Tel Hazor, located about 10 miles north of the Sea of Galilee, was the largest Canaanite city in the southern Levant in the second millennium BCE. The city, remembered in the Book of Joshua as “the head of all those kingdoms” (Joshua 11:10), comprised an acropolis as well as a lower city, together spanning an area of more than 200 acres.
The site was first excavated in the 1950s and 60s by Yigael Yadin, one of the founding fathers of Israeli archaeology. His excavations focused on both the acropolis and the lower city; in the latter he found temples, workshops, and dwellings. The late Sharon Zuckerman also conducted small-scale excavations in the lower city between 2008 and 2010, locating houses, shops, and a courtyard. Now, more than a decade later, our team from the University of Haifa is returning to Hazor’s lower city to see what else we can learn.
There are many questions regarding Hazor’s lower city, and one of the most intriguing involves its inhabitants. Who lived there? Were they “common” people or elites? Was urban life available to all or only those who could afford it, relegating the less wealthy to rural settlements in the hinterland?
Before discussing the inhabitants of the lower city, a few points should be made. First, it is important to note that despite many years of excavation, no houses or private architecture 051have yet been uncovered on Hazor’s acropolis. That area was reserved for royal buildings such as palaces and temples, with most evidence for domestic architecture found in the lower city.
Second, even in the lower city, complete houses have been found dating only to the Middle Bronze Age (which, at Hazor, dates to c. 1750–1550 BCE). No complete houses have been found from the Late Bronze Age (c. 1550–1200 BCE). However, portions of houses, workshops, shops, and some buildings identified as priests’ residences—all dating to the Late Bronze Age—have been excavated.
Who lived in these houses? There are several possibilities:
(1) The inhabitants of the lower city were commoners—average people. In his publications, Yadin does not discuss the identity of the inhabitants of the lower city. In my opinion, 052though, he hints that they were commoners. When discussing the fortification of the lower city, for example, he states that the people of the lower city were governed by a strong ruler who organized them into building stupendous fortifications.1 This statement suggests he believed the people who lived in the lower city were the ones who built the fortifications. Zuckerman and other scholars have also generally identified the lower city with Hazor’s non-elite population.2
(2) The inhabitants of the lower city were elites. Indeed, from Middle Bronze Age texts, we learn about a few of the elites who lived at Hazor. One document found at Hazor records a trial against a woman named Sumulailum who was sued over property she owned in and around the city, which included a house and a garden.3 In addition, a letter from the archive found at Mari in eastern Syria references “two messengers from Babylon” who “resided at Hazor” and a “man from Hazor” who was their escort.4 From this, we can infer that people of high status lived at Hazor, including messengers and envoys from Babylon.
(3) Both elites and commoners lived in the lower city. It is impossible to say whether only the elites of the Canaanite population were the inhabitants of the lower city. The lives of commoners may not have been recorded in texts; nevertheless, they may have still lived in Hazor’s lower city. We have not yet discovered an archive at Hazor.a Once uncovered, such texts would inevitably shed light on the city’s inhabitants.
The most logical possibility is that the residents of the city were a combination of common people and elites.
In his study of Canaanite households, David Schloen of the University of Chicago discussed the textual and archaeological evidence for the people who lived in Ugarit, a city on the northern coast of Syria.5 The city was composed of various craftspeople, cult personnel, and many of the king’s servants. Some of these people owned land outside of the city, and their kin and attached personnel worked these lands. In other words, people on a spectrum of social statuses lived in Ugarit.
Archaeologist Gloria London has shown, using ethnographic studies and historic census data, the majority of the pre-industrial population in the Middle East, as well as in North America and Europe, lived in rural, non-urban settlements. Though based mainly on data from pre-industrial times, London’s study focuses on parallels with Bronze and Iron Age settlement in the southern Levant.6 In some cases, only 10 053percent of the population lived in cities. In addition, most of the population (65–90 percent) in pre-industrial times were agricultural workers. However, London shows that in the Bronze and Iron Ages, large cities housed mainly the rulers, their extended families and servants, and military personnel. By contrast, people from all sectors of society resided in smaller towns and villages, evident by the full scope of the types of dwellings, from single-room houses to large manors.
Canaanite farmers and herders most probably did not dwell in cities, but rather in rural settlements. Yet some of the urban inhabitants might have owned agricultural lands, even if they did not farm the land themselves.
But what about Hazor? Several towns and villages have been identified in its vicinity in the Middle Bronze Age, but not so in the Late Bronze Age.
Based on the current data, it is impossible to ascertain the social status of the inhabitants of the city, especially during the Late Bronze Age when we lack sufficient textual sources. Nonetheless, it seems safe to say that any reference to them as “common people” could be misleading, based on the textual evidence presented above that confirms at least some of the city’s Middle Bronze Age population should be considered elite.
In the summer of 2023, excavations in the lower city of Hazor will be renewed. One of our aims is to identify the people who resided in the lower city. We will examine different methods of pottery production, as well as changes in food consumption and cooking habits, which all hint to changes in the population. By excavating and comparing different contexts and finds, we hope to learn more about the people themselves. This might reveal a change in the population of Hazor from mainly elites to mainly commoners—or even an influx of foreigners—in the Late Bronze Age.
Anyone who would like to learn more about the people who lived at Hazor is welcome to join us.
Hazor was the largest Canaanite city during the Bronze Age—and remembered as “the head of all those kingdoms” in Joshua 11:10. Could only the wealthy afford to live within its massive walls, or did average people also call the city home? Explore its population over time with archaeologist Shlomit Bechar.