While many of the ancient religious sites in modern Israel have been thoroughly examined by archaeologists, one spot in Kiryat Ye’arim remained largely untouched until 2017. That may come as a surprise, too, since the area is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible as the place where one of the Israelites’ most sacred artifacts was kept. And what researchers have since found in Kiryat Ye’arim may yet reframe the Biblical narrative.
The Hebrew Bible itself, meanwhile, is the common name given to a collection of religious texts that form the basis of Jewish, Christian and Islamic scripture. Indeed, these writings – known in Judaism as the Tanakh – act as a source for the contents of the Old Testament. What’s more, the Hebrew Bible is our main source of information about what happened in ancient Israel during Biblical times.
However, the texts in question are not a completely reliable look into how life was back then in Israel. For one, the contents of the Hebrew Bible were written centuries after the events they claim to depict. With that in mind, archaeologists and historians have long sought further evidence to either prove or disprove the accounts given there.
And among the writings contained in the Hebrew Bible is the book known as Exodus. As many know, too, Exodus recounts the tale of how the Israelites escaped slavery in Egypt before their travels to the Promised Land. But that journey, we are taught, was not an easy one.
According to Exodus, the Israelites spent 40 years wandering the desert, in fact. Ultimately, though, it’s said that their leader, Moses, was instructed to climb Mount Sinai, whereupon God delivered the Ten Commandments. These instructions – which were carved on tablets of stone – supposedly included decrees such as “You shall not kill,” “You shall not steal” and “You shall have no other God before me.”
But the Ten Commandments were not just a set of rules. They were part of a covenant, or promise, between God and the Israelites. In short, since God had saved the Israelites from Egypt, he would continue to watch over them if they obeyed his edicts.
Furthermore, the Ten Commandments were so important that a special container was apparently made to hold them: the Ark of the Covenant. The resulting chest was made of wood but covered in gold and elaborately decorated with two golden angels on top. And according to the Hebrew Bible, the Ark itself was responsible for causing a number of miracles.
For one, the chest was said to remove obstacles from the path of the traveling Israelites. When they crossed the River Jordan into the Promised Land, it has been written, the waters stopped moving. And the tribes reportedly circled Jericho with the Ark, after which they ultimately destroyed the city’s walls.
Then, finally, the Israelites are said to have built a kingdom in what is now Israel. It’s there, moreover, that King Solomon is supposed to have built a temple that once housed the Ark of the Covenant. However, after Israel was conquered by the Babylonians, the Ark disappeared – and no one knows exactly what happened to it.
In fact, the Ark of the Covenant’s fate is one of the most enduring mysteries of the ages. Theories abound, too, as to where the sacred artifact ended up. It’s been mooted, for example, that the Ark was ultimately taken to Ethiopia.
Another hypothesis is that the Ark was actually concealed under the First Temple in Jerusalem prior to the place of worship having been destroyed. Perhaps one of the most enduring claims as to the chest’s location, however, comes from the Hebrew Bible itself.
According to the Book of Samuel, the Ark may have been taken into battle against the Philistines, during which it is believed to have been kept in the ancient city of Kiriath-Jearim. And fortunately for those who wish for the Ark to be found, archaeologists think that they know where Kiriath-Jearim once stood.
In particular, it’s believed that Kiriath-Jearim was situated on a hill near to the modern Israeli-Arab village of Abu Ghosh, which lies close to Jerusalem. Abu Ghosh is also known by some as Telz-Stone, owing to the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of European origin who live there.
On top of the hill in Abu Ghosh, moreover, is a church called Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant. And it’s here that archaeologists have started to excavate in a bid to hopefully dig up more about the Ark and its history.
It’s worth noting, though, that there have been prior investigations into Kiriath-Jearim. A survey was undertaken in the 1980s, for example, although this ultimately did not uncover anything of significance. Then a dig was made on the hill between 1995 and 1996. As construction was taking place at the site, an attempt was made to salvage any items of historical importance.
And yet another survey was conducted in 2013; as before, though, this research served only to bolster assertions about the history of the site rather than unearth anything special. Indeed, it is only recently that archaeologists have managed to look deeper.
The newest excavations began in 2017, with a team including experts from Tel Aviv University and the Collège de France as well as around 50 student volunteers. In turn the group have been supported by the San Francisco-based Shmunis family.
And it seems, too, that the hill would be a useful place on which to build a major settlement. The location certainly provides a clear view of the surrounding area, with both the Judean Mountains and the coastal plains leading to the Mediterranean visible on a good day. Parts of western Jerusalem can be seen from the hill, too.
Meanwhile, olive trees line the sides of the hill, which lead up to a more than 100-year-old convent and the church, which was originally built in 1924. The site for the excavations belongs to the church, in fact, and is protected by France, owing to a pact made with Israel back in 1949.
Plus, the location of the convent means that the hill cannot be completely excavated. That’s down in part to the erosion that has taken place there, although archaeologists also do not want to disrupt the lives of the nuns in the area. It was only thanks to the Collège de France, in fact, that the team got the go-ahead for their investigation.
But the efforts made in securing the dig appear to have been worth it, since the researchers are now confident that they have found Kiriath-Jearim. And this belief is supported not only by the artifacts that they have discovered, but also by other historical documents including the Omnasticon – a name directory created by the ancient historian Eusebius of Caesarea.
Further potential evidence comes by way of the Arabic name for Kiriath-Jearim: Deir el-Azar. It’s thought that Eleazar may have been the priest who supervised the Ark whilst it rested at Kiriath-Jearim and that the Byzantine monastery later built at the site was named for him. This could make Deir el-Azar a corruption of “Monastery of Eleazar” – suggesting, perhaps, that both Eleazar and the Ark were once there.
Even so, choosing where to dig on the hill was a challenge in itself for the archaeologists. Ultimately, though, they plumped for aerial surveillance in order to get a better idea of the ancient layout. The team used a drone to create photos of the area, for instance, although they also decided to utilize other surveillance images that date back to the First World War.
And one clear discovery made at Kiriath-Jearim is that the hill was not formed naturally. Instead, it’s believed that a platform filled with earth was constructed using four walls to keep it in place, making Kiriath-Jearim in turn a manmade settlement.
But it is modern technology – particularly 3D visualizations – that allowed the researchers to locate the mound and thus make arguably the most groundbreaking of their discoveries. And important the find was too: although similar platforms are known to have existed in other cities in the ancient Kingdom of Israel, such as Samaria, these other locations were much further north in the country.
The walls of the platform, it has also been noted, seem to be representative of those made in the Iron Age and come in at more than 6 feet high and almost 10 feet wide. Meanwhile, the platform itself was probably between 360 and 492 feet in size; it also spanned an area of four acres, it’s thought.
Plus, the platform on the hill may once have housed a temple. At the time the structure was supposed to have been made, there were two Israelite kingdoms: Israel in the north and Judah in the south. As a consequence, then, Kiriath-Jearim may have been built as a sign of one side’s dominance over their rival. There was probably also an administrative compound at the same site.
The researchers attempted to date the platform, however, to find out whether it had been made by people from Judah or Israel. To do this, the team looked over particles of quartz in the soil through a process called optically stimulated luminescence; this could then tell them when the quartz had last been in direct sunlight.
And using the optically stimulated luminescence, the experts placed most of what they found at Kiriath-Jearim as dating to between 1150 B.C. and 770 B.C. Some pottery shards from the early eighth century B.C. suggest, too, that this period saw Kiriath-Jearim in its prime.
But the researchers’ discoveries seem to contradict what is written in the Hebrew Bible. According to those texts, Judah built and used Kiriath-Jearim in order to control neighboring Israel; by contrast, the archaeologists don’t believe that Judah had the strength to build such a significant settlement during that time period.
Instead, the experts think that Kiriath-Jearim was built by Israel and used against Judah. This theory fits better with their knowledge of the time period, too, as well as the other evidence that they have discovered.
The reason for the discrepancy could be down to when the Book of Samuel – the part of the Hebrew Bible that discusses the Ark of the Covenant at Kiriath-Jearim – was written. At that time, Judah controlled this part of modern Israel, with Jerusalem being the capital.
The Kingdom of Israel, on the other hand, was further north and had its capital at Samaria. It would have been in Judah’s interest, then, to glorify its own kingdom, including Kiriath-Jearim. And if Israel had created its own narrative about Kiriath-Jearim during the eighth century B.C., Judah may have rewritten it to its own benefit.
But that’s not all that the archaeologists dug up. They found, for instance, that the platform at Kiriath-Jearim may also have once served as a shrine, meaning this could have been the place where the Ark of the Covenant had stood before it was taken to Jerusalem. It should be known, though, that not all of the experts involved in the excavation believe that there ever was an Ark.
And the team were not just interested in the historicity of the Ark, but also in how Kiriath-Jearim played into the politics of the area thousands of years ago. As Kiriath-Jearim was situated between the two Jewish kingdoms, its location would have made it important to both Judah and Israel.
Regardless, the archaeologists have further downplayed assertions made about the Ark in the Hebrew Bible. The Book of Samuel says that after the Ark’s time at Kiriath-Jearim, King David carried the artifact to Jerusalem. The researchers have said, though, that there is little evidence to suggest this ever happened.
Indeed, it’s thought that the Ark could not have been moved until hundreds of years after David’s reign, in the time of King Josiah. The United Monarchy only lasted into the reign of David’s son, Solomon, after which the kingdom ultimately split into the two regions of Israel and Judah.
Perhaps, then, the Hebrew Bible tale was an attempt to explain how the Ark eventually reached Jerusalem. It feeds into the idea that the ancient city is the Ark’s true home, for one, and so makes a claim for why Jerusalem should be a religious capital. The story could also be part of an attempt to establish a united Israel ruled from Samaria, suggesting its ideological importance.
But when it comes to the work undertaken on the hill, it’s yet to be seen whether it will make the location a hub for tourists. It will likely come down to the wishes of the nuns, who run the risk of having their peaceful home disturbed.
For now, there are plans for another set of excavations to begin in August 2019. And the experts will continue to piece together the site’s history and what it means for our wider understanding of the Israel described in the Hebrew Bible.