Arad (Tell Arad) PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
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Arad (Tell Arad)
Israelite Fortress

The Israelite Fortress

Whenever the Kingdom of Judah sought to extend its reach to the Red Sea in quest of the gold of Ophir, it depended on two military bases at the gates of the desert: one at Beersheba, the other at Arad.  What determined their exact placement? First, each stood in the east-west basin separating the Judean highlands in the north from the Negev desert in the south. Second, the main north-south road from Jerusalem stretched down the central mountain range, splitting into two branches near Hebron. At the intersection of its western branch with the east-west basin arose Beersheba. At the intersection of its eastern branch with the basin arose Arad. (More at Tell Arad and Beersheba.)

The same geographical factors made Arad important to Judah's foes, such as the Edomites: by capturing this spot (as well as an even bigger fortress called Ramat Negev, nine miles to the southwest), they could gain access northward to Hebron and northwest to Lachish and the Shephelah. This strategic fact gave the Judeans an additional motive to fortify the place.

After the demise of Early Bronze (EB) Arad, fifteen centuries passed and not a soul lived here. In the 11th century BC, a village arose on the high part of the tell. (Its inhabitants used some of the 1500-year-old houses.) In the 10th century, Solomon set his eyes on the gold of Ophir and replaced the village with a fortress. He may have included a temple. So thought Y. Aharoni, the site's first archaeologist, but Z. Herzog, re-assessing the finds, dates the temple to the 9th century BC. Whoever built it and used it was unaware, perhaps, of Deuteronomy 12: 13-18.

A few years after Solomon's death, around 926 BC, Pharaoh Shishak (Sheshonk) swept through the land and destroyed many cities and bases, among them Beersheba and Arad. Both were rebuilt half a century later, probably by Judah's King Jehoshaphat, who, like Solomon, directed his eyes toward Ophir. The original temple probably dates to this time. Before we continue with the history, then, let us go in and have a look at it.

The Temple

The fortress we visit today, with temple intact, is largely that of the 9th and 8th centuries BC. It is a square of 52 meters on each side.


We go in through the 9th-century entrance, flanked by towers jutting out 15 feet, and ascend a few steps to stand on the remains of a Hellenistic tower (3d - 2d centuries BC), from which we can get a good overview of the Judean temple.


The temple takes up about a fifth of the precious space in the fortress. The motive for its building must have been to ensure God's presence on the border to protect the kingdom. (An earlier Kenite sanctuary?) Accordingly, we also find a sanctuary at Beersheba. On Judah's northern border stood, of course, the Jerusalem temple. The northern kingdom of Israel likewise had border sanctuaries: at Dan in the north and Bethel in the south. On a more local scale, cities had shrines in their gates.

The Arad temple faces west, like the one in Jerusalem and like the original "Temple of the Lord" at Shechem. In contrast, Canaanite temples from the Late Bronze Age (1550 BC – 1200 BC) had a north-south axis.

holy-of-holies.jpgAt the temple's western extremity is a niche that harbored two standing stones (matzevot). The larger was painted red. In front of them were two small altars, well preserved, traces of ash still on them. The relative positions of altars and stones suggested to the archaeologists that larger was in line with larger, smaller with smaller. (We see a replica. The originals are at the Israel Museum, where the smaller standing stone is now displayed as part of the back wall.)

This niche must have been the Holy of Holies. Its equivalent in Jerusalem, we recall, held the Ark of the Covenant, containing the tablets with the Decalogue and surmounted by the Cherubim, forming a throne for the invisible God. 

Why two standing stones? One thinks of the tablets. But why the line up: large stone to large altar, small to small? A. Mazar (p. 497) suggests that we have here a reference to Yahweh and his consort, Asherah, who appear together elsewhere in Israelite inscriptions. The great religious reforms had not yet occurred.

In front of the Holy of Holies are the remains of a broad room with plastered benches on the sides, probably for offerings. Coming from the east, one entered it between two pillars reminiscent of Boaz and Jachin in the Jerusalem temple; the archaeologists found their bases (not visible today). This room measures 2.7 meters from east to west and 9 meters from north to south. The latter figure is significant. Taking the common cubit at 17.5 inches, 9 meters make 20 cubits: exactly the breadth of the sanctuary in Jerusalem. The length of 2.7 meters equals 6 cubits, compared to 60 for the length in Jerusalem. Thus the basic concept of the Arad sanctuary is that of a broad-room temple, which brings the worshipper close to the deity, in contrast with the long-room form of the Jerusalem temple, which emphasizes the deity's distance, hiddenness, mysteriousness, and majesty.

East of the broad room are the remains of an open courtyard containing an altar built of unhewn stones. It measures 2.40 X 2.20 meters and stood 1.20 meters above the floor of Jehoshaphat's temple. (Uzziah later raised the floor.) These dimensions are tantalizingly close to those prescribed for the altar in the Book of Exodus.. (The altar in the Jerusalem temple was much bigger.) On its top lies a flint flagstone sloping downward to the east. Plastered channels surround it: no doubt to collect the blood of the sacrifice. No burnt offerings were made here - the flint would have cracked in the heat, and there are no signs of burning in the surrounding clay. The altar was used for slaughter.


altar-with-step.jpgAt the altar's base on the south is what looks like a step, which Aharoni interpreted as a vestige of an earlier , Solomonic altar. After probing, Herzog concluded that there was probably no previous altar. The "step" may have been a shelf for utensils, or it may have served short priests. As a single step, it would not have been a violation of Exodus 20:26.

Back to the history

Jehoshaphat's fortress was soon destroyed. It was rebuilt by Uzziah, who retook Eloth on the Red Sea from the Edomites: that is, he too cast his eyes toward the gold of Ophir. He raised the floor, however, so that the sacrificial altar protruded only 16 inches above it.

To secure the water supply, the builders dug reservoirs inside south of the temple. The inhabitants brought water from cisterns in the area, especially one at the site of the natural catch-basin that had served the Early Bronze city. They poured it into an opening, still visible, in the lower part of the western wall.

The date of the Arad temple's destruction is disputed. According to some scholars, in 715 BC Hezekiah undertook a major religious reform as part of an effort to "homogenize" the realm in preparation for revolt against Assyria. He centralized religious activity in Jerusalem. "He removed the high places, and broke the pillars, and cut down the Asherah" (2 Kings 18:4). Archaeologist Ze'ev Herzog reports that the temple at Arad was very carefully dismantled. "Unlike the other buildings, no indication of violent destruction is observable in the temple area. The vertical disposition of the altars and the stelae and the superb preservation of the limestone incense altars and the top of the sacrificial altar indicate that the temple was intentionally dismantled. The upper parts of the walls were torn down and the whole area was buried under a thick layer of soil." (Herzog, p. 175.) Other scholars date the dismantling and burial of the temple to Josiah (621 BC) or decades after him; they see these acts either as poart of Josiah's reform (centralization of the cult) or as an attempt to protect the holy place from desecration by the Edomites or Babylonians.

Returning to the time of Hezekiah: In 701 BC, the Assyrian Sennacherib, provoked, swept down to quell the revolt. He boasted (in his famous prism, column 3, line 18) of having destroyed 46 strong-walled cities of Judah. Among them were Beersheba and Arad. Hezekiah (and Jerusalem) survived, paying  tribute. His son and successor Manasseh fawned on Assyria, which let him rebuild the fortress at Arad to protect his southern border.

Manasseh's version of the fortress (with or without the temple) lasted, perhaps, through the reign of Josiah. When Pharaoh Neco had Josiah executed at Megiddo in 609, the Egyptians (concerned about the rising power of Babylon) made a last ditch effort at re-establishing power in the land. They were probably the ones who destroyed the fortress at Arad - for destroyed it was. The Judeans built it up again, with a casemate wall this time (it ran right through the former temple's broad room), in the hope of withstanding the Edomites or the Babylonians.

From this period come all or most of the Hebrew inscriptions at Arad, 131 in number. They include many inscriptions on potsherds written in carbon black ink (ostraca). There are 18 short messages to the fortress commander, Elyashib son of Eshiyahu. These date to a single month, called Tebet, which began on January 16, 597 BC, when Nebuchadnezzar "was either on his way to attack Jerusalem or was already besieging it. The month was probably the last in the fortress's existence." (Lemaire, p. 176.) Most of these letters order Elyashib to provide food for the "Kittim," probably Greek or Cypriot mercenaries in the Judean army. Judging from the amount of food (supplied about once a week), there were 25 or so Kittim at Arad.

arad-and-eastern-negev-basi.jpgThe immediate danger to Arad in 597 BC came not from the Babylonians, rather from the Edomites, who again took advantage of the fact that Judah had to concentrate its forces in the north. One of the ostraca (# 24) addressed to Elyashib reads thus: "From Arad 5 [or 50] and from Kin...[lacuna], and you shall send them to Ramat-Negev under the command of Malkiyahu-son-of-Kerab'ur and he shall place them under the command of Elisha-son-of-Jeremiah in Ramat-Negev, so that nothing happens to the city. The word of the king is binding upon you for your life! Behold, I have sent to warn you today: [Send] the men to Elisha so that  Edom does not reach it."

Ramat Negev (left, identified with Tell Ira) was a larger fortress than Arad at this time, indeed the largest in the eastern Negev. Southwest of Arad, it stood on the southernmost extension of the Judaean highlands. It would have been the principal target of the Edomites in their quest for new territory. (The Edomites, for their part, were under pressure from a newly emerging people: the Nabataean Arabs.)

Tell Malhata, also pictured above, is rich in wells. It too was a Judean city at the time of the Babylonian-Edomite invasion. A third of the pottery found there was Edomite. Earlier, in the Middle Bronze Age (2000 - 1550 BC), Tell Malhata was the south-easternmost city in the land, one of a line of urban centers along what we today call the Beersheba River, which begins NW of Tell Arad and reaches the Mediterranean (under the name Besor) near Gaza.

The Edomites succeeded in occupying the Negev and the southern part of Judah, including Maresha and Hebron. The Judeans remembered their aggression and cursed them, along with Babylon, in Psalm 137:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down.
Yes, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hung our harps on the willows there.
For there those who led us captive asked us for songs.
Those who tormented us demanded songs of joy:
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing Yahweh’s song in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its cunning.
May my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you;
if I do not prefer Jerusalem above my highest joy.

Remember, Yahweh, the children of Edom,
on the day of Jerusalem;
who said, “Burn it down!
Burn it even to its foundation!”
Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
he will be happy who rewards you,
as you have served us.
Happy shall he be,
who takes your little ones and dashes them on the rock.


Throughout the Negev, don't leave valuables in the bus or car!
Arad is a national park.

Nature Reserves and National Parks (Main office: 02/500-5444)

Opening hours:

April 1 through September 30, from 8.00 - 17.00. (Entrance until 16.00)*
October 1 through March 31, from 8.00 - 16.00. (Entrance until 15.00)*

*On Fridays and the eves of Jewish holidays, the sites close one hour earlier. For example, on a Friday in March one must enter by 14.00 and leave by 15.00.
One needs a hat, good walking shoes, and plenty of water.