MITZPE RAMON, ISRAEL–Simon Schama begins his magnificent series The Story of the Jews at an archaeological site near the Valley of Elah called Khirbet Qeiyafa. He said that the first physical evidence for the existence of the Jewish people was not the Exodus from Egypt (for which there is not a trace) but the structures on a hill visible across the valley above. I mentioned to Yoav Avni that I’d love to see the place on our return from a set of Jerusalem meetings we had this morning. He not only said it would work, he arranged for his brother Gideon Avni, a well-known archaeologist and Head of the Archaeological Division of the Israel Antiquities Authority, to meet us there for a guided tour. How very cool is that?
You may have heard of the Valley of Elah before. It’s the Biblical location where David met and slew Goliath. (It’s always “slew”, isn’t it?) Historically the valley is a route from the coastal plains into the Judean Mountains, and thus a place of conflict between plains dwellers and mountain tribes.
This is a view of the exterior city wall near the first gate of Khirbet Qeiyafa. Most of this wall was underground until excavation began in 2007 by the archaeologists Yosef Garfinkel of Hebrew University and Saar Ganor of the Israel Antiquities Authority. This is remarkably late for such an important site to be discovered. The location is N 31.69658°, E 34.95667°.
The first gate into the city. It has a three-part structure characteristic of Iron Age structures.
The walls of the city are double, with narrow rooms inside for the non-claustrophobic. To the left are remaining walls of dwelling and cooking spaces.
At the top of this view you see Tel Azeka across the valley, a wall in the middle view, and the Iron Age structures below. The main wall here was built later on top of the ancient city walls, probably as a sheep pen of some kind. Note the plastered walls in the room below.
The second gate on the opposite side of the city from the first.
There is a cave near the middle of the city, so of course we had to go in.
Yoav in the cave interior, lit by the camera flash. This cave is not completely excavated, so it is unclear how much was natural and how much dug by people and for what purpose.
Gideon Avni on the left and his brother Yoav. World-class discussions between them on archaeological interpretations and the geological context of this settlement. Thank you very much to both of them for this experience. If you want to learn much more about Khirbet Qeiyafa, please visit the official archaeological website.
Yoav and I also visited Tel Azeka across the valley at N 31.69982°, E 34.93578° (see below). It has a much longer history than Khirbet Qeiyafa, with several Biblical references.
The tell is about 20 meters or so above the natural top of the hill.
It has excavations in several places exposing its complex stratigraphy. This appears to be an Iron Age dwelling place.
Tel Azeka, or more properly the rocks below it, have a famous series of caves and tunnels dug through the soft chalk. Here Yoav is in a cavern he likely played in as a boy. Most of the tunnels are very narrow, the kind you can imagine a young Yoav wriggling through.
The caves themselves have a long history of occupation, most famously by fugitives from the Romans during the Bar Kokhba Revolt.
What a great day we had in the valley of David and Goliath!