Recently, I mentioned to a friend who lives in the growing city of Beit Shemesh that I would be writing about Tel Beit Shemesh in the coming issue of this magazine.
“Where is that?” he asked me, in all seriousness.
“You don’t know?” I responded, shocked. “It’s under the main road. You drive over the top of the tel every day!”
A tel is a mound, formed by the remains of many civilizations that once occupied the spot, one on top of the other, each new town being built on top of the remains of the old, like a layer cake of history.
The modern city of Beit Shemesh, on the eastern side of the road, looks down on the site of the ancient city. The modern road actually climbs the northern side of the tel, crosses over the top and descends on the south side.
We first read of Beit Shemesh in sefer Yehoshua, which describes the town as being one of the borders of shevet Yehudah (Yehoshua 15: 10-11). Later, in chapter 19, Beit Shemesh is mentioned as one of the cities given to the Levi’im, within the territory of Yehudah. Because of its strategic location, on the border between Yehudah and the ancient territory of the Philistines, Beit Shemesh also figures prominently in one of the well-known stories in sefer Shmuel. The Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant in a battle at Even Ha’ezer. The victorious Philistines carried the Ark back to their territory, but it brought them nothing but trouble and suffering. Finally, in desperation, they placed the Ark on a wagon, which was pulled by two cows. Sefer Shmuel describes what happens next:
The cows set out on the direct road—on the road to Beit Shemesh—on a single road did they go, lowing as they went, and they did not veer right or left. The governors of the Philistines went behind them until the border of Beit Shemesh. [The people of] Beit Shemesh were reaping the wheat harvest in the valley, when they raised their eyes and saw the Ark, and they rejoiced to see [it] (I Shmuel 6:12-13).
Excavations were conducted on the tel in the early part of the twentieth century and again in the thirties by British archaeologists. Since 1990, teams of archaeologists from Bar-Ilan University, Ben Gurion University of the Negev and Tel Aviv University have returned to uncover more ruins. There is a small parking area on the west side of the road. Although the area is not officially open to the public, it is worthwhile to take a few minutes to stroll along the top of the tel, which extends over seven acres to the west.
You will see remains that have been discovered from the Late Bronze Age (the period of the Judges—twelfth and eleventh centuries bce), from the Iron Age (the period of the United Kingdom—tenth century bce) as well as from the Kingdom of Judea (ninth to seventh centuries bce). There is evidence of city fortifications, sophisticated water systems and an olive oil industry that seems to have flourished in Beit Shemesh in the eighth century bce. Under one of the olive presses on the western side of the tel, archaeologists have found large accumulations of ash, evidence, they believe, of an iron industry that existed during the time the Philistines controlled the region.
Tel Beit Shemesh is not a national park site, and there are no brochures to guide you. When visiting the area, you are really on your own. Perhaps if you are lucky, while you are there a tour group will stop by and you will be able to eavesdrop on the guide’s descriptions of the various archaeological remains. Ongoing excavations at the site take place in the late spring and early summer, and if you are there at the right time, one of the archaeologists might be willing to share some insights as well.
Next time you are driving south on Route 35 from Sha’ar Hagai to Beit Shemesh, Ramat Beit Shemesh or in the direction of Gush Etzion, pull over to the right and take three minutes to go back 3,000 years.
Mr. Abelow is a licensed tour guide and the associate director of Keshet: The Center for Educational Tourism in Israel. Keshet specializes in running inspiring and enjoyable tours of Israel for congregations, schools and families. Mr. Abelow can be reached at 972-54-313-3712 or at email@example.com.