In the Judean Lowlands, not far from Jerusalem, stands a low hill—or a tel, in Hebrew—which overlooks the fertile Sorek Valley. The hill was once home to Beit Shemesh, a small city with an extensive history in the biblical record.
The name Beit Shemesh—meaning “House of the Sun”—lends some clues as to its beginnings as a Canaanite city, where its inhabitants worshiped the sun goddess Shapash, sometimes called “Shemesh.”
The city would see a revival during the 10th century BC following its mysterious destruction, likely during King Solomon’s reign. Beit Shemesh would become the administrative center of the region and grow through significant investments in infrastructure.
The Bible references Beit Shemesh several times, as the northern border of the Tribe of Judah (Joshua 15:10–11), as well as a priestly city in the Judean territory (Joshua 21:16). Additionally, the city is mentioned in connection with the return of the Ark of the Covenant by the Philistines, after it was captured in the battle of Ebenezer (1 Samuel 6:12–13).
Beit Shemesh would feature prominently as a strategic center point for a battle between the kingdoms of Judah and Israel (2 Kings 14:11–13) around the 8th century BC. While it would eventually pass into Philistine hands, it would be restored to the Kingdom of Judah under the rule of Hezekiah, and subsequently destroyed by the Assyrian king Sennacherib in 701 BC.
The city’s elaborate fortifications and large subterranean reservoir would eventually be discovered by excavators beginning in the early part of the 20th century and throughout the 1930s. A spate of new excavations began in the 1990s, with a focus on revealing largely untouched northern and southern sections of the tel.
Visitors to Beit Shemesh can walk the tel and see the extensive excavations of walls, towers, and administrative buildings. There are scores of artifacts, but among the most unique are the bountiful jug handles with the inscription la-malekh—to the king. These jug handles are evidence of massive olive oil production around the 7th century BC. The higher portion of the tel has also revealed the ruins of a large Byzantine era monastery.
When you visit Beit Shemesh, be prepared to spend a few hours exploring and walking the numerous trails that traverse the site!
Be sure to make Beit Shemesh part of your itinerary when planning a trip to Israel!
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