On a dusty plain near the Mediterranean coast of Israel, a team of archaeologists are engaged in a race against time. Soon, a new road will transform this ancient landscape – burying its secrets for generations to come. But first, experts are searching the ground for relics from a bygone age, and what they find will change our understanding of civilization itself.
Thousands of years ago, this was a thriving region with ancient trading routes crisscrossing the fertile land. And as far back as the Early Chalcolithic period, a settlement existed in this spot on the Israeli Coastal Plain. But over the centuries, this village grew into something completely unexpected – and archaeologists have slowly been revealing its secrets.
According to records, the ancient city of En Esur was first discovered back in the 1950s. However, it would be many decades before archaeologists would realize just how significant the site really was. Now, they are uncovering a vast metropolis that some have called the New York City of its day – and it’s truly an incredible sight.
Today, the land where En Esur once stood is part of a wider region known as the Southern Levant. Encompassing modern-day Jordan, Palestine and Israel, it is a definition that sometimes stretches to include parts of Syria, Lebanon and the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. And for archaeologists, it is one of the most fascinating places on Earth.
Life in the Southern Levant is believed to have begun millions of years ago when humans left Africa and began to colonize Eurasia. Back then, the region was lush and green, and it would have provided excellent conditions in which these early people could thrive. In fact, one site in the Jordan Rift Valley has yielded some of the most ancient hominin bones ever discovered in this part of the world.
We’ll return to these ancient discoveries later, but first let’s explore a bit more about the region’s rich past. Today, the Southern Levant is known as a place of great historical and political significance. In 1917 the region of Palestine came under British control, and this ultimately led to the creation of Mandatory Palestine. And as a result, tensions between the Jewish people and Arabs living in the region soon reached fever pitch.
Ultimately, in 1948 the State of Israel was founded, creating a homeland for the Jewish people – and displacing over 700,000 Palestinians at the same time. Even today, the conflict over borders and settlements continues to wreak havoc across the region. Tensions have also been heightened by the rich history of the Southern Levant and its significance to the religions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
In fact, many of the events discussed in the Bible played out against the backdrop of the Southern Levant. So the area is of particular interest to archaeologists wishing to gain a better understanding of this holy text. And because of its link with early humans, it is also key to those studying how civilization evolved.
Today, studies and excavations in the region come under the umbrella of Levantine archaeology. Typically carried out by the Israel Antiquities Authority, or IAA, this work has uncovered sites dating as far back as prehistoric times. And over the years, it has revealed many exciting secrets about the ancient world.
The IAA, for its part, was founded as the Israel Department of Antiquities and Museums back in 1948. Since then, it has been overseeing the excavation and cataloguing of the region’s many historical treasures. And in 1990 the organization was renamed and soon greatly expanded – allowing the team to begin conducting more comprehensive archaeological surveys.
However, the work of the IAA has not been without controversy in this tumultuous part of the world. For example, in 1974 the organization removed a sixth century mosaic from the beleaguered Gaza City in the State of Palestine. And while experts claimed that they were merely preserving the artwork, others considered this an illegal move by an occupying force, as Israel was controlling the territory at the time.
Elsewhere, debate continues to rage surrounding the ownership of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls. First recovered from caves near Qumran in the Palestinian West Bank in the 1940s, these religious writings are among the most significant archaeological artifacts ever found. Israel purchased some of the manuscripts, and acquired the rest of them after the Six-Day War, which it fought with neighboring states, in 1967.
Today, Israel still claims ownership of the scrolls; it exhibits them around the world and is even conducting work to digitize the collection. However, some Palestinians have called for the return of the manuscripts and claim that their 1967 acquisition was little more than theft. Thankfully, not all of the IAA’s work has been this controversial.
In 2019 for example, some 15,000 amateur archaeologists traveled to the ancient settlement of Usha in northern Israel to take part in a dig. According to reports, the team was made up of young people, school children and volunteers. But despite their lack of experience, they soon began to turn up some fascinating finds.
In October of that year, some 8,500 volunteers spent the Jewish holiday of Sukkot helping to excavate the site. And one family from the nearby community of Tur’an really struck gold. There, buried beneath the ground, they discovered an iron hammer and nails thought to date back to the Byzantine era.
In fact, experts believe that the hammer and its accompanying nails could be around 1,400 years old. Furthermore, for the team at the IAA, the discovery offered some fascinating insights into the history of the region. A spokesperson explained the find in an October 2019 statement published by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They said, “About 20 iron hammers are registered in the Israel Antiquities records, only six of them [are] from the Byzantine period.”
Interestingly, valuable archaeological artifacts turn up so regularly in Israel that laws have been put in place to protect them. It is now illegal for any new construction projects to begin without an excavation first taking place. And with a number of infrastructure changes occurring across the country in recent years, this process has yielded some incredible results.
For instance, in July 2019 IAA archaeologists announced that they had discovered a Neolithic site near the Jerusalem neighborhood of Motza. Believed to be around 9,000 years old, it is the largest settlement ever found in the Levant. Moreover, it existed in an area that experts had believed to be uninhabited at that time. This, in turn, forced the experts to drastically rethink how civilization developed in the region.
Elsewhere, in 2018 archaeologists investigating the site of a new logistics center outside the city of Modi’in made another startling discovery. There, they found the remains of a town dating back to the early Islamic era – complete with elaborate decor, oil presses and more. But even though the site yielded a number of ancient artifacts, construction work went ahead as planned.
One year previously, at a site some 40 miles north, the IAA was involved in another effort to rescue archaeological treasures in the face of large-scale construction. On the Sharon Plain on Israel’s Mediterranean coast, plans had been made to construct a new road junction approximately halfway between the cities of Haifa and Tel Aviv.
As is required by law in Israel, archaeologists from the IAA began conducting excavations ahead of the planned construction. And two years later, in October 2019, they revealed the results of their work. Beneath the plain, they had discovered the remains of an ancient city – and its scale had blown them away.
According to reports, the presence of ruins on the site, known as En Esur, was first noted as early as the 18th century. However, it wasn’t until the 1950s that archaeologists began to visit the location. And over the following decades, a number of small excavations were conducted there.
Back then, archaeologists were unsure exactly about the significance of what they had found at En Esur. In an October 2019 interview with the Times of Israel, the co-director of the project Dr. Yitzhak Paz explained the significance. He said, “We knew it was something big, but not [this] size or magnitude.”
Over the course of the excavations, some 300 professionals under the supervision of 15 leaders helped to uncover the ancient site. And as the work progressed, it became clear that En Esur was once a vast city; incredibly, it is thought to have covered around 160 acres.
According to experts, the city dates back to the Early Bronze Age around 5,000 years ago. And excitingly, it is the oldest and largest settlement from that period to ever be excavated in the Southern Levant. Archaeologists believe, in fact, that En Esur was once home to up to 6,000 inhabitants at its peak.
During the Early Bronze Age, large settlements were far from unique around the world. Rulers in both Egypt and Mesopotamia were overseeing far larger cities while En Esur was thriving hundreds of miles away. However, experts are not aware of any major political power uniting the Southern Levant at the time.
Given the lack of unity in the region, then, the sheer size and scale of En Esur has wowed those involved in its excavation. According to experts, it was over ten times the size of Jericho, which is thought to be one of the oldest settlements in the world. But it wasn’t just big; apparently, its ruins showed all the hallmarks of an advanced civilization.
According to IAA archaeologists, En Esur’s population was distributed densely across the meticulously planned city. And as well as silos that were used to house food for the masses, the settlement also boasted streets lined with plaster and stones. Apparently, this would have reduced the risk of flooding during the frequent wet weather that plagued the Southern Levant.
Archaeologists also discovered that En Esur was equipped with a number of public buildings. For security, the people were protected by a thick wall, while burials likely took place in a dedicated spot outside the city. As we can see, this Early Bronze Age community boasted many of the features that we have come to associate with urban centers over the years.
“You really have the complete package of early urbanized settlements, with all the components: streets, burial caves, domestic structures, walls, public buildings,” Itai Elad, an IAA archaeologist, told Haaretz in October 2019. Moreover, archaeologists also discovered the ruins of a temple at the site – providing fascinating clues to the religion practiced in this early city.
At more than 80 feet long, the vast building was littered with artifacts that indicated it was once used for religious purposes. Evidence suggests, furthermore, that the structure was built from heavy stones shipped in from over a mile away. With this in mind, it seems as if the temple was something of great significant to the people of En Esur.
Archaeologists also discovered evidence that the people of En Esur engaged heavily in trade with other regions. They are not believed to have utilized the written word; however, it is clear from pottery relics that they had connections as far afield as Egypt and the Jordan Valley.
In fact, all of the evidence suggests that En Esur was once a structured and complex civilization – unlike anything else in the Southern Levant at that time. And as such, it could provide some vital clues to how civilization developed in the region. Some have even drawn a parallel between the city and one of the Earth’s greatest modern metropolises.
“This is the Early Bronze Age New York of our region,” a team of archaeologists announced in a joint statement in October 2019, “a cosmopolitan and planned city where thousands of inhabitants lived.” But the surprises didn’t stop there, because experts soon discovered that the site of En Esur actually dated back even further than 5,000 years.
As they excavated beneath the ruins of En Esur, experts uncovered the remains of an even earlier settlement. Apparently, it had developed back in the Early Chalcolithic period in the fifth millennium B.C. – around 7,000 years ago. And according to archaeologists, it was an extensive urban center in its own right.
Like the city that would come after it, this earlier settlement was equipped with a range of public buildings and had burial places located away from its center. As such, experts have theorized that it was also remarkably advanced; and like its later incarnation, it was also exceptionally large for the region at the time.
It is believed that this early site covered almost 100 acres – more than twice the size of the Early Chalcolithic site Ein Zippori in Galilee. And before the IAA’s latest excavations, that settlement was considered to be the largest of its kind. But now, experts have been forced to reconsider how civilization developed in the Southern Levant.
“The rise of urbanization is an issue that must constantly be re-discussed,” Dr. Yitzhak Paz told Haaretz. “We used to think that urbanization starts somewhere in the late fourth millennium but maybe it started earlier.” Despite its historical significance, however, archaeologists may be running out of time to unravel the mysteries of En Esur.
In October 2019 journalists reported that the excavation site was due to be handed back to the construction companies in a matter of weeks. And once that happens, all of the archaeologists’ hard work will be covered over and potentially destroyed. Nevertheless, there is still hope for the future study of En Esur.
According to experts, the recent excavations may have covered as little as ten percent of the great city. And as such, further work in the surrounding area is likely to yield even more results. So archaeologists will have to content themselves with closer study of the existing artifacts while the story of En Esur remains on hold.