No archaeological site in the world is so completely associated with cosmic disaster as Megiddo—a prominent ancient site in northern Israel identified by many historians and theologians as the earthly location of Armageddon, the scene of the final, apocalyptic battle between the cosmic forces of Good and Evil at the End of Days in the book of Revelation. Prophecies of judgment and destruction aside, archaeologists have been drawn to Megiddo for more than a century by the possibility of uncovering the streets, fortifications, palaces and storehouses of a royal city that is mentioned eight times in the Bible. The evidence they have uncovered attests its status as one of the most important and strategically sensitive cities in the Ancient Near East. In 1992, an expedition from Tel Aviv University in partnership with Pennsylvania State University and other institutions resumed large-scale excavations there to explore more of Megiddo’s ancient urban plan, refine the chronology of its rise and fall, and clarify its role in biblical history.

Located along the great overland highway between Egypt and Mesopotamia at the outlet of a narrow pass through the Carmel Range, Megiddo has a 6,000-years history of continuous settlement and is repeatedly named in the ancient archives of Egypt and Assyria. Time and again, battles between great empires that decided the region’s fate were fought there. Biblical accounts of the ancient clashes at Megiddo that remained vivid long after the site was abandoned may underlie its apocalyptic mystique (see sidebar).

The renewed methods of excavation and scientific testing now being applied at Megiddo are offering archaeologists a chance to reevaluate how city, state, and empire interacted and occasionally collided, and how such events were interpreted in biblical accounts. The current expedition is specifically interested in Megiddo’s economic and political prominence. Clues now being found at six locations scattered across the 25-acre surface of the tel include artifacts, architecture and animal and plant remains. In addition, patterns of agricultural settlements have been identified in the area around the tel. Together, they offer a fascinating picture of state-formation and social evolution in the Bronze Age (ca. 3500-1150 B.C.) and Iron Age (ca. 1150-600 B.C.) that does not always mesh with the biblical descriptions of Megiddo’s history.

The first expedition to Megiddo, at the end of the nineteenth century, was sponsored by Kaiser Wilhelm II. Directed by German engineer-architect Gottlieb Schumacher and deeply influenced by the methods of Heinrich Schliemann at Troy, the excavators drove an enormous trench through the middle of the tel and laid bare a complex of massive buildings. Small finds included a magnificent carved seal bearing the name Jeroboam—the first artifact recovered from an archaeological dig to be associated with an ancient Israelite king.

In the 1920s and 1930s, a large expedition from the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago undertook a more systematic examination. With substantial funds provided by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the expedition’s senior staff worked year-round at the site and lived in an elegant stone dig house (now the site’s visitor center). In 14 years of excavation, the institute team peeled away sections of 30 superimposed settlements and established the basic chronology of the city’s history from the Neolithic (8000-4500 B.C.) to the Persian Period (539-332 B.C.). In the early 1960s, Yigael Yadin of Hebrew University dug at Megiddo, focusing on the Israelite period (ca. 1150-734 B.C.). His association of a massive city gate, fortification wall, and palace with the biblical description of King Solomon’s rebuilding of the city (1 Kings 9:15) lent credence to the historical basis of that account, and to the biblical descriptions of a Solomonic empire extending from its capital Jerusalem far to the north.

So why has a new expedition returned to Megiddo? Surprisingly, many of the most basic archaeological and historical conclusions about the city are now in dispute. Scholars are questioning the nature and date of the first fortified settlement (ca. 3100 B.C.), its destruction at the end of the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1150 B.C.), and even its supposed role as a district capital and a royal administrative center during the reign of King Solomon.

The new expedition has collected evidence on the entire span of human occupation at Megiddo, from the establishment of the first walled settlement at the site to its last major city, the Assyrian center of the seventh century B.C. It shows the city’s history was one of explosive development.

In a world of small villages and modest cult places, Early Bronze Age Megiddo grew rapidly. The first formal temple complex (ca. 3300-3100 B.C.), established in the initial phases of the Early Bronze Age, served the largest city that ever existed at the site. Throughout the monumental compound of altars, temples, and storerooms were vast deposits of butchered animal bones, evidence of the public sacrifice that may have marked the emergence of one of the first urban centers in this part of the ancient Near East. Although Megiddo was apparently largely abandoned ca. 2200 B.C. following the collapse of Early Bronze Age trade in the region, the sanctity of this first cultic area survived in later temple constructions and public altars were built on the same spot for millennia to come.

The site’s strategic location, abundant water supply, fertile agricultural hinterland, and close contact with neighboring peoples such as the Phoenicians and Egyptians, enabled Megiddo to weather periods of unrest and economic contraction, becoming one of the most prominent cities of the region in the Middle and Late Bronze Age (ca. 2000-1150 B.C.). As the seat of a local dynasty of city-state princes, Megiddo was surrounded by high, beaten-earth ramparts—a defensive feature that can still be discerned in the steep tel slopes. Its prosperity is evident in the furnishings of its main palace, a cosmopolitan mix of Egyptian, Aegean, and Canaanite styles.

In the fifteenth century B.C., the wealthy and powerful princes of Megiddo joined a rebellion of Canaanite rulers against the military and fiscal demands of Egypt. The destruction of the alliance by Egyptian forces in the vicinity of Megiddo is narrated in detail by the chroniclers of Pharaoh Thutmosis III (1479-1425 B.C.) on the walls of the great Temple of Karnak in Upper Egypt.

The siege of Megiddo and its surrender to the Egyptians apparently did not diminish its influence. Subsequent diplomatic correspondence, preserved in the collection of clay tablets known as the Tel el-Amarna Letters, was sent by Biridiya, the Canaanite prince of Megiddo, to the Pharaohs Amenhotep III (1391-1353 B.C.) and Amenhotep IV (1353-1335 B.C.). It suggest that Megiddo retained its status even under direct Egyptian rule, one which apparently continued until the end of the Late Bronze Age.

Earlier scholars envisioned a sudden, violent end to this cosmopolitan era, possibly linked to the invasion of Canaan by the Israelites, or to the raids of Aegean Sea Peoples along the Levantine coast. The Book of Joshua (12:21) specifically mentions the defeat of the king of Megiddo and the allotment of his territory to the tribe of Manasseh; Judges 5:19 describes a triumph by a coalition of Israelite tribes against the Canaanite kings, "The kings came and fought, then fought the kings of Canaan in Taanach by the waters of Megiddo."

According to the interpretations of the new expedition to the site, however, the transition from Canaanite to Israelite eras may not have been clearly defined. While there is evidence in the palace area of destruction around 1150 B.C. (perhaps the result of a raid by Sea Peoples), the city seems to have been rebuilt shortly thereafter. The persistence of Canaanite artistic and architectural styles long after the establishment of Israelite settlements in the nearby hill country further suggests cultural continuity and the assimilation of Megiddo’s Canaanite population into an ethnically diverse Israelite state.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the new expedition’s investigations is the doubt it has cast on the once-unshakable evidence for the Solomonic rebuilding of the city—and perhaps on the historical character and geographical extent of the united monarchy of David and Solomon itself. The First Book of Kings 4:21 describes Solomon’s kingdom as extending from Sinai to the Euphrates. Although many biblical scholars now agree that the extent of Solomon’s domain was much more modest, few have doubted that it reached as far north as Megiddo. Until recently, scholars generally agreed that Megiddo’s six-chambered gate and adjoining city wall at the northern entrance to the city was commissioned by King Solomon in the late tenth century B.C. as a part of the great building project mentioned in 1 Kings 9:15. It was further believed that at least one of Megiddo’s Iron Age palaces was the residence of Baana son of Ahilud, Solomon’s district governor, noted in 1 Kings 4:12. Scholars also suggest that it was only after the breakup of the united monarchy following the death of Solomon that Megiddo became part of the northern Kingdom of Israel, the kings of Jerusalem maintained their rule only over the southern Kingdom of Judah.

Should these biblical accounts be taken at face value? There is now considerable debate regarding the precise date of Megiddo’s massive constructions and how they fit into the city’s history. Even the directors of the new expedition are not of one mind. Pennsylvania State University's Baruch Halpern, a co-author of this article, believes that the biblical description of Solomon’s rebuilding of Megiddo is reliable, and that the famous six-chambered gate and several additional palace buildings were indeed constructed during the Solomonic era, which traditional biblical chronology dates to 967-928 B.C. The other excavation directors and co-authors, Israel Finkelstein and David Ussishkin of Tel Aviv University, disagree on the Israelite king to whom the gate and palaces should be attributed. They do agree, however, based on architectural parallels and pottery analyses, that the first great rebuilding of Megiddo took place after the establishment of the northern Kingdom of Israel and not under the united monarchy of David and Solomon.

This debate is still far from settled, yet its implications are far-reaching for modern understandings of biblical history. If the first major period of construction during the Israelite period at Megiddo took place after the time of Solomon, that king’s legendary achievements as a builder and ruler over the entire Land of Israel may require reassessment. The new expedition hopes to gather more evidence in the course of excavating a massive ashlar structure that was first located on the northern edge of the mound by the earlier Yadin expedition. This impressive building apparently was the residence of the royal governor of Megiddo during the earliest period of Israelite rule. The precise dating of this structure, to the Solomonic period or later, may offer scholars evidence that confirms or questions the biblical accounts of Solomon’s extensive public works.

The current excavations and the intensive study of the area surrounding Megiddo highlight the considerable resources and economic capability of the northern regions of the Land of Israel, especially during the period of the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah (ca. 930–722 B.C.). While Israel boasted rich valleys, active trade routes, and cultural communication with neighboring Phoenicians, Arameans, Philistines, and Moabites, the smaller Kingdom of Judah covered an isolated area of rugged hill country. Its agricultural resources were limited and the herding of sheep and goats played a much larger economic role there.

From a strictly archaeological standpoint it would seem unlikely that the poorer, more isolated southern capital of Jerusalem could have marshaled the resources and troops to extend its rule over the far richer north as early as the time of Solomon. Impressive constructions attributed to Solomon in the cities of Gezer, Megiddo, and Hazor were all in the territory controlled by the northern Kingdom of Israel. New evidence may suggest that the first true Israelite monarchy (with the fully developed state apparatus of administration and centralized planning) emerged not in Jerusalem but in the rich valleys and cities of the north, like Megiddo. The redating of the first monumental structures to a period after the reign of Solomon may also suggest that the development of the first full-fledged Israelite kingdom occurred under the rule of northern kings like Jeroboam I, Omri, or Ahab, who are pictured as sinful, idol-worshipping villains in the biblical sources. The biblical accounts of the northern kingdom that are contained in 2 Kings were heavily edited and assembled by the priestly and royal scribes of the south probably no earlier than the seventh century B.C. Southern scribes may have given the credit for empire-building to the almost legendary King Solomon as a means of enhancing the reputation and geographical reach of Judah’s Davidic dynasty.

There is a certain irony in viewing the villains of the traditional biblical story as heroes of a new archaeological tale of political and economic development. Yet the contemporary records of the Assyrian Empire make no mistake about the prominence of Israel. While Judah is mentioned only in passing, the Assyrians clearly recognized Israel as a dangerous obstacle to their political control of the region. The so-called Monolith Inscription of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III from the ninth century B.C. reports that Ahab, known from the Bible as the husband of the notorious princess Jezebel, contributed 2000 chariots to an anti-Assyrian coalition at the Battle of Qarqar in Syria in 843 B.C. In terms of sheer numbers, this chariot force would certainly rank Israel as a formidable military power.

Indeed, the excavations at Megiddo, both those conducted more than a half-century ago by the University of Chicago and the present ones, have uncovered massive complexes of long buildings, uniformly divided down their lengths by rows of columns and roughly hewn stone troughs. Despite scholarly suggestions that these structures may have been used as storehouses or covered bazaars (as is indicated by the discovery of storage jars in similar buildings at other contemporary sites in Israel), their use at Megiddo as chariot stables under the kings of the Kingdom of Israel seems fairly clear, at least in their initial stages of use. No pottery or other finds were found within them, and the arrangement of the buildings around a large courtyard suggests an area for exercising horses. It is interesting to note that the kingdom was so well known for its chariotry skills that after its eventual conquest by Assyria in 722 B.C., Israelite chariot units were incorporated directly into the Assyrian army. In fact, by the eighth century B.C., Megiddo seems to have become a heavily defended royal citadel devoted almost entirely to military and administrative functions. The city’s impressive underground water tunnel allowed its residents access to a nearby spring even under siege conditions; a massive, stone-lined silo may have served for the centralized distribution of grain or other provisions; the putative stables would have provided facilities for as many as 150 chariot teams.

The finds of monumental buildings, stables, and a sophisticated water system at Megiddo offer a complex new understanding of the history of the Kingdom of Israel and its sources of economic and military power. The archaeological evidence richly supplements the scattered biblical references to Assyrian-Israelite relations and the occasional mention in Assyrian records of the Kingdom of Israel’s prominence. Ultimately, however, the kingdom’s resources proved insufficient in turning back the advance of the Assyrian Empire. At Megiddo, the arrival of the Assyrian conquerors is present in the archaeological record in the dismantling of the stables and the construction of impressive Assyrian-style palaces from which the rich Jezreel Valley was governed in the name of the Assyrian king.

It is at this point, after nearly 6000 years of continuous history, that Tel Megiddo’s archaeological history grows fuzzy. With the decline of the Assyrians, it apparently lost its position as a regional center. The once-great city fell into ruins and a small fortress was built on its northeastern edge to secure the vital road junction that had been a key to the city's prominence over the millennia.

For one final time, Megiddo would play a brief, but fateful, role in a clash of empires. In the spring of 609 B.C., the Judean king Josiah—hoping to claim control of the territory of the former Kingdom of Israel that the disintegrating Assyrian Empire had abandoned, rode northward to confront Pharaoh Necho II and a large Egyptian force. At Megiddo, by then little more than a crumbling, roadside castle, the last powerful heir of the House of David was killed in battle, as reported in 2 Kings 23:29: "In his days Pharaoh Neco king of Egypt went up against the king of Assyria to the river Euphrates: and King Josiah went against him; and he slew him at Megiddo, when he had seen him."

The death of Josiah at Megiddo had enormous implications. With the political hopes of the Kingdom of Judah dashed, expectations for the future of the Davidic dynasty shifted from military to metaphysical—to a messiah or savior who would return to earth to restore the House of Israel. This vision has been preserved in the vivid prophecies of the New Testament's Book of Revelation, themselves perhaps based on distant memories of invading Egyptian armies, Canaanite coalitions, and Israelite ambitions to control this important nexus of agricultural richness and vital overland trade routes. At Megiddo, the current excavations—scheduled to resume next summer—continue to unravel the complex interconnections between apocalyptic myth, biblical legend, and the archaeological evidence of city’s long history.

 

Neil Asher Silberman is a contributing editor of ARCHAEOLOGY. Israel Finkelstein and David Ussishkin of Tel Aviv University and Baruch Halpern of Pennsylvania State University are co-directors of the current Megiddo Expedition, which also includes Loyola Marymount, the University of Southern California, Vanderbilt University, and the University of Rostock.

 

Armageddon, Megiddo, and the End of the World

…And they assembled them at the place which is called in Hebrew Armageddon.

--Revelation 16:16

 

A final and conclusive conflict between the forces of good and evil. A widespread annihilating war: a vast conflict that is marked by great slaughter and widespread destruction. Dictionary definitions of Armageddon are vivid and grim.

How did such a frightening image of judgment and annihilation come to be associated with Megiddo? One possible answer may be that the late-first or early-second century A.D. author of the Book of Revelation - in reshaping an ancient Jewish apocalyptic tradition of a final battle between light and darkness - chose this particular locale for poetic and symbolic reasons.

The Valley of Mageddon, as mentioned in the Book of Zechariah (12:11), was located at the edge of a broad valley where great battles had been waged and the fate of empires had been decided for thousands of years. Perhaps the empty, ruined city inspired reflection on the fierce struggles that had been waged there—and the ultimate conflict between Good and Evil that would come at the End of Times.

Most scholars theorize that the word Armageddon is a Greek corruption of the Hebrew Har-Megiddo, "the mound of Megiddo," yet it is unclear when this designation first arose. Following the abandonment of the city during the Persian period (539-332 B.C.), the small towns established to the south of the tel were known by other names. By the Middle Ages, Armageddon had become a purely biblical concept, unconnected—at least consciously—to Megiddo. Over the centuries, theologians and biblical commentators located Armageddon at places in the Holy Land as diverse as Mount Tabor, Jerusalem’s Mount Zion, Mount Carmel, and the snow-covered Mount Hermon far to the north.

Fearsome scenes of the final battles at Armageddon have been elaborated in artwork, poetry, and fire-and-brimstone sermons. These creative expressions of the end of the world had no necessary connection with any particular ancient site until the fourteenth century, when the Jewish explorer and geographer Estori Ha-Farchi first suggested that the roadside town of Lejjun (an Arabicized form of its Roman-period name Legio) might be the location of the Biblical city of Megiddo. This identification was revived in the early nineteenth century by the American biblical scholar Edward Robinson whose own travels in Ottoman Palestine convinced him that the location of the site meshed perfectly with Megiddo’s description in biblical texts. Later explorers refined the identification by recognizing the remains of the ancient city lay approximately one mile north of Lejjun at the mound of Tell el-Mutasellim, "the hill of the governor," which was named for the nearby estates of the Ottoman government. By that time, however, Armageddon had a worldwide significance quite distinct from the historical site that had inspired the authors of the biblical texts so many centuries before.

Visitors are coming to Tel Megiddo in increasing numbers as the millennium nears, drawn both by the site’s dramatic history and its apocalyptic mystique. The Israel National Parks Authority, in close coordination with the Megiddo Expedition and the Ename Center for Public Archaeology of Belgium, has undertaken a major new project in public interpretation. By the spring of 2000, an innovative new on-site multimedia program utilizing virtual reality reconstructions of the excavated ruins will offer visitors to Megiddo a vivid perspective on the dramatic history that lies behind Armageddon’s grim images.

The photographs in this aticle were used with the premission of Richard Nowitz. Please visit his website at www.nowitz.com.