The book of Kings describes a time during the 9th–7th centuries B.C. when the land was divided into two kingdoms—Judah in the south and Israel in the north. Phoenicia and Israel were linked by commerce and royal marriages and Hebrew monotheism struggled to resist the attraction of pagan gods. The prophets Elijah, Elisha, Amos and Isaiah inveighed against transgressions. At Kuntillet Ajrud, a remote desert way-station in the wilderness of northern Sinai, we found evidence of the multiplicity of religious practices which provoked the prophets’ fury.
In three short seasons of excavation in 1975 and 1976 we uncovered a remarkable (and completely unexpected) collection of ancient Hebrew and Phoenician inscriptions painted on plaster walls and large storage jars, and incised on stone vessels. When the inscriptions were read, we discovered that they provided clear evidence that Kuntillet Ajrud was not merely a resting place for desert travelers but was principally a religious center. The inscriptions contain the names of El and Yahweh, words for God used in the Hebrew Bible. Yahweh (spelled YHWH in Hebrew consonantal writing) is the holy name of the Hebrew God as it appears in the Bible. El, a generic term for God, is also used in the Bible to refer specifically to the Hebrew God.
But the religious inscriptions from Kuntillet Ajrud also contain the names of pagan gods and goddesses, like Baal and Asherah. Both the travelers who stopped at this desert religious center and its few inhabitants were not all dedicated to the pure monotheistic principles espoused by the Hebrew prophets of their day. Some of these people may have been syncretistic Israelites mixing their Yahwistic principles with pagan influences. Others may have been Phoenicians—we also found some Phoenician inscriptions. Still others may have been pagans of other religious beliefs.
The most spectacular of the finds were two large pithoi (singular: pithos) or storage jars. Each of these storage jars is over three feet high and weighs (empty) almost thirty pounds. Although both pithoi were found in fragments, they proved to be almost completely restorable. On the outside of each of these pithoi were several crude, folk-art drawings in red and black ink as well as a number of religious inscriptions. Two of these pictures may even be Yahweh and his consort—a blasphemous concept never before suggested by an archaeological discovery!
The first announcement and photographs of the Kuntillet Ajrud finds were published in the March 1976 issue of BAR (“Cache of Hebrew and Phoenician Inscriptions Found in the Desert,” BAR 02:01). This early account promised BAR readers a more complete report in the future. Here is that report—including some pictures never before published.
The report has been longer in coming than I expected because the words and drawings are faded and enigmatic. What I present here are tentative conclusions and alternative hypotheses about material which I, and other scholars, will be studying for years to come.
Kuntillet Ajrud is located about forty miles south of Kadesh-Barnea and sits on a hill which rises beside the Wadi Quraiyaa. Old maps reveal that the site is a crossroads of desert tracks: one leads from Gaza through Kadesh-Barnea to Eilat; another traverses the 028Sinai along the Wadi Quraiya; and a third branches off to the south via Temed, a well-known way station in later times, to the center of southern Sinai.
The site was discovered by the famous English explorer Edward Palmer who surveyed the Sinai Peninsula in the 1860’s and visited Ajrud in 1869. There he carried out a small sounding into the ancient remains and subsequently identified the site as Gypsaria, a site known from Roman sources as a station on the Roman road from Gaza to Eilat.
But since Palmer’s day archaeologists have learned a great deal about pottery dating. After the 1967 Six-Day War we came to the site and by examining the sherds which lay strewn about we were able to detect Palmer’s error easily and to date the site to Iron Age II or the Israelite period. This new date identified the site as the southernmost outpost of the Judean kingdom, and it became a prime candidate for excavation. A few years later I led the archaeological expedition to Kuntillet Ajrud on behalf of Tel Aviv University (Institutes of Archaeology, and of Nature Conservation Research); the Israel Department of Antiquity; the Department for Holy-Land Studies in the Kibbutz Movement, and the Israel Exploration Society.
The top of the hill comprising the site is an oblong plateau extending east-west, with the ruins located at its western end. Wells in the vicinity—in use even today—gave the site its ancient importance. The modern Arabic name Kuntillet Ajrud means “Solitary Hill of the Wells,” a name which accurately reflects its character.
The site contains the remains of only two structures: a main building at the western extremity of the plateau and a smaller building east of it (see plan). The two buildings are in very different states of preservation. Almost nothing is left of the small building on the east, and there is little to say of it. The main building, whose walls have survived to a height of five feet, measures approximately 75 × 45 feet, and takes up the whole width of the narrow plateau.
The entrance to this building is from the east, through a small court (1)b with stone benches along the walls. Fragments of frescoes found amidst the debris on the floor of the entrance indicate that parts of the walls were painted with colorful floral motifs and linear designs. An entryway (2) led from the small entrance court to a broad, narrow room, which we call the “benchroom” (3). Both the bench-room and the entry had benches along the walls and were plastered all over with white, shiny plaster.
The bench-room extends across the width of the building. The benches along the walls on each side of the entrance-way take up most of the floor space, leaving only a narrow passage between them. At either end of the bench-room is a window-like opening into a small room. The sills of these windows are formed by the benches immediately adjacent; the windows are the only openings or entrances into the small rooms (4 and 5) at the ends of the bench-room.
Strangely enough, the inner courtyard (6) of the building—to which we pass from the benchroom—was empty except for three ovens (7) found in each of the southern corners, indicating that this was probably the cooking area. The three ovens could not have been used simultaneously because the floor level of each oven overlapped the dome of the one below. It is hard to tell how long each oven was in use, but together, the three ovens probably functioned as long as the total life of the site, which may have been no more than one generation. Steps (8) were found in the southern corners and probably formed part of staircases leading to the roof.
To the south and west of the courtyard were two long rooms (9 and 10). In the floor, bases of pithoi, or storage jars, were firmly embedded and so closely 029spaced that it must have been difficult to pass between them. There is no doubt that these rooms were used for storing food.
Tower-like corner rooms (11 and 12) were found in the western corners of the building. Access to these rooms is from the courtyard. At the rear of each room is a small compartment. Not much is left of the southwestern room, most of which had collapsed into the valley, but the room in the northwestern corner is fairly well preserved and contained some flat limestone slabs of unknown purpose, stone bowls, and red- and black-painted pottery vessels.
The relatively well-preserved condition of these tower-like rooms revealed some interesting construction details: the walls were built of rough unhewn stones, quarried from local limestone; branches—mainly of the tamarisk tree which grows abundantly in the Wadi Quraiya—were placed between the stone courses, some lengthwise and others crosswise, forming an intermediate course which acted as a binder for the wall. Incorporating tree branches in construction is well-known from various countries and was used over long periods. In 1 Kings 7:12, it is said that in the court of the Temple in Jerusalem there were “three courses of hewn stone … and a course of cedar beams.” At Kuntillet Ajrud there were no hewn stones and no cedar beams, but the interlaced tamarisk branches seem to be a less refined version of the Temple construction technique. Wood of any kind is a rare find in such an ancient building in Israel.
With the exception of the bench-room, the entryway and the entrance court (which were covered with white plaster), the walls of this building were coated with a plaster of mud mixed with straw. Ceilings were made of branches, many of which were found in the debris of the rooms.
The most remarkable finds of the excavation, however, were the inscriptions and drawings. Most of these were found in the bench-room and in the two side rooms entered from the bench-room.
A fragment of a Phoenician inscription was found in situ on the north jamb of the doorway leading from the bench-room to the courtyard. Unfortunately, it is so faded that it cannot be read. Near the entrance to the western store room (10), fragments of another inscription on plaster were found. It too had originally been written on the jamb of the entrance to this store room. It resembles the other inscription in its poor state of preservation and fragmentary condition. It 030can, however, be read partially. The words which we have been able to decipher include:
wb’rh.’l.b … “and in the (just) ways of El”
brk.b‘l.bym.ml … “blessed be Ba’al in the day of … ”
ûm.’l.bym.ml … “the name of El in the day of … ”
(The dots are word dividers).
The original location of these inscriptions—on the door jambs—recalls the Biblical verse: “And you shall write them on the doorposts of your home and one your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:9).
Another inscription was found on a plaster fragment which had dropped off the wall of the bench-room. It reads: … brk.ymm.wys
The most dramatic discoveries were on two pithoi, previously mentioned, which were restored from sherds found in the bench-room. Both pithoi were densely covered with drawings as well as inscriptions. The drawings and inscriptions frequently overlapped. Most were executed in red ink and all are in early Hebrew script. Because of their very poor condition, we used a special photographic technique to bring out the script to help us decipher it.
The first large pithos contains two drawings, one on either side. One of the drawings includes three figures: a seated woman playing the lyre; the god Bes in the center with his genitals (or tail) exposed between his legs; and another unidentified deity on the left similarly exposed. Bes stands in his characteristic stance, arms akimbo with his customary feathered headdress. Originally an Egyptian demi-god, in the course of time Bes was adopted by most other countries in the ancient Near East and figures depicting him have been found frequently in Syria, Phoenicia, and the Mediterranean islands.
The inscription written across the top of the drawing and over the unusual headdress of the god (goddess?) on the left reads as follows:
’mr.’ … h. k. ’mr.lyhl … wlyw’sh.w … brkt.’tkm.
The first portion of the inscription seems to be a statement in the form “X said to Y and Z” but only the word ’mr “said” and the name yw‘sh “Yo’asah” are legible.
The words following can be read in several ways. It is clearly a blessing which begins “May you be blessed by Yahweh.” Then come the two final words smrn and wl’srthc. The former, pronounced “shomrenu” in Hebrew, may have the meaning “protect us” or “guard us.” The same letters can also be read as “Shomron,” a proper name referring to the Biblical city of Shomron (Samaria), the capital of the Northern Kingdom. Which of the two interpretations is preferable? We cannot be sure. It would seem at first that the translation of smrn as “protect” is clearly preferable to “Shomron” because, in the Bible, Yhwh “Yahweh” is never followed by a proper name (with the exception of the title tsebaot, usually translated “God of Hosts”). However, there is an argument for the translation “Shomron” which we will present below.
The meaning of the last word ’srth (pronounced “Asherato”) is even more enigmatic. Asherah is a pagan female diety mentioned frequently as the consort of Baal. But the “to” ending is a possessive form and this form is not used in Hebrew in connection with a proper name. However, if Asherah had the generic meaning of a female deity who was Yahweh’s consort, then the possessive form could have been used. Asherah or Asherat also has two other meanings: one, it is an object, usually a tree, which symbolizes a deity, and the second, cella or holy of holies (or shrine). With either of these two meanings the possessive ending “o” would be grammatically correct. Thus it would be proper to say, “his (Yahweh’s) holy of holies,” or “his (Yahweh’s) tree symbol or “his (Yahweh’s) consort.”
It is enticing to try to find a connection between the inscription and the drawings below it. One notices that the faces and ears of the two figures on the left resemble a cow or a calf. The calf may have had a holy meaning in the northern kingdom of Israel—suggested by the fact that Jeroboam erected a statue of a golden calf in the sanctuary at Bethel and at Dan (I Kings 12:29). Therefore, the depiction of deities with cow-like faces suggests that perhaps the inscription above them may be read “Yahweh of Shomron.” It is also possible that two of the three figures, (the lady with the lyre, the Bes or the other standing person) may be depictions of “Yahweh and his consort” if the final phrase is read in this way—a thoroughly blasphemous notion, but one which seems consistent with the diverse religious influences at Kuntillet Ajrud.
On the other side of this same large pithos is a drawing of a “tree-of-life,” sprouting lily flowers, and flanked on either side by ibexes. Below the tree of life is a majestic lion in motion. This pithos also contains a drawing of a cow, head turned back, suckling its calf. These motifs are well known in the Syro-Phoenician world, and we found many close comparisons to the Ajrud drawings. It is easy to see that the artistic execution at Ajrud is not refined; we may be quite sure that the drawings were by local artists who, although isolated in the desert, were influenced by the Syro-Phoenician cultural environment.
The second pithos contains a number of drawings, most of them poorly executed. These include the figure of a man drawing a bow, a cow (this time without a calf) and a striking scene of five figures standing in a row with arms upraised in a gesture of prayer.
This pithos also contains a number of inscriptions and four Hebrew abecedariesd. In these abecedaries the letter pe precedes the ayin, rather than the reverse, as is usually the case in the later Hebrew alphabet. This reversal of letters is also found in four acrostic paragraphs in the Bible (Lamentations 1–3 and Proverbs 31). Recently a Hebrew alphabet from the 11th century B.C. was discovered at Izbet Sartah (see A. Demsky and M. Kochavi, “An Alphabet from the Days of the Judges,” BAR 04:03) in which the same letter reversal occurred. Apparently, the alphabetic order preserved in the 8th century Kuntillet Ajrud inscription is not an error, but a continuation of a much earlier alphabetic tradition.
Another inscription on this pithos contains a blessing:
’mryw ’mrl.‘dny h … brktk.lyhwh …
wl’srth.ybrk.wysmrk wyhy ‘m.’dnu …
“Amaryau said to my lord. … may you be blessed by Yahweh and by his Asherah. Yahweh bless you and keep you and be with you … ”
A similar inscription was incised on the rim of an enormous stone bowl found in the bench-room. The bowl was apparently dedicated to the site for use there by its donor. What the use was we do not know. Given the fact that the bowl weighs over 400 pounds, it is safe to say that the donor, one “Obadyau,” was not only wealthy but also believed in the sanctity of the site.
The inscription on the rim of the bowl reads as follows:
l‘bdyw bn ‘dnh brk h’lyhw
“(Belonging) to ‘Obadyau son of ‘Adnah, may he be blessed by Yahwe(h) …
The donor’s name “Obadyau”, like most of the other private names, has the ending “yau” (common in the northern kingdom and known from the Samaria Ostracae and other finds) and not “yahu” (the common form in Judah). Does this show that the people who wrote the inscriptions came from the northern kingdom of Israel? This is another problem yet to be solved. A second stone bowl found in the bench-room also contains a “yau” name. It reads:
sm‘yw bn ‘zr
“Shema’yau son of ‘Ezer”
Adnah (the father of Obadyau who gave the large stone bowl to the site) bears a name that appears in 2 Chronicles 17:14. This Biblical Adnah commanded 300,000 men under King Jehosaphat, who reigned in Judah between 867 and 851 B.C. If the donor of the bowl was the son of the Biblical Adnah, this would date the bowl and the site a generation after Jehosaphat—that is—to the late 9th century B.C. This fits well into our dating of the site to a period between the mid-9th century and the mid-8th century B.C.
Another group of secular inscriptions are those which were incised on vessels before and after firing. Those incised after firing include three personal names. They also include the inscription lsr‘r which 033was found scratched four times on storage jars. lsr‘r is similar to two inscriptions on recently found bullae (sealings) which were stamped lsrh’r (lesar ha’ir) “(belonging) to the governor of the city.” These sealings have been attributed by Professor Nachman Avigad to the governor of Jerusalem. According to this hypothesis, the Kuntillet Ajrud inscription should be read lesar ‘ir (without the article ha-the)—“(belonging) to the governor of a city.” The term would then refer to the person who was in charge of the site. The presence of a governor who received supplies shows that Ajrud was organized as a small administrative unit.
Finally, we should mention short inscriptions which were incised on storage jars before firing. Most of the large storage jars had one or two letters incised on the shoulder. The most common single letter was ‘alef. Less common was the letter yod. The combination qof resh occurred twice. The purpose of these signs is not clear. Perhaps they were marks of capacity, quantity or quality, destination or use. In any case, the markings were decided on at the place of manufacture of the vessels, and before they were finished; this place could not have been Kuntillet Ajrud.
These letters may indicate that the content complied with religious law or was intended for religious use. At Masada, some storage jars were found marked with the letter taw as well as many small sherds with the letter yod and other initials. Yigael Yadin notes that in the Mishna (a second century A.D. compilation of what was previously oral law) the use of letters on vessels is explained: “If a vessel was found on which is written a qof, it is qorban (offering); if a mem, it is ma’aser (tithed); if a dalet, it is demai (tithing is uncertain); if a tet, it is tebel (untithed); if a taw, it is terumah (heave-offering).” The vessels from Masada date about 800 years later than the storage jars at Kuntillet Ajrud and the Mishna is still later, but perhaps the tradition recorded in the Mishna and preserved at Masada is based on a custom already prevalent in the days of the Monarchy. If so, then do the letters qof resh at Kuntillet Ajrud stand for qorban (sacrifice) and does the letter yod signify ma’aser (tithed)? Do the letters indicate that the site was inhabited by a group of priests who, as in Jerusalem and other centers, received and lived on tithes and offerings?
Additional support for the hypothesis of a group of priests living at Kuntillet Ajrud is the large quantity of finely woven linen fabric found there. Linen fabrics 034must have had some special meaning for the inhabitants. According to the Bible, linen had cultic significance. Ezekiel stresses that when the priests enter the gates of the inner court, “they must wear linen garments; they must have nothing of wool on them while they minister at the gates of the inner court and within. They shall have linen turbans upon their heads and linen breeches upon their loins … ” (Ezekiel 44:17–18).
Over 100 pieces of textile fragments were found in our excavations, preserved by the dry desert air. Most of the fabric was linen, but there was some wool too. All the fabric was made from good quality yarn and was evenly woven, although the thickness and density of the weave varied. Pieces of cloth were woven together so neatly and carefully and with such a fine needle that it resembles today’s so-called “invisible mending.” Some of the fabrics have colored yarn woven into them as decorations.
We found some fabric made of mixed wool and linen. In one instance the red threads are wool and the blue linen. Garments made of a mixture of linen and wool are expressly forbidden in the Bible (Leviticus 19:19; Deuteronomy 22:11), but it may be that the prohibition was for ordinary people and not priests. The description of the garments of Aaron shows that they were especially splendid. The rich colors could probably be obtained only by dying woolen threads, thus indicating that part of the garments were of wool as they were at Ajrud.
It would be tempting to call the building at Kuntillet Ajrud a temple, but it bears none of the architectural features we customarily associate with a temple. The plan of the building does not contain a holy of holies, nor does it conform to the plan of other temples known from excavations in the Near East. Moreover, we found the remains of no cult objects, such as animal altars or incense burners or cult altars.
On the other hand, although the building was probably not a temple, we think that it was a religious center of some kind where people deposited their offerings in the bench-room.
The site represents, in our opinion, a religious center which had some connection with the journeys of the Judaean kings to Eilat, Ezion-Geber and perhaps even to southern Sinai. The establishment of this center may have come about through identification of the site with one of the Israelite traditions concerning Sinai. Travelers could pray here, each man to his god, and ask the divine blessing for his journey, much as is done today at holy places, or at sheikhs’ tombs.
After the Exodus, the only Biblical personality who went to Mt. Horeb (identified with Mt. Sinai) was Elijah (1 Kings 19:8), who lived during the reign of King Jehosaphat (861–851 B.C.). Following Elijah, did a tradition of pilgrimage to Mt. Horeb (Sinai) develop, and was Kuntillet Ajrud a station on the pilgrims’ route?
The pagan elements, so tangibly represented at Kuntillet Ajrud, are also vividly portrayed in Biblical descriptions of the period. Elijah himself vented his fury at King Ahab (871–852 B.C.) of Israel who took for himself a Phoenician queen, Jezebel (1 Kings 17–18). Jezebel propagated Baal worship in Israel and her husband built her a temple of Baal (1 Kings 16:31–32). Jezebel’s daughter, Athaliah, became queen of Judah after the death of her son Ahaziah, who ruled only one year. Athaliah built a temple of Baal in Jerusalem and murdered all living descendants of the Davidic line (except for Joash—her grandson—who was hidden from her for seven years).
It is tantalizing to try to date Kuntillet Ajrud, to pinpoint in whose reign this religious center was established. The pottery and the form of the script suggests the end of the 9th to the beginning of the 8th centuries. But to be more precise, we must look for a time when these “facts” which we have discovered at Kuntillet Ajrud could have occurred together: the use of Phoenician script, the mixture of religious practices, priests in residence, names with you endings (a northern rather than a Judaean influence), tools made of wood from trees in southern Sinai, and the location of the site on a route linking Judah with Eilat.
Perhaps Kuntillet Ajrud was established during the short reign of the half-Phoenician queen, Athaliah, whose Phoenician lineage, whose hatred of the priests of the house of David, and whose worship of Baal is all documented in the Book of Kings. Perhaps she sent her priests to live and serve at Ajrud. Perhaps it was she who gave the Phoenicians from the north their much sought passage through Judah on their way to the Red Sea. Perhaps this traffic explains why we find wood from the south and you names from the North. Perhaps in the Phoenician inscriptions they left behind, these Phoenician travelers left evidence of their respite at Kuntillet Ajrud.
The book of Kings describes a time during the 9th–7th centuries B.C. when the land was divided into two kingdoms—Judah in the south and Israel in the north. Phoenicia and Israel were linked by commerce and royal marriages and Hebrew monotheism struggled to resist the attraction of pagan gods. The prophets Elijah, Elisha, Amos and Isaiah inveighed against transgressions. At Kuntillet Ajrud, a remote desert way-station in the wilderness of northern Sinai, we found evidence of the multiplicity of religious practices which provoked the prophets’ fury. 027 In three short seasons of excavation in 1975 and 1976 we uncovered […]