quite high. When we tested our pottery by petrographic and stylistic analysis, we found that 15 percent of the vessels had been imported from Gilead, Upper Galilee and the Mediterranean coast. We even found a unique proto-Geometric vessel brought from far-away mainland Greece. All this suggests that these buildings were not simple warehouses but places where vessels and their contents changed hands, where authorized persons could enter and evaluate merchandise or prepare it for shipping—in short, a ventilated and illuminated marketplace, or entrepôt, governed by the authorities.

I plotted on a map the location of these tripartite pillared buildings. They are all on major ancient trade routes. For example, Hazor, Kinneret, Megiddo, Qasile and Tell el-Hesi are on the Via Maris (the Way of the Sea), the main international land route between Egypt and western Asia. Other tripartite pillared buildings are on the Darb el-Hawarna, the final section of the main trunk road between Mesopotamia and Mediterranean harbors. Both Tel Hadar and Ein Gev, another Galilee site that I have been excavating, are on this trunk road. In the Negev, tripartite pillared buildings have been found at Tel Masos, Tel Malhata and Tel Beersheba, which are on an important road connecting Arabia and the southern Mediterranean ports. When a town and its entrepôt were destroyed, a new one sprung up in another town on the same ancient roadway.

Five of the twelve sites where tripartite pillared buildings have been found are harbor towns, centers of commerce and trade. At Megiddo, a major cross roads of the country in ancient times, no fewer than 17 of these buildings have been discovered. Perhaps some of the ones in the southern part of the city, far from the gate, were stables; this is likely because, unlike the buildings close to the city gate, the southern ones had large courtyards in front suitable for maneuvers. But the rest are commercial entrepôts.

Which brings me to another point. Many of these tripartite pillared buildings were situated near the city gate—just where we would expect to find a mercantile bazaar. Indeed, even today, in many Oriental cities the bazaar is near the city gate, as Larry Herr has emphasized.8

Interestingly, the earliest of these tripartite pillared buildings appear in the 11th century B.C., at about the time the Israelites were emerging in the central hill country of Canaan. But these early examples do not occur in Israelite territory. They are located outside the central hill country. The societies in which they appear were apparently in a more advanced phase of political development at the time. They include the Geshurites at Tel Hadar, the Canaanite/Phoenicians at Tell Abu Hawam (in the Haifa bay), the Philistines at Tell Qasile (on the outlet of the Yarkon River) and the Amalekites at Tel Masos in the Negev.a Israel and Judah did not develop to the point of engaging in international trade until the tenth century, at which time they too felt the need for institutionalized marketplaces. By the ninth century, these ancient malls appear in Israel and Judah.

Indeed, a Biblical reference highlights the importance of these international marketplaces. A war between the Arameans and the Israelites ended in an Israelite victory. But the ninth-century King Ahab showed mercy to the Aramean king, Ben-Hadad, sparing his life. The grateful Ben-Hadad responded by granting Ahab permission to “set up bazaars for yourself in Damascus as my father did in Samaria” (1 Kings 20-34). Apparently, in a previous generation the Arameans had the upper hand, as a result of which they were able to have their bazaars in Samaria.

Other scholars have independently suggested many of the elements of this argument before. Israeli archaeologist Ze’ev Herzog9 and Canadian archaeologist Larry Herr10 have argued that these tripartite buildings were bazaars (as did the American archaeologist Frederick J. Bliss, with regard to a building at Tell el-Hesi). Herzog noticed the significance of the clerestory windows as well as the huge amounts of pottery found in some of these buildings. Herr emphasized the analogies to bazaars in places like the Philippines. But I think this is the first time that all the pieces have been put together.

a. Moshe Kochavi, “Rescue in the Biblical Negev,” BAR 06-01.

1. See “Megiddo Stables or Storehouses?” BAR 02-03.

2. But he agreed with Yohanan Aharoni that the tripartite building that they had excavated at Hazor was a storehouse. See Yigael Yadin, “In Defense of the Stables at Megiddo,” BAR 02-03; and Hazor- The Head of All Those Kingdoms (New York- Random House, 1972), pp. 167–192.

3. John Currid, “Puzzling Public Buildings,” BAR 18-01.

4. See Moshe Kochavi et al., “Rediscovered! The Land of Geshur,” BAR 18-04.

5. Amnon Ben-Tor, “Hazor—1992–1993,” in Excavations and Surveys in Israel 14-101–102 (1994), pp. 9–13.

6. See Larry Herr, “Tripartite Pillared Buildings and the Marketplace in Iron Age Israel,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 272 (1988), p. 47.

7. John S. Holladay, Jr., “The Stables of Ancient Israel,” in The Archaeology of Jordan and Other Studies, ed. Lawrence T. Geraty and Larry G. Herr (Berrien Springs- Andrews Univ. Press, 1986), pp. 103–165.

8. Herr, “Tripartite Pillared Buildings,” p. 47.

9. Ze’ev Herzog, “The Storehouses,” in Beer-Sheba I, ed. Yohanan Aharoni (Tel Aviv- Institute of Archaeology, 1973), pp. 23–30.

10. Herr, “Tripartite Pillared Buildings,” p. 42.