September 24, 2016
by Fehmida

A History of the Land and Archaeology of Gezer

by Taman Turbinton

Tis the season for Biblical archaeology. The summer months mark the time when archaeologists and scholars from all over the world come to Israel to further explore and discover more information about the Biblical land. This article will focus on the Biblical city of Gezer. Gezer is a city small in size, but big in archaeological history.

Gezer Boundary Stone. Source.

The Land and Biblical Background of Gezer

The Israeli city of Gezer (also identified as Tell Jezer, or Tell Jazari) is a place which holds significant importance to Old Testament studies. Located close to the Plain of Philistia which is to its west, Gezer sits approximately 15 miles east of the Mediterranean Sea. From Jerusalem, Gezer is located approximately 19 miles west-northwest. Gezer sits on top of a 30-acre mound, and is close to 225 meters above sea level. It is conveniently and strategically located near the junction where the Via Maris (way of the sea) meets the trunk road leading to Jerusalem.i

Even though the land is known to have been occupied from the Late Chalcolithic period to the Roman-Byzantine period,ii there is no known archaeological evidence of the city being occupied between the Early Bronze IV and the Middle Bronze I period.iii During the Middle Bronze IIA period archaeological evidence reveals a vibrant urban life, and Canaanite culture seems to be dominant at Gezer and its surrounding cities. About 65 percent of the Canaanite population was occupied in these areas.iv The ten monolithic upright stones at Gezer, known as the Gezer “High Place,” which comes from the Middle Bronze Age points to some type of religious or ceremonial activity in the city.v The finds of pig bones and the alabaster statue of the naked man holding a pig to his chest also point to some type of religious ceremonial activity probably through Manetho, the Egyptian historian, listed Pharaoh Thutmosis III as the sixth king of the Eighteenth Dynastyvii; his rule was one of the longest and most powerful. During approximately 1468 B.C., Thutmosis III captured and gained control of Gezer.viii Thutmosis III listed Gezer, and his 104 captures under his dominion in some inscriptions at the Temple of Amon in Karnak.ix The land for an extended period continued under Egyptian domination. About a century later, Abdi-Heba, the ruler of Jerusalem in the Late Bronze IIB period sent a series of letters to the Pharaoh, who was most likely Amenophis IV (1350-1334 B.C.), and explained that Ili-Milku (also spelled Milk-ilu), who was the ruler of Gezer, conquered much of the land. The rebellion of Ili-Milku was so devasting that Abdi-Heba lamented to Pharaoh:

I fall at the feet of my lord, the king, seven times and seven times…. Lost are the lands of the King, my lord…. Ili-Milku has caused the loss of all the land of the king, and so may the king, my lord, provide for this land. I say, “I would go in to the king, my lord, and visit the king my lord.” But the war against me is severe, and so I am not able to go in to the king, my lord…. (That) Apiru [Ili-Milku] has plundered all the lands of the king…[l]ost are the lands of the king, my lord.x

Ili-Milku was part of a coalition with Labᵓayu, ruler of Šakmu (Biblical Shechem), and a people identified as the “sons of Arsawa.” He took a town between Gezer and Jerusalem, known as Rub(b)utu, and sent a letter to Tagai and the sons of Šakmu, to isolate (or desert) Jerusalem. Abid-Hebdi explained to the Pharoah:

Milk-ilu does not break away from the sons of Labᵓayu and from the sons of Arwawa, as they desire the land of the king for themselves…. Such was the deed that Milk-ilu and Tagi did: they took Rub(b)utu. And now as for Urusalim [Jerusalem], if this land belongs to the king, why is it <not> of concern (?)… Milk-ilu has written to Tagi and the son <of Labᵓayu>…“[b]e both of you…a protection…[g]rant all their demands to the men of Qiltu [probably Keilah of the Bible], and let us isolate Urusalim…. May the king, my lord know (that) no garrison of the king is with me…. And so may the king send 50 men as a garrison to protect the land. The entire land of the king has deserted.xi

Later, on what is known as the “Israel Stele,” the Egyptian King Merneptah (1236-1223 B.C.), son of Rameses II (1304-1237 B.C.) recorded that Gezer was seized upon. The mention of Israel and Gezer in this “Stele” sheds more light as to state of these places, and also challenged the view of some scholars who contested that Merenptah was the Pharaoh of the exodus.xii During the Iron IA period Gezer seems to have been taken over by the Philistines. Numerous amounts of Philistine pottery have been recovered which shed evidence for this conclusion.xiii

Although Gezer gets more numerous mentions in ancient Egyptian accounts, recorded history of the ancient city in the Hebrew Bible goes back to the Late Bronze Age during the New Kingdom in Egypt, and the Israelite conquest. In the books of Joshua and Judges, it is mentioned that the tribe of Ephraim did not drive out the Canaanites who lived in Gezer, so that they lived among them (Joshua 16:10; Judges 1:29). Even though Gezer was most likely in a weakened state after being defeated by Joshua’s army, the Ephraimites were either unable to drive them out, or just chose not to. Most likely the writer is noting the direct violation of the older commands to drive them out.xiv Gezer was supposed to be given by the tribe of Ephraim to the Kohathites, of the tribe of Levi (Joshua 21:21). The mention in 1 Kings 9:15-16, of Gezer being given as a dowry to King Solomon’s wife by Pharaoh, and being rebuilt by Solomon is supported by remarkable archaeological evidence that will be discussed later. The next mention of Gezer is not until in post-biblical literature during the Maccabean wars, during which the city plays a significant role.xv During the Hasmonean rule, Simon who ruled from 142 to 134 B.C., conquered Gezer, and “purified” the town by expelling the gentile inhabitants and resettling it with Jewish inhabitants.xvi

Robert Alexander Stewart Macalister. Source.

Robert Alexander Stewart Macalister’s Excavations at Gezer

In 1872, Professor Clermont-Ganneau, a French archaeologist and consul of Jerusalem, discovered the ancient site of Gezer, being led by a reference from the Arabic history of Mujir-ed-Din. At the site he found inscriptions cut in the outcrops of rocks which read “boundary of Gezer.”xvii This is significant in the fact that ancient direct identification of a site has only happened one other time, at Marissa, in the tomb of Apollophanes.xviii In 1902 the Palestine Exploration Fund began excavations at the Tel in Gezer which ran during the years of (1902-5, 1906-8), and almost the amount of three-fifths of the total area were excavated. Robert Alexander Stewart Macalister, an Irish archaeologist, was the director of the site. Macalister would later be joined with Dr. Schumacher of Germany, who was an architect and resident in Palestine and worked on the site of Tell Mutasellim, which was funded by the Deutsche Palästina-Verein, partnered with the Orient-Gesellschaft; direct support was also given by the German emperor.xix

The work done by Macalister has been strongly and negatively critiqued by archaeologist that came after him. W. F. Albright noted that Macalister erroneously tried to arrange his chronology to cover the centuries of the 9th-6th centuries B.C., which ultimately reduced most of his dates between 1200 and 300 B.C. Most of the chronology of other surrounding sites went back to the second millennium B.C. As with the Germans who had dug at Jericho, Albright saw some of the work being done during Macalister’s time as mixing Bronze Age material with Iron Age, and wrongly identifying Canaanite objects as Israelite.xx In the winter of 1908-9, Macalister found a fragmentary tablet which scholars have debated in which time it should have been placed in. Edouard Paul Dhorme, the late French Assyriologist and Semitologist, thought it was a Neo-Babylonian tablet, but Albright strongly criticized that claim. For Albright, the tablet belonged in the Amarna period. The evidence, Albright pointed out, showed that it was a letter by an Egyptian official to the prince of Gezer.xxi

Two cuneiform tablets from Gezer, which are contracts for the sale of property date to the Assyrian period. In the first tablet someone named Luakhe, makes a sale to two Assyrians named Marduk-eriba and Abi-eriba, of a house, a slave named Turiaa, his two wives, and his son. The names mentioned give support of the mixed population of the city of Gezer during its integration into the Assyrian empire after the conquest of Tiglath-pileser III.xxii In the other tablet, a Hebrew man named Nethaniah (or Natan-Yau) sells his land. The tablet is broken, but the names of three witnesses are preserved on it, with the date of the transaction. The tablet is specifically dated in the reign of Assurbanipal. The names in this tablet also demonstrate the mixed population of Gezer, as well as the role and influence that some Hebrews had in the economics of the area.xxiii

Also located at Gezer was a squared stone with a large hieroglyphic character. Macalister believed it probably belonged to an inscription that covered the façade of its belonging structure. He suggested that it could have been a temple for the Egyptian community of that time.xxiv


City Gates at Meggido [Courtesy of Taman Turbinton]

The Gezer Calendar

The most important of Macalister’s finds is what is known as the “Gezer Calendar,” which contains what are, most likely, some of the oldest known Hebrew Inscriptions. Some scholars, such as P. Kyle McCarter, suggest that it is safer to describe the language as a South Canaanite dialect rather than specifically Hebrew.xxv Macalister made the discovery in September of 1908, and it consisted of soft limestone at about 4 ¼ inches long (probably originally it was about 5 ½ inches long), and 5/8 of an inch thick.xxvi Macalister notes that although it may be convenient to label the find as a calendar it may not be accurate to do so. A peasant boy called Abi (his full name is not known)—wrote on the plaque of limestone a list of the appropriate agricultural duties for certain times of the year.xxvii Albright felt very confident that the dating of the “Calendar” should be placed from about 950 to 918 B.C. in the Iron IC period.xxviii The plaque contains markings on both sides of scraping for reuse, which in possibility, may have been used as a palimpsest.xxix


The Solomonic Gate at Gezer

In 1957, the archaeologist, Yigael Yadin discovered a city gate at Hazor dating from the time of King Solomon. Yadin initially saw that it was identical in plan and measurements with the gate at Megiddo. Yadin was so confident to suggest that the gates were planned by the same Neither Macalister, nor those shortly after him were successful at finding a gate at Gezer that could be ascribed as being Solomonic. Because of Yadin’s success at Hazor and Megiddo, and his confidence in the accuracy of the Biblical information in 1 Kings 9:15-16 of Solomon building the cities at the locations mentioned, Yadin decided to do a fresh examination of Macalister’s report, hoping that he would have success in locating the city gate. His visit at Gezer lead him to the conclusion that was called the “Maccabean Castle” was actually a Solomonic city wall and gate.xxxi Yadin’s comparative measurements of the three sites concerning its main features of the casemate walls (only at Hazor and Gezer) and the gates drew a striking similarity. For the lengths of the gates: Megiddo measured at 20.3 meters, Hazor at 20.3 meters, and Gezer at 19.0 meters. The width of the gates measured at 17.5 meters for Megiddo, 18.0 meters at Hazor, and 16.2 meters at Gezer. The width of all the walls came to 1.6 meters. With this and much more evidence, it led Yadin and his team to conclude that gates and walls were indeed built by “Solomon’s architects from identical blue-prints, with minor changes in each case made necessary by the terrain.”xxxii

An up close view of some of the stones at the "Gezer High Place." [Courtesy of Taman Turbinton]

An up close view of some of the stones at the “Gezer High Place.” [Courtesy of Taman Turbinton]

Yadin’s conclusions were confirmed by the renewed excavations from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion headed by Dr. William G. Dever, who dated the six chambered gates to the time of Solomon. The task for Dever and his team was to examine and to see if Yadin’s work was verifiable. At first his team was cautious of describing anything to Solomon, but the sealed pottery from the floors and the striking characteristic of the red-burnished ware confirmed to Dever and his team that “Solomon did indeed re-build Gezer.”xxxiii John S. Holliday, Jr. also saw it reasonable to attribute the prior destruction of Gezer during the reign of King Solomon. In support of Yadin, Holliday saw lacking evidence of undisturbed destruction deposits that would produce restorable pottery. There was a succession of archaeological finds from unburnished red-slipper wares to burnish red-slipper wares.xxxiv

Solomon's City Gate at Gezer. [Courtesy of Taman Turbinton]

Solomon’s City Gate at Gezer. [Courtesy of Taman Turbinton]

Yet, Yadin was not without his skeptics. Later, Israel Finkelstein and others would cast serious doubts about the dates given. Finkelstein claimed in order to have a firm confidence in the dating there would need to be an archaeological find that would anchor the archaeology of Israel to the securely dated monarchs of Egypt and Assyria. Finkelstein argues vehemently that there are no finds that would anchor the dating’s to the time of Solomon, but that the reconstruction of the evidence is based on one Bible verse.xxxv The statement from Finklestein contains an important truth, for which Yadin was not ashamed of. Yadin, one of the most capable archaeologists, himself declared, “…the truth is that our great guide was the Bible: and as an archaeologist I cannot imagine a greater thrill than working with the Bible in one hand and the spade in the other.”xxxvi Nevertheless, for Finkelstein, the Solomonic monuments needed to be lowered into the ninth century B.C., seventy-five to one hundred years later.xxxvii It seems that these issues will continue to be contested by revisionists, but scholars such as André Lemaire accept the evidence presented by Yadin as convincing.xxxviii Even earlier, W. F. Albright was convinced that the palace structure at Megiddo discovered by the Chicago excavators was Solomonic.xxxix

Layout of the land and fields at Gezer

Layout of the land and fields at Gezer

Later Excavations at Gezer

In 1934 the Palestine Exploration Fund began to sponsor a second series of excavations at Gezer under the direction of A. Rowe, but the project never came to fruition. In 1964 G. E. Wright began a ten year excavation project at Gezer, which was sponsored by the Hebrew Union College Biblical and Archaeological School (which is now the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology) in Jerusalem, and was also financed through grants from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. The work here began in two major phases. Wright directed Phase I of the project from 1964-65 and 1966-1971. Phase II from 1972-74 was directed by Joe D. Seger, and again by William G. Dever in 1984 and 1990. Steve Ortiz of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Samuel Wolff of the Israel Antiquities Authority initiated Phase III of excavations at Gezer in 2005.xl

Gezer is a place that has been inhabited during various times by various different people groups such as the Egyptians, Philistines, Canaanites, and Israelites. There are archaeological finds that gives significant insight as to the culture of each of these people groups. The Israelite level is stratum VIII, which is located in Field III, east of the Canaanite water tunnel. The Solomonic Gate also is located in Field III. The Casemate Wall connected with the gate in field II is also Solomonic.xli Two Astarte plaques have been discovered in Field II, Area 4, pit 4022, along with numerous amounts of pottery. Both of the plaques and the pottery seem to be Late Bronze I-II.xlii The Astarte plaques also share some similarities of idols found at Troy.xliii Located in Field I, is the large structure of a Canaanite tower (the locus for the tower is noted by Dever’s group as 5017). The tower connects to the “Inner Wall,” mainly construed of large stones at about 1.00 meters long, 75-90 centimeters wide, and 50 centimeters in thickness.xliv In the Middle Bronze IIC period, Field IV provides much evidence of growth and redevelopment, starting with defense structures around the perimeter of the mound.xlv The Canaanite “High Place” is located in Field V, close to the northern “Inner Wall.” As mentioned above it consists of ten monoliths, with some of them over 3 meters high (the stones were discovered laying down and had to be placed up). The stones seemed to be made by the Canaanites, and it is possible that there could have been an association with child sacrifice, or with a covenant renewal ceremony involving the inhabitants of the location.xlvi In Field VII there are numerous finds of pottery almost completely intact.xlvii Area 24, Fill 2433, which was covered by Phase 9 Fill 2430 in Field VII, contains a dog burial.xlviii This most naturally would have one assume this find was not from the Israelite period.

The Excavations of Steve Ortiz and Samuel Wolff

The excavations that began in 2005 at Tel Gezer were sponsored by the Charles D. Tandy Institute of Archaeology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS), along with other consortium schools. The directors of the excavations are Dr. Steven Ortiz, professor of Archaeology and Biblical Backgrounds of the Tandy Institute and SWBTS, and Dr. Samuel Wolff, senior archaeologist and archivist of the Israel Antiquities Authority. In 2013 their work primarily consisted of removing portions of the city wall from the Iron IIA period, to have access for investigation of a Late Bronze age destruction level. During their excavations of the city wall, an earlier wall system was discovered from the Iron Age I period. Some items discovered were Philistine pottery and a Philistine figurine. Other discoveries at this site seem to correspond with information from Amarna letters concerning this area around the time of the Egyptians 18th Dynasty. Discovered was an earlier city that had been destroyed, with debris finds of pottery vessels, cylinder seals and a large Egyptian scarab with the cartouche of Amenhotep III. Additional work is being done to remove public and domestic structures of the 8th and 9th centuries B.C., to reveal the 10th century B. C. city plan adjacent to the “City Gate.” Although controversial, the exposure of the 10th century walls gives hopes for some of the excavators to find the rest of the “Solomonic city.”xlix

Entrance to the "Water Tunnel" at Gezer. [Courtesy of Taman Turbinton]

Entrance to the “Water Tunnel” at Gezer. [Courtesy of Taman Turbinton]

The Gezer Water System

Located north of the six chambered Iron Aged gate, is the extraordinary “water system.” It was hewed as an oval shaped reservoir at about 14 to 17 meters in diameter.l A stairway consisting of 78 steps was hewn into the walls and descends to the floor which leads to a source of From the entrance of the water system tunnel, the distance into the earth is approximately 40 meters. In 1905 Macalister discovered the water system, but he left many unanswered questions. In the summer of 2010 the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (NOBTS), took on the task of reopening the ancient water system. Primary sponsorship is from the Moskau Institue of Archaeology of NOBTS, and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. Leading the excavations from NOBTS are Dr. Dan Waner, Dr. R. Dennis Cole, and Dr. James Parker, in collaboration with Dr. Tsvika Tsuk, Chief Archaeologist of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and the Israel Antiquities Authority. This team accompanied by student volunteers from NOBTS and other Universities seeks to address the issues of identifying the source of the water, the overall purpose of the location, and it’s dating. A likely dating for the system seems to belong in the Bronze Age. It is believed that system’s cavern had an exterior opening accessible from outside of the city. It is thought that the inhabitants would have built the tunnel to access the water in case of a siege.lii


Macalister noted in his find of the system of a pool of water at the end of the tunnel of unknown depth. He explained that water stood wherever the mud was dug away, and the level of water remained constant no matter how much water was taken away. Similar issues were again discovered by the NOBTS excavators. On June 5, 2015 the team digging at the bottom of the tunnel removed close to 140 gallons of water. In the process of removal they were able to notice a lowering of the water level.liii It is very damp above the pool and deep into the cavern, and the main way to enter the area is by crawling. A large stone covers oneself the further one crawls back. It is hoped that an exit will be found deep in this cavern; this possible exit would be to the east side of Gezer. In previous excavations there were no finds of pottery at the end of the tunnel or in the cavern. Now into the fifth season numerous amounts of pottery shards have been found, but none with significant or extraordinary markings.liv Some of the pottery found looks similar in material to the finds from the believed to be “house” inside the inner wall in between the Canaanite gate and the water system opening. Dr. Eli Yannai, archaeologist of the Israel Antiquities Authority, serves at the pottery expert for this area. Parts of the area in the “house” received material from Macalister dump. Yannai has identified pottery that is very thin, covered with red on each side as material from Cyprus dating to the Late Bronze Age. The information is significant because towards the south of the “house” finds are from the Middle Bronze Age. This gave Dr. Yannai the indication that the location of a possible wall in the “house” facing north is filled with Macalister’s The pottery finds are not substantially enough to posit a clear connection between the two sites of the water tunnel and the house; it will take further work to draw upon more firm conclusions.


Even though many great finds have been found at Gezer, the excavators at the water tunnel believe and expect this particular area to be one of the premier sites in Israel. The structure of the tunnel is unique, with nothing like in the rest of Israel, Egypt, or Mesopotamia. This site will continue to be an attraction to archaeologist, and certainly later, a major tourist attraction for Bible believers, and even Biblical minimalists.

Because of the groundbreaking work taking place at Gezer, it will for a short time be a site of numerous mysteries. The excavators on the Tel and in the “Water System” have come up with interesting suggestions and questions about the site. Was the “Water System” used for times of siege? Did cultic activity take place in the Tunnel? Did King Solomon make use of the “Water System”? It is up to the excavators to try and understand the information behind the large amounts of archaeological evidence. But as we have learned from previous finds, Gezer is full of information that points to the accuracy of the Biblical record. Yigael Yadin was right to lean on his impulse and trust the inspired Word of God for finding Solomon’s Gate. Families can use Gezer as an example to have confidence in teaching their children that the Bible and archaeological finds do not contradict each other. Far from insignificant, Gezer will be remembered as one of the most important places in the Bible for Biblical Archaeology.


i Steven Ortiz and Samuel Wolff, “Gaurding the Boarder to Jerusalem: The Iron Age City of Gezer,” Near Eastern Archaeology 75, no. 1 (2012): p. 4. Henceforth: Ortiz and Wolff, “Iron Age City of Gezer.”

ii W. G. Dever, “Gezer” in Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, vol. 2, ed. Michael Avi-Yonah (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1976), p. 428. Henceforth: Dever, “Gezer”.

iii See John D. Currid, and David P. Barrett ed., Crossway ESV Bible Atlas (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), pp. 60-61. Henceforth: ESV Atlas.

iv Thomas C. Brisco, ed., Holman Bible Atlas: A Complete Guide to the Expansive Geography of Biblical History (Nashville, Tenn.: Holman Reference, 1998), pp. 43-44. Henceforth: Holman Atlas.

v Ibid., p. 45.

vi See Roland deVaux, The Bible and the Ancient Near East, trans. Damian McHugh (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967), p. 253.

vii According to Eusebius, from Syncellus see Manetho, The History of Egypt, trans. W. G. Waddel, in Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956), p. 115.

viii G. G. Garner, and J. Woodhead, “Gezer” in New Bible Dictionary, 3rd ed., (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1996), p. 409; Also see Dever, “Gezer”, p. 428.

ix James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts: Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd ed (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), p. 242.

x “Letter of Abdi-Heba of Jerusalem (EA 286) (3.92A)” in The Context of Scripture, vol. 3, Archival Documents from the Biblical World, eds. William W. Hallo, and K. Lawson Younger, Jr. (Leiden: Brill, 2002), p. 237.

xi “Letter of Abdi-Heba of Jerusalem (Urusalim) (EA 289) (3.92B)” in ibid., p. 238.

xii Holman Atlas, p. 57; Sir Alan Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharaohs: An Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961), p. 273.

xiii William G. Dever, H. Darrel Lance, and G. Ernest Wright, Gezer I, vol. 1, Preliminary Report of the 1964-66 Seasons (Jerusalem: Hebrew Union College Biblical and Archaeological School in Jerusalem, 1970), pp. 4-5. Henceforth: Dever, Lance, and Wright, Gezer I.

xiv See Barry G. Webb, The Book of Judges, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), pp. 123-24; K. Lawson Younger, Jr., Judges and Ruth, NIVAC (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), p. 72.

xv Dever, “Gezer”, p. 430.

xvi Lee I. A. Levine, “The Age of Hellenism: Alexander the Great and the Rise and Fall of the Hasmonean Kingdom,” in Ancient Israel: A Short History from Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple, ed. Hershel Shanks (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1988), p. 187.

xvii R. A. S. Macalister, A Century of Excavations in Palestine (London: The Religious Tract Society, 1925), p. 64. Henceforth: Macalister, Excavations; Yigael Yadin, Hazor: The Rediscovery of a Great Citadel of the Bible (New York: Random House, 1975), pp. 200-1. Henceforth: Yadin, Hazor.

xviii Macalister, Excavations, p. 82.

xix Ibid., pp. 64-65.

xx William Foxwell Albright, From Stone Age to Christianity: Monotheism and the Historical Process, 2nd ed., (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1957), pp. 55-56.

xxi For more information on Albright’s view of this tablet at Gezer see W. F. Albright, “A Tablet of the Amarna Age from Gezer,” Bulletin of American Schools of Oriental Research 92, (December 1943): pp. 28-30.

xxii Macalister, Excavations, p. 188; Hallo, and Younger, The Context of Scripture, vol. 3, pp. 263-64.

xxiii Macalister, Excavations, p. 189; Hallo, and Younger, The Context of Scripture, vol. 3, pp. 264-65.

xxiv Macalister, Excavations, p. 223.

xxv P. Kyle McCarter, “The Gezer Calendar,” in The Context of Scripture, vol. 2, Monumental Inscriptions from the Biblical World, eds. William W. Hallo, and K. Lawson Younger, Jr. (Leiden: Brill, 2000), p. 222.

xxvi William F. Albright, “The Gezer Calendar,” Bulletin of American Schools of Oriental Research 92, (December 1943): p. 16. Henceforth: Albright, “Gezer Calendar”.

xxvii Macalister, Excavations, p. 249.

xxviii Albright, “Gezer Calendar”, p. 19.

xxix Ibid., 21.

xxx Yigael Yadin, “Solomon’s City Wall and Gate at Gezer,” Israel Exploration Journal 8, no. 2 (1958): p. 80.

xxxi Ibid; Yadin, Hazor, pp. 201-2.

xxxii Yadin, “Solomon’s City Wall and Gate at Gezer,” pp. 85-86.

xxxiii Yadin, Hazor, p. 203.

xxxiv John S. Holladay, Jr., “Red Slip, Burnish, and the Solomonic Gateway at Gezer,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 277-278 (February/May 1990): p. 24.

xxxv Israel Finkelstein, “King Solomon’s Golden Age: History or Myth?” in The Quest for the Historical Israel: Debating Archaeology and the History of Early Israel, no. 17, by Israel Finkelstein and Amihai Mazar, ed. Brian Schmidt (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007), pp. 110-12.

xxxvi Yadin, Hazor, p. 187.

xxxvii Finkelstein, “King Solomon’s Golden Age,” p. 114.

xxxviii André Lemaire, “The United Monarchy: Saul, David and Solomon,” in Ancient Israel: A Short History from Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple, ed. Hershel Shanks (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1988), p. 107.

xxxix Albright, “Gezer Calendar,” pp. 18-19.

xl William G. Dever, “Gezer” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 2, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), p. 998; Joe D. Seger, and James W. Hardin, ed., Gezer VII: The Middle Bronze and Later Fortifications in Fields II, IV, and VII (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2013), p. 1. For the information of the location of the fields refer to the maps herein.

xli Dever, “Gezer,” p. 441.

xlii See Dever, Lance, and Wright, Gezer I, p. 57. For images see Plate 25, herein.

xliii See C. Schuchhardt, Schliemann’s Excavations: An Archaeological and Historical Study, trans., Eugénie Sellers (New York: Macmillan & Co., 1891), pp. 66-67.

xliv Dever, Lance, and Wright, Gezer I, pp. 18-19.

xlv Joe D. Seger, Gezer VII: The Middle Bronze and Later Fortifications in Fields II, IV, and VII, ed. Joe D. Seger and James W. Hardin (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2013), p. 13.

xlvi Dever, “Gezer,” pp. 437-438.

xlvii See pictures of plates 65 in Field VII East, Area 37; plate 61 in Field VII Central, Area 35, all in Seymour Gitin, Gezer III: A Ceramic Typology of the Late Iron II, Persian and Hellenistic Periods at Tell Gezer, Data Base and Plates (Jerusalem: Hebrew Union College, 1990).

xlviii Ibid., see plate 73.

xlix Steven Ortiz and Samuel Wolff, “ARCHAEOLOGY: The history beneath Solomon’s City,” accessed July 26, 2015,

l See Steve Ortiz, “Gezer” in the Oxford Encyclopedia of The Bible and Archaeology, ed., Daniel Master (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 471. Henceforth: Ortiz, “Gezer.”

li The layout by Mcalister listed 78 steps and has been examined and confirmed as the accurate number of steps by the author and Tsvika Tsuk. Some of the steps are losing shape, but are still distinct enough to be identified as steps.

lii Ortiz, “Gezer,” p. 469. Also see the CAR page, at the NOBTS website.

liii See the blog post from Gary D. Meyers on June 7, 2015, who is the publication relations representative of the Seminary, “Gezer 2015: The things you find at the bottom of the water system,” accessed July 21, 2015,

liv Information unpublished, but available from the author. On June 2, 2015, over one hour was spent in the tight area of the cavern collecting pottery. I found approximately over 50 pieces of pottery, along with the numerous amounts collected by Gary D. Meyers.

lv Information unpublished, available from the author. Along the possible wall, no matter how far low the wall was dug, Late Bronze Age material was continuously found lower than in other areas where Middle Bronze Age material were found.


Selected Bibliography

Albright, William Foxwell. “The Gezer Calendar” Bulletin of American Schools of Oriental Research 92, (December 1943): pp. 16-27.

———. “A Tablet of the Amarna Age from Gezer” Bulletin of American Schools of Oriental Research 92, (December 1943): pp. 28-30.

———. From Stone Age to Christianity: Monotheism and the Historical Process. 2nd ed. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1957.

Brisco, Thomas C., ed. Holman Bible Atlas: A Complete Guide to the Expansive Geography of Biblical History. Nashville: Holman Reference, 1998.

Currid, John D., and David P. Barrett eds. Crossway ESV Bible Atlas. Wheaton: Crossway, 2010.

Dever, William G. “Gezer.” In Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, vol. 2, ed. Michael Avi-Yonah, pp. 428-443. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1976.

———. “Gezer.” In The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 2, ed. David Noel Freedman, 998-1003. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Dever, William G., H. Darrel Lance, and G. Ernest Wright. Gezer I, Vol. 1, Preliminary Report of the 1964-66 Seasons. Jerusalem: Hebrew Union College Biblical and Archaeological School in Jerusalem, 1970.

Finkelstein, Israel. “King Solomon’s Golden Age?: History or Myth?” In The Quest for the Historical Israel: Debating Archaeology and the History of Early Israel, No. 17. By Israel Finkelstein and Amihai Mazar. Edited by Brian Schmidt, 107-116. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007.

Gardiner, Sir Alan. Egypt of the Pharaohs: An Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961.

Garner, G. G., and J. Woodhead. “Gezer.” In New Bible Dictionary. 3rd ed., 407-409. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1996.

Gitin, Seymour. Gezer III: A Ceramic Typology of the Late Iron II, Persian and Hellenistic Periods at Tell Gezer, Data Base and Plates. Jerusalem: Hebrew Union College, 1990.

Holladay, John S., Jr. “Red Slip, Burnish, and the Solomonic Gateway at Gezer.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 277-278 (February/May 1990): pp. 23-70.

Hallo, William H., and K. Lawson Younger, Jr., ed. The Context of Scripture. Vol. 2, Monumental Inscriptions from the Biblical World . Leiden: Brill, 2000.

———. The Context of Scripture. Vol. 3, Archival Documents from the Biblical World. Leiden: Brill, 2002.

Lemaire, André. “The United Monarchy: Saul, David and Solomon.” In Ancient Israel: A Short History from Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple, ed. Hershel Shanks, pp. 85-108. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1988.

Levine, Lee I. A. “The Age of Hellensim: Alexander the Great and the Rise and Fall of the Hasmonean Kingdom.” In Ancient Israel: A Short History from Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple, ed. Hershel Shanks, pp. 177-204. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1988.

Macalister, R. A. S. A Century of Excavations in Palestine. London: The Religious Tract Society, 1925.

Manetho. The History of Egypt. Translated by W. G. Waddel. In Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956.

McCarter, P. Kyle. “The Gezer Calendar.” In Hallo, and Younger. The Context of Scripture. Vol. 2, p. 222.

Meyer, Gary D. “Gezer 2015: The things you find at the bottom of the water system.” Accessed July 21, 2015.

Ortiz, Steven. “Gezer.” In Oxford Encyclopedia of Bible and Archaeology, vol. 1, ed. Daniel Master, 468-474. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Ortiz, Steven and Samuel Wolff. “Guarding the Boarder to Jerusalem: The Iron Age City of Gezer.” Near Eastern Archaeology 75, no. 1 (2012): pp. 4-19.

———. “ARCHAEOLOGY: The history beneath Solomon’s City.” Accessed July 26, 2015.

Pritchard, James B. ed. Ancient Near Eastern Texts: Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.

Schuchhardt, C. Schliemann’s Excavations: An Archaeological and Historical Study. Translated by Eugénie Sellers. New York: Macmillan & Co., 1891.

Seger, Joe D. Gezer VII: The Middle Bronze and Later Fortifications in Fields II, IV, and VII, ed. Joe D. Seger and James W. Hardin. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2013.

Vaux, Roland de. The Bible and the Ancient Near East. Translated by Damian McHugh. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967.

Webb, Barry G. The Book of Judges. NICOT. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012.

Yadin, Yigael. “Solomon’s City Wall and Gate at Gezer.” Israel Exploration Journal 8, no. 2 (1958): pp. 80-86.

———. Hazor: The Rediscovery of a Great Citadel of the Bible. New York: Random House, 1975.

Younger, K. Lawson, Jr. Judges and Ruth. NIVAC. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.

Written by Taman Turbinton

Taman Turbinton is a student at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, and is excavating this season at the site of Gezer.





September 20, 2016
by Fehmida

One page levant chronology

  • c. 6000 BCE
    First fortified settlement at Ugarit.
  • c. 4000 BCE – c. 3000 BCE
    Trade contact between Byblos and Egypt.
  • c. 4000 BCE
    Founding of the city of Sidon.
  • c. 2900 BCE – c. 2300 BCE
    First settlement of Baalbek.
  • c. 2750 BCE
    The city of Tyre is founded.
  • c. 1450 BCE
    Kadesh and Megiddo lead a Canaanite alliance against the Egyptian invasion by Thutmose III.
  • 1274 BCE
    Battle of Kadesh between Pharaoh Ramesses II of Egypt and King Muwatalli II of the Hittites.
  • c. 1200 BCE
    Sea Peoples invade the Levant.
  • 1200 BCE – 1100 BCE
    Hebrew tribes settle Canaan.
  • 1115 BCE – 1076 BCE
    Reign of Tiglath-Pileser I of Assyria who conquers Phoenicia and revitalizes the empire.
  • c. 1000 BCE
    Height of Tyre’s power.
  • 1000 BCE
    Rise of the kingdom of Israel.
  • 965 BCE – 928 BCE
    Solomon is king of Israel.
  • 950 BCE
    Solomon builds the first Temple of Jerusalem.
  • 721 BCE
    Israel is conquered by Assyria.
  • 351 BCE
    Artaxerxes III sacks Sidon.
  • 334 BCE
    Alexander the Great sacks Baalbek and renames it Heliopolis.
  • 333 BCE
    Alexander the Great sacks Sidon.
  • 332 BCE
    Conquest of the Levant by Alexander the Great who destroys Tyre.
  • 332 BCE
    Alexander the Great besieges and conquers Tyre.
  • 64 BCE
    Tyre becomes a Roman colony.
  • c. 6 BCE – c. 30 CE
    Life of Jesus Christ.
  • 637 CE
    Muslims enter Levant. The Byzantines are driven out.

September 20, 2016
by Fehmida

10th Century BCE Hebrew Inscription Found at Khirbet Qeiyafa

Ostracon from Khirbet Qeiyafa

Ostracon from Khirbet Qeiyafa

This summer an extraordinary Semitic inscription was found at Khirbet Qeiyafa. It was uncovered inside the fortified city, near the gate, lying on a floor level of a building. The city existed for a rather short time, within the 10th century BC, thus, the dating of the inscription is perfectly secured to the beginning of the First Temple period, known as the United monarchy, the time of kings David and Solomon.

The inscription is a large pottery fragment (ostracon), ca. 15 × 15 cm. written with ink. It contains five rows, divided by black lines. Each row has 10 letters or so in Proto-Canaanite script. According to the preliminary observations of the epigraphist, Dr. Haggai Misgav, the language of the ostracon is Hebrew. This is the longest Proto-Canaanite inscription ever found and the earliest Hebrew text known to date. Other possible Hebrew inscriptions are the Gezer calendar (ca. 900 BC), the stele of king Mesah (ca. 850 BC) or the Samaria ostraca (ca. 800 BC). The new inscription is earlier by 100-200 years from the other earlier Hebrew inscriptions. As the decipherment has just begun, it is still immature to talk about the content, but it clearly bears a massage, a letter sent between two people.

Khirbet Qeiyafa

Khirbet Qeiyafa

Paleography: The complicated writing techniques developed in Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt enabled only professional scribes to read and write. Contrarily, the simple Semitic alphabet writing technique enables larger segments of the population to read and write. Thus, it is one of the most important intellectual inventions of human kind. But the early developments of the Semitic alphabet and its transmitting to the early Greek, and then to Latin and the rest of the world is poorly known. The earliest type of alphabet script, known as Proto-Canaanite, was found in Canaan, Sinai peninsula and Egypt in various sites dated from the second millennium BC (Middle Bronze and Late Bronze periods, ca. 1700-1200 BC). In this stage it was rather pictorial in character, adopting Egyptian hieroglyph signs.

Aerial photograph of Khirbet Qeiyafa

Aerial photograph of Khirbet Qeiyafa

In the Iron I period (1200-1000 BC) the hieroglyphs became more and more schematics, and it was assumed that at ca. 1000 BC the script became standardized in various aspects, like the number of letters (22), the direction of writing (from right to left) and the shape of the letters. As the Greek letters are quite similar to Proto-Canaanite script it was generally believed that they adopted the alphabet script in the late second millennium BC.

Very few early alphabet inscriptions are known. Most of them are either very short, or just a list of the letters (abecedary). Almost all of them do not have a secure archaeological context, thus lacking clear dating. The new inscription is the first Proto-Canaanite script clearly dated from the 10th century BC. It will now serve as the anchor for the entire developments of the early alphabet scripts: the Semitic (Phoenician, Hebrew and others) as well as the Greek.

Implication to Biblical History: Currently, there is a bitter debate about the historical accounts of Kings David and Solomon as presented by the Biblical tradition. The main arguments so far were the luck of urban centers that can be clearly dated to the time of the United Monarchy (Early Iron Age IIa period).

On September 13th 2008 a colloquium of some 40 Israeli archaeologists took place at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The pottery from the fortified city was presented and discussed. There was a general agreement that the assemblage is indeed from the very beginning of the Iron IIa period. The new excavations clearly indicate that already in the time of David and Solomon urban cities were constructed in Judah. The fortifications of the site required 200,000 ton of stones. The upper part of the gate was built with ashlar stones, a clear characteristic of royal activities in the Biblical period. There was a need for administration to organize these massive building activities and indeed the new inscription indicates that writing was in use. The new inscription indicates that writing was indeed practiced in the biblical kingdom of Judah from its very beginning. Thus, historical memories could have been survived for generations and the biblical traditions regarding the period of kings David and Solomon cannot be overlooked.

Gate at Khirbet Qeiyafa

Gate at Khirbet Qeiyafa


Acknowledgments. Khirbet Qeiyafa excavations are conducted by Prof. Yosef Garfinkel and Mr. Saar Ganor, on behalf of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Funds were kindly provided by J.B. Silver, the Berman Center for Biblical Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Foundation Stone and the Curtiss and Mary Brenan Foundation. The expedition website is:


September 14, 2016
by Fehmida

Zodiac Calendars and Angelic Teaching in the Dead Sea Scrolls

By: Helen R. Jacobus

Angels are often associated with secret knowledge but not usually with authentic mathematics. In several of the Dead Sea Scrolls there is a complicated network of parallel stories in which angels impart secret knowledge of the calendar, astronomy, astrology and divination to humans before the Flood. These secrets were important for Jews and early Christians, among other things, to know about current scientific knowledge around them that had been developed to an advanced level by their neighbours in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean.

Figure 1. Part of the Chester Beatty papyri showing portions of the Book of Enoch in Greek (P.Mich.inv. 5552; third century C.E), University of Michigan Library),_leaf_3,_verso.jpg

Figure 1. Part of the Chester Beatty papyri showing portions of the Book of Enoch in Greek (P.Mich.inv. 5552; third century C.E), University of Michigan Library).

The myths are expansions of Genesis 5:23–24, the after-life of Enoch whose days ended at 365 years and Genesis 6:4, the appearance of Nephilim—or giants in The Septuagint—benign progeny of divine beings and the daughters of humans. In early Jewish writings these short passages have been woven into epic, ‘rewritten Bible’ sagas.

With the exception of the fragmentary Aramaic Genesis Apocryphon, an expanded retelling of parts of Genesis, discovered in Qumran Cave 1, these additional narratives from Second Temple Judaism were already known before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. 1 Enoch and the Book of Jubilees were preserved in Ethiopic, and a portion of 1 Enoch in Greek. The Book of Jubilees and 1 Enoch had been preserved and canonised in the Ethiopic Orthodox Church and the Book of Enoch is cited in the New Testament (Jude 1:14–15= 1 En. 60:8). Fragments of these books were also found at Qumran Cave 4: I Enoch in Aramaic, and Jubilees in Hebrew.

But previously unknown texts found at Qumran, without full Ethiopic versions, include two astronomical and calendrical manuscripts in Aramaic: 4Q208 (4QAstronomical Enocha) and part of 4Q209 (4QAstronomical Enochb), a formulaically written calendar, some of which appears in a corrupted condition in the Ethiopic Astronomical Book of Enoch (1 En. 72-82).

2. God took Enoch. Illustration by Gerard Hoet (1648-1733)

2. God took Enoch. Illustration by Gerard Hoet (1648-1733).

At Qumran there is also the formerly completely unknown Aramaic 4QZodiac Calendar and Brontologion (4Q318). This comprises a schematic 360-day calendar that traces the zodiac sign that the moon traverses for every day of a year composed of twelve 30-day months. An appended thunder omen text, the Brontologion, gives a prediction according to the position of the moon in the zodiac when the thunder clap occurs.

Nothing in these manuscripts indicates they are part of mythological books. When reconstructed it can be seen that they contain real astronomical calendars, and actual mathematical material. But angels are at the forefront.

In both the Ethiopic and in the Qumran version of 1 Enoch and Jubilees, Enoch ascends to the heaven to receive divinely authorised knowledge. Conversely, angels known collectively as the Watchers descended to earth and married human women. They taught their wives the secrets of metalwork for making weapons and jewellery, using kohl, precious stones and dye, magical arts, omen reading and astronomy. In parallel stories the women gave birth to cannibalistic giants, and variously blood-thirsty Nephilim (see 1 Enoch, Genesis Apocryphon, Jubilees).

One detailed story about the descending angels’ secret arts is described in The Book of Watchers from 1 Enoch (1 En. 1-36) in Ethiopic, several substantial fragments of which were found in Cave 4. The fragments 4Q201, 4Q202 and 4Q204 contain the story of the rebellion of the Watchers, their names and their skills and the intervention of the four archangels, Michael, Sariel, Raphael and Gabriel, to punish them and bring about the Flood. The earliest fragment, 4Q201, was copied circa 200–150 BCE.

Figure 3. Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562).

Figure 3. Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562).

It is during his tour of heaven, where Enoch ascends to intercede on behalf of the Watchers, that he learns the secrets of astronomy and the calendar (in the Ethiopic version he is taught by Uriel. The archangel’s name is not extant in the fragments from Qumran).

Figure 4. The Fall of the Rebel Angels by Hieronymus Bosch (1500-1504)

Figure 4. The Fall of the Rebel Angels by Hieronymus Bosch (1500-1504).

Several scholars take the view that Enoch, the seventh man after Adam, is a Jewish adaptation of Enmeduranki, the seventh ruler in some versions of the antediluvian Sumerian King List, ruler of Sippar, city of the sun god Shamash. Enmeduranki received secrets of divination and mathematical calculations from the gods and became the ancestor of the bāru, diviners skilled in interpreting celestial omens.

Interestingly,the Brontologion is also composed in the style of Mesopotamian omen texts known from the Enūma Anu Enlil omen series but with a conditional clause involving the zodiac, unknown from the Babylonian texts.

The zodiac calendar of 4Q318, 4QZodiac Calendar, uses the Aramaic translations of the Babylonian month names that are used in the Hebrew calendar today. The months, Shevat, month 11, and Adar, month 12, are extant in the very fragmentary remains of this manuscript.

4QZodiac Calendar also helps us to understand the calendar of 4Q208-4Q209 that was identified by the Dead Sea Scrolls scholar J.T. Milik in 1976 as a so-called “synchronistic calendar.” The sun and moon in the Aramaic synchronistic calendar are harmonised through numbered “gates.” With respect to 1 Enoch 72–82, Assyriologist and mathematician Otto Neugebauer argued that the numbered “gates” corresponded to the sunrise and sunset positions on the horizon. He rejected the interpretation by Richard Laurence from 1821 that the “gates” in the Ethiopic Astronomical Book of Enoch are connected with the zodiac signs. Figure 5 shows the solar-lunar-stellar scheme in 1 Enoch Chapter 72, with the cognate zodiac signs added.

Figure 5.  The scheme from 1 En. 72: the direction of the arrows signify the journey of the sun.

Figure 5. The scheme from 1 En. 72: the direction of the arrows signify the journey of the sun.

Jacobus Figure 6

Figure 6. Detail of the proposed zodiac of 4Q209 (4QAstronomical Enochb) , the tenth lunar month. Reconstructed data from text in part of the largest fragment. The extant text is shaded on the zodiac signs. The sun enters Gate 1 in Month 10 and the moon leaves Gate 4 (Aries) and enters Gate 5 (Taurus) Key to zodiac signs: Aries; Taurus; Gemini; Cancer; Leo; Virgo; Libra; Scorpio; Sagittarius; Capricorn; Aquarius; Pisces. The moon changes sign in just under every 2½ days.

It may be argued that the largest Qumran fragment, 4Q209 (4QAstronomical Enochb) containing data that the sun enters Gate 1, corresponds to the winter solstice zodiac signs of Sagittarius and Capricorn and solar zodiacal months 9 and 10. The moon moves from Gate 4, corresponding to Aries, on the 8th and 9th of the month to Gate 5, corresponding to Taurus, on the 10th of the month. The manuscript also describes the waxing and waning phase of the moon day by day in fractions of sevenths of its shining and darkness.

In the zodiac calendar of 4Q318, the reconstructed text shows that in Month 10, Tevet, on the days 8 and 9, the moon is in the sign of Taurus (see Figure 7 for the position of the moon in the zodiac for the first nine days of the month).

Figure 7. The first nine days 4Q318 (4QZodiac Calendar) without the Brontologion. Reconstructed from the existing text.

Figure 7. The first nine days 4Q318 (4QZodiac Calendar) without the Brontologion. Reconstructed from the existing text.

It appears the year in 4Q318 is mathematically slightly ahead of 4Q209. In the luni-solar calendar, the lunar months have to be regulated by adding a 13th month every two to three years. It is possible that the Aramaic calendars are earlier versions of the ideal schematic, luni-solar calendar of the 19-year cycle known as the Metonic cycle. This is well-known from the Standard Mesopotamian calendar and the calendar of Athens. (When Hanukkah coincided with Thanksgiving in 2013 it was an example of an additional month being due).

The teaching of the descending, rebellious angels or the revealed knowledge to Enoch by Uriel during his tour of the cosmos in 1 Enoch may be mythology with an educational purpose. The earliest copy of the Aramaic fragment concerning the Watchers who came to the earth, 4Q201, was, according to Milik, dictated by a master in a scribal school.

Figure 8. Painting of the winged heads of 80 Ethiopian cherubs on the Berhan Selassie Church roof.

Figure 8. Painting of the winged heads of 80 Ethiopian cherubs on the Berhan Selassie Church roof.

An understanding of astronomy and mathematics ensured that people prayed at the correct time with the angels, a theme in several of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The implication of this research is that the zodiac calendar was extremely important in Second Temple Judaism and probably in early Christianity. Had this continuous copying not taken place by Christians, we would not have had an ancient literary context in which to interpret these remarkable mathematical texts from Qumran.

Helen R. Jacobus is Honorary Research Associate in the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at University College London. She has recently published Zodiac Calendars in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Their Reception: Ancient Astronomy and Astrology in Early Judaism (Leiden: Brill)

September 14, 2016
by Fehmida

A Brief History of Sumerology

By: Erika Marsal

Sumerian is the language of ancient Sumer, that is, southern Mesopotamia, during the third millennium BCE. But what is Sumerian, really? A short glance at any modern Sumerian grammar comes across as a never-ending list of scholars proposing a succession of mismatched interpretations of the difficult parts of that especially difficult language, which to this day remains unrelated to any other known language.

The study of the Sumerian language and, specially, the correct interpretation of the Sumerian verbal morphemes, (the smallest grammatical units in a language) has been subject of long debate. Understanding Sumer and its literature means first looking at the history of Sumerology, to identify what we do and don’t know about this language of the third and second millennium BCE.

Map of the ancient Near East.

Map of the ancient Near East.

In order to reconstruct this most arcane of academic disciplines we must go back to the 18th century, when the cuneiform script of Mesopotamia was still being deciphered. Just as the Rosetta Stone did with the Egyptian hieroglyphs, the monumental trilingual inscriptions of the Persian king Darius the Great at Behistun in Iran provided early Ancient Near East specialists the opportunity to finally understand cuneiform writing.

The inscription at Behistun.

The inscription at Behistun.

The inscription provided the same royal text in three languages, Old Persian, Elamite, and the Babylonian version of Akkadian, all of which used similar versions of the cuneiform script. Between 1835 and 1844, the great Orientalist and East India Company officer Henry Rawlinson (1810–1895) carefully studied and edited the Old Persian version of the text, while the philologist Edwin Norris (1795–1872) did the same with the Elamite version. Finally in 1851, along with other scholars such as Edward Hincks (1792–1866) and Jules Oppert (1825–1905), Rawlinson accomplished the transliteration and translation of the Babylonian portion of the text.

Henry Rawlinson

Henry Rawlinson

Archibald Sayce

Archibald Sayce

The analysis of the cuneiform script, however, continued and Hincks began to question whether the Semitic-speaking people of Babylonia were the true inventors of this writing system. In 1855, Rawlinson published an article in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society reporting the discovery of non-Semitic inscriptions on bricks and tablets from sites in southern Babylonia. Only months later, Hincks achieved a triumph in recognizing an unknown language and correctly establishing that it was agglutinative in character, where words are composed of elements linked together in a chain of suffixes and infixes that are used to indicate tenses, cases, or numbers. The decipherment of the newly discovered language was the beginning of a new and challenging (if still unnamed) enterprise, Sumerology.

Regular progress in describing the new language was made during the following years. In 1869, Oppert suggested calling the new language as “Sumerian”, based on some inscriptions that used the title “King of Sumer and Akkad.” In 1871 Archibald H. Sayce (1846–1933) presented a primary approach to the grammar of the language in his groundbreaking article “On an Accadian Seal,” which began with the memorable sentence “The cuneiform records have disclosed to us a new language.” Sayce’s study added new sign values and philological observations.

Jules Oppert

Jules Oppert


The royal title “king of Sumer and Akkad” highlighted in a stamped inscription of the Ur III king Ur-Nammu. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Systematic study of this new language then progressed rapidly. The German scholar Paul Haupt (1858–1926) published his “Grundzüge der akkadischen Grammatik” in 1882 and correctly established the existence of two Sumerian dialects: eme-gîr (the standard variety) and eme-sal (mainly used by female characters in literary texts). Although these first analyses successfully comprehended the basics of the Sumerian language, the boundaries between Sumerian and its contemporary Semitic neighbour, the Akkadian language, were not yet clearly established. Indeed, Oppert’s suggestion to name the new language Sumerian was not accepted until much later and Sumerian still continued to be called “Akkadian” for many years. 

In the following decades, the British Museum acquired a large and important collection of cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia. The French-born scholar George Bertin (1848–1891) undertook an extensive study of Sumerian grammar in several articles, of which the most important was his “Sumero-Akkadian Grammar” (1888). Bertin was one of the first scholars to describe a recognizably grammar of this language, explaining some peculiarities of Sumerian…

With the beginning of the 20th century, the number of articles and findings related to Sumerian language rapidly increased. In 1911, Stephen Langdon published a leading scientific monograph dedicated to Sumerian grammar, and in 1914, Friedrich Delitzsch followed with his own monograph on the topic, the Grundzüge der sumerischen Grammatik.

A hand-copy of the Babylonian “flood” cuneiform text by A. Poebel.

A hand-copy of the Babylonian “flood” cuneiform text by A. Poebel.

Delitzsch’s grammatical ideas and description of verbal prefixes provided the foundation for the pioneer analysis later developed by his pupil Arno Poebel (1881–1958). Poebel’s main work, Grundzüge der Sumerischen grammatik (1923), which had the same title as that of Delitzsch’s, can be considered the foundation of modern Sumerology.

But in August 1914, the First World War broke out in Europe. The conflict occupied the major imperial powers and national budgets were accordingly adjusted. Excavations in the Near East were suspended and many archaeologists returned home. Some young scholars were called to arms or simply drafted from their respective occupations into other government institutions. The development of Sumerian studies was severely hampered during these years.

After the First World War, Anton Deimel (1865–1954), who was professor at the Pontifical Institute in Rome, began collecting materials for his main work, the Sumerisches Lexikon, which is still today the only complete published dictionary of Sumerian language. His work was presented in 1959 and spanned nine volumes. Deimel also published the second edition of his Sumerian grammar, the Sumerische Grammatik (1939).

Also during these years, in 1932, Viktor Christian (1885–1963), who like Poebel, had studied under Delitzsch, incorporated some notions of the still new science of Linguistics into the study of the Sumerian language. In his work Beiträge zur sumerischen Grammatik (1957), Christian classified Sumerian among the so-called ergative languages (where, unlike Indo-European languages, the subject of the intransitive sentences is marked the same way as the object of the transitive sentences) and clarified the particular behaviour of Sumerian subject and object marks. Christian’s intuition was, however, not immediately appreciated and it was not until 1967, with the great Russian scholar Igor Diakonoff (1914–1999), that the ergative pattern in Sumerian began to be seriously considered.

After the Second World War the study of Sumerian continued rapidly, permitting a deeper view into Sumerian literature and history. In 1949 the German Assyriologist Adam Falkenstein (1906–1966) published his Grammatik der Sprache Gudeas. Taking the grammar from Poebel as a basis, Falkenstein made important advances on Sumerian grammar and literature. In addition, Falkenstein adopted an innovative methodology, limiting his research to a corpus of contemporary documents, specifically the Ur III period of the late third millennium BCE and its inscriptions, instead of analysing the whole Sumerian language at once.

Second edition of Falkenstein's grammar.

Second edition of Falkenstein’s grammar.

During the 1980’s, parallel with the new publications of an increasing number of Sumerian literary texts, the Danish scholar Marie-Louise Thomsen attempted a modernization of Falkenstein’s work. The impact of linguistics has also been increasingly valuable for Sumerology and some important grammars are still bringing new and profitable observations to the field.

But a complete understanding of the Sumerian language is still an exciting and unfinished task. Understanding the language itself is critical to addressing the question of whether ‘Sumerians’ were actually an ethnic group, and how the language went from a living, spoken language during the third millennium BCE to a purely written one in later millennia, used for administration, literature, and liturgy. The mysteries of Sumer are thus tied directly to those of Sumerian and its grammar.

Erika Marsal is a doctoral candidate at the Institut für Orientalistik at the University of Vienna.

September 14, 2016
by Fehmida

Who are the Sea Peoples?

Who are the Sea Peoples and what role did they play in the devastation of civilizations that occurred shortly after 1200 BCE?

By: Eric Cline

The simple answer is that there is no simple answer. It remains an archaeological mystery that is the subject of much debate even today, more than 150 years after the discussions first began. But it’s a fascinating story with lots of twists and turns, right up to the present day.

It begins with the early French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero, who suggested in the 1860s and 1870s that a group of marauding invaders whom he called the Sea Peoples were responsible for bringing the Late Bronze Age to an end shortly after 1200 BCE. He based this on a number of Egyptian inscriptions, especially those on the walls of Medinet Habu, the mortuary temple of Ramses III, which is near the Valley of the Kings in Egypt.

Ramses III fighting the Sea Peoples at Medinet Habu. (Wikimedia Commons)

Ramses III fighting the Sea Peoples at Medinet Habu. (Wikimedia Commons)

By about 1900, this hypothesis had become so solidified that Egyptologists and other archaeologists essentially took it as a fact, even though there was no real proof that’s what had happened. At the time, even the mere existence of the Sea Peoples was only documented in the records left by Ramses III and by Merneptah, who ruled 30 years earlier. Each claimed to have fought against an invasion of these Sea Peoples. Merneptah said it happened in the fifth year of his reign, which would be about 1207 BCE, while Ramses III said he fought both a land and a naval battle against them in his eighth year, which would be about 1177 BCE.

In both cases the Egyptians won. Merneptah says that the invaders whom he defeated included the Shardana, Shekelesh, Lukka, Teresh, and Ekwesh, while Ramses III says that the invaders in his time were the Shardana, Shekelesh, Tjekker, Denyen, Weshesh, and Peleset. So, there were five groups the first time and six groups the second time, with two of the groups overlapping, for a total of nine groups.

Captured Sea People from Medinet Habu. (Wikimedia Commons)

Captured Sea People from Medinet Habu. (Wikimedia Commons)

Shardana bodyguards of Ramses II from Abu Simbel. (Wikimedia Commons)

Shardana bodyguards of Ramses II from Abu Simbel. (Wikimedia Commons)

So, we know who the Sea Peoples are, but in name only. Where did they come from? And where did they go after they lost? Answering the second question is easier, if we believe the Egyptian records, because Ramses III says that he settled the survivors in his strongholds in Egypt. There are also indications that some settled in what is now Israel, for the Tale of Wenamun from a century or so later describes the site of Dor as being a Sikel (probably Shekelesh or Tjekker) city, and the Peleset are usually identified by scholars as the Philistines, whom the Bible tells us, and archaeology confirms, were also resident in what is now Israel.

As for where they came from, the early Egyptologists were split in their opinion as to whether the Sea Peoples had come from the west, i.e., Italy, Sicily, and Sardinia, and traveled east, or whether they were from the Eastern Mediterranean and had fled west after being defeated by the Egyptians. Even today we still play linguistic games with the names of the individual groups whom the Egyptian pharaohs mentioned. Most (although not all) scholars would now argue that the Sea Peoples began their migration from the Western Mediterranean, and that there is a linguistic link between the Shardana and Sardinia as well as the Shekelesh and Sicily. However, when they headed east and overran various countries and areas, others joined in along the way, so that the Denyen and Ekwesh might be from the Aegean (Homer’s Danaans and Achaeans), the Lukka are almost certainly from Lycia in southwestern Turkey, and so on.

Satellite view of the Eastern Mediterranean. (Free Bible Images)

Satellite view of the Eastern Mediterranean. (Free Bible Images)

If that thinking is correct, then the two waves of Sea Peoples that crashed upon the shores of Egypt thirty years apart were composed of a motley crew from many different areas of both the western and eastern Mediterranean plus the Aegean and perhaps Cyprus as well. But all of that, plain and simple, is still just a hypothesis, for there are no other texts or even archaeological evidence at the moment to confirm the entire story.

What we have instead are bits and pieces of the puzzle, such as the fact that the Shardana (also called the Sherden) appear in Egyptian texts and inscriptions already a century or more earlier, fighting as mercenaries both for and against the Egyptian army. Individual texts from places such as Ugarit in north Syria report unnamed invaders and foreign ships, as well as famine in the Hittite lands. We also have sites destroyed during this time, but it’s not always clear who or what did it and why – perhaps foreign invaders; perhaps an uprising by the local populace; perhaps an earthquake. It can be difficult, and sometimes impossible, to tell what caused the destruction of a site, especially if no weapons (such as arrowheads, swords, or spear tips) or bodies are found in the rubble.

However, speaking of bodies, our most promising lead was just announced a few weeks ago, for a probable Philistine cemetery has been discovered at the site of Ashkelon in Israel. Hopefully various analyses can be conducted on the numerous skeletons that were recovered, including DNA that might allow us to figure out where the buried people came from and to whom they are related, and strontium isotope (from their teeth) that could tell us where they grew up. But, the cemetery reportedly dates from at least a century after the initial invasions during the time of Merneptah and Ramses III, so these are not the remains of the original Sea Peoples, but rather their descendants who settled in the area. Thus, DNA analyses will probably tell us more about them than strontium isotope will, since it is probably a given that these burials are of people who grew up in the local area, even if their ancestors came from the Aegean or the Western Mediterranean.

Aerial view of Ashkelon.

Aerial view of Ashkelon.

As for what role the Sea Peoples actually played in the destruction of civilizations around 1200 BCE and shortly thereafter, I personally think that they have been set up as a scapegoat, because of the Egyptian inscriptions, and that they were as much victims as oppressors. I doubt that they were responsible for all of the destructions that we blame on them and I think that they are only one of the many factors that together contributed to a “perfect storm” that ended the Bronze Age. These stressors, as they are sometimes called, probably also included drought, famine, earthquakes, and possible internal rebellions in addition to external invaders, all of which combined to cause a systems collapse. However, since I have gone on too long already, I will just refer you to the opening and closing chapters of my recent book 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed (Princeton University Press, 2014), where I go through some of these possibilities. I will warn you, though, that there is not yet a smoking gun, nor one single cause, that we can point to as responsible for the collapse of civilizations just after 1200 BCE. It remains one of the most interesting mysteries of ancient history.

Eric Cline is Professor of Classics and Anthropology at The George Washington University.


September 10, 2016
by Fehmida

Origins of Islamic Taweez or Talisman

There are many similiarities with the the origins of the taweez, it’s usage and the association between the practices between the Islamic tradition of taweez and that of Judo – Christian and Babylonian amulets.

The term ‘Islamic talisman’ is not strictly true as there is no basis for amulets is Islam. Rather it is something that was established from later practitoners who emulated other religions and civilisations or a continuation of  their former beliefs before Islam. For the purpose of this article the term Islamic taweez refers to Muslims who practiced this science.

Many people from the Muslim world still use Taweez (Talisman) in the form of writings either based on the Qur’an, the names of Allah, Quranic narratives such as the sleepers in the cave, angels, prophets  and saints and astrological signs or symbols.

The Taweez is worn by some Muslims, amongst them some Sufis and Shias and also some Sunni Muslims. They believe it removes the wearer of any evil or affliction put on them through black magic, keep them safe and also bring good luck. As such it is intended to be an amulet.

Some Sunni scholars make a distinction between taweez that contain permissible verses of the Quran and the taweez that contain anything else or any other type of invocation.

However, the majority of Sunni Scholars hold that this is impermissible and an act of polytheism as it places the trust and belief in an object rather than invoking God Himself.

Practices of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)

The usage of Taweez, that is written words placed on the body, was not something known to be practiced by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). What was practiced by him was the recitation of the Quran for curing ailments and protection. Some of the oral traditions (hadith) of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) specified how he used the recitation of the Quran for protection:

Anas (May Allah be pleased with him) said: “When you recite Surah Al-Fatihah and Surah Al-Ikhlas upon lying on your bed, you will be safeguarded and should become fearless of everything except death.”[Narrated by Baraa, Tafseer Mazhari 1:31]

“Whenever the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) would become ill, he would recite the Mu’awwizat (Surah al-Falaq & Surah an-Nas) and blow over himself. When his illness was aggravated, I used to recite these two Surahs (and blow my breath) over him and make him rub his body with his own hand, for its blessings.” [Sahih al-Bukhari, no. 4728]

“Abu Saeed al-Khudri said: “The Messenger of Allah (S.A.W.S.) used to seek refuge with Allah from the jinn and from the evil eye until the Mu’wadaitain (two last ‘Qul’ surahs) were revealed, and when they were revealed he started to recite them and not anything else” (narrated by al-Tirmidhi, 2058; he said it is hasan ghareeb. Also narrated by al-Nasaa’i, 5494; Ibn Maajah, 3511).


Majority of the contemporary books on Islamic taweez are largely based on the works of Ahmed ‘Al -Buni’ (622 -1225 A.D) a Sufi and writer on the esoteric value of letters and topics relating to mathematics, sihr (sorcery) and spirituality. He wrote one of the most famous books of his era, the Shams al-Ma’arif al-Kubra (Sun of the Great Knowledge) which is one of the most widely read medieval treatises on talismans, magic squares and occult practices. His works have been translated to urdu and Farsi and form the bases of most modern taweez’s today.

The ‘Seven Seals’ in taweez

Below in fig.1 is a contemporary Taweez used by the standard taweez maker. The taweez is given to the wearer for protection and to cure ailments. It is thought to work by invoking and seeking help from the names of whoever is written on it. The text is in Arabic and contains the names of four archangels in the four corners of the square. The inner corners of the square contains the names of the four caliphs of Islam Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali.

Inside each triangle are symbols, sometimes known as the ‘Seal of Solomon’, or the ‘seven seals’, allegedly attributed to Ali ibn Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) according to Shia and Sufi mystical Islam. The seven Seals represent in graphic form the Great Name of God. They feature prominently in Islamic mysticism, magic texts and talismans.1  Al Buni popularised the seven seals in the Shams al-Ma’arif where he described their meaning and usage.

The seven seals are also known in Judaism. Dating back to at least the 13th century CE. 2 In the Jewish Kabbalah, the seven seals bear individual Divine Names which collectively form a “Great Name.”

Fig.1 Contemporary talisman

Fig.1 Contemporary talisman






Fig 2. we see here the seals (a) Islamic 8 and 7 symbol form and (b) the Jewish seven seals. 3


The Jewish and Islamic seals also have wider dual associations. Each Seal also maps directly to one of the seven classical planets, and hence to a day of the week, angels, divine names and jinni.



Fig 3 Shows the similarities of two Jewish and Islamic talismans (a) from a manuscript copy of Fatḥ al-Malik al-Majīd, a work by Aḥmad al-Dayrabī (d.1738/9CE) and (b) Table from Shōshān Yesōd ha-ʾŌlām, Bibliothèque de Genève(BGE) 4




Fig 4 Talismanic design from an Ottoman Turkish Sufi journal from the library of the Mevlana Sufi lodge at Ayazma, Istanbul, written in the late nineteenth century CE.



Fig 5 Early Kufic talisman symbols attributed to the Islamic era (640-1510 CE) 5







Possible origins of these symbols may lie in the late Babylonian period. See fig 6 interesting similarities appear in this Babylonian/Neo-Assyrian black stone amulet (6-10th century BCE) which commences with “seven signs repeated seven times,” accompanied by a Sumerian inscription intended to protect against ghost. The seven symbols here may relate to the seven gods or seven demons of Mesopotamian religion, both of which were invoked in magical spells. 6




Fig. 7 This Babylonian amulet to ward off a demon, on red jasper, Babylonia, 1000-600 BC has some familiar seal symbols from Judo –Islamic seals 7


Invoking of the angels in taweez.

In Fig.1 the contemporary Islamic taweez has the names of angels, Jibreel, Mikaeel, Israfeel and Azra’il on each corner of the square in Arabic. The invoking of angels are a recurrent theme used in ancient books and medieval manuscripts and grimoires throughout history.

Mystical writings, especially Kabbalah had a strong influence with regards to the development of talismans; using the name of God and angels which were often codified for practical use.



Eleazar Rokeach, a leading Talmudist and mystic, wrote a significant book, the Sefer Raziel Fig.8 of the uses of talismans in 1230, (printed format in 1701) which included a detailed list of angels to be used. The  Sefer Raziel, A Jewish mystical text supposedly given to Noah by the angel Raziel, and passed down throughout Biblical history to Solomon. It is split into seven sections, not including a preface, which mirror the seven days of creation and the seven heavens. Each section contains a list of angels and spells that can be used in a talisman. 8 The Jewish saint Rabbi Haim David Azulai (1724 – 1807) constructed talismans using Kabbalistic knowledge. He wrote extensively on the use of angels in his talismans.




Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535) is the most influential writer of Renaissance esoterica, and indeed all of Western occultism relies heavily on the usage of angels. Fig.9  and dealt with Elemental, Celestial, and Intellectual magic.








Another book that confirms the conjuring of  angels is the ‘Heptameron’ written by Pietro d’Abano (1257– 1316) an Italian philosopher, astrologer and professor of medicine, who died in prison during the Inquisition on claims of heresy and atheism. The Heptameron is a concise book of ritual magical rites concerned with conjuring specific angels for the seven days of the week. Fig.10 is page from ‘The Heptameron.’ The text is a manual of planetary magic. It details the rites for summoning angels for each of the seven days of the week.  Fig.10a depicts The Angel of the day, his Sigil, Planet, the Signe of the Planet, and name of the first heaven.


John Dee (13 July 1527 – 1608 or 1609) was an English mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, occult philosopher, and advisor to Queen Elizabeth I. He devoted much time and effort in the last thirty years or so of his life to attempting to commune with angels.


The use of Astrology in Taweez

Going back to the seven seals in fig.1 which has a strong link with astrology. Astrology is widely used in the so called Islamic taweez, however its presence dates back since the earliest civilisations, in particular the  Sumerians, Egyptians and Babylonians. The Sumerian astrology tablets are the first historical record of astrology and the oldest astrological documents. They named many of the constellations and defined the nature of numerous bodies in the solar system. This was followed on to the Babylonian astrologers who may have brought it to the Western Hellenistic world. Most of western astrology stems from here. Ptolemy, a Greco-Egyptian  mathematician, astronomer, and astrologer, studied astrology at Alexandria during the 2nd century CE. Ptolemy contributed to astrology as a compiler of existing astrological Greek, Babylonian, and Egyptian works in his ‘Tetrabiblos’ (meaning four volumes) which is a source of reference for modern astrologers today.





Fig.11 is the from the Enuma Anu Enlil is a series of about 70 tablets dealing with Babylonian astrology. These accounts were found in the early 19th century by excavation in Nineveh, near present day Bagdad. The bulk of the work is a substantial collection of omens, estimated to number between 6500 and 7000, which interpret a wide variety of celestial and atmospheric phenomena in terms relevant to the king and state. The tablets presumably date back to about 650 BC, but several of the omens may be as old as 1646 BC. Magic was an integral part of everyday life in Babylon and the whole Mesopotamian region. The concept of the gods and the stars were inseparable. Incantations were connected to the invocation of the gods who were equated to star constellations observed in the night sky, the planets, or the sun and moon, similiar to the modern taweez which uses names of God, angels and other beings.

The modern taweez maker will adhere to planetary hours and days. The hour and day chosen depending upon the purpose of the talisman. They will be familiar with symbolisms connected to all the different planetary and elemental forces. They will make the taweez strictly according to the timing and design principles laid out in traditional sources like Cornelius Agrippa’s ‘Three Books of Occult Philosophy’, The ‘Picatrix’, Thabit Ibn Qurra’s ‘De Imaginibus’ and Al Buni’s  ‘Shams al-Ma’arif.’ The so called Muslim taweez maker uses a system called Ilm al Hiqmah. Fig.12 depicts  the angels and thier corresponding planets, signs, days, colour and metal. The same method is used in Kabbalistic and other mystical doctrines.




Fig.13 Wiki Commons

Fig.13 depicts a table of associations between letters, the mansions of the moon, the constellations of the standard Zodiac, and the seasons, from the Al Buni’s  ‘Shams al-Ma’ārif’. This book remains the seminal work on esoteric occult arts to this day. Al-Buni also made regular mention in his work of Plato, Aristotle, Hermes, Alexander the Great, and  Chaldean magicians.


Islam, does not condone the practice of the use of talismans or taweez. All the elements within the taweez such as astrology, invoking of angels and other beings are influences that come from sources other than Islam. With the advent of Islam these practices were outlawed as they could not sit well with mainstream Monothiesm, being the polar opposite of putting one’s faith in One God. However, these practices  crept in, in the later period when schisms came about and different groups formed. As Islam grew, some travelled in search of new ideas, as well as pre-Islamic ideas of early Christian mystics of Syria and Egypt, to the Essenes, the ancient Pythagorean orders, Jewish Kabbala, the Egyptians, Zoroastrians, and Babylonians, among others.




1 “The Decipherment of Arabic Talismans,” In: Magic and Divination in Early Islam, Emilie Savage-Smith, Ashgate Variorum, Aldershot.

2, Gabriella Samuel, 2007, “The Seven Mystical Seals,” In: The Kabbalah Handbook, Tarcher/Penguin,

New York/London, p.301

3,5, 6



8 Living Entities of Power By Nick Farrell

9 Rasmussen, E.A. 2010. Vejret gennem 5000 år (Weather through 5000 years). Meteorologiens historie. Aarhus Universitetsforlag,Århus, Denmark, 367 pp, ISBN 978 87 7934 300 9.


A comparison of the Seven Seals in Islamic esotericism and Jewish Kabbalah by Lloyd D. Graham

Magic and Divination in Early Islam, Emilie Savage-Smith

Wallis Budge ‘Amulets and Superstitions’ Oxford University Press 1930








































September 8, 2016
by Fehmida

Horse like discovery at Al Magar

When Mutlaq ibn Gublan decided to dig a birka (pond) to keep his camels watered, he arranged for a backhoe and drums of diesel fuel to be driven from the road to the site on his ancestral grazing lands in southwest Saudi Arabia. The spot he had chosen, amid finger-like valleys that cut through low sandstone hills, was near traces of an ancient waterfall, which hinted that, in millennia past, nature itself supplied more than a mere birka.

His pond was never completed. As he supervised the excavation, he says, “I spotted a smooth, shaped stone sticking out of the ground. I recognized it was an old and important object.” He could tell at once it was a statue of an animal. It was buried upright, head toward the surface, he says. “I paid off the operator and told him to follow his tracks back to the road.”

Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities
Above and top: The largest, and to date the most significant, of more than 300 artifacts found so far at al-Magar is a sculpture fragment whose head, muzzle, nostrils, arched neck, shoulder, withers and overall proportions resemble those of a horse, though it may represent an ass, an onager or a hybrid. Eighty-six centimeters (34″) long, 18 centimeters (7″) thick and weighing more than 135 kilograms (300 lbs), it is provisionally dated to about 7000 bce.

If the vertical band and the incision arcing over its muzzle are halter, 
                lead or bridle markings, then people at al-Magar may have been  domesticating horses up to 2000 years before 
                anyone else in the world—but such speculation remains to be proven.

Over the next few years, Ibn Gublan unearthed some 300 objects there. Though none was as large as the first, his finds included a small stone menagerie: ostrich, sheep and goats; what may be fish and birds; a cow-like bovid (Bovidae); and an elegant canine profile that resembles one of the oldest known domesticated breeds, the desert saluki. In addition, he found mortars and pestles, grain grinders, a soapstone pot ornamented with looping and hatched geometric motifs, weights likely used in weaving and stone tools that may have been used in leather processing, as well as scrapers, arrowheads and blades—including an exquisitely decorated stone knife in the unmistakable curved design of the traditional Arabian dagger.

“I recognized it was an old and important object,” says Mutlaq ibn Gublan, who canceled excavation of his camel-watering pond when the excavator’s backhoe struck the Neolithic sculpture. “I am happy that in the footsteps of my grandfather and his long line of ancestors I have found something from the heart of Arabia that goes deep into our history and helps connect us with the past.”

Two years ago, he loaded it all up in his Jeep, drove it to Riyadh and donated it to the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (scta).

“When I first saw the pieces, I just could not believe it. It was, how can I say, incroyable,” recalls Ali al-Ghabban, head of antiquities at the scta, his French-accented English giving away his years at the University of Provence. “This is Neolithic material,” he states, from “a sophisticated society possessing a high level of art and craftsmanship that we have not previously seen.” Al-Ghabban had a laboratory run a radiocarbon analysis on trace organic remains found later alongside some of the objects. That dated the material to between 6590 and 7250 bce, he says.

The discovery has been named “the al-Magar civilization” after its location, a name that means “gathering place” or “headquarters” in a tribal context. It is the carvings of animals—far more numerous, and some larger, than anything previously found in the western Arabian Peninsula—that are the most intriguing. Among them, the largest, the one that prompted Ibn Gublan to stop the backhoe, has sparked the most curiosity of all.

Eighty-six centimeters (34″) long, 18 centimeters (7″) thick and weighing more than 135 kilograms (300 lbs), the carving has a rounded head, arched neck, muzzle, nostrils, shoulder, withers and overall proportions that clearly resemble an equid—a horse, an ass, an onager or some hybrid. But what makes it so very curious are its two distinctive tooled markings—one in relief from the shoulder down toward the forefoot, and the other carefully, even delicately, incised around the muzzle. The question fairly leaps out: Were the people who inhabited al-Magar putting early forms of bridles on such animals? If so, they were doing it millennia before experts believe it was done elsewhere.

The discovery at al-Magar and the electrifying question it raises come as Saudi Arabia experiences a resurgent pride not only in its archeological heritage but also, particularly, in the legacy and culture of the desert-bred Arabian horse. The discovery also coincides with recent advances in analytical technologies that can help address important questions: When and where did humans begin to move from hunting wild horses (Equus ferus) for food, bone, hide and hair toward the capture, taming and exploitation of horses for meat, milk and transport—a process that gave rise to the subspecies (Equus ferus caballus) that is today’s domesticated horse? This pivotal historic development revolutionized transport and trade, allowed people to connect over much larger distances, speeded migrations and changed conquest and warfare. Yet despite more than a century of archeology and the latest in genetic technology, it remains an open question exactly when, where and how domestication occurred. The discovery at al-Magar shows again just how very open a question it is.


When Ibn Gublan removes from a document case a sheaf of neatly clipped and plastic-protected press clippings, in both Arabic and English, and fans them out in the tented majlis (salon) of his brother’s home, it is the picture of the banded and incised equid-like statue that takes pride of place. In a scholarly manner, he adjusts his thick-rimmed glasses and peers at a photograph of Saudi King Abdullah bin ‘Abd al-‘Aziz examining the objects last year, when the discovery was announced and the finds were first displayed to dignitaries and high government officials.

With mint tea brewing on the hearth and Arab coffee deftly served by his young nephew Saud, attention turns to this prize statue. It is the centerpiece of a new archeological discussion, and its initial interpretation is as challenging and contentious as it is intriguing.

A wet epoch in Arabia, starting after the last Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago, and enduring for about 5000 years, allowed widely varied flora and fauna to flourish. Evidence of this is abundant in rock art throughout the western Arabian Peninsula, where depictions of various equids appear along with other species, such as cheetah, hippo, hyena and giraffe, which disappeared as the climate dried to desert. How and when the horse appeared is a matter of both emerging science and Saudi cultural pride—this latter evidenced not only by today’s pride in Arabian horses, but also by the rich legacy of poetry and legend, going back deep into pre-Islamic times, that surround and celebrate the desert-bred Arabian horse.

The sculptures from al-Magar “might be” equids, says David Anthony, author of The Horse, The Wheel, and Language and a leading authority on the domestication of the horse. “The local equid in southern Mesopotamia was the onager, and another was the ass, introduced probably from Egypt. No Equus caballus specimens have been found, to my knowledge, anywhere near Saudi Arabia before 1800 bce.” For anything conclusive, he continues, “there need to be finds of definite Equus ferus caballus bones in a good stratified context dated by radiocarbon.”

In March 2010, the scta flew Saudi and international archeologists and pre-historians to al-Magar for a brief daytime survey. The team fanned out and, in a few hours, collected more stone objects, including tools and another horse-like statue. They also sifted out four samples of burned bone, which were later used for radiocarbon dating of the site. The date, about 9000 years before the present, coincides with the period when the inhabitants of the first known settlements in Arabia and the Levant, already starting to cultivate crops, were also beginning to domesticate animals.

With the area now monitored to prevent illicit digging, the scta is preparing for detailed surveys and excavations expected to take years. “This impressive discovery reflects the importance of the site as a cultural center and could possibly be the birthplace of an advanced prehistoric civilization that witnessed domestication of animals for the first time during the Neolithic period,” says al-Ghabban. “We now need to know more.”


All current evidence points to the Eurasian steppe, and probably not much earlier than around 4000 bce,” as the place and time the horse was first domesticated, says zooarcheologist Sandra Olsen, head of anthropology and director of the Center for World Cultures at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Olsen has studied the roles of horses in human cultures since 1975 and pioneered research on horse domestication. She and her colleagues have documented the oldest evidence for domestic horses known to date: It comes from about 3500 bce, in northern Kazakhstan.

In 2010 and 2011, Olsen joined Majid Khan, a specialist on Arabian rock art, in Saudi Arabia for a kingdom-wide survey of known rock art that shows equids—and a quest for new finds. Khan has spent the last three decades investigating Saudi petroglyphs, and he estimates there are more than 1000 that portray equids as hunted, ridden or draft animals. He believes the earliest among them date back into the Neolithic era—though assigning accurate dates is notoriously challenging.

Al-Magar lies amid the low hills and sandy valleys of southwestern Saudi Arabia, which until 4000 or 5000 years ago was as verdant as African savannah today.

Given the limitations of the archeological record, how can archeologists make progress in identifying where and when the long process of domestication actually began? Olsen describes her team’s approach as “holistic,” or simply, “piecing together as much evidence as possible, whether direct or more circumstantial.” In the steppes of Asia, she adds, “we also take an ‘upside-down’ approach: If the prehistoric horse bones are difficult to decipher, then why not look at the settlement and at traces of the human lifestyle for evidence that they were affected by horse domestication?”

According to al-Ghabban, it is just such a multidisciplinary approach that will be applied at al-Magar, where specialists will include zooarcheologists, geoarcheologists, archeobotanists, paleoclimatologists, petrologists, paleontologists, authorities on the domestication of flora and fauna, and archeogeneticists, who will likely be enlisted to use relatively new mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) analysis. What makes mtDNA analysis particularly useful is that—unlike nuclear DNA—mtDNA resides outside a cell’s nucleus, which means it is inherited exclusively through the maternal line, unshuffled from generation to generation. MtDNA studies comparing a range of domestic horse breeds reveal high diversity among maternal lines, or matrilines. This diversity, Olsen says, supports the theory that horse domestication took place in a number of different places at different times. “There was no one ancestral mare that was the ‘Eve’ of all domestic horses,” she says.

Supporting this view is a study published in January in the journal of the us National Academy of Sciences that examines the rate of mutation of equine mtdna. It not only concludes that communities in both Asia and Europe domesticated horses independently, but also suggests how far back in time domestication events may have taken place. Alessandro Achilli, assistant professor of genetics in the Department of Cellular and Environmental Biology at the University of Perugia in Italy, collected maternally inherited mitochondrial genomes from living horses in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and the Americas. Because mtDNA mutation occurs at a known rate, these samples allowed him to trace maternal ancestry using a kind of “molecular clock.”

naturefolio / alamy; blickwinkel / alamy; daniel pickering
Equid species known to Neolithic humans in Africa and Asia included the African wild ass, Equus africanus somalicus, above; the onager, Equus hemionus onager, right; and the early wild horse, Equus ferus, opposite, from which today’s domestic horse species are descended.

His team identified maternal lines descending unambiguously from different female ancestors. “This means that multiple female horse lines were domesticated throughout the Neolithic period—during the last 10,000 years—in multiple locations of Eurasia, possibly including western Europe,” says Achilli. “The very fact that many wild mares were independently domesticated in different places testifies to how significant horses have been to humankind. Taming these animals could generate the food surplus necessary to support the growth of human populations and the human capability to expand and adapt to new environments, or could facilitate transportation.” Achilli adds that “unfortunately, we have no idea about the exact location of the domestication events,” a question that only archeological dna sampling can answer.

Olsen, though inclined to agree, cautions against accepting this as any kind of last word. She argues that humans and wild animals, as well as horses, all have different maternal lines. “I think that these multiple matrilines are the result of ancient horse herders occasionally catching and adding wild mares to their breeding populations,” she says. And, she adds, in the other direction, “domesticated mares can be ‘stolen’ by wild stallions and incorporated into their harems.”

The generally accepted scenario of multiple horse-domestication events 
                cracks open a tantalizing window of possibility for the Arabian Peninsula to have had its own.

However it took place, the generally accepted scenario of multiple, separate domestication events does open the tantalizing possibility that the Arabian Peninsula had its own horse-domestication event, and the Peninsula’s last wet climatic period would seem like an ideal epoch for that to have occurred, if indeed it did. While Arabian domestication implies that there would have been wild horses roaming a then-verdant, savannah-like landscape, Olsen believes that picture is not supported by the petroglyphs she has seen in the country, nor by any skeletal remains, which have yet to be found. Although she accepts that wild asses or onagers are shown being hunted in Neolithic Saudi petroglyphs, she contends that the earliest horses she has seen on the Peninsula are those depicted with chariots, and those, she says, are “no older than at the most 2000 bce.” That shows “why I believe it is imperative to distinguish between wild asses and hemiones [onagers] versus horses.”

Unambiguously domesticated horses appear in petroglyphs dating back to the second or late third millennium bce. The mounted hunter, above left, and the two-horse chariot, above right, are both from northwestern Saudi Arabia. The chariot of similar appearance, below lef, was drawn in southern Libya.
lars bjurstrom / sawdia; richard t. bryant; roberto esposti / alamy; bridgeman art library


As in all detective work, one of the great dangers is flawed evidence. Nearly half a century ago in the Ukraine, a Soviet archeologist uncovered the skull and lower leg bones of a young stallion at Dereivka, near the banks of the Dnieper River. Radiocarbon analysis dated the find at 4200 to 3700 bce, and the stallion’s premolars showed signs of wear by a bit. Soviet archeologists confidently pronounced that the site was evidence of horse domestication. But the find’s importance collapsed when more detailed radiocarbon dating showed that the remains were what archeologists call “an intrusive deposit” placed there by Iron Age Scythians in the first millennium bce.

This simple, even crude, petroglyph near al-Magar may show a mounted rider.

Subsequently, studies have looked not only for evidence of horses being ridden but also for evidence of their being herded. Attention shifted east, over the Ural Mountains, to the northern marches of Kazakhstan, where in the 1980’s, near a small village called Botai, Viktor Zaibert of Kokshetau University unearthed horse bones—300,000 of them.

Zaibert, collaborating with American and British archeologists, found traces of bit wear on lower-jaw teeth, revealing that around 3500 bce some Botai horses were indeed probably harnessed, either for draft purposes or for riding, or both.

Olsen was among Zaibert’s collaborators, and she identified in Botai traces of corrals and of roofing material that contained horse manure, as well as signs of ceremonial sacrifices. She also found tools used to make leather straps that may have served as bridles or hobbles. This is parallel to some of the stone tools found at al-Magar, which also point to the likelihood of leather or fiber processing, which could be associated with items of horse tack. But however significant indirect evidence may be, one of the lessons from Botai is that if al-Magar is to inform us, then it is not only reliable taxonomy of the statuary, or interpretation of artifacts, that is required, but also organic remains.

It was Alan Outram, a professor of archeological science at Exeter University, who found fat residues absorbed in Botai pottery that were later determined to be from milk rather than meat. The overwhelming proliferation of horse bones on the site logically suggested mare’s milk, which to this day remains a popular traditional drink throughout Central Asia. The thousands of horse bones, found in 150 house pits, show these horses were slender, like later Bronze Age domestic horses, distinct from the more robust wild horses that once roamed the Eurasian lands from the steppe to Iberia. Nevertheless, “in our science it is very difficult to determine whether the horse was domesticated or not. The answer to this question is based on a complex study of all contexts of the material culture,” says Zaibert.

Olsen homes in on the bones: “Hunters abandon heavy bones of low utility at faraway kill sites, whereas herders slaughter domestic animals in or near their village. In the latter case, all of the bones of the skeleton are found at the home site, and that is exactly what appears at the Botai sites.” Soil analysis in enclosures at one Botai site identified high levels of phosphate and sodium, indicating that manure and urine were present inside what were likely corrals, and Olsen has found signs of postholes around some, reinforcing the idea that at Botai, people corralled some of their horses. These enclosures, as well as houses set in circles and rows, all point toward a kind of social organization that could lend itself to horse domestication.

Just as Botai included developed settlements, the discovery at al-Magar includes traces of stone structures. Abdullah al-Sharekh, an archeologist at King Sa’ud University, was among the first experts on the site. He was impressed with the large number of scattered stone structural remains connected with settlement and with signs of agricultural activity that he saw around the site, as well as along the tops of surrounding hills, including walls erected along the slopes. The buried statues were all found within the remains of a building. “Nothing this size has been found in Arabia before, and the stratigraphic evidence will make this perhaps the most significant site in Saudi Arabia,” says al-Sharekh. “In a regional context, a find of such variety must have significance. It can tell us about social aspects and the culture of the people who lived here, domestication, trade and migration, and perhaps any early ritualistic importance,” he says, adding that “a pause is needed before we can make judgments.”

Also present on the scta‘s initial survey team was Michael Petraglia, a specialist in Paleolithic archeology and stone-tool technologies of the Arabian Peninsula. He quickly found at al-Magar a far older historical horizon. Adjacent to the Neolithic finds, he found flaked stone tools, such as scrapers, that he estimates exceed 50,000 years in age. Al-Magar “was an attractive environment for human activity over multiple periods,” he says. “This is very important not only for the more recent site, but also for what it can tell us about past climatic fluctuations between dry and humid periods.”

The earliest suggested Equus asinus domestication 
                in the Levant was probably about 3500 bce. If so, al-Magar may represent the dawn of a much longer-than-expected domestication process.

It also makes al-Magar all the more intriguing as a possible site of early horse domestication. The equid-like sculpture’s prominent bas-relief band, which could represent a halter, is not unique: Other, smaller, equid-like statues from the site also have bands across the shoulder. There is also on this largest piece the incision around the muzzle to the middle of the upper jaw, which resembles a noseband. Do these features portray tack, or do they represent natural aspects of the animal itself, such as musculature or coat markings? (The question has been posed before: In the 1980’s, analysts of Paleolithic paintings in French caves advanced claims that certain markings on horses indicated halters and consequently suggested that domestication in Europe dated back as far as 25,000 years. World authorities, including Olsen, debunked this by showing that the markings portrayed body features and hair patterns, not halters.)

Alan Outram hopes for the chance to examine horse teeth that may be found at al-Magar to see if they would show characteristic effects of wear caused by leather bits.

Before the use of metals, halters, reins and other tack were made entirely from natural materials, and among the al-Magar finds are stone implements that may have been used to produce long strips of leather from the hides of sheep, goats or equids. Al-Ghabban is particularly intrigued by a semi-spherical black stone with a deeply cut, rounded cleft worn smooth. Curious lines are scored on either side of the gap. “We have not seen anything like this before, and we need to carefully study this piece and what it tells us about processing leather and making rope and cord,” he says.

Outram explains its potential significance. “As a culture develops away from hunting and gathering and toward such activities as horse herding, the tool kit people use changes. We find more scrapers than pointed projectiles, as well as entirely new processing tools,” he says, pointing to such similar tools at Botai sites as leather thong smoothers carved from horse jawbones. Outram has conducted laboratory simulations using tools recreated from horse mandibles, processing thongs that could have been used as tack or tethers.

Joshua franzos
Sandra Olsen, top, has found the oldest firm evidence for domestic horses known to date, circa 3500 bce, at Botai in northern Kazakhstan, where organic remains at house sites, above, help patches of vegetation grow thicker and greener.

Tack made from organic materials rarely survives in the archeological record, and thus stone tools, petroglyphs and equine dental wear must provide the evidence of pre-metal-age bits on equids. To establish whether soft bits leave dental wear patterns, and what those might look like, David Anthony pioneered experiments with bits made from leather, hemp and horsehair rope, which he kept in place with cheek pieces made with flint tools. Comparing before-and-after equine dental mouldings, he found that the organic bits created beveled wear that indeed differs from the abrasion patterns known from metal bits.

“The date when Equus caballus was introduced into northern and eastern Arabia has been debated since the 19th century,” says Michael Macdonald, a research associate at the Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford. Writing 15 years ago on the horse in pre-Islamic Arabia, he explains that controversy is to be expected until considerably more research is carried out. “It will be many years before a coherent picture emerges,” he says.

But there is no controversy that al-Magar constitutes a significant discovery. To Khan, it represents the earliest known Neolithic settlement in the Arabian Peninsula and provides “solid and undeniable evidence of the presence and domestication of horses in Arabia.” He backs up his claim not only with the statuary but also with the discovery, within a few minutes’ walk of the site, of petroglyphs showing ostriches, dogs and ibex. One image, deeply pecked into the rock and with a heavy patina of oxides built up over millennia, hints at a figure mounted on an animal. Khan is convinced it portrays a rider and a horse, and he considers it Neolithic, contemporary with the oldest rock art he has studied so thoroughly at Jubbah, near Hail in northern Saudi Arabia.

Others remain cautious. Juris Zarins, chief archeologist of the expedition that in 1992 discovered the “lost” city of ‘Ubar, and who worked in the early days of archeology in Saudi Arabia in the 1970’s, says that he is “not surprised” at the finds because al-Magar belongs to a region that is “an archeological hotbed,” and that it is “not out of the realm of possibility” that the markings could be the first hints of domestication. “There has not been enough exploration carried out in Arabia,” he says, “and new discoveries like this could change things.” Whatever the species the sculptures represent, he agrees the nose marking in particular could be significant. “In Arabia in the Neolithic period, we have tethering stones, which archeologists say represent the first attempts at domestication. I think it is Equus asinus [African wild ass]. They may have been trying to do something with it, based on the head. The earliest suggested Equus asinus domestication in the Levant is generally regarded as 3500 bce. If so, this could mark the start of a much longer-than-expected domestication process.”

Olsen argues for careful study. The upstanding band could, she says, represent natural features of the animal, or it might even be a tang for attaching the carving to a wall. “And where’s the mane?” she asks, elaborating that she would expect equid statuary to show the feature, whether upright as on wild horses or floppy like those on domesticated ones. “What is clearly needed now,” she suggests, “is a detailed and expert anatomical analysis of all of the animal heads in order to assess their taxonomic identification.”

Beyond this, the discovery of al-Magar, she says, “is extremely important in shedding light on an apparently new culture that existed at a sophisticated level in a local region previously not known for this.”

Mutlaq ibn Gublan draws on a lifetime spent with domesticated herds, including, of course, camels. He sips his coffee and says, “When I saw the piece, and the large marking on it, I first thought it was an ox. But then its face told me this is a horse. I am happy that in the footsteps of my grandfather and his long line of ancestors I have found something from the heart of Arabia that goes deep into our history and helps connect us with the past.” Just what that thing is will, for now, remain a mystery.



September 7, 2016
by Fehmida

Jewish Worship, Pagan Symbols

Zodiac mosaics, in ancient synagogues

 By Walter Zanger

AN INCREDIBLE FIND. In December 1928, a work crew from Beth Alpha was digging a drainage channel when mosaic pieces began to appear in their shovel loads.

Ein Harod is a spring that rises in the valley of Jezreel at the foot of Mt. Gilboa. Gideon gathered his men there to sort out the good soldiers from the bad ones (Judges 7). From the pool, the spring makes its weary and meandering way east down the valley for some 18 km, passing through Beth-Shean to empty into the Jordan River.A thousand years of neglect had resulted in a valley full of silted and blocked-up waterways creating a marshy and swampy landscape as the spring of Harod—and half a dozen other springs that empty into it—filled the land with water faster than the natural outlets—now blocked—could drain it.

That was the scene that greeted the first modern settlers of the valley of Jezreel. And it was obvious that their first task, if they hoped to farm this land, was to drain the swamps. Thus it happened that at the end of December 1928 a work crew from kibbutz Beth Alpha (founded 6 years earlier) was digging yet another drainage canal when someone’s shovel started picking up pieces of mosaic.

Work on the channel stopped at once. They called the Hebrew University (then all of 3 years old!) and within a fortnight Eliezer Lippa Sukenik1 and Nahman Avigad had begun to excavate the site. Work began on January 9, 1929, and continued for 7 weeks, until February 26, despite heavy rains (610 mm instead of the usual 400 mm) that flooded the valley that year.

The mosaic they uncovered was almost complete, its astonishing preservation caused by a layer of plaster, thrown down from the ceiling by the earthquake that destroyed the building, that covered and protected the floor from the damage of falling stones. When it was completely exposed, the mosaic measured 28 meters long and 14 meters wide. It had an inscription at the doorway leading to three panels in the central apse: a rectangular panel, a square panel with a circle in the middle, and then another rectangle at the far end.

The middle square, the first to be uncovered, was the most spectacular. Figures of four women were at the four corners, with inscriptions (in Hebrew) identifying each as a season of the year. Inside the square was a wheel, 3.12 meters in diameter, with a smaller circle (1.2 m) in its center. The wheel was divided into 12 panels, each with a figure and a name identifying it as a sign of the zodiac. And in the center, a man was pictured driving a quadriga (four-horse chariot) through the moon and stars. Rays of the sun were coming out of his head; it was clear that he was Helios, god of the sun.

In the square panel of the Beth Alpha mosaic was a zodiac wheel with all 12 symbols and names of the zodiac, surrounded by four female figures at the corners, identifying the seasons of the year. Credit: Art Resource, NY

What had they found? Could this have been the temple of a Jewish community (it had to be Jewish; everything was written in Hebrew and Aramaic) turned pagan? Further digging dispelled that notion, for there, just above the central square of the mosaic, they found a mosaic panel of symbols instantly familiar to any Jew of that century (or this): the Ark of the Covenant (aron kodesh), eternal light (ner tamid), seven-branched candelabrum (menorah), palm frond (lulav), citron (etrog), and an incense shovel (mahta).2

Many of the symbols included in the uppermost mosaic panel reaffirmed the Jewish nature of the synagogue at Beth Alpha: the Ark of the Covenant at the center (aron kodesh), eternal light (ner tamid), two seven-branched candelabra (menorot; plural, menorah), palm frond (lulav), citron (etrog), and an incense shovel (mahta). From these items it takes the type name of a synagogue panel.

Then, in a third panel, closer to the front door, they uncovered a scene easily recognizable to anyone who knows the Bible. We are in Genesis 22, and Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac. In case we might have forgotten our Bible class, the names of the principals—Abraham, Isaac and the ram—are spelled out in inscriptions above their heads, and the hand of God stopping the sacrifice is clearly marked with the words “do not put forth your hand [against the lad].”

In the lower rectangular panel, closer to the door, the familiar story of Genesis 22 is depicted on the mosaic. Abraham is preparing to sacrifice Isaac (at right) as the hand of God reaches from heaven to stop him. Nearby the ram is caught with its horns in a thicket, and a servant waits at far left with the donkey. This type of scene came to be known as a righteous ancestors panel and is found in several other synagogue mosaics.

So this was definitely a synagogue, a Jewish house of worship, in a basilica building that dates to about 520 C.E.3 The building was destroyed in an earthquake soon after it was built,4 hence the near-perfect preservation of its mosaic floor; their misfortune became our good fortune. And because Beth Alpha is the best preserved of the seven synagogues we know, we use it here as the basis for our discussion.5Now, of course, we have problems. We know that Jewish life moved to the Galilee after the total destruction of Jewish Jerusalem that followed the Bar-Kokhba Revolt of the 130s C.E. We are, therefore, not surprised to have found—and to keep finding—synagogues from the following centuries all over the Galilee and Golan. It isn’t the synagogues themselves that are the problem; it is the decorations in them. What in heaven’s name were they doing? How could they be making pictures, especially in the synagogue? Didn’t they know the second commandment?

You shall not make for yourself a graven image or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them” (Exodus 20:4–5)

That problem is not as formidable as it first appears. The second commandment can be read in several ways because the Hebrew original of this text is entirely without vowels and punctuation points. We, writing English, have put in a period after the word “earth.”6 But if the period weren’t there, the verse could be read as a long conditional clause: “make no graven images … which you worship.” In this case it’s not the making that is prohibited, but the worshiping. Historically, the Jewish community often understood that it was acceptable to make images as long as one doesn’t worship them. And there is, consequently, a long and varied history of Jewish art, beginning with the cherubim over the Ark in the desert (Exodus 25:18), recorded presumably not long after the giving of the Commandments, and without protest.

A second problem is less easily resolved. The zodiac is pagan religion. It is what we see in the horoscope in every weekend newspaper on earth, generally the stuff of amusement. We know this system; it is based on the (extraordinary) assumption that the stars control the earth and that what happens on earth is a result of influences from what happens in the sky. All we need in order to understand the earth (that is, about our destiny) is to understand the stars. If, according to this view, one knows the exact date and time of one’s birth, and can chart the exact position of the heavenly bodies at that moment, then forevermore one knows what is fortunate, unfortunate, worth doing, worth avoiding, wise, unwise, etc. Our universe, therefore, is fixed and determined. There are no values, no good, no evil and no repentance. We live in a great mechanical machine of a cosmos.

The conflict of interest is obvious, and we are not surprised to learn that Jews detested that idea. For if the cosmos is like that, why do we need God giving the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai? The Christians also had their own very strong reservations. If the cosmos is like that, who needed God to sacrifice His son for the sins of the world? Who indeed? The early Church in fact absolutely prohibited the making of zodiacs, and there is not one zodiac mosaic in a church that dates before the Middle Ages, and very few even then. The zodiac/horoscope perception is the antithesis and enemy of monotheistic religion. An ancient and honorable enemy, to be sure, far older than Judaism and Christianity, but still the enemy.

It is true that one who goes through Jewish literature with a fine-tooth comb can find a citation here and there that seems to recognize the phenomenon of mosaic decoration, presumably zodiac, in synagogues. “In the days of Rabbi Abun they began depicting figures in mosaic and he did not protest against it.”7 More to the point, we find a line in Aramaic translation, “… you may place a mosaic pavement impressed with figures and images in the floors of synagogue; but not for bowing down to it.”8 There is even a Midrash that attempts to justify the zodiac phenomenon: “The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to him [Abraham]: just as the zodiac [mazalot] surrounds me, and my glory is in the center, so shall your descendants multiply and camp under many flags, with my shekhina in the center.”9But this is surely grasping at straws. The odd line here and there accounts for nothing in view of the overwhelming opposition in rabbinic literature to anything related to the making of pictures of any sort, and doubly so the fierce opposition to anything suggesting idolatry and pagan worship. Indeed, one of the ways to say “pagan” in rabbinical Hebrew is by the abbreviation עכומ[ (ovedei kokhavim u-mazalot,”worshipers of stars and constellations”). The rabbis of the Talmud recognized the popularity of astrology and were even prepared to admit that there might be truth in its predictions, but opposed the whole endeavor on principle. Ein mazal le-Yisrael (literally, “Israel has no constellation”) is perhaps the most commonly quoted opinion on the subject,10 but it is only one of many.

All the more are we astonished by the figure of Helios, Sol Invictus, pagan god of the sun, riding his quadriga right through the middle of the synagogue! This doesn’t look like it belongs here. And we need to ask again, what was this all about?

To set our minds at rest (for the time being), we can say what all this wasn’t. It could not have been astrology (predicting the future, etc.) and it could not have been scientific astronomy, because the seasons in the corners are in the wrong places. The upper right corner at Beth Alpha is marked טבת (Tevet), the winter month, and the upper left corner ניסן (Nissan) the month of Passover in spring. But between them you have the zodiac sign of Cancer, the Crab, which falls in mid-summer, not early spring. The same thing with the sign for Libra, the Scales. The mosaic has placed it between the spring and summer seasons, whereas it belongs in the fall. Clumsy astronomy.

The conclusion is inescapable: whoever did this mosaic hadn’t a clue about real astronomy or astrology, doubtless because he was a Jew and couldn’t care less.11

For the same reason, this mosaic floor could not have been a calendar, an idea that has been suggested by several important scholars of the subject.12 The incorrect placement of the seasons would have made that completely impossible.

Then perhaps it’s all just decoration, pretty pictures, the common designs of the era. That is the most common explanation, the one found in guide books. But it can’t be true. In the first place, the designs were by no means common in the Byzantine era. The Church, as stated, absolutely banned their use. More important, these signs are too loaded with meaning. We might argue “pretty pictures” if Beth Alpha were a solitary, unique find. We could then, at best, say that we had found here a group of Jews who had become so Hellenized that they had slipped over into paganism. But Beth Alpha is not unique; we will visit half a dozen other synagogues before we’re done. In addition, we have found hundreds of Jewish tombstones and catacombs from all over the Roman Empire. And despite the fact that there are countless millions of possible symbols, forms, designs, pictures, animals, etc. they could have used, the fact is that they all use the same 10-12 symbols.13 We are forced to conclude that these were more than pretty pictures.

The Other Three Of “The Big Four”

Another stunning mosaic was unearthed at the Hammath Tiberias synagogue. It contains a beautifully executed zodiac wheel (interrupted by a later wall on top) and a synagogue panel, but no righteous ancestors theme. Credit: Garo Nalbandian

In the Hammath Tiberias square mosaic panel containing the zodiac wheel, the four corners are marked with depictions of the four seasons in the corner, as seen here.

Hammath Tiberias is the second most famous (and the most technically accomplished) mosaic synagogue floor.14 We have a zodiac wheel in the middle of the floor,15 a rendering of Helios riding his quadriga through the heavens in the central circle, the seasons in the corners, and the synagogue panel above, between the zodiac and the bema of the synagogue. There is no depiction of the righteous ancestors theme, as there was with Abraham at Beth Alpha.16

The synagogue at Ein Gedi contains a mosaic that is even more complete than those at Beth Alpha and Hammath Tiberias, although relatively simpler in decoration. All of the usual elements are present—as well as some new ones—but in written form rather than figural depictions.

Actually, the synagogue at Ein Gedi17 (recently opened as a National Park) is more complete than those of Beth Alpha and Hammath Tiberias. All the elements we usually look for—and some new ones—are here, in mosaic on the floor. Except that they are all in lists. There are no pictures here at all. We have a list of all of the signs of the zodiac. The ancestors (Adam, Seth, Enosh, Keinan, etc.) are listed,18 as are “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, shalom” and three new righteous ones we haven’t seen before: Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah19 have been added for good measure. The other interesting new element in Ein Gedi is the identification of the zodiac signs with the months of the Hebrew calendar.2 We didn’t see that at Beth Alpha or Hammath Tiberias.


Inscriptions, instead of pictures, cover the floor of the Ein Gedi synagogue mosaic. All the signs of the zodiac are listed (and for the first time associated with the corresponding months of the Hebrew calendar), as well as a long list of righteous ancestors, from Adam, Seth and Enosh, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah.

Inscriptions, instead of pictures, cover the floor of the Ein Gedi synagogue mosaic. All the signs of the zodiac are listed (and for the first time associated with the corresponding months of the Hebrew calendar), as well as a long list of righteous ancestors, from Adam, Seth and Enosh, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah.

That leads us to the newest of the synagogue zodiac discoveries, the synagogue at Zippori (Sepphoris) in the lower Galilee.21 Discovered only in 1993, this floor is the most elaborate of the seven floors we know and contains items not to be found in any of the others. Unhappily, it is in a very bad state of preservation and most scenes are only fragmentary.

The synagogue at Zippori (Sepphoris) provided the most recent of the zodiac mosaic discoveries, although unfortunately it is not very well preserved. In the center of the zodiac wheel, Helios once again drives his four-horse chariot, but rather than the figure of a man, the god is depicted as the sun itself.

The zodiac is elegant indeed. Each constellation has its own name and the name of its corresponding calendar month written right in the panel. So, for example, we find Scorpio (עקרב) together with its Hebrew month Heshvan (חשון), Sagittarius (קשת) together with Kislev (כסלו), and so forth.


As at Ein Gedi, each sign of the zodiac at Zippori is associated with the corresponding month of the Hebrew calendar, both written in Hebrew. In the close-ups at top, Scorpio shares a panel with the month Heshvan (above), while Sagittarius is together with the month Kislev. The close-ups at right show the seasons in the four corners, as we have seen elsewhere, but here they are labeled with both Greek and Hebrew inscriptions.

As at Ein Gedi, each sign of the zodiac at Zippori is associated with the corresponding month of the Hebrew calendar, both written in Hebrew. In the close-ups at top, Scorpio shares a panel with the month Heshvan (above), while Sagittarius is together with the month Kislev. The close-ups at right show the seasons in the four corners, as we have seen elsewhere, but here they are labeled with both Greek and Hebrew inscriptions.

There are seasons in each of the four corners, but a new element has been added here too: Greek inscriptions defining the seasons in addition to the Hebrew ones we have seen before. And, as in Beth Alpha and Ein Gedi, the righteous ancestor theme has been well and truly represented. Again we find Abraham binding Isaac. The scenes are very poorly preserved, but we have a fragment of the ram caught in the thicket and at least part of the picture of two servants holding the ass (Genesis 22:5) while Abraham and his son went off to Moriah. Helios rides his quadriga in the central circle but, extraordinarily, there is no male figure in the picture; just the sun itself driving the chariot.

Although poorly preserved, the Zippori synagogue mosaic clearly contained a panel of the binding of Isaac to complete the righteous ancestors theme. All that remains are fragments showing the servants holding the donkey (above) and the ram caught in the thicket.

The synagogue panel, divided here into three sections, is quite well preserved. The two candelabra flank the Ark of the Covenant with the ram’s horn, palm frond and citron, and incense shovel in place below. The Zippori synagogue floor, however, provides several other elements not found elsewhere: scenes of the ornaments, instruments and sacrifices of the Temple and an additional (very fragmentary) scene of the angels visiting Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18). Pity it’s all in such bad condition. And how fortunate we have been to have found Beth Alpha so perfectly preserved!

Unlike much of the rest of the Zippori mosaic, the synagogue panel, divided here into three sections, is quite well preserved. The two candelabra flank the Ark of the Covenant with the ram’s horn, palm frond and citron, and incense shovel in place below. Credit: Gabi Laron/Courtesy Zeev Weiss

These are the “Big Four” sites we needed to visit. There are three others that are very fragmentary indeed-some destroyed or changed in antiquity, others looted and destroyed in modern times, some both.

The “Little Three”

Little remains of the synagogue at Na’aran, which was discovered when a Turkish artillery shell fell on the spot during World War I, revealing the mosaic. Much of the mosaic was badly defaced, but enough was found to suggest the presence of the zodiac wheel, including Helios in his chariot (only one wheel remains), the four seasons in the corners, and the Ark flanked by candelabra.

Very little is left of the synagogue at Na’aran, now in the Palestinian Authority area some 5 km northwest of Jericho.22 Hardly surprising, the mosaic floor was discovered when the British army was camped in Na’aran during the First World War and a Turkish artillery shell fell on the spot, uncovering the mosaic!23 There was a zodiac wheel here once, and one sees the lines dividing the panels, but the panels themselves have been defaced. One may find remains of the claws of Cancer, the Crab, and at least one other sign, Aries, is identifiable because the caption is preserved even though the picture is gone.24 Old Helios is gone too, but we find one wheel of his chariot (older pictures by archaeologists show two wheels) in the central circle. There were four seasons in the four corners, badly defaced, and two candelabra flanking the Ark were seen by Père Vincent, excavator of the site, who sketched them at the time.25


The mosaic at Na’aran was badly damaged, but one can still make out the legs of Cancer on the zodiac wheel (left) and one of the four seasons in the corner of the square panel (right).

The mosaic at Na’aran was badly damaged, but one can still make out the legs of Cancer on the zodiac wheel (left) and one of the four seasons in the corner of the square panel (right).

Even less remains in Sussiya. This is a mysterious place, a large Jewish town high in the Judean hills south of Hebron on the way to Beersheba. It is a town without a name and without a history—we use the Arabic name for the place for lack of an alternative—but it was a big place and it lasted a long time. Very odd. The synagogue building, large and well built, also lasted a long time, and that longevity was the undoing of its mosaic floor. Fashions change, and when it was no longer acceptable to put pictures in synagogues,26 the floor was ripped out and a new “carpet” of geometric patterns, itself changed and repaired over time, was laid in its place. But there was a zodiac wheel here; a piece of the outer arc of the wheel is still in place. And we know the building was a synagogue because at least two elements we recognize from other places, the candelabra and the Ark, are still quite recognizable. The survival of a fragment of the righteous ancestors panel is even more unexpected. But it is indeed there on the floor: the tail of an animal and two Hebrew letters “-el” (אל). Surely that is Daniel in the lions’ den.


The sussiya building was identified as a synagogue because the so-called synagogue panel of the mosaic was still quite visible, containing the Ark flanked by two candelabra.

The well-built synagogue at Sussiya lasted for a long time, which was ultimately the downfall of some of its mosaics. As tastes changed, new mosaic floors were paved over the old one. Still, there are glimpses of the traditional elements, such as the inner circle (now filled with a rosette, not Helios) and a portion of the outer arc of the zodiac wheel (visible a few feet below the inner circle).


Barely a hint of the righteous ancestors panel remains at Sussiya, but the tail of a lion and the end of a Hebrew inscription “-el” is enough to reconstruct the scene of Daniel in the lions’ den.

We have nearly reached the end of our survey. One more site is left, and it is so obscure that only the smallest fraction of the synagogue mosaic remains. The area was a construction site in the Druze village of Usifiyya, east of Haifa on Mt. Carmel.27 A mosaic synagogue inscription, flanked by two candelabra,28 was discovered during construction, together with one corner of a zodiac wheel. The smiling face of one of the seasons, not identified by an inscription, and a piece of two zodiac panels— one of them obviously Cancer, the other unidentifiable—are all that’s left of the zodiac.

The last example of a synagogue zodiac mosaic consists of only a few fragments. This corner from the square panel shows the smiling face of the one of the seasons in the corner, as well as the edges of two zodiac segments, one of which can be identified as Cancer (the other is unclear).

A Search for MeaningWhat have we found? We have found seven places in Israel where Jews put zodiac wheels, Helios, the four seasons, a panel of synagogue objects, and sometimes remembrance of righteous ancestors in mosaic on the floor of their synagogues. For the record, we have never found a zodiac in a Jewish context outside of Israel, and every zodiac found in Israel was in a synagogue.

That fact tells us what we already knew: that these zodiacs were certainly not just decorations or pretty pictures. Nor were they attempts at astrology (predicting the future) or astronomy. The Ark, candelabrum, shofar, etc. were put in synagogues (and on tombstones, lintels, doorposts and catacombs), the most serious of places for the Jewish community. And the inscriptions on the zodiacs themselves were invariably in Hebrew, even if the common languages of the day, Aramaic or Greek were added. That is, the zodiacs were important and meant something to the people who made them. The question is: What? It is time to suggest some conclusions.

The evidence indicates that we are in the presence of a mystical Hellenistic-Byzantine Jewish tradition, a tradition that Talmudic Judaism either ignored or suppressed,29 a tradition we would not know anything about (for it left no literature) were it not for the discovery of this artwork, these symbols.30 The mosaics are in fact the literature of the movement. We need to learn how to read them.

Historically, the mosaics were made at a time when what is sometimes called normative, or Talmudic, Judaism—the Judaism of the rabbis—was just developing. And it was going a different way.31 We might say that Talmudic Judaism was moving horizontally: A man walks a path, with God giving him the Law to tell him what to do and what not to do, how to stay straight on the path and not stray off. God is pleased when man obeys and angry when he disobeys. This is the religion of the Hebrew Bible, and it is what normative Judaism became in the Talmud, the Middle Ages and, for the most part, up to our own time.

But there was, and still is, a different kind of religion, much older than the Judaism we have just described. We can call it vertical. Men always knew that their life depended on higher powers. First and most obvious, life depended on nature—on seed and growth, rain, sun, moon, land, wind and fire. That was natural religion; it was what primitive man did. It was only a short step from there to making each of these elements into a god. Ancient man thus prayed to rain and sacrificed to earth, worshiped the moon and adored the sun.

The cosmos was chaotic at first. The gods were busy having arguments (and orgies) with each other. In between the arguments they could torture and abuse men, and seduce women as they liked. But nature became orderly as the Greeks developed science—biology, astronomy and physics—and tamed the cosmos. They defined the forces influencing other forces; wind influences clouds, clouds influence rain, rain influences earth, and earth influences men. Thus the ladder of cosmic power was taking shape.On this issue there is bad news and good news. The bad news is that the regular cycle of nature was pretty grim, not to mention completely predestined. There was no good and no evil—no value—which is why the Jews never bought into it. The good news is that the cosmos was also consoling. Nature was no longer random or dependent on the whim of the gods. Indeed, the regularity of the cycle of growth and death and rebirth in nature did give hope for immortality.32 And when Greek philosophy, following Plato, organized the forms and powers into a proper hierarchy, with the Highest Form, the First Uncaused Cause, being God, then the spiritual ladder was firmly in place.

And that, we suggest, is what they were doing by walking into the synagogue. We see the worshipers climbing the mystical ladder from the mundane and transient things down here at the entrance—who made the floor, when, and how much it cost—to a union with God at His holy Ark up there at the far end.

The first step was through our righteous ancestors. Their good deeds atone for our sins.34 Then, as we walk farther into the synagogue, we begin to climb the ladder, encountering the earth and its seasons. We are among friends; the seasons have friendly, sometimes smiling, women’s faces. We progress even higher, through the stars and constellations (the Hebrew word mazal, “constellation,” means luck). But the vertical path of Jewish mysticism is beyond luck, beyond the stars. It is beyond even the strongest and most fearful of all natural powers, the sun. Here is the sun, indeed at the center of the universe, in a chariot controlled by a charioteer,35 in a vision recalling Ezekiel’s vision of the divine chariot (Ezekiel 1). The charioteer is God,36 in control of the four horses, over and above the stars and the constellations, that is, over fate and destiny. This is the God who rules over the moon and the seasons, the rain, the land and the elements. Four elements like the four horses: earth, air, fire and water. This is the God who has graciously made a covenant and given Torah to His people Israel, whose sins are atoned for by the righteousness of their ancestors.

And that understanding brought the worshiper to the holy symbols of the synagogue, which is God’s house. That is why, in all of the synagogue mosaic panels37 depicting the symbols of God’s house, the Ark of the Covenant is always in the center of its panel, and the panel is always located right at the foot of the Ark itself.

We have come through our stages of ascent. We are in front of the Ark, the dwelling place of God’s Torah. Yet the door is always closed. God, inside, is still a mystery. But our long mystical journey to salvation is almost over.

All uncredited photos courtesy of the author.



1 E.L. Sukenik, The Ancient Synagogue of Beth-Alpha, (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1932)

2 The incense shovel was a universally recognized Jewish symbol in the Byzantine era. It disappeared from the Jewish iconographic lexicon because the Jews stopped using incense when the Christians started.

3 The Aramaic inscription at the front door was damaged. It says that the mosaic was made “during the … year of the reign of the emperor Justinus”. The exact year is missing. The reference is probably to the emperor Justin I (adopted uncle and immediate predecessor of Justinian the Great) who ruled from 518-527 C.E. and whose coins were found on the site. It is of course possible that the building was older than the mosaic floor.

4 The earliest possible “candidate” was a major quake that hit the country on July 9, 551. It was the earthquake that finally destroyed Petra. More likely was an earthquake of lesser magnitude but located closer to the site which did great damage to the Jordan Valley in 659/660.

5 We have not entered into a discussion of the artistic merits of this work of art. It is the writer’s opinion that this work, with its naive and primitive style, has a child-like immediacy and freshness that makes it one of the masterpieces of world art.

6 Thus the new JPS Tanakh. The King James translation puts a colon after the word “earth”, while the New American Bible (Catholic) and the Revised Standard Version (Protestant) translations both use a semi-colon instead of period at this point.

7 From a Geniza manuscript of JT Avoda Zarah

8 In the Pseudo-Jonathan Targum to Lev. 26:1

9 From a Geniza fragment of Midrash Deut. Rabba) These quotations are cited by Michael Klein, “Palestinian Targum and Synagogue Mosaics,” Jerusalem, Immanuel 11 (1980)

10 The matter is discussed in BT Shabbat, 156a

11 At Beth Alpha the signs and the seasons both progress counter-clockwise, although they are misaligned. The Hammat Tiberias zodiac shows both signs and seasons also rotating counter-clockwise, and in correct alignment with each other. At Na’aran the seasons run counter-clockwise, as above, but the signs go clockwise!

12 That position was argued by Prof. Avi-Yonah, among many others, and by the excavator of Hammat Tiberias. See Moshe Dothan, Hammath Tiberias, (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1983). Hammat Tiberias is the only mosaic we know where the signs and seasons are correctly aligned, which may have influenced the excavator’s judgment as to its purpose

13 The cataloging of all of these finds and the interpretation of what they might mean constitute the magnum opus of Erwin Goodenough (1893-1965), Professor of Religion at Yale and one of the greatest scholars of religion America ever produced. Goodenough’s 13 volume study, E.R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, (New York: Pantheon, 1958), form the core text for the study of this subject, Everyone who has subsequently dealt with the subject is in his debt. The book has been re-issued in a 1-volume paperback, abridged and edited by Jacob Neusner (Princeton: Bollingen Series, 1988)

14 Dothan, op cit. See endnote 6, above.

15 We are amazed to discover that later generations built a wall right through the middle of the zodiac!

16 A complete description of the 4 mosaics known at the time of publication: Beth Alpha, Hammat Tiberias, Na’aran and Usifiyya, together with a comprehensive bibliography, may be found in Rachel Hachlili, “The Zodiac in Ancient Jewish Art,” Bulletin of the American Society for Biblical Research, 228, (1977) , pp. 61-77

17 Dan Barag, Yosef Porat and Ehud Netzer, “The Synagogue at ‘Ein Gedi”, Ancient Synagogues Revealed, (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1981), pp. 116-119.

18 The text is copied from I Chron. 1:1

19 They are the 3 “children in the fiery furnace”, Shadrach, Mishach and Abednego, in the book of Daniel.

20 There are, of course, many groups of 12 in the Bible and throughout ancient literature: 12 sons of Jacob, 12 tribes of Israel, 12 disciples of Jesus, 12 signs of the zodiac, 12 months of the year, etc.

21 The synagogue floor is thoroughly discussed in Ze’ev Weiss and others, The Sepphoris Synagogue, (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 2005), In this writer’s opinion, however, the authors have completely missed the point by beginning at the top, the Ark and the holy synagogue objects, and working their way back out the front door. The spiritual progression which we discuss requires exactly the opposite course.

22 The Bible called the place both Na’arah (Joshua 16:7) and Na’aran (I Chronicles 7:28). Josephus knew it as Nearah (Antiquities. book 17, ch. 13, para. 1) and the Talmud called it Na’arah (Lamentations R.1:17 No 52)

23 The site was examined in 1919 by the British staff archaeologist, studied again by Père Vincent & M.J. Lagrange in 1921, and published by Prof. Sukenik in his book on Beth Alpha (see endnote 1, above)

24The Hebrew word is טלה (taleh), which in modern Hebrew means lamb. But it was always used for the Ram in the zodiac.

25 This writer has seen the remains of a figure of a man, 2 arms raised to heaven , with the inscription “Dani[el] shalom”. But that fragment is not to be found on the site any more. The menorot are said to be at the École Biblique in Jerusalem

26 The iconoclastic movement in Judaism and Christianity was certainly in influenced by the uncompromising iconoclasm of militant Islam. But the trend in Judaism may have been a parallel rather than a dependent development.

27 The remains of site, identified as ancient Huseifa, were excavated in 1933 and published the following year by Prof. Michael Avi-Yonah and M. Makhouly in The Quarterly of the Department of Antiquities in Palestine, 3, 1934.

28 The inscription, which is incomplete, reads שלום על ישראל (shalom al yisrael), and is on display in the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem. The zodiac fragment is in the collection of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem.

29 Only the works of Philo and Josephus, together with some mystical apocalypses, survive as the literature from the Hellenistic Jewish world. They survive because of the Christians, who preserved them, not the Jews, who ignored them. There is no other mystical literature from the period of the mosaic making which might help us understand what the mosaic makers meant to say.

30 It would be a safe bet to say that 9 out of 10 Jews living today (especially orthodox Jews) don’t know, and never knew, that such a Judaism ever existed.

31 This formulation, from Goodenough (q.v.), ch. 1, has been extraordinarily useful to this writer.

32 The Jews were not much interested in immortality, but everybody else was!

33 We are not surprised to discover that the oldest known manifestation of what we might call “religion” is the decorated skull of an ancestor found under the floor of a house in pre-pottery Neolithic Jericho.

34 There are any number of examples of pious Jews venerating the tombs of saints and forefathers. A visit to any tomb of a holy man in the Galilee, to Elijah’s cave on Mt. Carmel, or indeed to a cemetery where someone of special interest to one or another Hassidic group is buried provides a fascinating glimpse into a Judaism which we of the liberated western world did not know still existed.

35 The origin and symbolism of the Divine quadriga and its connection to merkava mysticism are discussed in a monograph by James Russell in the Jewish Studies Quarterly, vol. 4, no. 4, (Tubingen 1997).

36 We recall that in the Zippori zodiac the quadriga is driven by the sun itself, without the figure of a man. Compare Is.60:19ff.

37 Some ancient synagogues, as in Beth-Shean, show only the synagogue panel without any of the other elements.


September 3, 2016
by Fehmida

Spain’s Numerology Tradition

Spain has always been a country full of contrasts. It is often regarded as heavily Catholic and the place where the Inquisition began. At the same time, there have also been witches and individuals who believed in fairies, gnomes, and other spirits. Spanish people have tried to cast the future as well.

 Thus, spiritual life has always been rich in Spain. However, in the Middle Ages and a few centuries later, the role of astrology and numerology had a special meaning in the country, especially in Catalonia.

‘The Fortune Teller’ by Julio Vila y Prades.

‘The Fortune Teller’ by Julio Vila y Prades. (Public Domain)

The Jewish Background of Spanish Astrologers

Researchers generally claim that numerology came from Hebrew sources. Numerology, astrology and other mystical disciplines were strongly influenced by Cabbala (Kabbala), but also by ancient philosophies such as Neoplatonism and works by Aristotle and others.

These hands, as in the Priestly Blessing, are divided into twenty-eight sections, each containing a Hebrew letter. Twenty-eight, in Hebrew numbers, spells the word Koach = strength. At the bottom of the hand, the two letters on each hand combine to form יהוה, the name of God.

These hands, as in the Priestly Blessing, are divided into twenty-eight sections, each containing a Hebrew letter. Twenty-eight, in Hebrew numbers, spells the word Koach = strength. At the bottom of the hand, the two letters on each hand combine to form DiscoverGematriaNeoplatonismChristian KabbalahPriestly Blessingיהוה, the name of God. (Public Domain)

Witchcraft and rituals which had their roots in Celtic magic were mixed with Arabic mystical knowledge and Jewish studies in Spain, and they created news trend in esoteric knowledge. The main source of Jewish numerology was The Book of Asaph the Physician, who lived sometime between the 3rd and 7th Century AD.

The early Spanish numerologists also used a book titled Secreta Secretorum (Secret of Secrets), also known as Kitab Sirr al-Asrar, which comes from a 9th century Arabic translation of a lost Greek manuscript. It was perhaps a letter from Aristotle to Alexander the Great – his student. However, it became interpreted in different ways over the centuries and was a very important essay related to ethics, astronomy, medicine, alchemy, magic, etc. The best known translation was a Latin one from the 12th century, which became a key work for intellectuals in the Middle Ages.

Copy of the Secreta Secretorum (c. 1250-1275).

Copy of the Secreta Secretorum (c. 1250-1275). (Public Domain)

Apart from numerology, Jews also brought Gematria to Spain, which was an Assyro-Babylonian-Greek system of alphanumeric code adopted by the Jewish people as numeric keys to specific words or phrases. Gematria provided new tools for the mystics’ rituals, which were often like performances for the person who asked them about the future or for advice.

Specialists in Jewish esotericism suggest that a number of Jewish astrologers served the courts of King Pere III (1336-1387), King Juan I of Aragon (1387-1395), and many other rulers. Some of them are known by their names: Juce of Osca, Isaac Nafusi, Vidal, and Bellshom Efraim. They were all aware of the thin line between astronomy and astrology, and the relationship of these disciplines to religion.

From the 13-14th centuries, the support of a sorcerer and being open-minded to these topics was seen as a sign of being an intellectual person in Aragon. Moreover, according to linguists, the mixture of different esoteric aspects also influenced local languages – which is especially visible in the Catalan language. Modern scholars still explore the influence of different disciplines and different roots (Jewish, Arabic, and others) on language and the understanding of ancient medicine, which was the basis for more modern medicine.

Representation of Juan I of Aragon.

Representation of Juan I of Aragon. (Public Domain)

Numerology Reigns in Iberia

The attempt to understand the influence of numbers on people’s lives became extremely popular in late medieval times and the Renaissance. It was a period when all of Europe became more interested in science again, and astrology and numerology were included in this as well.

Two charts for determining whether a person will live or die based on the numerical value of the patient's name. From copy of a portion of Kitab Sirr al-asrar.

Two charts for determining whether a person will live or die based on the numerical value of the patient’s name. From copy of a portion of Kitab Sirr al-asrar. (Public Domain)

Despite the influence of the Catholic Church and Holy Inquisition on Spanish society, people who were believed to have contact with higher a wisdom, spirits, etc. were often protected by the nobles, who wanted to use these gifts for their own purposes. According to the presentation by John S. Lucas in 2003 at Bar-Ilan University in Israel:

”Whatever the earliest sources may be, sorted literature survives in the Iberian Peninsula in the form of popular books of prognostication that, although taken seriously by many, also exist as fortunetelling games. Carreras y Candi’s anonymous thirteenth century Catalan text is a witness to this tradition. In the sixteenth century, we find books such as the Libro de las suertes [The Book of Luck] in Spanish. Navarro Durán reedited a Spanish version of such a game and studied the Latin manuscripts preserved in Spanish libraries (1987). In Arcadia, Lope de Vega describes a pastoral scene in which shepherds play one such game (1980: 396–400). Indeed, such games are still popular in the Western world. The second strain of numerological prognostication derives from the neo-Pythagorean tradition and is transmitted in the Hermetic corpus. Hermetic literature is one branch of pseudo-epigraphic writings that were common currency in the Roman Empire. These writings, often ascribed to Egyptian gods or sages, purport to reveal secret wisdom of the ancients.”

A figure representing Hermes Trismegistus.

A figure representing Hermes Trismegistus. (Public Domain)

These practices became especially popular during the Renaissance, when science started to be more important again. Apart from royals and nobles, many artists were fascinated by this idea of a spiritual life too. This is well documented in the paintings and poetry from this period.

Who Wants to See the Future?

Although many Spanish kings and dukes wanted to be seen as followers of Christianity, they still asked people like astrologers, magicians, and numerologists to cast or divine the future.

The role of esoteric knowledge in Spain is still strong. In many parts of the country, stories about wise women called “witches” are very popular. Furthermore, the rate of people who support fortunetellers and other mystics continues to be very high. It seems that faith or interest in numerology, magic, and astrology is still alive in the Spanish culture today.

A fortune-telling game printed in Great Britain between 1650 and 1750.

A fortune-telling game printed in Great Britain between 1650 and 1750. (Public Domain)

Top Image: ‘Fortune Teller with a Fool’ (1508 – 1510) by Lucas van Leiyden. Source: Public Domain

By Natalia Klimczak


John Scott Lucas, Astrology and Numerology in Medieval and Early Modern Catalonia, 2003

John MacQueen, Numerology: Theory and outline of a literary mode, 1985.

Edward Grant, The foundations of modern science in the Middle Ages: Their religious,

institutional, and intellectual contexts. 1996.

John S. Lucas, Astrology and Numerology in Medieval and Early Modern Catalonia (the lecture) 2003, available at: