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The Ceremonial Precinct in the Upper City of Hazor: What Does the Identification As a Temple or Palace Have to Do With Joshua’s Conquest?

 ANE Today Editorial Introduction:*

 Hazor, “the head of all those kingdoms,” has a unique place in Biblical Archaeology. It is the largest tell in the Southern Levant, and a city-state whose importance resonated throughout the Middle and Late Bronze Ages.

Hazor is also specifically named in the Book of Joshua as one of the enemies of the Israelites. Since the pioneering excavations at Hazor during the 1950s and 1960s, the question of ‘who destroyed Hazor’ has tantalized scholars and lay people. The renewed excavations directed by Ben-Tor have added greatly to our understanding of the site and have brought to light an enormous Late Bronze Age “Ceremonial Palace” in the Upper City.

But is it really a palace and does the identification matter for our understanding of the Joshua narrative? Ben-Tor’s student and co-director, Dr. Sharon Zuckerman, disagrees. She believes the Late Bronze Age building is actually a temple, built in an area used over many centuries for religious activities. Either way, the building was destroyed in an immense conflagration at the end of the Late Bronze Age and the area was never reused for temples or palaces.

How can we tell the difference between a temple and a palace, and does it matter for the history of the site or its Biblical significance? We (the ANE Today Editorial Team) invite our readers to judge for themselves. The Ancient Near East Today is eager to hear your ideas, posted as comments on the ASOR Blog or as submissions (please send to

By: Amnon Ben-Tor, Hebrew University of Jerusalem,
Edited and abridged from NEA 76.2 (2013): 81-91

The Middle Bronze Age

At the beginning of Middle Bronze Age IIB (ca. 1700 BCE), the site of Hazor witnessed a radical transformation. Previously, in the Early and Intermediate Bronze Ages, only the Upper City was inhabited. But in Middle Bronze Age IIB the lower “enclosure” of about 200 acres lying to the north of the Upper City was settled. Until the end of the Bronze Age, Hazor was composed of an Upper and a Lower City, with a total population of some 15,000. Hazor also became an important political and economic power in the Levant and beyond, known as far away as Mari on the Syrian Euphrates.

Yigael Yadin’s excavations uncovered Middle Bronze Age remains mainly in the Lower City, including fortification systems, gates, and temples. In the Upper City, however, the expedition reached this crucial period in only a few isolated spots. Our excavations concentrate exclusively on the Upper City and reveal a picture of impressive public buildings that apparently served as Hazor’s administrative and cultic center.


Aerial view of public buildings in the center of the Upper City at Hazor showing Middle Bronze Age remains including (1) the early palace (the roofed building covers the Late Bronze Age Ceremonial Palace (or temple), (2) the Southern Temple, (3) the maṣṣebot complex, and (4) subterranean storehouses. The Iron Age “Solomonic Gate” is on the lower right of the photo.

These include:

The Middle Bronze Age palace consisted of several units with massive walls. Only a portion of the building was exposed; most of it is still buried beneath a courtyard extending east of the Late Bronze Age Ceremonial Palace.

The Southern Temple is located near another discovered during Yadin’s excavations and is bonded to a corner of the Middle Bronze palace. This proves that the temple and palace were constructed as a single complex.


The Southern Temple (upper right) and corner of the early palace (to its left).

The Standing Stones Precinct contains approximately thirty maṣṣebot (“standing stones”), several offering tables, and a round stone basin. These indicates that in addition to the cultic activities held in the roofed Southern Temple, rituals were also carried out nearby under the open sky.


The Middle Bronze Age maṣṣebot complex near the Southern Temple. During the Late Bronze Age the area was covered and became an open courtyard.

The Storehouse Complex was only partly exposed. The high mudbrick walls and the absence of doorways indicate it was a subterranean structure that contained agricultural products.

The excavated area accounts for only part of the Upper City and the four Middle Bronze Age architectural complexes do not represent the complete picture of the Upper City during this period.

From the Middle Bronze Age to the Late Bronze Age

The renewed excavations established that the transition from the Middle Bronze Age to the Late Bronze Age was gradual and not violent. Nothing has confirmed the theory that Hazor was destroyed during the campaign to Canaan by the Egyptian king Thutmose III in the middle of the fifteenth century B.C.E.

The Late Bronze Age

The renewed excavations proved that Hazor was not destroyed during the transition from the Middle Bronze Age to the Late Bronze Age. Our excavations revealed that during the fifteenth century B.C.E., the center of the Upper City underwent fundamental, even revolutionary changes, perhaps initiated by royal decree and executed by a king or new dynasty.

Since the transition from the Middle Bronze Age to the Late Bronze Age at Hazor was gradual, we must consider what happened to the impressive buildings of the Middle Bronze Age. Did they continue to exist in their original states, or were they completely demolished and replaced? Our excavations indicate that two of the four Middle Bronze Age complexes in the center of the Upper City, the Standing Stones Precinct and the Storehouse Complex, went out of use. But two other two complexes, the palace and the temple, continued into the Late Bronze Age.

The changes were careful and deliberate. The Standing Stones Precinct was intentionally covered with earth and ceased to function. Above it were built a spacious paved courtyard and a section of the entranceway leading to the new Ceremonial Precinct. The builders were careful not to damage the standing stones (maṣṣebot) when they laid the fill.

The subterranean storehouses were also discontinued. This area suffered severe damage caused by construction during the Iron Age. The earlier Southern Temple was sealed with fill that reached the tops of the stone foundations. Following the line of the early temple’s walls, a new temple, similar in plan, was erected.

Just as the interior of the Southern Temple of the Middle Bronze Age was sealed with a fill, so too, was the interior of the early palace. The brick walls were dismantled to serve as fill for the rooms up to a height of almost 2 m which supported the Ceremonial Precinct’s largest architectural unit, the courtyard, situated east of the new Ceremonial Palace.


Reconstruction of the Late Bronze Age Ceremonial Palace showing the courtyard, porch and central room.

The Ceremonial Palace

The new palace consisted of three parts: a courtyard, porch, and nucleus. Each was used for approximately two hundred years with only minor changes. The plan retained its original character throughout the period of its existence; only in its later years did the building show signs of disintegration and neglect.


Entrance to the Ceremonial Palace. Note the three steps and the basalt orthostats and columns at the top of the steps.

On the western part of the courtyard was an elevated platform (a bamah), and large amounts of bone, ash, and pottery fragments around it indicate cultic ceremonies. From this area, three steps led up to the porch. A broad entrance led from the porch to the main hall. Doorways led to two pairs of rooms on the north and south sides of the hall and a back room on the west side with a bathtub- like installation. Built of bricks on a stone foundation, the walls were preserved to a height of about 2 m at several points and were 3.5 m to 4 m thick. Cedar beams were incorporated into the brick walls. Basalt orthostats lined the lower parts of the main hall’s inner walls, as well as the outer walls of the entire building.


Destruction layer in the Ceremonial Palace

Hazor was destroyed, together with the palace, sometime in the middle of the thirteenth century B.C.E. An accumulation of ash, collapsed brick, and charred wooden beams reached the tops of the building’s walls and attests to the city’s destruction in a fierce conflagration. But how should this building be interpreted? Is it a palace or a temple?

The Building Is a Palace (the conclusion of Prof. Ben-Tor)

Buildings elsewhere with plans similar to the Hazor structure are generally defined as palaces, for example, the Stratum IV palace at Alalakh from the same period. The plans of the two buildings share near identical features: (1) a terrace wall built of orthostats supporting the porch; (2) steps leading up from the courtyard to the porch; (3) a terrace wall turning at a sharp angle into the entrance and supporting a staircase with two column bases; (4) two rooms flanking either side of the porch, one of them housing a stairway; and (5) the nucleus of the palace, the largest space in the building, surrounded by subsidiary rooms. Other similar features include the building techniques. In both, the walls consist of a stone foundation topped with a mudbrick superstructure strengthened with wooden beams. The walls, some of which are stepped, are lined on the lower part with orthostats.

The furnishings of the rooms at Hazor also have close affinities to the Alalakh palace, for example, a plastered, bathtub-like container (apparently for storing water for libations), located in a small room behind the throne room, was found in both structures. A one-piece basalt statue holding a large basin, discovered near the entrance to the Hazor building’s main hall, indicates cultic practices connected with libations. Evidence of rituals connected with libations is also encountered in other palaces, for example, at Qatna, Ebla, and Mari.


Pithoi from the Ceremonial Palace.

Large storage vessels like the pithoi discovered in the room adjoining the porch and in one corner of the throne room at Hazor are also characteristic of palatial structures. Similar pithoi were uncovered in palaces at Alalakh, Mari, and other sites. These pithoi should not be considered part of royal storehouses but as receptacles for storing food (such as flour, grain, oil, water, and wine) for use in religious ceremonies, cultic rituals, and festive banquets. This interpretation is also based on the large number of eating and drinking vessels uncovered in the building and its courtyards. Festivities were of great importance for dignitaries and were opportunities to display their power, wealth, and influence to further their interests within the community.


Assemblage of bowls from the Ceremonial Palace.

The separation of religion and state is a modern concept and cannot be applied to the ancient Near East nor, of course, to Hazor. The king, considered the representative of the gods on earth, performed both religious and civic roles. Scholars agree that the ancients “viewed the god as residing in the sanctuary just as the king lived in his palace.”

In this light, the building in the center of Hazor’s Upper City served as a ceremonial palace. The administrative palace, containing the living quarters and workshops—and, if we are lucky, the offices of Hazor’s scribes and its archives— still awaits excavation. The monumental building in Area M on the northern slope of the tell, not yet completely exposed, is a worthy candidate for such a palace.

The Building Is a Temple (the conclusion of Dr. Sharon Zuckerman)

Location: The building was erected in the center of the Upper City on an elevated spot overlooking the entire city and visible from a distance. Like other cities of the Late Bronze Age (e.g., Ugarit in Syria and Megiddo), the highest point of the city was planned as the cultic precinct, dedicated as the dwelling place of the city’s gods, whereas the royal palace was built on a location that allowed it control of the approach to the acropolis.

Arrangement of Space: The eastern courtyard, in the center of which stood the stepped bamah opposite the entrance, resembles courtyards of typical Canaanite temples, such as the Orthostats Temple of Area H at Hazor, Temple P2 at Ebla, Temples III–I at Alalakh, and the Temple of Baal at Ugarit.

Plan of the Building: The building is a massive, well-defined structure with a small number of rooms arranged symmetrically around a main hall. The hall was approached through the eastern courtyard on a straight symmetrical axis, past the bamah opposite the entrance and two columns flanking the entrance. Its back room, opposite the entrance, was built as a niche in the building’s rear wall; in its center was a square basalt base sunk into the ground (perhaps the base of a statue or throne?). The plastered “bathtub” found in this room probably held liquids for cultic purification or libations. The building’s plan, arranged on a distinct symmetrical axis, is characteristic of temples of the period, many of which have been designated “monumental symmetrical temples.” Such an arrangement is unusual in palaces, which generally contain many rooms arranged around a number of courtyards.

The Finds: A rich and varied assemblage of finds was found sealed beneath the vast destruction layer encountered in all the rooms and in the eastern courtyard. Scattered throughout were hundreds of complete pottery vessels that throw light on the building’s various activities. The pottery mainly consists of bowls for serving food at cultic ceremonies and miniature vessels (votives) for offerings to the gods, as was common in many temples in the ancient Near East. The large number of animal bones scattered throughout the courtyard also indicate that public cultic ceremonies involving animal sacrifice were held there.


Figure of bronze deity, possibly Baal, from the Ceremonial Palace.

Other finds that help illuminate the building’s function are metal figurines of gods and Canaanite rulers. These figurines, particularly the remarkable large statue recently identified as the Canaanite storm-god Baal (or Hadad), indicate the building had a cultic purpose <INSERT FIGURE 9>. Other finds include jewelry boxes made of bone that contain beads, cylinder seals, and other items of personal ornament.


Whether the building in the center of Hazor’s Upper City was a ceremonial palace or a temple, it attests to the power and wealth of the Canaanite kingdom of Hazor in the Late Bronze Age. The violent destruction of the building and its surrounding area also serves as a testimony to, and a symbol of, the kingdom’s collapse during the “years of crisis” in the thirteenth century B.C.E. and the end of Hazor’s era of prosperity and glory. Never again did Hazor attain the dimensions and might of the imposing Canaanite city that was found worthy of the biblical claim that “Hazor formerly was the head of all those kingdoms.”


* The Editorial Introduction in italics is written by the ANE Today Editorial Team and not by Professor Ben-Tor.

Photo Gallery:  Here’s a gallery of all the images that appear in Near Eastern Archaeology 76.2 (2013) for Hazor in the Middle and Late Bronze Ages. Smaller versions of some of the images also appear in the text above to illustrate the abridged version of the article found on the ASOR Blog / ANE Today.

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The Ceremonial Precinct in the Upper City of Hazor: What Does the Identification As a Temple or Palace Have to Do With Joshua’s Conquest? Reviewed by admin on .  ANE Today Editorial Introduction:*  Hazor, "the head of all those kingdoms," has a unique place in Biblical Archaeology. It is the largest tell in the Southern  ANE Today Editorial Introduction:*  Hazor, "the head of all those kingdoms," has a unique place in Biblical Archaeology. It is the largest tell in the Southern Rating:
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