• Annemeet Hasidi-van Der Leij

History of Jerusalem, part 3. The formidable defenses of the Canaanites


Modern excavations have uncovered some of Jerusalem's formidable defenses from the period of the Canaanites, when the town was a typical prominent, fortified Canaanite city-state. Remains of the city wall and part of a tower were found near the Gihon Spring. The walled city was built on the hill, with the wall extending down and around the water source. The base of the tower near the spring was exceptionally strong and was part of the city wall throughout the First Temple period.

Some 350 letters written by the governor of Urusalim (Jerusalem) to the Pharaonic kings were uncovered in the Egyptian royal archive of Tel Al Amarna. Jerusalem is mentioned four times in a letter in which Pharaoh is requested to send an army to the city which was in danger. The Amarna letters archive, on clay tablets, mostly diplomatic correspondence between the Egyptian administration and its representatives in Canaan and Amurru during the New Kingdom. The letters were found in Upper Egypt at Amarna, the modern name for the Egyptian capital of Akhetaten (el-Amarna), founded by pharaoh Akhenaten (1350s – 1330s BCE) during the Eighteenth dynasty of Egypt. The Amarna letters are unusual in Egyptological research, because they are mostly written in Akkadian cuneiform, the writing system of ancient Mesopotamia, rather than that of ancient Egypt. Despite the size of Jerusalem in this period, which was between 30- 40 dunam (the size of a small village today), Jerusalem was an important city, exerting influence over the surrounding towns. Several finds from this period support the picture portrayed in the El-Amarna letters (1405-1350 BCE) of Jerusalem as an influential town in the Judean Hills. A large platform was built on the northern side of the city with retaining walls ten meters high. The structure apparently served as a base for a fortress or large building. Such defenses would only be built by an important town. The northern side of town was the most vulnerable, as the Canaanite town did not extend to the hill 's summit. An Egyptian libation tray ( libation is a ritual pouring of a liquid as an offering to a god or spirit or in memory of those who have died ) was found that might have been part of a temple for the local Egyptian garrison. A piece of an Egyptian stele from this time was found north of the present city walls. These finds indicate the importance of Jerusalem to Egypt. Beyond the city walls, the king of Jerusalem controlled an area extending from near Shechem in the north to Jericho in the east, west towards the coastal plain and perhaps even including Hebron to the south. It eventually grew so powerful that rival city-states from as far away as Ashkelon joined forces to defeat the mighty king of Jerusalem (just as Jerusalem had earlier joined a confederation of cities to weaken the king of Shechem who had expanded his sphere of influence). The Ashkelon confederation conquered a town that had belonged to Jerusalem and hijacked a caravan en route to Jerusalem. Greater Jerusalem was also under attack by the Apiru or Habiru, whose identity is still a mystery. The Egyptian texts refer to them frequently as raiders of Canaanite cities. Were they bands of lawless robbers, or perhaps the Hebrews?

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