Tell el-Farʿah (North) is situated in the central part of the Samaria hills, 21.7 miles (35 km) straight east of the Mediterranean Sea; 7 miles (11 km) northeast of the modern town of Nablus/Shechem, where was situated the Middle Bronze–Age (first half of the second millennium) city-state of Tell Balatah, at the foot of the Mount Gerizim; and 6 miles (10 km) east of the site of Samaria, which became the main Iron Age–II capital of the Israelite kingdom. Thus, Tell el-Farʿah was established in an area that saw the presence of a regional capital from the Middle Bronze Age until the end of the Iron Age (mid-first millennium B.C.E.). Less known is the short-term, about half a century, regional political role that Tell el-Farʿah had in relation with the first steps of the Northern Kingdom of Israel.

The larger interregional implantation of the site is also remarkable and noteworthy. The site guards the beginning of the Wadi Farʿah, allowing a direct connection from the center of the Samaria hills to the middle Jordan Valley about 18.6 miles (30 km) to the southeast, then to Transjordan. Tell el-Farʿah has also a privileged connection with Beth-Shean to the northeast by following the eastern ridge of Mount Gilboa for about 18.6 miles (30 km). However, at a larger regional level Tell el Farʿah is not on a major road oriented east–west, and communication straight to the north and the Jezreel Valley is difficult due to the Samaria hills.

The reasons for installing a town of regional importance at that place rely on other local features, primarily the presence of two abundant springs at the base of the tell: Ain Farʿah, which joins the Jordan River through the Wadi Farʿah, and Ain Dalieb. Both springs flow all year long. Moreover, the site is naturally defended on its south and northeast sides. The tell itself has a quadrangular shape of 1,968.5 by 984 ft (600 by 300 m), with a surface of about 25 acres (10 ha). The highest part of the tabular plateau that forms the tell is situated 154 ft (47 m) above the spring of Ain Farʿah. The site must be differentiated from its homonym Tell el-Farʿah (South), located in the Wadi Besor south of Gaza.


The name of the town for the Early and Middle Bronze Age (third and second millennia B.C.E.) remains unknown. No textual proof exists for the Iron Age; but as soon as the 1930s, William Foxwell Albright identified Tell el-Farʿah with the biblical town of Tirzah. The site’s excavator, Roland de Vaux, expressed from the first excavation’s report the same view as Albright, finding in the archaeological records parallels with the biblical story (e.g., in the chronological sequence of the Late Bronze/Iron–Age layers, in the architectural transformation). This strong connection to the Tirzah of the biblical text explained the interest in Tell el-Farʿah’s Iron-Age period in the archaeology of the southern Levant.

A last argument for its identification, seen as a strong one by biblical scholars, relies on Numbers 26:33, 27:1, and 36:11 and Joshua 17:3, with Tirzah being a town “daughter of Zelophedad” in the territory of Manasseh. Samarian ostraca indicate that Tirzah is located to the northeast of Shechem, which leaves few candidates for Tirzah other than Tell el-Farʿah. However, other identifications have been proposed: some biblical scholars have connected Tell el-Farʿah with Ophrah, while others have identified it as Beth-Barah. However, Albright’s identification with Tirzah is largely followed by scholars.

Tell el-Farʿah and the Biblical Narrative.

The importance of Tell el-Farʿah during the Iron Age relies on its connection with the biblical Tirzah. Mentioned 17 times in the Bible, it was the first capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. This significant historical site played a major role in the very beginning of the Israelite kingdom under the kings Jeroboam (1 Kgs 14:17), Nadab, Tibni, Baasha, Elah, Zimri, and Omri. Omri fought with Zimri and captured Tirzah, which had been the residence of the Israelite kings since Jeroboam (1 Kgs 16:15–18). Just six years later, he changed his mind and decided to move Israel’s capital to the town of Samaria (1 Kgs 16:23–24). After that episode Tirzah is only scantily mentioned in the Bible.

Surveys and Excavations.

Before being excavated by a French team under the direction of de Vaux of the Ecole Biblique et Archéologique Française de Jérusalem, the site was first identified by Albright. Nine seasons of excavations took place from 1946 to 1960. The French school started in 1946 and continued to 1951, at which time its excavators halted because of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and undertook the excavations of Khirbet Qumran. Digging at Tell el-Farʿah resumed in 1954 and continued to 1960. Almost all the reports and final publications were written in French. The first reports were quickly released by de Vaux. After his death in 1971, Alain Chambon, then Joël Mallet published in the 1980s the final reports of the Middle Bronze– and the Iron-Age strata.


Two main phases of occupation are usually distinguished: the earlier periods, from the Neolithic to the Middle Bronze Ages, then the biblical period for the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age I–II. The site’s occupation is also characterized by several hiatuses during periods of time in which other sites are usually occupied, including the Late Bronze II, the Persian, the Hellenistic, and the Byzantine periods.

De Vaux’s excavations in the 1950s were made without rigorous stratigraphic controls, which has led to many uncertainties regarding the stratigraphic context of objects or architectural remains. Neither the first reports in the 1950s and 1960s nor the final publications in the 1980s solve all the stratigraphic problems. These problems explain the need for reinterpretation of the sequence of the Iron I–II city planning. The reappraisals of Tell el-Farʿah’s stratigraphy and history have led to a thorough revision of the Iron-II site’s chronology and its relation with the biblical account.

Period I: Pre-Pottery Neolithic B

Hiatus (→ ca. 4500 B.C.E.)

Period II: Chalcolithic (Cave U: dwellings then tomb)

Period III: Early Bronze I: pit dwellings, burials

Period IV: Early Bronze II: fortifications, city gate, dwellings, potter’s kiln

Hiatus (ca. 2600–1900 B.C.E.)

Period V: Middle Bronze IIA: burials only

Middle Bronze IIB: village, burials

Middle Bronze IIC: fortifications, city gate, cultic installations (underground chamber, massebah?)


Period VI: Late Bronze II: no town plan, some tombs

Period VII: Iron I–II

Final Report Preliminary Reports Date (Chambon, 1984 /Finkelstein, 2012 )
VIIa Stratum 4 Twelfth to eleventh centuries/tenth to early ninth centuries B.C.E.
VIIb Stratum 3 Tenth century/ninth century B.C.E.
VIIc “unfinished building” Intermediate Early ninth century/eighth century B.C.E.
VIId Stratum 2 Ninth to eighth centuries B.C.E., destroyed in 721
VIIe Stratum 1 Seventh century B.C.E.
VIIe1 Sixth to fifth century B.C.E.

Archaeological and Historical Occupation of the Site/Settings.

Archaeological research has shown the antiquity of the human occupation on the site, thousands of years before the first historical mention of the site in the Bible. This very old presence is certainly connected with the two springs at the proximity of the tell.

Neolithic, Chalcolithic, Early Bronze I–II: periods I–IV.

The first occupation of the site goes back to the seventh millennium, with few remains from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B. After a short hiatus, human occupation resumed for several millennia, from the mid-fifth to the second millennia B.C.E. A growth in the importance of the occupation occurred in the Chalcolithic horizon; noteworthy is Cave U, used as a dwelling and then as a tomb. From a fragmented occupation, the site developed during the Early Bronze II (period IV) into a fortified city similar to many other towns in the southern Levant. This layer was excavated in areas I to IV of the site. The fortifications were rebuilt several times and connected with a city gate. The site was abandoned toward the middle of the third millennium B.C.E., following a striking process that occurred in many parts of Palestine: small and medium-sized sites disappeared during the Early Bronze II and were incorporated into larger Early Bronze–III towns.

Middle Bronze II: period V.

Several centuries later, during the Middle Bronze IIA (nineteenth century B.C.E.), the site was reoccupied. After a village phase occupation, in about 1600 B.C.E. a new system of fortification was erected. Though covering a smaller perimeter than the Early-Bronze rampart, it followed to the west, in area II, its same line. Also distinguished by de Vaux was an underground chamber interpreted as a cultic installation at the inner entrance of the city gate.

Late Bronze Age II: period VI.

Few remains have been found from the Late Bronze Age. It is very difficult to map the city’s extension and the kind of occupation during the period from the sixteenth to the thirteenth centuries B.C.E. Most of the material culture consists of sherds and a few houses and tombs. This scarcity of remains could also be linked to the fact that the site was settled at the beginning and the end of the Late Bronze, with a possible gap in between. Although the origin of the Iron-Age town that would become an Israelite capital is an important question whose answer lies in the Late Bronze–II period, it remains largely unsolved.

Settlement Life and Site Occupation at Tell el-Farʿah during the Iron Age.

The Iron-Age settlement shows a dense urban occupation that corresponds to a period of political and economic prosperity. Although destroyed several times by different conquerors during the first half of the first millennium, the city was rebuilt each time until the end of the Iron Age.

Iron Age: period VII.

Tell el-Farʿah was clearly occupied during the end of the second millennium and the first half of the first millennium B.C.E. Several layers were excavated on the tell that altogether form period VII, covering the Iron I and II, from the eleventh century to the seventh/fifth centuries B.C.E. The good preservation of this stratigraphic sequence is a remarkable testimony to the history of a site in the heart of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, from its origin until its destruction during the Assyrian conquest. The extensive excavation carried out in area II over 54,000 ft² (5,000 m²) is a unique opportunity to follow the organization of an Israelite settlement and many aspects of its daily life over several centuries.

Period VIIa (stratum 4).

The city is organized according to an urban plan that gains in precision and alignment with time. A checkerboard plan is visible, with streets bordering rows of houses. Among the different buildings, one was better preserved than the others. When excavated by de Vaux, this building, numbered 490, was interpreted as a Late-Bronze temple because it was built on top of the Middle-Bronze subterranean cultic place. It also contains a bronze silvered figurine of Hathor. Reinterpreted by Chambon as an Iron-I domestic four-room house because of its plan, the figurine does not by itself allow an interpretation of this building as a temple. However, one can assume that some cultic activities took place inside the building.

During period VIIa, Tell el-Farʿah was not a fortified site, and the settlement was limited to the upper part of the tell, covering a perimeter of about 2.5 acres (1 ha). The previously built Middle-Bronze fortification may have been halfway visible, and the west city gate, though partly destroyed, may have been still in use.

Among the different historical problems related to layer VIIa, its dating is a major issue: de Vaux and Chambon claimed that layer VIIa was clearly associated with the Iron I, that is, with the twelfth to eleventh centuries B.C.E., in direct continuity with layer VI of the Late Bronze II. Subsequently, several archaeologists shed doubt on a dating that covers all the Iron I. For them, layer VIIa should be dated to the Late Iron I to Early Iron IIA (second half of the tenth or even beginning of the ninth century B.C.E. according to the low chronology).

In order to achieve precision in the relative dating of this layer, it is necessary to check the pottery assemblage that has been described. Noticeable at Tell el Farʿah is the absence of some pottery categories that are characteristic of Iron I. Two examples are striking: the collared-rim jars, usually found at every site in the hilly country of Samaria and Judah and seen as an Israelite material culture expression, and cooking pots with straight or everted rims, also characteristic of the Iron I. Such an observation has far-reaching implications. This absence suggests that Tell el-Farʿah was not occupied during most of the Iron Age I, and it may be viewed as a proof of the resettling of the site not before the end of the Iron I, by which point these pottery categories were not produced anymore. Further, if one sticks to the biblical account that depicts Tirzah as the place of residence of the first Israelite kings in the pre-Omride period and to the low chronology, period VIIa seems to be most adequate to fit with this capital phase.

Period VIIb (stratum 3).

Period VIIb marks a phase of prosperity for the town. The city expanded from the upper part of the tell to which it had been restricted to cover a larger area. The organization of settlement life is more clearly visible during this period, with a network of streets and houses. The excavations reveal the dynamism of the town development and detail the state of household materials, through the architecture, the pottery, and the objects retrieved. De Vaux and Chambon claimed that it was during period VIIc that Tell el-Farʿah/Tirzah became a regional capital. However, the important urban activity of period VIIb suggests that this phase of the city’s history could have better fit this important historical moment. De Vaux and Chambon believed that the Middle-Bronze fortification and city gate were repaired and rebuilt in this period, apparently by reusing materials from their own previous destruction. The city gate was installed at the same place for a very functional reason: the Ain Duleib spring is down the slope only 0.2 miles (300 m) to the southwest. The city gate itself offers a traditional Middle Bronze–II structure with a chamber gate. Excavation of area II produced evidence of a full defensive organization, where the protection offered by the gate was enhanced by the presence of a tower, a bastion, a rampart, and a glacis. The need to restore the fortification implies that the Iron-IIA period may have been a troubled one. Still, the public investment made in the Middle Bronze II for the whole fortification of the site was not comparable with the Iron-II restoration of the city wall. Doubt has been cast by some on the reconstruction of the fortification.

One of the main public architectural features of the west part of the town is the city gate. Several squares punctuated the public spaces, of which the largest (23 by 29.5 ft [7 by 9 m]) is placed at the entrance of that city gate. The axis of the door passage leads to two monoliths: a basin and a pillar. The size of the basin, too small to be used as a watering place, suggests a cultic function for these two blocks: as a recipient of water offerings and a massebah (standing stone), respectively. De Vaux, then Chambon stuck to this hypothesis and found it consistent with the fact that both structures were reinstalled in the same space at different periods, even after the destruction of level VIId. Also, Chambon saw this cultic installation as proof of a new ritual practice link to water that appeared in the tenth century B.C.E.

Several original urban plan traits can be isolated: the houses were built into blocks side by side and back to back. The street that separates them is well preserved, about 6.6 ft (2 m) wide, and unpaved; it has a main circulation axis oriented east–west.

In area II was found a very unified kind of private architecture. This corresponds to the well-known and still debated “four-room house,” also called the “tripartite plan house” in the Tell el-Farʿah reports. All the excavated houses from level VIIb possess the same plan, with the same domestic organization for daily activities. The domestic equipment is quite standardized, with many items built specifically for them: seats and platforms, troughs and basins, pits and silos, and ovens (tannurs). All the houses are built with stones and measure an average of 30 by 33 ft (9 by 10 m), for an area covering from 650 to 1,300 ft2 (60–120 m2). Chambon believed that one of these buildings could accommodate a family of eight to ten people.

A standard house entrance gives into a central courtyard, which in turn leads into all the other rooms, of which two are open on both sides. Four small, closed rooms, which served as the private part of the house for the family, are found toward the back of the building. This schematic plan, organized in a U shape, gives way to a three-space organization: courtyard, open working space, and private space. Noteworthy is the regular use of pillars and the absence of stairs. This type of plan and house size was very well suited to the hilly region climate as well to the needs of the Iron Age–II family. It explains why the plan lasted for several centuries over a large area, inside but not limited to the Israelite and Judahite kingdoms.

Level VIIb has been destroyed and the site abandoned for some time. Depending on the area, the destruction layer was from a few inches deep to more than 9 feet (1 m).

An original and exceptional find was excavated in stratum VIIb: a clay model of a temple. This rather small object (height by length by depth: 8.1 by 5.4 by 4.3 in [20.6 by 13.9 by 11.1 cm]) was found in pit 241 in relation to the wall of house 442, so its stratigraphic context was not secure. This model, kept in the Louvre in Paris, represents a rectangular building with a particularly large opening surrounded by the addition of two columns with proto-Aeolic capitals turned upward. Also turned upward is a central moon crescent. The building must be seen as a symbolic representation of a temple where could be placed a divine figurine. The identity of the divinity worshiped in this model temple can be deduced by the two previous elements (columns and crescent): a fertility goddess of the Astarte or Asherah type. The model’s large aperture is another interesting characteristic as other models often possessed smaller apertures cut into the ceramic surface. The elongated two columns, having equivalence with a tree trunk or a wooden pole, can recall the “Judean pillared figurines” found extensively from the late tenth to early ninth centuries B.C.E., with a wide expansion during the eighth and a subsequent decrease in the seventh century B.C.E. This rare object is a perfect example of a tabernacle and should be understood as a miniature sanctuary of a fertility goddess, who is usually represented by symbols such as a crescent, dove, lion, and palm tree. Two of these symbols are present on the Tell el-Farʿah model. The tabernacle is thus a “house of fertility,” where the goddess stands; because of the darker inside space, its shape is reminiscent of an alcove (from the Arabic al-qubbah, a place in which the “sacred wedding” takes place).

This model was most likely used in a domestic space rather than in a temple. Although tabernacles have also been found in tombs and temples, they generally come from domestic houses in relation with practices whose scope, still religious in nature, seems more propitiatory than cultic: to help the fertility of the couple.

Period VIIc.

During period VIIc (early ninth to eighth centuries B.C.E.), a larger building, numbered 411, was excavated. Although unfinished, this building was seen by de Vaux as public in nature. He believed that it marked a crucial change in the social organization of the town. Its plan emerged directly from the classic four-room house plan, with the addition of an elongated room on one side. It was seen as a prefiguration of palace 148 of the next level (VIId). The unfinished condition of that building was deduced from several architectural details observed during the excavation. All the other buildings present the same plan with tripartite organization and the same functional layout.

Period VIId (stratum 2).

The town of level VIId (ninth–eighth centuries B.C.E., destroyed in 721) is the best preserved of the Iron Age for stratum VII. The buildings are more carefully constructed, and their good quality is obvious. However, not all the buildings provide the same pattern for their construction, and the excavator distinguished a hierarchy of buildings from north to south, with clear differences between “palace,” “patrician houses,” and “poor houses.” Several architectural differences were noted among the two main types of houses: the presence or absence of a foundation and the width of the walls (one or two rows of stones).

Though the town was unwalled at that period, the northern part appears to be the richest, with houses built with care. For Chambon, place 153 kept its cultic nature, with a standing stone from the previous period VIIb associated with a large basin. Building 148 was situated close to the previous city gate 152 and the public place 153. It is classified as a “palace” due to its size of 4,700 ft2 (440 m2). It contains a large courtyard with pavement of about 1,080 ft2 (100 m2) ahead of the roofed space itself. One can observe that the large building’s plan proceeds from the tripartite/four-room house plan of the domestic houses, with the addition of rooms along the sides. There is a clear evolution from the plan of building 411 (layer VIIc) to building 148. Architectural details are noteworthy, with corners made of large stones. The equipment found in the buildings is less varied and numerous than in earlier strata, featuring only fences, basins, silos, and ovens. The Assyrian conquest that struck the Samaria region under the reign of Sargon II (r. 721–705 B.C.E.) in 721 is marked on the site by a thick destruction layer of about 3.3 ft (1 m).

Period VIIe (stratum 1).

The main new politicocultural aspect of period VIIe (seventh century B.C.E.) is the possible presence of an Assyrian garrison on the site, suggested by the Assyrian pottery found there. Still, there remains a strong continuity in the

Tell el-Farʿah (N)

Terra-cotta house shrine. Baker Photo Archive. Musée du Louvre

view larger image

settlement and the architecture. This level is well preserved in the palace area. Place 153 was at that time enclosed by a rectangular fence of 26 by 33 ft (8 by 10 m). It contains, as in the previous layers, a stela with a basin, which allows an important observation on the seemingly strong continuity of cultic tradition in that place. Chambon believes the maintenance of this site suggests that after each destruction of the city, the population that rebuilt and reoccupied the site is the same local one. This does not contradict the possibility of an Assyrian garrison. This idea of a continuity of cultic activity at the city gate could be problematic, and doubt has been cast on the permanency of cultic places at Tell el-Farʿah from the Bronze to the Iron Ages.

Period VIIe1.

During this period (sixth to fifth centuries B.C.E.), the town was not rebuilt, and only a short and poor presence is found on the site. For the first time place 153, linked to the sanctuary, was not reconstructed. Later, the site’s abandonment slowly continued through the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E. Several Roman installations, then a Muslim cemetery are to be found on the site over the next centuries.

Historical Debate about Tell el-Farʿah.

Although excavations have provided much information on the whole Iron-Age history of the site, some questions remain. The debate concerns the regional political and administrative trajectory of Tell el-Farʿah from a city to a royal regional place and then back to a local organizational level.

From Shechem to Tirzah, from Tirzah to Samaria.

It is unclear how to date archaeologically the transfer of capital from Shechem to Tirzah by the first Israelite kings. To which stratum does this historical event correspond? The installation and moving of a royal regional city and its administration should be an important event. De Vaux and Chambon followed the biblical narrative and decided that period VIIc, with the “unfinished building,” best fit their image of a royal administration. For them, the first Israelite capital of Tirzah was an important administrative center, with an adequate building.

By contrast, because of the lowered chronology of the beginning of the Iron II to the end of the tenth century, the first layer of the Iron Age at Tell el-Farʿah is connected with period VIIa and the time when Tirzah was a capital. Thus, there is no need to look for elaborate architectural and organizational urban planning characteristics. Indeed, the site during period VIIa was a small settlement, no more than 2.5 acres (1 ha), with no fortification, no public building, and no administration center. This sociopolitical functioning of Tell el-Farʿah as a capital of the Northern Kingdom can be paralleled with the Late Bronze Age–II Shechem, city-state of the highland, at the head of a so-called dimorphic state, ruling a large area of mainly rural settlements in the highlands and the Jezreel Valley.

Is there proof for the moving of the royal court and its administration from Tirzah/Tell el-Farʿah to Samaria? This second and final step of the history of Tell el-Farʿah as a regional capital happened several decades later, when Omri decided in the sixth year of his reign to move his capital. Following the lower chronology, with no administrative center existing in the capital, there is no need to look for a large public building as interpreted by de Vaux and Chambon. Thus, one must wait until the Omride dynasty, and the ninth century B.C.E., for the development of monumental architecture in the region in general and at Tell el-Farʿah in particular.

From Tell el-Farʿah to Jerusalem.

Stratum VIIa, dated by the excavator to the twelfth to eleventh (Iron I) and lowered to the tenth to ninth centuries B.C.E. (Late Iron I, Early Iron IIA) when Tirzah-Tell el-Farʿah was a rural, unfortified place, is the subject of far-reaching debate. This layer is indeed of the greatest importance for the understanding of the nature and the dynamic of a territorial capital and its formative process. It also forces the parallel with other regional capitals of the same period, primarily Jerusalem, where the possible remains of monumental architecture from the tenth century B.C.E. have been sought for more than 100 years, without being found. In that case, Tell el-Farʿah, as the first capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, sheds light on the kind of material culture that could be found in a capital of the hilly country region for the tenth century B.C.E.



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Michaël Jasmin