site identified with Tell el-Qudeirat in northern Sinai (30°38′ N, 34°27′ E; map reference 0949 × 0064), a central camp for nomadic and seminomadic tribes in the Negev-Sinai deserts. Encompassing about three-quarters of an acre, the site, which overlooks the Wadi el-Qudeirat ravine, is situated just to the west of ῾Ein-Mishpat, the Sinai's most bountiful spring (the biblical “waters of Meribah” of, for example, Nm. 20:13).

In the biblical tradition, Qadesh-Barnea played an important role in the Israelite wilderness wanderings. It was the site from which Moses, at God's command, sent a group of twelve men, one from each tribe, to investigate the Promised Land (Nm. 13:26). Later it was where the king of Edom, meeting with another delegation, denied the Israelites permission to pass through his realm on their way to Canaan (Nm. 20:14). Kadesh is also where Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron (Nm. 20:1) died and was buried. However, the lack of any material at Qadesh-Barnea earlier than the tenth century BCE, especially datable pottery, calls the biblical traditions into question. The Exodus stories, in their present form, may have originated instead in the period of the monarchy, when pilgrimages to the site may have begun. The traditions would then be best understood as etiologies.

In 1914 C. L. Woolley and T. E. Lawrence found the first remains at Qadesh-Barnea, fortress with eight towers (see below). [See the biographies of Woolley and Lawrence.] In 1956 a team led by Moshe Dothan for the Israel Department of Antiquities partially excavated the fortress, further exposing its ground plan and dating it. Rudolph Cohen excavated for ten seasons between 1976 and 1982, during which he completed the exposure of the upper fortress and uncovered two additional fortresses, each built on the remains of the other following a succession of destructions and indicating occupation at the site from the tenth through the sixth centuries BCE, probably with periods of abandonment. Cohen also discovered, built on the remains of the last fortress, an unfortified settlement dating to the fifth–fourth centuries BCE.

Lower Fortress.

The earliest—and apparently the smallest (27 m in diameter)—of the three fortresses dates to the tenth century BCE. Its remains indicate that this lower fortress was made up of casement rooms arranged in an elongated circle around a central courtyard. Thick layers of ash above the floors in the rooms contained the wheel-made vessels typically found at tenth-century BCE sites in Israel as well as handmade Negebite ware.

An adjacent settlement, made up of several buildings and silos, was uncovered 5 m below the surface just west of the fortress. It too dates to the tenth century BCE. At the northwestern edge of the site, a room (about 4 × 6 m) lined with stone benches was found in one of the buildings.

Middle Fortress.

In the eighth century BCE following what appears to have been a long period of abandonment after the lower fortress was destroyed, a second fortress was erected over its remains. The design of this second, or middle, fortress differed from that of the first: it was rectangular (about 40 × 60 m) and had eight towers protruding from an outer wall (4 m wide, preserved to a height of 1.8 m). The fortress itself was surrounded by an earthen rampart supported by a revetment wall (2.5 m tall) and by a 4-meter-wide fosse that was 2.5 m deep on all but the south side, where the fortress was protected by the steep wall of the wadi.

Two silos, one rectangular (3.8 × 5.5 m) and the other round (2 m in diameter), were found inside the fortress. Just outside the north wall of the fortress, flanked by two of the eight towers, were four stone-built granaries, the largest measuring 1.8 m in diameter. West of the granaries, a clay oven (tabun) was found in a room (3 × 4 m) abutting the wall of the fortress.

Among the material remains were wheel-made vessels characteristic of the eighth and seventh centuries BCE and many examples of Negebite ware. Two ostraca were found, one the base of an oil lamp and the other the rim of a Negebite bowl; each carries a fragmentary Hebrew inscription that is probably part of a name.

The internal structures indicated three settlement phases, which demonstrates that the middle fortress was inhabited for a long period of time. The principal phase was distinguished by the division of buildings inside the fortress into northern and southern blocks separated by a street (3.5 m wide). The remains of five mud-brick structures (each about 10 m long) were uncovered in the northern block. These structures also were separated from each other by narrow streets (1.5 m wide). In the northwestern block, adjacent units (each 7 × 10 m) contained five elongated rooms (about 2.5 × 4 m) and mud-brick installations showed evidence of fire damage. South of the adjacent units a plastered channel and cistern were uncovered. The cistern (about 10 m in diameter), which was twenty-five steps deep, could hold about 180 cu m of water and was fed via the channel by a spring outside the fortress. [See Cisterns.]

Upper Fortress.

Not very long after the middle fortress was destroyed—possibly in the mid-seventh century BCE—another fortress was built on its remains. This third, or upper, fortress also was rectangular; it made use of features of the second fortress, but its outer wall was ringed by about twenty casement rooms. As a result, although the fosse was still useful, the earthern rampart had to be brought into alignment with the casements' outer wall.

The internal plan of the upper fortress differed importantly from that of the second in that its inside structures were not divided into distinct blocks. In the northwest corner of the upper fortress was a rectangular building (10 × 25 m) with three elongated rooms whose floors were covered with a thick layer of ash and to which access was through an open courtyard (10 × 15 m). At the western end of the stone-paved courtyard a round mud-brick structure (1.9 m in diameter) was preserved to a height of 1.2 m. As was the case with the two earlier fortresses, an abundance of pottery was found on the floors of structures inside the upper fortress, both sherds and complete specimens, including wheel-made vessels characteristic of the seventh and sixth centuries BCE and of Negebite ware. Because the level of the fortress had been raised, the number of steps to enter the cistern was increased.

Many ostraca were found throughout the upper fortress. East of the cistern and alongside the casement rooms on the south, a large ostracon was found in a building with many rooms. Of these inscribed sherds, one (22 × 23 cm) consists of six columns of numbers and measurements in a hieratic script. The numbers are arranged in columns of one to ten, ten to one hundred (in units of ten), one hundred to one thousand (in units of one hundred), and one thousand to ten thousand (in units of one thousand), and may have been used to practice arithmetic. Another ostracon (10 × 15 cm) has three columns of script, mostly numbers. The last column is the clearest: it contains a series of hieratic numerals that reaches 800; next to each number is inscribed grh, the Hebrew word for the smallest unit of weight then known (about half a gram). A third ostracon (45 × 45 cm), consisting of the Hebrew letters zḥṭ, probably is a fragment of an abecedary.

The upper fortress was most likely destroyed by fire in a violent attack. The destruction likely took place concurrently with the conquest of Judah and the destruction in Jerusalem of the First Temple In 586 BCE.

Postexilic Period: An Unfortified Settlement.

In the northern and southern parts of the upper fortress, two small rooms dating to the postexilic period (fifth–fourth centuries BCE)—the period following the return of the Exiles from Babylon—were found that had been used by an unfortified settlement. The casements of the Early Iron Age fortresses also provided temporary housing for the new settlers. Most of the finds from this period, including imported Greek ware, however, were recovered from pits. Among them was a yhd seal impression, found elsewhere as well in postexilic Judah, and an ostracon containing the Hebrew words 'skr ṭb (“offering” or “merchandise”).


QADESH-BARNEA. General overview of excavations. (Courtesy R. Cohen)

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  • Cohen, Rudolph. “Did I Excavate Kadesh-Barnea?” Biblical Archaeology Review 7.3 (1981): 21–33.
  • Cohen, Rudolph. “Excavations at Kadesh-Barnea, 1976–1978.” Biblical Archaeologist 44 (1981): 93–107.
  • Cohen, Rudolph. Kadesh-Barnea: A Fortress from the Time of the Judaean Kingdom. Israel Museum Catalogue, no. 233. Jerusalem, 1983.
  • Cohen, Rudolph. “Qadesh-Barnea.” Le Monde de la Bible 39 (1985): 9–27.
  • Dothan, Moshe. “The Fortress at Kadesh-Barnea.” Israel Exploration Journal 15 (1965): 134–151.
  • Hogarth, David G. “The Wilderness of Zin.” Palestine Exploration Fund 23 (1914–1915): 61–63.
  • Raumer, Karl Georg von. Palästina. 2d ed. Leipzig, 1838. See pages 480–486.
  • Robinson, Edward. Biblical Researches in Palestine and in the Adjacent Regions: A Journal of Travels in the Year 1838. 2d ed. Boston, 1860. See pages 175ff.
  • Schmidt, Nathaniel. “Kadesh Barnea.” Journal of Biblical Literature 29 (1910): 61–76.
  • Vaux, Roland de. “Nouvelles recherches dans la région de Cades I–IV.” Revue Biblique 47 (1938): 89–97.

Rudolph Cohen