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The Burning of Hazor Volume 51 Number 3, May/June 1998
by Abraham Rabinovich and Neil Asher Silberman

[image] Entrance courtyard to Hazor's Canaanite palace, seen in artist's rendering. A corner of the palace was discovered beneath a ninth-century B.C. pillared royal storehouse on the site's acropolis. (Courtesy Amnon Ben-Tor) [LARGER IMAGE]

Described in the Book of Joshua (11:10-13) as the head of the Canaanite city-states, Hazor is said to have been the site of one of Joshua's most important victories in the Israelites' conquest of the Promised Land. It is also mentioned in connection with the battles of the Israelites led by Deborah and Barak against "Yabin, king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor" (Judges 4-5) and is described as one of the Canaanite cities rebuilt as royal administrative centers by Solomon (1 Kings 9:15).

Yigael Yadin's expeditions to Hazor, from 1955 to 1958 and again in 1968, uncovered Middle and Late Bronze Age (2000-1200 B.C.) temples, palaces, and fortifications of the city. Shortly before his death in 1984, he hoped to return to excavate the principal Canaanite palace on the acropolis. His goal was to find a royal archive of cuneiform tablets that might include a record of events in Canaan immediately preceding the Israelites' arrival. Led by Amnon Ben-Tor, a new expedition (the Selz Foundation Hazor Excavations in Memory of Yigael Yadin) sponsored by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in conjunction with Madrid's Complutense University and the Israel Exploration Society, took up the challenge in 1990. Like Yadin before him, Ben-Tor hopes to find an archive within the Canaanite palace complex. Eight years of excavation there have uncovered a raised outer courtyard surrounded by massive retaining walls, and a large chamber reached from the courtyard through a monumental entrance with two decorative pillars. Although the palace's full dimensions are still unknown, its eastern facade is at least 130 feet long, its thick walls preserved in places to a height of more than eight feet. Other finds include five cuneiform tablets; cylinder seals; ivory objects; bronze swords, armor, and figurines; and the largest basalt statue of a Canaanite god ever found at a biblical site in Israel.

The biblical account of the conquest of Hazor reads, "And Joshua turned back at that time and took Hazor and smote its king with the sword, for Hazor formerly was the head of all those kingdoms. And he put to the sword all who were in it, utterly destroying them; there was none left that breathed, and he burned Hazor with fire" (Joshua 11:10-11). In a later verse (10:13), the narrative notes the uniqueness of these events: "None of the cities that stood on mounds did Israel burn, except Hazor only; that Joshua burned." The destruction, Yadin wrote in Hazor: The Rediscovery of a Great Citadel of the Bible (1975), "is doubtless to be ascribed to the Israelite tribes, as related in the Book of Joshua." Critics argue that the biblical account is a mythic saga written centuries after the events it describes. Various scholars have suggested that the destruction was the work of the Egyptians, rival Canaanite city-states, or the Sea Peoples from the Aegean, who were marauding along the eastern Mediterranean coast at about this time.

The Egyptians could be responsible. Pharaoh Seti I, in an inscription describing his military campaign against Canaan ca. 1300 B.C., claimed to have destroyed Hazor. Another possibility is that Ramses II could have conquered the city, either on his way northward to Syria before the Battle of Kadesh in 1275 B.C. or on his return to Egypt afterward. Yet Ben-Tor believes that the intentional smashing of statues at Hazor, particularly those of the Egyptian kings, makes these possibilities unlikely. He also dismisses the likelihood of destruction at the hands of a rival Canaanite city-state because of the apparent absence of nearby cities powerful enough to attack Hazor. As for the Sea Peoples, Ben-Tor notes that not a single sherd of their distinctive decorated pottery has been found in the city, which is much further inland than the sites they are known to have conquered. That leaves the Israelites. The discovery of an archive at Hazor might pinpoint the date of the city's destruction, or provide information about the historical situation in Canaan in the years immediately preceding the Israelite settlement.

Abraham Rabinovich covers archaeology for the Jerusalem Post. Neil Asher Silberman is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 1998 by the Archaeological Institute of America