site located in the northeast Sinai Desert (30°11′ N, 34°25′ E; map reference 0940 × 9560), approximately 50 km (30 mi.) south of Qadesh-Barnea and a few kilometers west of Darb Ghazza, an ancient route and modern track leading to Eilat and southern Sinai. The mound rises prominently from the broad valley of Wadi Qurayyah, which forms a natural east–west route. The top of this isolated hill is a narrow plateau, with ruins at its western end. Shallow wells at the foot of the hill still make the site an important one.
Kuntillet ῾Ajrud has been explored by Edward H. Palmer (1869), Alois Musil (1902), Beno Rothenberg (1967), and Ze'ev Meshel (1970); Meshel directed three seasons of excavation between October 1975 and April 1976 under the auspices of Tel Aviv University, the Israel Department of Antiquities, and the Exploring the Land Division of the Kibbutz Movement. There are two structures on the site: a main building at the western end of the plateau, and a secondary one 10 m to its east. The state of preservation of the second one is very poor, as were its finds.
The main building, a rectangle with four corner rooms, covers an area of approximately 15 × 25 m. The entrance was through a small exterior court area ringed with stone benches and then through a small gate room leading to a narrow chamber divided into two wings. In each wing plastered stone benches surrounded the walls. Except for a narrow passage between the wings, the benches fill the spaces. The bench room extends north-south across the entire width of the building and apparently was the most important part of the site. Certainly its function was associated with the benches.
Plaster fragments that had detached from the walls were found in the bench room. Some of the fragments are inscribed with black ink: two Hebrew inscriptions in Phoenician script (see below) and a partial third inscription. The third inscription was found in situ, about 1.5 m above floor level, on the northern doorpost of the entrance leading to the main courtyard. The bench room, the corner rooms abutting its two wings, and the adjoining parts of the main building produced most of the other significant finds. Two pithoi adorned with inscriptions and pictures and stone bowls of various sizes, four of which had the names of donors incised on their rims. Bases of pithoi and large storage jars were found, still in situ, in the two long rooms located to the south and west of the main courtyard. These areas served as storerooms for food supplies.
The Hebrew inscriptions and the cosmopolitan style and motifs of the drawings found at the site attest to its unique significance. Some of the inscriptions are written in ancient Hebrew script and some in Phoenician script, on plaster, stone, and pottery.
- 1. Plaster fragments. Three partial inscriptions, written in ink in Phoenician script but in the Hebrew language, were found on plaster fragments in the bench room; portions of two others, written in ancient Hebrew script, were found in the debris at the entrance to the western storeroom. One of the Phoenician inscriptions reads: “your days may be prolonged, and you shall be satisfied…give YHWH of Teman and his Asherah…YHWH of Teman and his Asherah favored.…”
- Another inscription is a piece of an ancient theophany describing the revelation of God in language echoing the Hebrew Bible: “and when El rose up…and hills melted…and peaks were pounded…bless Baal in (the) day of war…the name of El in (the) day of war.…” It is noteworthy that Baal and God (Heb., 'el) are mentioned here in poetic parallelism, in connection with a possible reference to a “day of war” (yôm milhāmā).
- 2. Stone bowls. Among the four inscriptions incised on the rims of stone bowls, the most complete one reads: “(donated) by Ovadyo son of ῾Adnah; may he be blessed by YHW(H).” These stone bowls were apparently dedicated to the god of Israel by donors who sought his blessing.
- 3. Pottery. One or two letters are incised on the shoulders of most of the pithoi. The letter 'aleph is found most frequently, while the letter yod is found least often; the combination qoph-resh appears in two instances. It is assumed that these letters are abbreviations indicating types of offerings and tithes, a practice described a millennium later in the Mishnah and Tosefta. These letters were incised on the pithoi prior to firing. Neutron activation analysis of their clay established that they were made in the vicinity of Jerusalem, perhaps reinforcing the suggestion that priests lived at the site and received supplies in the forms of sacrifices and tithes. Among the seven inscriptions incised on the shoulders of storejars after firing are four reading lśr ῾r, to be read leśar ῾ir, “(belonging) to a city official.” The jars may either have held commodities consigned to an official at the site or registered by him.
Among the inscriptions written in red ink on two large pithoi that are also decorated with pictures are four repetitions of the alphabet, a list of personal names, and two blessings that resemble the priestly benediction. One of these was written above two figures of the Egyptian god Bes and may be reconstructed as follows: “A[shy]o m[lk] (the king) said: tell [x, y, and z], may you be blessed by YHWH of Shomron (Samaria) and his Asherah.” If this reconstruction is sound, it is possible that '(sy)w (hm)lk (“Ashyo the king”) is a transposition of the name yw'š, “Joash,” referring to the king (hmlk) of Israel who reigned from Samaria (c. 801–786 BCE); this may provide an important synchronism for dating the site. The second inscription is reconstructed as “Amaryo said: tell my lord, may you be well and be blessed by YHWH of Teman and his Asherah. May he bless and keep you and be with you.” The two inscriptions not only shed light on the religious character of the site, but also provide revealing glimpses into the history of Israelite religion.
Various divine, human, and animal figures are drawn on the two storejars. On one of them, alongside two representations of Bes, a seated figure, perhaps Asherah, plays a lyre. The familiar motif of the tree of life, flanked by two ibex, also appears on this vessel, along with drawings of a lion, a procession of animals, and a cow licking the tail of a suckling calf. On the other vessel five figures are depicted raising their hands in a gesture of supplication, and an archer raises his bow. Most of these motifs, are well-represented elsewhere in Syria/Phoenicia.
The subject matter of the inscriptions, the references to various deities, and the presence of dedicated vessels all suggest that Kuntillet ῾Ajrud was not a temple but a kind of religious center. Given its location (it may have been associated with journeys of the Israelites to Eilat and to Ezion-Geber and perhaps with those of pilgrims to southern Sinai), the absence of ritual appurtenances usually associated with cult or sacrifices (e.g., altars), as well as its architectural plan, it may have been a wayside shrine. A journey south along the Darb Ghazza from Qadesh-Barnea might have included stopping at this well-side station to make dedications to Israel's god in the bench room of the main building.
Kuntillet ῾Ajrud was only occupied for a few years. The interpretation of the evidence points to an occupation by a small group of priests from Israel, with an officer (śr ῾r) at their head. The reference to “Yahweh of Samaria” on one of the large decorated pithoi, the Phoenician-style writing, the decorative and pictorial artwork, the pottery types, and the onomastic conventions (names ending in -yau, and not -yahu), suggest that the site was in sustained contact with the northern kingdom of Israel. In return for provisions, primarily from Judah, priests would have rendered various blessings and other services to travelers.
The date of the site, determined by typological and paleographic analysis, and by the need to identify a historical period in which Israelite influence over Judah was especially strong, points in the excavator's opinion, not to the time of the reigns of Jehoram, Ahaziah, and Athaliah (850–837 BCE), but to the period of Joash, king of Israel (c. 801–786 BCE), who captured King Amaziah of Judah, broke down the wall of Jerusalem, and seized the treasures of the Jerusalem Temple and palace (2 Kgs. 14:1–16; 2 Chr. 25:1–24). It is possible that Joash intended to gain direct access to the Red Sea, and that this was the reason for the war between the two kings. The victory of Joash may be reflected in the construction of the buildings at Kuntillet ῾Ajrud.
- Chase, Debra A. “A Note on an Inscription from Kuntillet ῾Ajrūd.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 246 (1982): 63–67.
- Dever, William G. “Asherah, Consort of Yahweh? New Evidence from Kuntillet ῾Ajrud.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 255 (1984): 21–37.
- Emerton, J. A. “New Light on Israelite Religion: The Implications of the Inscription from Kuntillet ῾Ajrud.” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 94 (1982): 2–20.
- Lemaire, André. Les écoles et la formation de la Bible dans l'ancien Israël. Fribourg, 1981. See pages 26–28.
- Lemaire, André. “Date et origine des inscriptions hébraïques et phéniciennes de Kuntillet ῾Ajrud.” Studi Epigrafici e Linguistici 1 (1984): 131–143.
- McCarter, P. Kyle, Jr. “Aspects of the Religion of the Israelite Monarchy: Biblical and Epigraphic Data.” In Ancient Israelite Religion: Essays in Honor of Frank Moore Cross, edited by Patrick D. Miller, Jr., et al. Philadelphia, 1987.
- Meshel, Ze'ev. Kuntillet ῾Ajrud: A Religious Centre from the Time of the Judaean Monarchy on the Border of Sinai. Jerusalem, 1978.
- Meshel, Ze'ev. “Did Yahweh Have a Consort? The New Religious Inscriptions from Sinai.” Biblical Archaeology Review 5.2 (1979): 24–34.
- Tigay, Jeffrey H. You Shall Have No Other Gods: Israelite Religion in the Light of Hebrew Inscriptions. Atlanta, 1986. See pages 26–29.
- Tigay, Jeffrey H. “A Second Temple Parallel to the Blessings from Kuntillet ῾Ajrud.” Israel Exploration Journal 40 (1990): 218.
- Weinfeld, Moshe. “Kuntillet Ajrud Inscriptions and Their Significance.” Studi Epigrafici e Linguistici 1 (1984): 121–130.