The central hill country of the land of Israel is the geographic backdrop for most of the central events of the Hebrew Bible. Among the key sites in both the Hebrew Bible and Christian scripture located in this region are the cities of Jerusalem, Bethel, Bethlehem, Hebron, Shechem (Nablus), and Samaria. The geographical features of this region have shaped its settlement patterns and its economic and political development across time.

Topography and Definition of the Region and Subregions.

The central hill country covers the central part of Cisjordan, extending westward from the Jordan Valley for a distance of 20 to 25 miles (32–40 km). In the south, the central hill country begins at the northern reaches of the Negev, in the area of Yatta, and extends approximately 80 miles (128 km) northward to the Jezreel Valley.

Both topographical and historical considerations necessitate a division into two subregions: the Samaria hills in the north and the Judean hills in the south. Based on topographical considerations, the line of demarcation between these ought to be drawn along Nahal Shilo (known as Wadi Amuria, Wadi Qarawat Bani Zaid, and Wadi Burukin along its westward trajectory). But since this demarcation includes in the “Judean Hills” significant portions of the biblical-era Kingdom of Israel (also known as the Kingdom of Samaria), a demarcation based on Nahal Ayyalon (Wadi Salman) fits better with the historical reality.

Judean hills.

The Judean hills consist of a central column of limestone made up of the Hebron hills in the south, the Jerusalem hills in the center, and the Benjamin hills in the area between Nahal Ayyalon and Nahal Shilo. This column is bounded on the east by the Judean desert and on the west by a long north–south trough valley, where Senonian-age chalk is exposed between the older Cenomanian limestone of the Judean hills and the younger Eocene limestone of the Shephelah. Because of this central column, there is a single unified watershed for most of the length of the Judean hills. Thus, the runoff streams which form at the height of the land run westward into the Shephelah, and as they run they unite into a smaller number of streams and form wider valleys filled with valuable topsoil. The topsoil is critical to agriculture. In order to preserve this topsoil and prevent soil erosion on the hillsides, terraces were developed on the western flanks of the Judean hills.

On the steeper eastern flanks of the Judean hills, the short streams which run from the watershed to the Dead Sea do not unite into larger streams, and they create deep canyons that run through the chalk rock into the Dead Sea. These canyons have caves high on their sides.

Samarian hills.

Topographically, the Samarian hills differ from the Judean hills since they consist of a central massif with numerous folds as well as well as a northwesterly extension consisting of the Irron hills and Mount Carmel and a northeastern extension including Mount Gilboa. (Although geologically part of the Samarian hills, Mount Gilboa and Mount Carmel are usually included in the Galilee.)

The major folds in the Samarian hills run north by northeast and south by southwest. The upfold of the central Judean hills continues northward as the eastern Samarian upfold, a ridge bordering the Jordan River, broken by many deep transverse valleys running northwest and southeast. Peaks, among them Sartaba, reach 2,600 ft (800 m). The peaks and steep valleys make road travel in the area very challenging.

In the center of Samaria is the geological formation known as the Nablus downfold, a continuation of the Shephelah of Judah. Although this region is called a downfold, the faulting activity caused by the pressure of the Mediterranean Sea against the Jordan Rift Valley has caused it to rise significantly; and it contains very high individual peaks, including Mount Ebal (3,080 ft [940 m]). But unlike the Judean hills, with their single watershed running north–south, the Nablus downfold region contains intermontane valleys that run both north–south and east–west. Among these is the valley of Wadi Nablus, with Mount Ebal on its north and Mount Gerizim on its south, mountains characterized by steep differences in elevation from the valley. These steep elevations give way to more gentle slopes in the western extension of this ridge, on which the city of Samaria itself is located. The larger valleys contain significant quantities of fertile terra-rossa soil.

In the western reaches of Samaria, an upfold stretches through the area around Umm-el-Fahm, known as the Irron hills. It contains fertile alluvial soil and is drained by the very broad valleys of Nahal Alexander and Nahal Hadera. South of this upfold a distinct area of limestone is drained by a group of deep and meandering wadis, all of which drain into Nahal Yarkon, and has less agricultural potential.


Rainfall in the region varies among the different subregions. While the central Judean hills receive between 16 and 32 inches (400–800 mm) annually, the Judean desert, on the eastern slopes of these hills, receives less than 12 inches (300 mm) annually. The differential in rainfall explains why the watershed runs along the eastern edge of the central hills: the eastern slopes were less exposed to erosion from the rains, and the watershed gradually moved eastward. Because the rock on the eastern side is so little eroded, surface waters are drained to the west and groundwaters are drained to the east. Thus, the strongest springs in the Judean hills are found in the Judean desert.

There are also differences in rainfall within the Judean hills, determined by altitude, so that the Hebron and Benjamin hills receive a somewhat larger rainfall than the lower region of the Jerusalem hills. Although the Samarian hills are somewhat lower in altitude than the Judean hills, they enjoy the same rainfall amounts since the number of rain days per season increases from south to north.


Throughout the hill country, bushes are more common than trees; of these, the thorny burnet (Poterium spinosum) is the most common. Common indigenous trees include the sturdy evergreen Palestine oak (Quercus calliprinos), whose roots penetrate the hard limestone and dolomite layers of the central hills, and the Palestine terebinth (Pistacia palaestina). The carob tree (Ceratonia sliqua) grows well in lower areas with low rainfall and chalky soil. On the eastern edges of the Judean hills, bordering the desert, the Atlantic terebinth (Pistacia atlantica) is occasionally found.

Agricultural possibilities depend largely on the retention of topsoil. Cereal is grown in the broad valleys running west from the Judean hills and in the Dotan Valley. In the hilly areas grapes and olives have been cultivated since the Early Bronze Age since they adapt well to poor soil and produce highly nutritious food and by-products. In the western portions of the Benjamin hills and in some areas in the west of Samaria olives predominate. Grapes are widely grown, especially in the Hebron hills.


No international routes cross the main areas of the central hill country, but the internal routes that pass through the hill country connect directly to the coastal route linking Egypt to Syria. The internal roads in Samaria are more directly connected to this route for two reasons. Firstly, the coastal route is located at the edge of the Samarian hills; it runs north–south along the eastern edge of the Sharon Plain and then turns northeast through the Megiddo pass to enter the Jezreel Valley. Secondly, the transverse valleys in Samaria afford better communication between the coastal road and the Jordan Valley.

In the Judean hills, the major internal road ran north–south along the watershed, near Hebron, through Bethlehem and past Jerusalem to Bethel. The main transverse route linking Jerusalem to the coastal road ran through the Beth-horon ascent in the western Benjamin hills. From Beth-horon it was possible to continue northwest toward Joppa or to turn southwest across the Ayyalon Valley to Gezer. Other significant transverse routes include the Valley of Elah (linking Philistine Gath to Azekah and Socoh of Judah) and the Sorek Valley, linking Beth-Shemesh to Timnah and points west.

In the Samarian hills, the major internal road continued northward from Bethel to Shechem along the watershed but then turned west around Mount Ebal. It skirted the western edge of the Nablus upfold, passing near Samaria and Dothan before entering the Jezreel Valley north of biblical Beth Haggan (modern Jenin). An important transverse route connected Shechem to the coast by following Nahal Shechem (known as Wadi ash-Shaאir and Wadi el-Burej along its westward trajectory) to connect to the coastal road at coastal Socoh (not to be confused with Socoh of Judah). This route continued toward the Jordan Valley via the broad Faraאa valley (between Shechem and Tirzah [Tel el-Faraאa North]) to the Jordan Valley, allowing travelers to cross the Jordan at the ford at Adam. This is the easiest route to cross the central hill country for travel to Transjordan. Another important route connecting the main coastal road to the Jordan Valley ran from Megiddo to Tel Jezreel and then southeast through the Harod Valley and past Rehob (Tel es-Sarim) to ford the Jordan.

Settlement Patterns in the Bronze and Iron Ages.

There are certain consistent patterns in the demographics of the country over the centuries. The hill country tended to be of less interest to foreign empires than the lowland, both because agricultural surpluses were more prevalent in the lowlands and because the road network made the hill country (especially the Judean hills) more isolated. The hill country attracted farmers, and towns and local governments gradually developed, profiting from the limited agricultural surpluses produced by the farmers. There was ongoing tension between nomads and farmers: any sort of political turmoil or political vacuum caused nomads to invade fertile areas (including the hill country) and dispossess farmers. But this tension led to new patterns of settlement, in which the nomads dispossessed farmers and then became farmers themselves.

Early Bronze Age.

The Early Bronze Age marks two important changes in the settlement patterns of the land of Israel. In contrast to the Chalcolithic period, settlement penetrated into the hills and valleys of the central hill country and the Galilee. Settlement seems to have been established in every area where average annual rainfall exceeded 12 inches (300 mm). This strongly suggests that agricultural potential was a determining factor in creating the new settlement pattern. For the first time, towns were established in the hill country, and this attests to agricultural surpluses. Olives and grapes were widely cultivated for the first time, and these were important contributors to the agricultural surpluses. The towns were surrounded by an agricultural hinterland of villages, which fed the town and benefited from the protection the town provided. The total settled population of the land of Israel may have reached 150,000. This estimate is based on a known settled area (including towns, villages, and smaller sites) of 1,482.6 acres (600 ha) and the estimate that 2.5 settled acres (1 ha) houses 250 people.

Sites larger than 12.4 acres (5 ha, which presumably housed more than 750 people) are found in both the Judean and Samarian hills. These sites are typically located on the height of the land, suggesting that defensive considerations figured prominently in founding the settlements. They were situated close to fertile valleys, whose agricultural surplus fed the large sites. Several of these larger sites seem to have a series of smaller sites associated with them. The distances between the large sites suggest the beginnings of a city-state political system. Many of these tendencies, which can clearly be seen in Tel Yarmut on the western edges of the Jerusalem hills, are also evident in Tirzah (Tel el-Faraאa North). At Tirzah, a mutual relationship seems to have existed between town and hinterland: the pottery workshop at Tirzah produced vessels for the nearby region, presumably in return for the region’s feeding of the town. The hill country in the Early Bronze Age thus demonstrates the rise of both town culture and new types of agriculture (practiced in small, unwalled settlements). It is interesting to note that there are relatively few mid-size sites, an unusual demographic pattern in comparison with subsequent periods.

Other large sites on the height of the land include E-Tel (identified as the biblical Ai), on the watershed of the Benjamin hills, and Tel Dotan, in the northern Samarian hills near the valley of the same name. Smaller sites include those on the watershed such as Beth-zur in the northern Hebron hills and Khirbet Raddana in the Benjamin hills. On the western reaches of the Jerusalem hills smaller sites include Tel Adullam near Nahal Ha-Ela, Hurvat Shovav near a tributary of Nahal Sorek, and Abu Ghosh closer to the watershed, in an area with many springs.

The land of Israel clearly traded with Egypt in this period: this can be seen in the Abydos ware which is found in Egypt and which has close affinities to the Early Bronze Age–II pottery of the land of Israel. These jugs and juglets probably contained scented oils produced in the land of Israel. Hill-country sites may have exported wine and oil as far as Egypt, and the alabaster stone vessels found in the temple at the acropolis at Ai seem to have been imported from Egypt.

Middle Bronze Age I.

This flourishing city-state civilization went into decline in the twenty-fourth century B.C.E., with most of the towns deserted or destroyed. This marks the transition to the Middle Bronze Age I (also known as the Early Bronze Age IV, Intermediate Bronze Age, or Intermediate Early Bronze–Middle Bronze Age). Although some of the Early Bronze Age II–III towns were occupied in the Middle Bronze Age I, most were abandoned and settlements established at new sites. Ai and Tirzah seem to have been completely abandoned.

These new sites are characterized by rectangular mud-brick houses at small sites with no fortifications. Within each site, the houses are widely distributed. Furthermore, caves were often used as dwelling places in this period, even within settlement areas. A very large number of cemeteries, many with shaft tombs, have been found, many in proximity to settlements. Since a number of cemeteries seem to have no associated settlements, some settlements may have been entirely located in caves.

Besides the poor character of the pottery and urban organization, the Middle Bronze Age–I sites differ from the Early-Bronze ones in emplacement. They are not always located at the highest point in a given region and are sometimes located in marginal areas, such as the valleys in the southern Hebron hills and the eastern edges of Samaria. In the southern Hebron hills, traces of settlement have been identified along the northern slopes of the valleys dividing the hills from the Arad and Beersheba Valleys of the northeastern Negev. And in the eastern edges of the hill country, there is evidence for increased settlement (by comparison with the Early Bronze): at Wadi Daliyeh in eastern Samaria Middle Bronze–I pottery has been found in caves which served as residences.

In the Jerusalem hills, new settlements were also established in areas that were hardly marginal but were also less fertile than the western edges of the hill country, where the broad valleys seem to have attracted Early-Bronze settlers. A substantial number of Middle Bronze Age–I settlements have been identified in the Jerusalem hills. These include structures and shaft tombs at the rock terraces in Givat Massuah and on the edge of Nahal Refaim as well as structures and a cemetery at Efrat along the watershed in the southern Jerusalem hills.

Middle Bronze Age II.

In the Middle Bronze Age II, urban settlements developed once again and the population of the hill country, like that of the land of Israel as a whole, reached levels only slightly lower than those seen in the Early Bronze Age. (The total population for the Middle Bronze II has been estimated as 138,000 compared to 150,000 for the Early Bronze II–III.) Urban culture also enjoyed a resurgence, and there is evidence that city-states emerged.

Urbanization developed later, with the largest town in the hill country being Shechem, which certainly covered an area of 9.9 acres (4 ha) and may have covered an area as large as 37 acres (15 ha). Initially, a low wall was constructed and then a complex fortification, partly on a rampart with revetment. Shechem was linked to a series of rural settlements and seems to have held influence over the towns of Tirzah and Shiloh, nearly 10 miles (16 km) away.

By the Middle Bronze IIB (ca. 1700–1600 B.C.E.), settlements were found throughout the hill country, with the majority being very small, unwalled settlements. Some intermontane valleys in the Samarian hills seem to have attracted groups of settlers, of varying sizes. Near the Valley of Dotan were sites such as Dothan (12.4 acres [5 ha]), Ibleam (22.2 acres [9 ha]), Joret el-Ward (8.6 acres [3.5 ha]), and Khirbet en-Najjar (6.2 acres [2.5 ha]). Several very small sites were also identified in the nearby Sanur Valley. Sites of similar size in the Judean hills include Gibeon (el-Jib) in the Benjamin hills, Beth-zur on the watershed in the Hebron hills, and Khirbet Keile (biblical Qeilah) in the western Hebron hills. Other smaller sites are located throughout the Judean hills. On the eastern fringes of the hill country, Middle-Bronze settlement has been identified at Wadi Murabaat in the Judean desert and at Tel Marjameh (Ein Samiyeh) on the eastern side of the Benjamin hills. The large towns in the Judean hills included Jerusalem, where a wall and associated water system from the Middle Bronze IIB have been excavated, and Hebron (Tel Rumeideh).

The Middle Bronze Age II also marks the start of written texts about and in the land of Israel. Confirmation for the development of city-state culture comes from two groups of Egyptian execration texts. The first group, dating from the twentieth century B.C.E., mentions no hill-country sites apart from Jerusalem; and three or four rulers are attributed to many sites, indicating a tribal type of leadership. The second group, dating to the nineteenth century B.C.E., mentions both Jerusalem and Shechem (as well as other sites in the Galilee and Shephelah), with each site having a single ruler. These demonstrate the political transitions related to the development of urban culture. Cuneiform culture also penetrated into the hill country, with cuneiform tablets discovered at Shechem and Hebron.

Late Bronze Age.

The land of Israel underwent a drastic change between the Middle and Late Bronze Ages, which was particularly dramatic in the central hill country. Many sites were destroyed or abandoned, and a new pattern of settlement emerged. By the end of the Late Bronze Age (1200–1130 B.C.E.), the coastal plain (especially its southern sections), the Shephelah of Judah, the Jezreel Valley, and the valley of Beth-Shean were rather densely inhabited; but the settlements were still smaller than those in the Middle Bronze.

In the hill country, only a few sites were settled, and even these did not maintain continuity throughout the Late Bronze Age. Jerusalem contracted substantially, and settlement was restricted to the fortress on the highest point of the City of David. Sites such as Beth-zur, Hebron, Gibeon, and Tirzah were abandoned, at least for the majority of the Late Bronze Age. Shechem, which featured so prominently in the Middle Bronze Age II, shows a gap in settlement in the first part of the Late Bronze. Subsequently, the Middle-Bronze fortifications were restored and a temple with massive entrance towers was founded on a massive fill. Overall, urban settlements declined precipitously, and few of the small sites which dotted the hill country in the Middle Bronze Age II seem to have been occupied in the Late Bronze Age.

There is extensive textual evidence both about and from the land of Israel in the Late Bronze Age. Egyptian royal inscriptions describe the Egyptian struggle against Mitanni and later against the Hittites for control of the Levant, while Egyptian city lists describe the cities conquered in numerous campaigns and reliefs and papyri describe the Sea Peoples’ settlement. But it is the Tel El-Amarna archive of letters, many of which were written to the Egyptian rulers by the “kings” of towns in the hill country, which sheds the most light on the internal politics of the hill country. The letters cover the period 1364–1347 B.C.E. In them, the kings profess loyalty to the pharaoh and express concern about the apiru, a general term for a social element opposed to the “kings” allied with the pharaoh. The king of Jerusalem worked with the king of Gezer to avoid apiru control of the area between them (letters 287 and 290). In Samaria, Labayu, king of Shechem, is the major actor in the letters. In letters 246 and 289, he is alleged to have allied with the apiru, in opposition to the pharaoh. In Samaria, the conflicts appear to have centered around control of the food surpluses produced in the Jezreel Valley (letters 243, 244, and 365): the king of Megiddo sought to ship some of these food surpluses to the pharaoh, while Labayu sought control of these surpluses, with the intent of keeping them in the land.

Iron Age I.

A major shift in settlement patterns emerged in the thirteenth century B.C.E. and continued for some time: a “plethora of small campsite-like settlements” (Rainey and Notley, 2006, p. 111) were established. Although these are found throughout the Cisjordanian highlands, from the Galilee to the Negev, it is in the central hill country that they were most prominent. These new “campsite-like” settlements, which eventually grew into villages, were established both at sites that had been abandoned since the Middle Bronze II and at new sites. These new sites were in areas that had previously been covered by low-growth bushes and, thus, cut into the grazing lands of the pastoralist, nonurban population.

The expansion in the Samarian hills was most dramatic, especially so in the area of the Nablus downfold and in the northern part. The intermontane valleys and water sources in this region seem to have attracted these new settlements. A number of small settlements were also established in marginal areas in the eastern Samarian upfold, and it has been argued that these were earlier than those farther west (Rainey and Notley, 2006, p. 111; Finkelstein, 1988, p. 90). In the southern parts of Samaria large numbers of small sites were established in remote, hilly areas and new sites were established in the Benjamin and Jerusalem hills: Ai, Khirbet Raddana, Mizpah (Tell e-Nasbeh), Gibeon, and Gibeah of Saul (Tell el-Ful).

Gradually, settlement increased in less fertile areas. Such areas included the region of limestone hills in the southwest of Samaria (where ʾIzbet Sarta is one example of this phenomenon), the fringes of the Judean desert (where Tekoa is another), and the Hebron hills.

The expansion of these small settlements was accompanied by a great deal of terrace building on the slopes of mountains on which the settlers could grow crops, both grains and fruits such as olives. Terraces may have been built in earlier periods, but in the Iron Age I these are found throughout the central hill country. A large number of terraces in the western Jerusalem hills have been dated to this period. In this area, terraces were built out of hewn stone placed on rock or bedrock and then filled by people with disused building stones, small rocks, and earth. Another labor-intensive technique found more frequently in this period is the plastered water cistern. Such cisterns are known from earlier periods, but they seem to have been used more intensively in the Iron Age.

Iron Age II–III.

At the beginning of the eleventh century B.C.E., many of the rural sites in the central hill country were abandoned, apparently in favor of new urban centers. Few of the Iron-I sites continued to exist as unwalled villages. In the Benjamin hills in particular significant fortifications were built at Khirbet ed-Dawwara, Gibeah of Saul (Tell el-Ful), and Gibeon. Other towns, such as Mizpah and Bethel, also developed.

This concentration of population in larger sites may well have been the result of conflict and security needs, as well as a lack of agricultural land caused by dense rural settlement. While rural settlements were reestablished in all areas in the Iron II, there seems to have been a chronological gap in rural settlement between Iron I and Iron II.

Despite this gap, it seems clear that the Iron-I and Iron-II settlers in the central hill country shared behaviors and material culture, and sites from both periods are marked by an absence of pig bones and imported pottery and the use of four-room houses. The existence of these markers in both periods does not appear to have functional causes and is best explained as resulting from a common ethnic self-identification. Since the Iron-II society is clearly that of biblical Israel, it is most reasonable to see the Iron-I settlers as an early phase of Israelite society.

In the ninth century B.C.E. Samaria was established in the Samarian hills, as the result of political changes in the Kingdom of Israel. The next major change in the pattern of settlement was also the result of political change: the Assyrian invasions of the late eighth century B.C.E. As a result of these, major sites in northern Samaria (such as those noted) were damaged, but some settlement continued in them through the Persian period. This continuity may be related to Assyrian and Persian administrative use of these sites.

In the southern Samarian hills, in contrast, most settlements were abandoned in the Assyrian conquest, except Shiloh which continued to exist in a limited way. In the eastern part of the Benjamin hills, several sites were abandoned (Khirbet Marjameh, Khirbet Shilhah, Maale Michmas). However, in the central part of the Benjamin hills there seems to have been no abandonment, and settlement continued to exist at Bethel, Gibeah of Saul, Gibeon, and Mizpah.

In the Judean hills, settlement reached its height in the late eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E. Jerusalem grew substantially, probably as a result of refugees from the northern kingdom; and unwalled villages and farmsteads north and west of the city continued to exist, despite Sennacherib’s (r. 704–681 B.C.E.) campaign. The sites in the Benjamin hills, as well as Jerusalem itself and Beth-zur in the Hebron hills, seem to have escaped any damage. Other areas in Judah were damaged but recovered and show continuity of settlement through this period: Ramat Rahel (possibly biblical Beth-Hakerem) in the Jerusalem hills (south of Jerusalem), Hebron, and Debir (Khirbet Raboud).

Babylonian and Persian periods.

Much debate has surrounded the question of continuity of settlement in the Judean hills in the period following the Babylonian exile. In the Benjamin hills Gibeon and Gibeah of Saul remained settled until the beginning of the Persian period, after which only Mizpah remained. In the Jerusalem hills rural sites do not demonstrate continuity of settlement throughout the sixth-century transition. However, a substantial recovery took place in subsequent years so that by early in the Persian period the total population of the Jerusalem hills (estimated based on the total amount of settled area) was similar to that in the sixth century.

An interesting increase in settlement took place in the western Samarian foothills, the area north and east of Tel Hadid. This area of limestone, with limited agricultural potential, was not settled in earlier periods. But several farmsteads and villages were established in the area in the eighth century, and these continued to exist until the Hellenistic period. Although of limited agricultural potential, the area is close to the Via Maris, and the new settlements seem to have served as the agricultural hinterland for the Coastal Plain. Their inhabitants may have been deportees from areas under Assyrian control, and their settlement in the area may have been designed to ensure Assyrian control of the Via Maris.

Interpreting Settlement Fluctuation.

As a region which is neither liminal nor the most fertile in the land of Israel, one might expect the hill country to mirror the demographic changes in the country as a whole. But a survey of the fluctuation of settlement through time shows that it has a distinct character, based on its topography and moderate agricultural potential. This potential was not usually sufficient to attract foreign potentates seeking a “breadbasket,” but it could be productively exploited to provide a limited surplus to support a few larger towns. Thus, it is the rural sites that drove the development and repeated resettlement of the hill country. In the hill country the towns were to a large extent an outgrowth of these rural sites.



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Shawn Zelig Aster