Tell Deir Alla is a large tell in the central east Jordan Valley. It measures 695.5 ft (212 m) east–west and 600 ft (183 m) north–south. It is 98.4 ft (30 m) high, and its base is 748 ft (228 m) below sea level. The east end of the tell is cut by the main north–south road through the valley. Its surface is bare, except for the cemetery of the local village, which extends over the southeast base, and some houses built at the foot of the tell. The tell is situated on a low natural hill. Occupation ranges from the Middle Bronze Age to the Persian period. A number of burials from the Islamic period have been found on the top of the tell. The Bronze- and Iron-Age cemeteries have not been found.


Deir Alla is most commonly identified with biblical Succoth. This identification was first made in the late nineteenth century by Selah Merrill, who pointed out that the name “Deir Alla” is derived from “Darala” or “Tarala,” according to the Talmud the name under which Succoth was known in later periods. The identification seemed strengthened by the find of the bronze furnaces in the Early Iron–Age strata of the tell. According to the Bible the bronze foundries for the Temple of Solomon were made in “the plain of the Jordan…between Succoth and Zarethan” (1 Kgs 7:46). The unusually large size of the furnaces suggests that they were used for large-scale projects, and providing the identification with bronze casting furnaces is correct, this would strengthen the identification of Succoth.

Some have rejected the identification, claiming that the name “Succoth” referred to the area north of Deir Alla, rather than to a specific town or site, which means that the ancient name of Deir Alla itself remains unknown, although it may have been Qadesh, mentioned in the list of Sheshonk I (r. ca. 935–914 B.C.E.). Others have identified Deir Alla with Penuel (Gen 32:30–31; Judg 8:8–9, 17; 1 Kgs 12:25), which is not far from Succoth and north of the Zerqa (Jabbok).

Regional Context.

The Jordan Valley is part of the Great Rift Valley, which stretches from north Syria to Mozambique in Africa, separating the African and the Arabian tectonic plates. The 62 mile (100 km) long Jordan Valley extends from the Sea of Galilee in the north to the Dead Sea in the south. Deir Alla sits in the Zerqa Triangle, the triangular plain that is formed by the Jordan River to the west and the Zerqa River to the south and east. To the north it extends to the wadi Kufrinjeh. This plain is dominated by three major sites: from south to north Deir Alla, Tell el-Mazar, and Tell es-Saʾidiyeh, all of which have been settled from the Middle Bronze Age onward. Surrounding and dependent on these three major sites are a number of smaller sites, which flourished and declined in different periods, their fortunes often interlinked with those of the three major sites.

Most of the valley is covered in fertile topsoil. This and the presence of several small streams that enable small-scale irrigation make the east Jordan Valley a suitable area for agriculture. Because of its low level, the Jordan Valley has a climate that is several degrees warmer than the surrounding hill country; and as a result, agricultural produce ripens in the valley on average three weeks earlier than in the hill country, which gives it a significant economic advantage. The relatively mild winters make the valley a preferred area for winter grazing, encouraging transhumance between the valley and the hill country. Summers, on the other hand, are harsh, hot, and dry.

Excavation History.

Tell Deir Alla was first described by Selah Merrill in 1876. Later, it was noticed by a number of travelers and explorers in the region, but the first to actually survey the site was Nelson Glueck. He remarked on the abundance of sherds on the tell and on its strategic position in the Zerqa Triangle.

The first excavations on the tell were conducted by Henk Franken between 1960 and 1967, on behalf of the University of Leiden. The purpose of this excavation was to establish a stratigraphically determined pottery sequence for the region that would be independent of the pottery sequences west of the Jordan. Franken used the Wheeler-Kenyon stratigraphic method of excavation, which was relatively new at the time.

Franken’s method of establishing a typological sequence was revolutionary. It was based on developments in the technology of pot making, incorporating the various actions of the potter and their sequence in the determination of a type. This method was considered less subjective than the traditional typologies, which were largely based on visual shape. A drawback of this method was that it made comparison with existing pottery corpora difficult. Franken published his findings for the Early Iron–Age layers and his pottery typology in 1969. His main discoveries, however, during the five seasons of excavation, were the Late Bronze–Age sanctuary on the north flank of the tell and the Iron Age–II Balaam text.

The 1967 war brought the excavations to a standstill, and they were not resumed until 1976. This time the Jordanian Department of Antiquities was also involved. Later excavations included the archaeological department of Yarmuk University, with Moawiyah Ibrahim as codirector. In 1978 Franken retired and was succeeded by Gerrit van der Kooij. The excavation area was expanded to include the whole eastern top of the tell and exposed layers of the later Iron Age: Iron Age II and III and the Persian period. Additional trenches were made in the north side and at the southern and southwestern bases, to clarify the Middle and Late Bronze–Age occupation. Excavations continued until 2008.

Settlement History and Social Context.

The earliest major occupation on the tell dates from the Middle Bronze Age II (1700 B.C.E.), on the southeast side. It consisted of courtyards surrounded by rooms, with remarkably thick mud-brick walls. In one of the rooms was a pit containing a bronze trident and pike. Both were bent, probably deliberately, to “kill” them, before being discarded in the pit. The Bronze-Age settlement was destroyed by a heavy conflagration at the end of the period (ca. 1550 B.C.E.).

The beginning of the Late Bronze Age saw the leveling off of the ruins of the Middle Bronze Age and the construction of a sizeable town, possibly even larger than its predecessor. Excavation trenches in different areas suggest that the new town covered the whole tell. Its main feature was a large sanctuary on the north edge of the tell. It was built on a platform, possibly the remains of a Middle Bronze–Age rampart, and must have been visible from afar. The latest (Phase E) cella (inner area of a temple that housed an image of the deity) was excavated almost completely; earlier phases were found in soundings.

The earliest (pre–Phase A) phase of the sanctuary consisted of the stone foundations of a structure with several rooms. Later phases were built on top of it, in mud brick and with a different layout. Below the floor of the Phase-A cella a cache of pottery was found, either a favissa (underground cellar near a temple for sacred objects no longer in use) or a foundation deposit. It consisted largely of chalices, goblets, and lamps.

Phases B–E were created by raising the floor level and the pillar bases. As a result, the cella always stood about 4.9 ft (1.5 m) higher than the surrounding rooms. The Phase-E sanctuary consisted of the cella, with rooms flanking it at a lower level on the east and west sides. The cella was a rectangular room, oriented north–south, 38.4 ft (11.7 m) in width and ca. 49.2 ft (ca. 15 m) in length. It had two central pillars of wood on stone bases and a podium against its north wall. Finds inside the cella included cylinder seals, faience beads and pendants, and a fragment of a faience vase with a cartouche of Pharao Tewosret (r. 1193–1185 B.C.E.), giving a terminus post quem (earliest possible date) for the destruction of ca. 1190 B.C.E. In the destruction debris on the slope below the cella was found the hand and part of the arm of a large terra-cotta statue that may originally have stood in the cella.

To the east of the cella was a courtyard, surrounded by rooms, with storage and administrative functions, judging from the finds associated with them. In one of the rooms an adult skeleton was found, probably a victim of the earthquake that destroyed the sanctuary. Also found were a number of clay tablets, inscribed in an unknown script, and scarab and cylinder seals, some from Mitanni. Some of the pottery stored in these rooms may have been ritual. There was a high percentage of imported pottery, Mycenaean and Cypriot. The rooms to the west of the cella had a domestic/storage function, although one of the rooms, E8, may have had a podium. Elsewhere on the tell domestic remains were found dated to this period and, on the south side, a possible industrial or market area. Here, some Egyptian seals were found and a bulla (seal impression) of Thutmose III (r. 1504–1452 B.C.E.), in the Phase E–F remains.

Phase E was destroyed by an earthquake. An effort at rebuilding was made, remains of which were found in the rooms east and west of the cella. These efforts were abandoned, probably after another earthquake. Instead, a fortress or tower was built, consisting of heavy, double walls, which was also abandoned shortly after it was built.

The first Iron-Age layers (IA A–D), covering and adjacent to the sanctuary complex, consisted mainly of postholes and courtyard layers, suggesting occupation by squatters. In Iron-Age Phase B a sequence of very large furnaces was found (6.6 by 6.6 ft [2 by 2 m] inside measurements). Some small drops of copper or bronze and a tuyere (blowpipe) suggested that they were used for casting bronze. A number of large pits nearby may have been used to store fuel.

The settlement of Early Iron–Age Phases A–D was scant and may well have been seasonal, or it may have been a purely industrial site. Some heavy walls were found near the furnaces. Phase C was destroyed by an earthquake. In one of the cracks caused by the earthquake a skeleton was found.

From Iron-Age Phase E onward, settlement became more substantial. Remains from this period have been found on the north side and on the top of the tell. Several rooms belonging to larger buildings were separated by alleys. The buildings were clearly domestic, with light mud-brick walls. The alleyways were covered in layers of reed, to facilitate walking in winter.

It seems that in the period from Phase E (ca. 1100 B.C.E.) to Phase L (ca. 850 B.C.E.) the settlement expanded gradually and without major interruptions or destructions. In Phase H a substantial building was found, the function of which is unclear. The skeletons of two children were found in a midden in Phase L (renamed XI and X in subsequent excavations). At the end of Phase L a large pit (ca. 39.4 ft [12 m] in diameter and 16.4 ft [5 m] deep) was dug. As the site was deserted for a period following the destruction of Phase L, this pit gradually filled up, before the beginning of Phase M (phase IX).

Phase M (ca. 800 B.C.E.) saw the building of a large complex, consisting of about 40 interconnected rooms, with an apparently domestic or industrial function. Fifteen groups of loom weights, each representing a loom, were found, along with 14 clusters of domestic pottery: storage jars, serving jugs, kraters, cooking pots, plates, etc. One room had a “bathtub”-shaped pit, which may have been used for textile processing (fulling or dyeing). The room next to it contained a large number of loom weights, the remains of a large loom. Other finds include Phoenician pottery and decorative basalt mortars.

One room, in the center of the complex, had benches along its walls, which were in fact the remains of walls from the previous phase. The walls of this room were plastered with white lime plaster, on which a long text was written in black and red ink. The plaster, with the text, was found lying upside down on the floor of the room. It was heavily damaged, and only part of it has been recovered. It was, however, enough to reconstruct much of the original text. This has become known as the “Balaam” text.

The nature of this large complex, which is only partly excavated, remains unclear. The original excavator, Henk Franken, interpreted it as a religious maze, whereas Gerrit van der Kooij, his successor, thinks it is a large village community.

Phase M was destroyed by an earthquake. Soon after the destruction, a large building was erected on the remains, which was abandoned almost immediately.

At the beginning of Iron Age IIc (ca. 700 B.C.E.) the surface area on top of the tell was leveled and a new settlement built (phase VII), bordered on the north side by a heavy mud-brick wall. The buildings of this settlement were far more substantial than those of the previous phases, although they still seem to have been largely domestic. Finds in this phase show Ammonite and Neo-Assyrian influence. Among other finds one seal mentions the name of the Ammonite god Milkom. This phase was destroyed by an earthquake, followed by a conflagration.

After a period of abandonment, the ruins of phase VII were leveled and a new village was built, also bordered on the north side by a heavy double wall, possibly part of a town wall. Settlement consisted of domestic buildings grouped around courtyards. Several ostraca found in this phase were inscribed with Ammonite script and language, and seals carried Ammonite names. Phase VI was destroyed by fire. It was followed by a succession of thick courtyard and wash layers, with large numbers of storage pits dug into them. Large amounts of pottery and an ostracon recording army subscription suggest activity in other, unexcavated parts of the tell.

Phases V and IV date to the Babylonian and Persian periods, respectively. These are domestic phases, consisting of houses with courtyards, alternating with wash layers. The finds in these phases reflect the cosmopolitan nature of the period, with Greek pottery, Scythian arrowheads, much bronze jewelry, and a unique sandstone bowl with two bull heads, probably Persian. An ostracon, written in Aramaic, consisted of a list of orders for the restoration of a gate. It was written on a sherd with a crow-step decoration, typical of Ammonite pottery.

The latest building phase on the tell, Phase III, was found on the top only and had largely eroded away. It consisted of the remains of heavy walls. An Attic fishplate was found in the remains. Phase II consisted of a large and deep pit, 32.8 ft (10 m) in diameter and 9.8 ft (3 m) deep, which had gradually filled up with rubbish. After this phase, the tell was abandoned. The latest phase of use consisted of burials from the Islamic period.

Textual Sources: The Tablets.

In the Late-Bronze sanctuary, in an administrative room east of the cella a number of clay tablets were found, inscribed with an unknown script consisting of lines and dots. Some have been published. The script is alphabetic (there are only about 22 different signs) but so far undeciphered. It is likely that they played a role in the economic function of the sanctuary. The debate involving them focuses on whether the script and language of the tablets is Aegean or Semitic, with arguments that are economic and political rather than linguistic.

Textual Sources: The Balaam Text.

The most important textual source found at Deir Alla is the so-called Balaam text. This is a long text, written on wall plaster in a west Semitic alphabetic script, in a regional, west Semitic dialect. It was found in one of the rooms of the large building complex in Phase M (ca. 800 B.C.E.). The text was written in black ink, with the important passages in red. The top and left sides of the text were illustrated with various figures, of which only a sphinx with spread wings remains more or less complete. The text consists of 53 lines, all of them incomplete. It is written partly in prose, partly in poetry. It relates the story of the prophet Balaam, son of Beor, who is a well-known figure in the Old Testament (Num 22–24). Balaam relates a dream he has had during the night, in which a council of the gods discusses the destruction of humankind if they do not change their behavior. The gods of the Pantheon (the Shadday) plead with the head goddess (probably Shagar) not to exercise her wrath on humankind. The dream is described using metaphors mainly from the animal world, to represent the civilized world of humankind versus the wilderness. It contains a warning to humankind, to change their ways.

Tell Deir Alla

Deir Alla inscription. Baker Photo Archive. Amman Archaeological Museum

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In the biblical text the “seer” Balaam is asked by Balak, king of Moab, to curse Israel; but he ends up blessing it instead. The actual text in Numbers is considered postexilic, but it is highly likely that it goes back to old folk traditions and folklore of (some of) the Israelite tribes. The introduction of a speaking donkey in the narrative suggests Balaam may have been some sort of Falstaff, a figure of fun in those folktales, or may suggest that, like Luqman in the Islamic tradition, his wisdom allowed him to communicate with the natural world.

The Function of Deir Alla in the Regional Context.

The role of Deir Alla in the Late Bronze Age was focused mainly on the sanctuary. Until excavations exposed Late Bronze–Age domestic occupation on the south side of the tell, it was assumed that the sanctuary was isolated, maintained by pastoral tribes. The sanctuary is assumed to have played a role in the international trade between Egypt and Mesopotamia. Part of the trade route ran through the Jordan Valley, as demonstrated by an Amarna text from Pella, which lies north of Deir Alla and opposite Beth-Shean on the west side of the Jordan. This text mentions trade caravans between Egypt and Hanigalbat (Mitanni).

The east Jordan Valley constituted the eastern limit of the Egyptian Empire in its heyday. From Deir Alla, in the Zerqa Triangle, a trade route went east, through the Zerqa Valley toward the Amman Plateau, conducted by local tribes. Deir Alla functioned as a transit market, with a sanctuary to oversee and bless transactions. It has been suggested that toward the end of the Late Bronze Age, when Pella was no longer an Egyptian vassal and turned against Egypt, the crossing of the Jordan moved south, opposite Tell es-Saʾidiyeh, where a fortress was constructed to protect it. This further increased the importance of the Zerqa Triangle, with its three focal points, Saʿidiyeh, Mazar, and Deir Alla, as an international market region.

An earthquake destroyed the sanctuary at the end of the Late Bronze Age (post-1190 B.C.E.). An effort to rebuild it was cut short by a second earthquake, after which no more efforts were made. At the same time, the Egyptian trade came to an end, with the collapse of the Egyptian Empire. The defensive tower that was constructed next to the sanctuary testifies to the political turmoil that ensued. The east Jordan Valley, on the edge of the empire, was overrun by tribes from the east, as shown by the emergence of a large number of small sites, particularly along the Zerqa, and strong eastern influences in the pottery. It is likely that this created a domino effect and that some of the new tribes and some of the older tribes in the region were pushed across the Jordan River to the west, contributing to the surge in settlements in the western highlands.

After the destruction of the tower, the tell either was occupied by a transient population, possibly only in winter, or functioned as a purely industrial site. The Early Iron Age (ca. 1200–1000 B.C.E.) is a formative period in the wider region, which eventually led to the birth of a number of small kingdoms on both sides of the Jordan Valley in Iron Age II. No written sources for this period have been found; however, the surviving texts from both the previous and the succeeding periods make clear that the social organization of the region must have been largely tribal. The climate of the Jordan Valley, with mild winters but harsh summers, makes it a suitable environment for a transhumant population with a mixed economy: partly agrarian and partly pastoral.

The main feature of this period is the use of giant furnaces found in Iron-Age Phase B, presumably for casting bronze. Their shape and size differ radically from any other metal furnaces known from this period, but it is possible that they were used for the casting of large bronze objects, more or less in the same manner as the Nineteenth-Dynasty Qantir furnaces in the Egyptian delta, albeit on a much smaller scale.

The Bible tends to identify metalworking with the Kenites or the Midianites, and it has been suggested, on the basis of Judges 6–8, that the smiths of Phase B may have been Midianites. However, none of the distinctive Midianite pottery has been found anywhere on the tell to support that hypothesis. With the exception of some possible Philistine sherds, the pottery repertoire was local and domestic.

After Phase D the architectural remains are more substantial, and the tell became occupied permanently, growing into a substantial village or even small town. The religious function of the site in the Late Bronze Age may well have lingered and given rise to a new sanctuary, which is the interpretation Franken gives to the presence of the Balaam text in Phase M.

There are no indications, either in the Deir Alla context or in external sources, to show whether the Deir Alla region and the town itself formed part of one of the local Iron-Age kingdoms. The Bible claims that the united kingdom of David and Solomon extended as far as Damascus, and this would have incorporated the Jordan Valley; but the existence of this united kingdom is disputed. Another source, the Mesha stela, claims that the Kingdom of Israel, ruled by Omri and his son Ahab, controlled the region north of the river Arnon (Wadi Mujib) until King Mesha liberated his kingdom. Since the heartland of the Kingdom of Israel was on the west bank, opposite the Deir Alla region, it is likely that, in the first half of the ninth century at least, Deir Alla was part of the Kingdom of Israel. Later, it may have fallen to the kingdom of Ammon or have been contested between Ammon and Israel. The language of the Balaam inscription is a local Canaanite dialect, not encountered elsewhere; and the pantheon depicted in the text, although related to other local pantheons, is also unique.

Pottery and other artifacts show that in the eighth and seventh centuries Deir Alla was part of the Ammonite sphere of influence, as was the sister site of Mazar, although at Tell es-Saʾidiyeh, 3.7 miles (6 km) north of Mazar, this influence is much less and at Pella it is missing altogether, suggesting that Mazar and Deir Alla may have been part of the border territory. The conquest of the region by Tiglath-Pileser III (r. 745–727 B.C.E.) incorporated the Jordan Valley into the Neo-Assyrian Empire. The valley became a thoroughfare for expeditions to the south and possibly for trade with the southern regions. Neo-Assyrian influences can be found in the material culture of Tell Deir Alla, side by side with Ammonite influences. It has, however, been suggested that the Jordan Valley with the eastern foothills, although culturally Ammonite, was turned into the separate province of Gilead.

The incorporation of Ammon as a province in the Babylonian Empire in 581 coincided with a slow decline in the settled population and an increased nomadization. Nevertheless, Deir Alla, Mazar, and Saʿidiyeh remained settled, as did some of the smaller sites.

After the Persian conquest in the middle of the sixth century, both Ammon and Gilead became part of the satrapy “beyond the river.” The Persian and Hellenistic periods in the region are still relatively unknown, but the settlement pattern, which continues from the previous period, shows the continued relative importance of the region.

[See also JORDAN VALLEY.)]


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Eveline van der Steen