By Gordon Franz and Stephanie Hernandez
A self-proclaimed “Jerusalemite”, Amnon Ben-Tor was born, raised, educated and lives in Jerusalem. With an MA (1961) and a PhD (1968) from Hebrew University, much of Dr. Ben-Tor’s archaeological focus has been on Hazor and Masada. Besides these two sites, Amnon has directed excavations at Azor, Tel Yarmuth, Tel Yokneam, Tel Qashish, Tel Qiri and Athienou (Cyprus). He was educated under Professor Yigael Yadin and has numerous publications to his credit. He has written extensively on Tel Hazor and has a soon to be released book on Masada.
This interview was conducted at Hazor in July, 2008.
Gordon Franz: It has been said that Hazor is one of the most important archaeological sites in the Land of Israel. Why is it so important?
Amnon Ben-Tor: It is the most important for various reasons. One is because it says so in the Bible! To quote a few passages for you: the book of Joshua states that Hazor is the “head of all those kingdoms” (11:10). So one, the Bible recognized that Hazor was the number one Canaanite city. The king of Hazor, in the book of Judges, is also the king of Canaan. Jabin lives in Hazor, but he is the king of Canaan (4:2, 23, 24). So again, Hazor is number one. In the conquest of the Land, the decisive battle was fought at Hazor (Jos 11:1-15). After Hazor was conquered the land was open for the Israelites to settle, from Mount Hermon all the way down to the Aravah (Jos 11:16-12:24). The beginning of the end of the Israelite kingdom is also connected with Hazor: In 732 BC the Assyrians take Hazor along with most of the Galilee all the way down to Megiddo (2 Kgs 15:29). Ten years later, Samaria falls and that’s the end of the Kingdom of Israel. So, if you look at it from this perspective, Hazor is number one in the Bible. But this is not enough.
Number two: If you look at historical records, Hazor is the only site in the country that is mentioned in about twenty documents found in the archive at Mari. From these documents, we learn that Babylonian ambassadors were living in Hazor and caravans were coming and going. Hazor is the only one mentioned: not Dan, not Megiddo, not Lachish, not Jerusalem. No other site, just Hazor.
If you go to the Late Bronze Age, the 14th century BC, there is the Amarna archive. The king of Hazor is the only one that has the title “king” in all the correspondences. Not only does he refer to himself as king, but also others. Some of them are his rivals, but still they refer to him as king. The king of Tyre writes to Pharaoh, “the king of Hazor has done so and so”. Number two: the historical records.
Number three: the archaeological record. Canaanite Hazor is the biggest site in the country, covering some 200 acres with a population between 15,000 and 20,000 people. So I am talking about something like New York or Paris of today. It was a huge site.
Further are the finds. We have exquisite finds. I know everybody comes and talks about the archives, which will be found in time. But by now we already have more documents than any other site in the country. Other than this, we have magnificent finds. Unlike any other site, archaeology shows us that Canaanite Hazor was number one. Then, when Canaanite Hazor was destroyed, it was no longer number one in this sense. Israelite Hazor was much, much smaller, confined only to the acropolis, with a population of between 1,000 and 1,500 people. Then Jerusalem is number one, and Samaria is number two. Then we have Dan, Hazor, Megiddo, Gezer, Lachish, and Beer Sheva. These are important cities.
Hazor is number one even now from another point of view. This again has to do with the Bible and the value of Biblical historiography. Does the Bible reflect historical reality? Is the Bible only theology? Or is it only fantasy? Hazor was continuously occupied from around 950 BC to around 732 BC, and we have more strata from this time frame than any other site in the country. We have a very dense stratigraphy. So if you talk about the problem of the conquest of the land, of Joshua if you wish: Hazor. The period of the Judges: Hazor. The United Monarchy, say Solomon: Hazor. Ahab: Hazor. Jeroboam II: Hazor. Tiglath-Pileser III, king of Assyria: Hazor. So you can walk with the Bible in one hand, and – at the same time looking at the relics. I don’t say that you have to accept everything, but the argument or the discussion should be held, could be held, can be held, here at Hazor.
Gordon: You had the privilege of working closely with Professor Yigael Yadin. Please tell us something about Yadin the person. What was he like? What made him tick?
Amnon: Yadin was a great man. You don’t get to meet many great men, maybe one in your lifetime. There are only three peaks anyone can reach: in the military, in politics and in culture. In the military, Yadin was the Chief of Staff. The politicians asked him, as a military authority in his twenties, if he thought we could withstand the invasion of Arab armies, certain to happen once a state was declared, and he said “yes.” He took upon himself, at that young age a tremendous responsibility! This is something. He became Chief of Staff after the war. So that’s one peak.
Second, in the 50’s and 60’s, if you ask anyone which figure they think about in terms of Israeli culture, it would be Yadin. Yadin was Masada. Yadin was Hazor. Yadin was the “Dead Sea Scrolls.”
Number three is politics, where he became Deputy Prime Minister, although I advised him not to get involved in politics. Tell me, how many people do you know who became Chief of Staff, Deputy Prime Minister, and such an important person in the history of the country? This was Yadin.
So he was a great person. He was the best lecturer. He could fill halls with thousands of people. He was very quick. Whenever something came up, he was the one who could point out where the weak spot was and the good arguments. He was a great man.
Gordon: What influence did Yadin have in getting you involved in archaeology in general and Hazor in particular?
Amnon: First of all, he was my teacher, and he was the best of my teachers. Second, he gave me my first job which I had in archaeology. He wrote the book, The Art of Warfare in Biblical Times which was one of the first books on the subject in this part of the world. It appeared in 1963. He gave me the job to collect the bibliography, the pictures, this and that. I worked for him by the hour and this was the first job in archaeology that I had.
Third, field work: In 1958 I was working here at Hazor. My first real excavation was here under Ruth Amiran, but Yadin was the head of the excavations. Then, he invited me to join him in the excavation of Masada, where I spent the best three years of my life, ever. So this was Masada. Then I went with him in 1968 to excavate Hazor again.
Yadin was a very important figure in archaeology. When he died [June 28, 1984], he named three people to be in charge of his scientific legacy because there were so much of his publications that he didn’t have time to finish because of his involvement in the Agranat Commission after the Yom Kippur War, his involvement in politics and eventually the government. So a lot was left undone. He named Joseph Aviram – the head of the Israel Exploration Society, Professor Nahman Avigad of the Hebrew University and me to publish his scientific material. I was to do Hazor. So again, I came back to Hazor through Yadin’s legacy. I worked on the publication of the volumes of Hazor III and IV, and also Hazor V. It was during that time that I decided to come back to Hazor. So you see Yadin is the pivot of everything that I am doing.
Gordon: When Yadin died in 1984 he had plans to return to Hazor and continue his excavations. Why did he want to return?
Amnon: He had a very, very specific goal in mind. In 1958, a corner of a huge building was discovered in Area A. Yadin was convinced that this was the corner of the palace of Jabin, the king of Hazor, who was known from the Mari archive as Ibni-Addu. He was sure that in this building the archive of Hazor would be found. This was his main goal. He wanted to come back and look for the archive. There were other things, but his main goal was this. But he died, and he did not have time to come back. I came back instead.
Gordon: You returned to Hazor in 1990. Why did you return and what were your objectives for the renewed excavations? What questions did you want to answer?
Amnon: I had three objectives: first – to deal with the issues that were controversial. For example, the date of the six-chambered gate found at Hazor in the 50’s. Hazor is where the “dogma” of the archaeology of the United Monarchy was formulated. The six-chambered gate and the casemate wall were dated by Yadin’s expedition to the time of Solomon. The Biblical passage (I Kings 9:15) attributes the construction of Hazor and Gezer to King Solomon, all of this drew a lot of fire on the one hand and a lot of support on the other. The focus of the debate was over the date of the gate. So one objective was to return and excavate and deal with these issues.
Second was to deal with issues that where left unresolved by the previous excavations. For example, what is the date of the construction of the Lower City? When did it become a real city in the Middle Bronze Age? It was a controversial issue. Another issue was the question of who destroyed Hazor and when. Yadin thought he knew. He had the date and he had the culprit, so to speak. But it was, and still is, a controversial issue. He did not have enough data, so the idea was to find the evidence. We also hope to find the archive. Yadin did not find it. Maybe we can find it. So maybe the palace, or what Yadin thought was the palace, is where the archive will be found. So let’s excavate this particular palace. So this was the second reason.
The third reason I returned to Hazor is that Hazor is the most important Biblical site. Unfortunately not too many people come to visit the site for a number of reasons. It is far away, it has no water, it has no shop, and it has no restaurant. So people don’t come and tour guides don’t take people to Hazor. They would rather take them to nearby Tel Dan where there is water and a restaurant. We have other problems. We have no real interest for Christians who are interested in the New Testament. The only large groups of Christian visitors are the Koreans who are interested in the Old Testament. They realize that Hazor is the place to be. So I think it is important to make Hazor attractive to people. If we can restore the place so that it “speaks” to the common person, not only to the archaeologists, I think we are doing something very important. So we restore, we invest millions of shekels for reconstruction to put Hazor on the map. I think it has helped. We are already a World Heritage site on UNESCO’s list. Unfortunately not too many school children come, but the number of tourists is rising. There is a lot of work to be done with the teachers, with the ministry of education. I have tried to work with three of them already, but so far, no success. Let’s see what is going to happen in the future.
Gordon: What are the most important discoveries you have made at Hazor?
Amnon: This is more or less like asking which of your children you love the most! It’s very difficult, you know. The results are cumulative. It is not one thing, but it’s this and this and the other. So if we are talking about the Iron Age it is the excavation that we did next to the casemate wall in order to determine the date of the entire system, which we managed to place in the 10th century BC. I think it is very, very important. Almost everything we are finding contributes to the general picture.
When you come to the Bronze Age it is the palace, no question about it. The documents that we find are important as well. The latest one that we found is the first time that Mari is mentioned in a document found at Hazor. So far we only had Hazor mentioned on tablets found in Mari. Now we have them both ways. So it is this and that and the other. All of this contributes to the picture.
Not the least, I found my wife at Hazor. She was a student. We get first year students here for three weeks, to train them in field archaeology. She was one of them and here is where I found her some 40 years ago. So that was another important find …
Gordon: Are you still happily married?
Amnon: Yes, I am. And we are talking now about 40 years.
Gordon: How does one go about volunteering for the excavations at Hazor?
Amnon: Sometimes you get the most interesting people coming to Hazor. Including this season, we have had people from more than 27 different countries participate in the excavation. Some of them you would never think about. We had someone from Tasmania, the island south of Australia. All kinds of strange / exotic countries with very, very interesting people. Number one, we have a website.
Number two: the January / February issue of Biblical Archaeology Review lists the sites that are excavating that summer. We are listed there. Number three and I think number three is the best: It is when a friend brings a friend, brings a friend, and brings a friend. We have people who come every year and they bring their own friends. We have some people that are with us for fifteen seasons. We have a woman from Sweden who has been with us for nineteen seasons. We have a volunteer from Spain who came to Hazor 18 years ago, stayed in the country, married a local girl and is now a member of the Hazor excavations staff! So it is by word of mouth, it is by the website. We have groups and we have individuals. We had the ABR group that was with us three times. We have groups from different universities; we have our own Hebrew University students. We have individuals from here, there and everywhere.
Gordon: You recently retired from active teaching at Hebrew University. What do you hope to accomplish in your retirement?
Amnon: It’s a cliché. I’ve heard many people say it but I’ve never believed it but it is true. I don’t have time to do anything! I don’t know how I found time to teach. There is so much to do. Hazor takes up most of my time.
I just finished writing a book on Masada which will appear very soon, both in Hebrew and in English. This takes up a lot of my time. It’s finished, it’s done. Now we are putting in the pictures, the captions, all this technical work. By the end of the year I hope it will appear, but we’ll see. You never know how long it will take in the press.
We are now busy writing the final report on the results of the Hazor excavations 1990-2008: two teams are working simultaneously on two volumes: one on the Iron Age, the other on the Bronze Age. There are so many things I want to do. I want to write a popular book about Hazor. There’s no end. There is no time to do anything. I want to study more about Jerusalem. I want to improve two languages, Spanish and French. No time, no time.
Gordon: Amnon, thank you for your time, I appreciate it. I wish you all the best in the seasons to come. I hope you find the archive sooner, rather than later. And I hope I will be there with you when you find it. All the best.
For further information concerning the Hazor Excavations, please visit their website: