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Israeli archaeologists are busy excavating a massive ancient Bronze Age city after road construction crews discovered it by chance. And an even older city has been found underneath it.
7,000 years ago during the fifth millennium (5000 through 4001 BC), a settlement located at En Esur began developing and eventually grew into a city where at least 6,000 people lived in a sprawling urban center that would have been impressive by even modern standards, complete with public buildings and an organized road grid.
“This is the Early Bronze Age New York of our region, a cosmopolitan and planned city where thousands of inhabitants lived,” archaeologists at the site said in a statement.
According to Haaretz:
The archaeologists conducting the salvage exploration before the whole thing is built over suspect that at its peak in the Early Bronze Age, the site at En Esur had as many as 6,000 people, a huge population for the time. It would have dwarfed sites like Jericho and Megiddo, two famous examples of early urbanization in the Southern Levant, archaeologists say.
Usually, archaeologists find remains of smaller settlements, which are understandably easier to explore and excavate. But En Esur covers 160 acres, and the team has only excavated a mere ten percent of the site thus far.
“Our site is more than two or three times larger than the largest sites (in this area) during this period,” lead archaeologist Yitzhak Paz told CNN. “Most sites were excavated in very small scale, while our site was excavated on an immense scale.”
What’s more, the excavation indicates that a newer city had been built over an older one, giving researchers a glimpse into a period of time between the Late Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age.
“The size of the excavation allows us to define the characteristics of this phase in the Early Chalcolithic,” Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) archaeologist Dina Shalem says. “We could even talk about an En Esur culture. The differences between the Late Chalcolithic and Early Bronze are obvious in the architecture, in the pottery, in everything, but there is this gap during which no one can really tell what happens.”
Now they have the chance to fill in some of this gap and learn more about early urbanization, which may have begun much earlier than previously thought.
“For the first time, we find a site that includes each and every characteristic of organization, including fortification, urban planning, street systems, public spaces, public structures, and more,” Paz said. “The rise of urbanization is an issue that must constantly be re-discussed. We used to think that urbanization starts somewhere in the late fourth millennium but maybe it started earlier.”
Indeed, nothing like it has ever been found in Israel previously, and because En Esur remained a populated urban center for a long time, whoever planned the city clearly knew what they were doing.
The city was densely populated and well planned, with silos to store food and a network of streets and alleys covered in stones and plaster to minimize flooding during the rainy season.
The archaeologists also uncovered public buildings; a two-meter-thick fortification wall studded with towers, and a cemetery composed of burial caves located outside the town.
“You really have the complete package of early urbanized settlements, with all the components: streets, burial caves, domestic structures, walls, public buildings,” IAA archaeologist Itai Elad said.
It’s a window into urban life in the ancient world, but also rewrites the history books of Israel.
“There is no doubt that this site dramatically changes what we know about the character of the period and the beginning of urbanization of Israel,” Shalem and Paz said in a joint statement.
Of course, the city didn’t just appear overnight. In fact, it took 1,000 years for the site to develop and grow into a city, a city that is situated between present-day Tel Aviv and Haifa.
“By the end of the fourth millennium B.C.E., the site became a city,” Paz said, noting that En Esur was bigger than even the legendary city of Jericho by more than ten times the size. “It is one of the earliest cities known in the southern Levant, and it is the largest by far.”
Another ancient city in Israel that is currently being excavated is near the city of Motza. That city, which existed during the Neolithic period 9,000 years ago, was home to at least 3,000 people.
En Esur is easily double the size of that older settlement.
“Such a city could not develop without having behind it a guiding hand and an administrative mechanism,” the team stated. “It’s impressive planning, the tools brought to Israel from Egypt found at the site, and its seal impressions are proof of this.”
“This is a huge city — a megalopolis in relation to the Early Bronze Age, where thousands of inhabitants, who made their living from agriculture, lived and traded with different regions and even with different cultures and kingdoms. These surprising findings allow us, for the first time, to define the cultural characteristics of the inhabitants of this area in ancient times.”
For instance, there is an abundance of evidence of religious practices based on the architecture of one structure and figurines found there.
The building, 25 meters long, was supported by wood columns placed on large stone bases, and inside archaeologists have found evidence of religious activity, including human-shaped figurines, and a cylindrical seal impression depicting a cultic scene.
Outside the building they uncovered two massive stone basins, one of which contained animal bones, which reinforces the idea that the spot served a religious purpose. There was no rock to be found in the immediate vicinity, meaning that all these stones, some weighing 10 to 15 tons, had to be quarried and carried from a site a few kilometers away, further highlighting the effort and expense that was put into building the city.
The biggest and best stones were often used to construct the most important buildings, especially religious structures such as churches. Apparently, En Esur is no different.
As for why the inhabitants abandoned the city, Paz has theories, but nothing solid yet.
“There is some research that tried to look into natural reasons such as the rise of humidity that caused a process of flooding throughout the coastal plain,” Paz said. “There is a possibility that the site was flooded and swamps made life unbearable. We still have to figure out the reasons for the abandonment.”
This is one of the most important finds archaeologists have made in Israel. It will shed light on two periods of history and the transition between them while also giving researchers information on early urbanization and ancient city life during a time in which little is currently known. Sadly, at least part of this ancient urban landscape will be lost forever once construction crews return to the job and lay part of a new highway across it.
Featured Image: Israel Antiquities Authority/YouTube