Discovered at Khirbet el-Maqatir in 2013

Has Joshua’s Ai Been Discovered?

Last year Christianity Today named their top ten archaeological discoveries of 2013. On the top of the list was an object that looks like a small insignificant amulet carved from stone. As it turns out, the object was a scarab from the 18th Dynasty of Egypt – very likely from the reign of Thutmose III or Amenhotep II based on parallels. The significance for those who believe in the Biblical accounts of the Conquest of Canaan as outlined in the Old Testament book of Joshua is great! The scarab is a key piece of evidence excavated last year at an archaeological site situated approximately 9 miles north of Jerusalem. That site is called Khirbet el-Maqatir and the evidence points to it as the city of Ai which the Old Testament (in Joshua 8) states was destroyed by Joshua in around 1406 B.C..

Discovered at Khirbet el-Maqatir in 2013

Scarab – 18th Dynasty, Egypt discovered at Khirbet el-Maqatir in 2013

Just a few weeks ago I returned from Khirbet el-Maqatir (Joshua’s Ai) after participating in the summer 2014 excavation.[1] The site covers about 4 acres and is located near the West Bank city of Ramallah near the Palestinian village of Deir Dibwan. The story of how it began to be excavated goes back 20 years ago to 1994 when Dr. Bryant Wood, (of the Associates for Biblical Research, ABR) and his colleague, Gary Byers, scouted and surveyed the area for possible research. Full scale excavations of Khirbet el-Maqatir began a year later in 1995 under the direction of Dr. Wood and ABR. This year marks the 12th season of digging there. What has been discovered so far, and what is the Biblical significance of this site?

To learn the answer, we’ll briefly look at how Dr. Wood began to be interested in this particular area. The research of Dr. Bryant Wood in identifying this site as the Ai of Joshua 7-8 follows and builds on the pioneering work of his predecessor and the founder of Associates for Biblical Research, Dr. David Livingston. For many years Livingston carried out research and excavations at a site located very near Khirbet Maqatir called Khirbet Nisya. Livingston believed that Khirbet Nisya was the best candidate for the Ai of Joshua 7-8, and William F. Albright believed that et-Tell was Ai. Since that time the academic community has followed Albright’s identification of Ai with et-Tell.

Without going into all of the details, the bottom line is that after years of research at et-Tell and Khirbet Nisya, some serious challenges have arisen which argue against these sites as being identified with Joshua’s Ai.[2] The most serious challenge was that et-Tell was not occupied during the Late Bronze I (circa 1483-1400 B.C.) the time of the Israelite conquest.[3] If there was a military engagement as recorded in Joshua 7-8 then the city must have been occupied. It wouldn’t be much of a conquest on a city that was in ruins.

Undeterred, Dr. Wood continued the research and carefully studied the biblical references and geography of the area. He surmised that Joshua’s Ai must fit around 10 archaeological and geographical criteria. As it turned out, Khirbet el-Maqatir met all 10 requirements in stunning detail. Here are the criteria outlined by Wood from looking at the details in the Bible:

  1. Adjacent to Beth-aven (Josh 7:2)
  2. East of Bethel (Josh 7:2)
  3. An ambush site between Bethel and Ai (Josh 8:9,12)
  4. A militarily significant hill north of Ai (Josh 8:11)
  5. A shallow valley north of Ai (Josh 8:13-14)
  6. Smaller than Gibeon (Josh 10:2)
  7. In the vicinity of Bethel (Josh 12:9)
  8. Occupied at the time of the conquest
  9. Fortified at the time of the conquest (Josh 7:5; 8:29)
  10. Gate on the north side of the city (Josh 8:11)[4]

In addition to the above evidence, in 2009, an infant jar burial was discovered at Khirbet el-Maqatir confirming the presence of women at the site (Joshua 8:25).

Since the site has been excavated on and off for the past 18 years, the archaeological evidence has shown that Khirbet el-Maqatir was indeed a Late Bronze Age Canaanite border fortress which was destroyed by military action at around 1406 B.C. – an exact match for Joshua’s Ai. The rough outline of the walls of the fortress have been surveyed and small sections have been excavated. Hundreds of pieces of datable [diagnostic] pottery have been recovered from the time of Joshua. The western room of the city gate was also uncovered, and last year the now famous Egyptian scarab with an inscribed Sphinx with the head of a falcon, was excavated which provided additional confirmation (apart from the pottery) of the dating of the destruction of the site to around 1406 B.C., the date assigned to Joshua’s conquest.

Not only is the site of Khirbet el-Maqatir identified with the Ai of Joshua 7-8, it also has a very rich history which dates back to the Middle Bronze Age based on pottery and a second scarab discovered this year… Khirbet el-Maqatir may very likely be “the hill between Bethel and Ai” (a different Ai – ha’Ai or the “ruin”). This would also be the same place where Abraham built an altar and “…called on the name of the Lord (Gen. 12).” In Genesis 13 it is where Abraham and Lot part ways. Not to confuse anyone, but the Ai of Abraham and the Ai of Joshua were two different sites. As it turns out, Abraham’s Ai is possibly et-Tell. So this means that the “hill between Bethel and Ai” (Gen. 12-13) must be Maqatir which was Joshua’s Ai (or the Late Bronze age Canaanite fortress).

As early as the 1830’s it has been known to scholars that on the hill overlooking the ruins of Khirbet Maqatir is a 4th Century Byzantine Monastery and Church.[5] The church was built on the same dimensions as the Jewish temple in Jerusalem.[6] It is thought that the church and monastery were built on that spot to commemorate some significant Biblical event which happened there[7] (perhaps the site where Abraham built his altar, Joshua’s conquest of Ai or both?). The church and monastery have been partially excavated, but as of today, no direct evidence has identified the remains in the church with any biblical place names or events. Who knows what future excavations might reveal?

Khirbet el-Maqatir

Ruins of the 4th Century Byzantine Church & Monastery overlooking Khirbet el-Maqatir

If those discoveries were not interesting enough to do further archaeological research and investigation, the site is yielding even more amazing secrets. In the past few years Dr. Scott Stripling (the current Director of Khirbet el-Maqatir), has been excavating an early Roman Period (Hellenistic) village which would have been in existence in New Testament times. There is a great possibility that the NT village at Khirbet el-Maqatir very well may be the town of Ephraim mentioned in John 11:53-54 (NKJV) “…from that day on, they [the Pharisees] plotted to put Him to death. Therefore Jesus no longer walked openly among the Jews, but when from there into the country near the wilderness to a city called Ephraim, and there remained with His disciples.

In addition, the site may also have a connection with the Second Jewish Revolt in A.D. 70. Multiple mikvehs have been excavated there which we know were extensively used for ritual purity by Jews at that time. This past summer excavations continued on the NT era city where several hundred Roman coins were excavated, including many pieces of Hellenistic pottery and several pieces of Roman glass. A house or domestic space is also being excavated and hopefully future research and excavations will determine its exact usage.

Early Roman Pottery excavated from NT village at Khirbet el-Maqatir

Early Roman Pottery excavated from NT village at Khirbet el-Maqatir

In my next blog, I’ll give more details on my experience of digging in the ancient city of (Khirbet el-Maqatir) Ai along the Canaanite wall that dates back to the time of Joshua and what this means in terms of Christian apologetics and the reliability of the Bible as a source for history.

 

[1] The first part of the name of the site, khirbet – a word which is generally understood as meaning “ruin.” Technically speaking khirbeh (no T) is the word for ruin. Khirbet with the T is always followed by another noun, e.g. Khirbet Khuweilfeh. In Arabic and Hebrew a noun followed by another noun is called the construct form and implies the preposition “of” as falling in between the two, so Khirbet Khuweilfeh means the ruin of Khuweilfeh. With Hebrew (and probably with Arabic) construct forms only acquire an ending T if the word ends with a vowel sound, such as khirbeh where the “h” is not pronounced. Nouns that end with consonants aren’t given a final T when used in the construct form. For example, the plural of khirbeh is khirab (ruins A tell is another type of archaeological site found in Israel. The tell is an artificial mound of dirt & debris that has been accumulating for centuries. Imagine a layer cake and instead of cake there are several ancient cities stacked on top of each other. The khirbeh – (or ruin) on the other hand, doesn’t have the same archaeological profile as a tell. The features of the khirbeh can generally be seen on top of the ground – (for example, walls, gates, and other structures). A very famous khirbeh (or ruin) in Israel is Khirbet Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. The second part of the title – maqatir means “incense” and may have a connection with the Byzantine church & monastery on a hill overlooking the ancient site.

[2] For a much more detailed and scholarly treatment of this see, Bryant Wood’s, “The Search for Joshua’s Ai,” in Richard S. Hess, Gerald A. Klingbeil, and Paul J. Ray Jr., Editors, Critical Issues in Early Israelite History (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2008), 205-40.

[3] Ibid., 205.

[4] Ibid., 230.

[5] Edward Robinson, Biblical Researches in Palestine and in the Adjacent Regions: A Journal of Travels in the Year 1838 (Boston: Crocker and Brewster, 1856).

[6] Leen Ritmeyer, “Does the Byzantine Church at Khirbet el-Maqatir Reflect the Sacred Architecture of the Temple in Jerusalem?” Symposium at Houston Baptist University, February, 2013 -http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2014/04/30/The-Byzantine-Church-at-Khirbet-el-Maqatir-Does-Its-Structure-Resemble-the-Temple.aspx

[7] We find an analogy of this at the ancient Biblical site of Shiloh where a Byzantine church was excavated. In the mosaic floor were words referring to the place as the “village of Shiloh.” Shiloh, of course has great significance Biblically, being the first place that the Israelites came to settle; it served as the first capital for the nation and they divided the land there and built the first tabernacle there (Judges 21:19)

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  1. […] Israel’s conquest of Canaan in a compatible time-frame, for instance at the site of Ai. Hopefully the Lord will continue to bless this generation as more archaeological work is done and […]

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