The Capital of the North

Understanding ancient Samaria through the lens of biblical archaeology
 

Among all the biblical sites in Israel, the city of Samaria is unique. Most cities in the ancient Levant were built on a mound, or “tel.” After a tel’s previous inhabitants were destroyed or moved out, a new civilization would build on top of the old city. But this wasn’t the case with Samaria. This city was built on virgin soil—into solid bedrock.

Samaria was founded by the Israelite king Omri during the mid-to-late ninth century b.c.e. It served as Israel’s capital for roughly 200 years until Sargon ii of Assyria besieged the city and finally conquered the kingdom in 721 b.c.e. After subjugating Samaria, Assyria’s king imported non-Israelite inhabitants from Babylon, turning it into a fully functioning Assyrian city (2 Kings 17:24). The city was inhabited through Babylonian, Persian and Greek rule. Under Roman rule, it was renamed “Sebaste.”

The first archaeological excavation on the hill of Samaria occurred more than 100 years ago,from 1908 to 1910 by archaeologists from Harvard University. Another excavation, from 1931 to 1935, was sponsored by Harvard University, the British Academy, the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem, the Palestine Exploration Fund and Hebrew University.

While the history of ancient Samaria spawns much controversy and scholarly debate, it stands as a monument in archaeology, demonstrating biblical historicity and adding cultural insight to the biblical account. Let’s take a look at the history and archaeology of this key Israelite city.

Why Samaria?

When the united monarchy split into the twin kingdoms of Israel and Judah in the 10th century b.c.e., the northern kingdom of Israel was clearly the more physically fortunate.

The kingdom of Judah’s territory consisted primarily of the lowlands, the Judean mountains and the Negev desert. Judah was bordered by Moab and Edom, two nations that were not exceptionally opulent or powerful, but possessed enough military and geopolitical might to be a nuisance (e.g. 2 Chronicles 20).

The kingdom of Israel inherited vastly more territory (about 2.5 times more land than Judah), and the land itself was lush and more fertile. Israel inherited the prized Jezreel Valley, as well as the well-fortified cities of Megiddo and Hazor. Meanwhile, Israel’s main neighbor was the Phoenicians, a wealthy, cosmopolitan people who, thanks largely to the efforts of kings David and Solomon, were supportive and friendly.

In spite of all its material advantages, Israel lacked one crucial asset. As noted by British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon, Judah’s possession of the city of Jerusalem gave it enormous prestige and influence (Royal Cities of the Old Testament). Jerusalem was a well-fortified capital that carried political and religious import, as well as extravagant wealth. Established by the priest Melchizedek in the 20th century b.c.e., and massively developed by Israel’s greatest monarchs (King David and King Solomon), Jerusalem possessed unmatched history and meaning. The city was home to the temple, the seat of Israel’s religious worship.

Israel’s first king after the split of the united monarchy, King Jeroboam, understood how central Jerusalem was to the political, cultural and religious identity of his people. This is why, when he led Israel to break away, his first priority was replacing Jerusalem as national headquarters. He immediately began his search for a new capital (1 Kings 12:26-27).

Israel’s first capital city was Shechem, then Penuel (verse 25), and later Tirzah (1 Kings 15:21; King Baasa had originally planned to fortify Ramah, but later opted for Tirzah). By the time Omri came on the scene around 885 b.c.e., the throne had been usurped by a chariot captain named Zimri (1 Kings 16:9-12). Zimri reigned for just seven days before Omri, an army captain at the time, besieged Zimri at Tirzah and took the throne from him (verses 16-19). This coup d’etat launched a four-year civil war.

For Omri, this internal conflict reinforced the importance of centralized power. For Israel to thrive as an independent and respected kingdom, it needed a fortified capital!

Archaeologists have identified the modern-day Tel el-Far’ah as biblical Tirzah. Archaeological excavations have revealed evidence of a massive building project at the site that appears to have been commissioned by Omri. But this superstructure was never finished.

The Bible shows that two years after the end of the civil war, the king set his sights on a new plot of land: “And he bought the hill Samaria of Shemer for two talents of silver, and he built on the hill, and called the name of the city which he built, after the name of Shemer, the owner of the hill, Samaria” (verse 24). Archaeological remains at the site confirm that just as construction at Tel el-Far’ah stopped, construction at Samaria began. Tirzah was effectively abandoned when Omri began construction on Samaria.

While Omri built the city on virgin ground, his choice was not random. Around 100 pre-Omride bottle-shaped cisterns have been discovered in Samaria, which would have belonged to Shemer, the original owner of the land (for more on this, read Norma Franklin’s Samaria: From the Bedrock to the Omride Palace). These cisterns held a total capacity of around 350,000 liters, which suggests Shemer presided over a large agricultural operation. While over half of the cisterns were found on the lower slopes of the hill, more than 30 were found on top of the hill, where Omri built his acropolis. In addition to the cisterns, numerous wine and oil presses were present nearby (ibid).

Samaria’s location was also advantageous both militarily and strategically. Established on a high hill, the city was surrounded by other hills that provided security. The hill’s central location situated the city on the main north-south central ridge trade route, easily accessible to cities like Jezreel and Shechem. Jezreel was located in one of the most coveted, fertile regions in the kingdom, and at Shechem one could find the great tree of Moreh, an altar that Abraham built, and Joseph’s bones, not to mention the city was the first capital of the northern kingdom. Those in Samaria had easy access to both cities.

Was Samaria Actually the Capital?

One of the big questions regarding Samaria among academia today is the role it played as Israel’s capital. While the Bible makes it clear that the capital of Israel was at Samaria and that Israelite kings lived in Omride palaces there, the Bible indicates that Jezreel was also a key city. 1 Kings 21 says that Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard “in Jezreel, hard by the palace of Ahab, king of Samaria” (verse 1). While the term “Jezreel” could be referring to the greater region of Jezreel, the evil queen Jezebel was definitely killed in the city of Jezreel (verse 23; 2 Kings 9:30-37). It was also where Ahab’s son, Jehoram, was sent to be healed (verse 15), where Judah’s King Ahaziah went to meet him, and where Jehu went to assassinate both of them and assume the throne of Israel.

A number of theories attempt to explain Jezreel’s prominence, especially in relation to Samaria. Some believe that when the Bible says “Jezreel,” it means Samaria. Others theorize that Samaria and Jezreel comprised two Israelite capitals—that they served as a winter and a summer capital, or as an Israelite and a Canaanite capital, or that perhaps Jezreel served a more religious function as opposed to Samaria. Archaeologist Prof. David Ussishkin asserts that Samaria had a more royal, palatial function, while Jezreel was more of a military hub.

Established on a high hill, the city was surrounded by other hills that provided security. In addition to its fortification, the hill’s central location situated the city on the main north-south central ridge trade route.
© Richard T. Nowitz/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Excavations at Jezreel dating to the ninth century b.c.e. show that a large fortification wall was constructed at the same time Omri was building up Samaria. The construction of these walls, however, was very different from those at Samaria. The walls of Samaria were built from high-quality ashlars (worked stones) laid with incredible precision. The walls at Jezreel, however, were constructed using cyclopean masonry—using uncut, un-quarried boulders and stones. This difference in construction suggests the cities each had unique and different functions.

Ussishkin believes that, while Israel’s capital was at Samaria, it was not logistically feasible to build a central military base there. (For one, it would have been especially difficult for Israel’s greatest military branch, chariots and war horses to be based in the hills.) So the Omrides constructed a military base at Jezreel, which was located in close proximity to both Samaria and Megiddo (another large Israelite city of great importance). Situated in the lush Jezreel valley, the city would have had easy access to barley and chaff—feed for the war horses. Jezreel’s military function also explains why Jehoram might have been sent back to the city to be healed of his battle wounds, and why Jehoram and Ahaziah were able to escape so quickly on chariots when Jehu came against them.

Walls of the Acropolis

Perhaps nothing has sparked more archaeological debate regarding Samaria than the dating of the many walls found on the acropolis, where the royal palace would have been located. Among all the debate, however, archaeologists agree that there were six main building periods and six main pottery periods. Different archaeologists assign different dates to these periods, but a general picture comes into focus when we analyze the phases of use.

The Bible records that Solomon recruited the services of expert Phoenician craftsmen in the construction of the temple (1 Kings 5). King Omri had a similar vision of quality and precision in mind when he constructed his palace; he also sought assistance from the Phoenicians. As noted by Kenyon, the ashlar masonry of Period i was extremely exact. Bosses (raised ornamental features) were carved on the stones of the outer retaining walls, a typical Phoenician architectural style (see Kenyon, Crowfoot and Sukenik’s Samaria-Sebaste I: The Buildings of Samaria). Some of the preexisting cisterns were also truncated during this period.

To fortify the acropolis, a so-called “inner wall” was constructed. This inner wall, however, was actually comprised of three separate walls: one to the north, one to the south, and another to the west (the eastern slope was the least steep and would presumably have been used for entrance into the city, which could explain the lack of a fourth wall). These three walls weren’t all built at the same time. The southern wall was built first in Period i, and the other two were built later in Period ii (the northern wall was originally dated to Period i, but as Franklin opines, this wall was actually part of Period ii construction).

In addition to these three inner walls, a large casemate wall was constructed along the palace perimeter during Period ii. Along this casemate wall, a “pool of Samaria” was discovered, which some theorize was the same pool Ahab’s chariot was washed in after his death (1 Kings 22:38: “And they washed the chariot by the pool of Samaria; and the dogs licked up his blood …”).

If this “pool of Samaria” along the Period ii casemate wall is the one Ahab’s chariot was washed in, then Period ii can be dated to Ahab’s construction (mid-ninth century b.c.e.), and Period i would correspondingly be dated to the time of King Omri (early ninth century b.c.e.). This is the prevailing belief held by Kathleen Kenyon, though some, like the archaeologist George Ernest Wright, have tried to place Period ii in a later, post-Omride-dynasty era.

Debate about Period ii aside, the difference between the Period i Phoenician-style masonry and the Period iii masonry is stark. Whereas Period i saw exact, precisely quarried ashlars, the later Period iii utilized coarse, rough ashlars. This could correspond with a post-Omride era. By the end of the Omride dynasty (Omri, Ahab, Ahaziah and Jehoram) when Jehu came on the scene, Israel entered a period of war, economic subjugation (as famously relayed by the Black Obelisk) and political upheaval.

Period iv saw a lot of reconstruction. While the masonry was similar to Period iii, the pottery was markedly different. Kenyon attributed this to the period of Jeroboam ii (first half of the eighth century b.c.e.), the king which 2 Kings 14:27-28 say “saved” an ailing Israel and “recovered” lands for them. It makes sense that renovation and reconstruction would have been a function of this endeavor. Finally, Periods v and vi ended with Sargon ii’s conquest of Samaria, toward the end of the eighth century b.c.e.

Again, different methods of dating are used by different archaeologists, and the dating gets more nuanced when leaving aside the masonry and analyzing the pottery. But this is the general picture from Samaria’s walls.

Ivory Assemblage

The Bible tells us that Israel had good diplomatic relations with Phoenicia. In addition to Phoenician influence in Samaria’s original construction, we know that Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, was from Zidon (1 Kings 16:31), one of the chief Phoenician cities. But the Phoenician connection is also made evident by an assemblage of ivories found in Samaria.

These ivories were discovered during the two phases of excavations from 1908 to 1935: the Harvard Expedition led by Egyptologist George Andrew Reisner, and the joint excavation led by Sir John Winter Crowfoot. The ivory assemblage is often highlighted as the greatest confirmation of detailed Bible historicity discovered in Samaria. 1 Kings 22:39 says that Ahab famously built an “ivory house”—the word “house” simply referring to any structure or room.

A common theme in these ivories is the “woman at the window” (a specific motif that can be directly associated with a couple of biblical accounts, not least that of Jezebel in 2 Kings 9:30, as well as Sisera’s mother: Judges 5:28). The “woman at the window” scenes discovered at Arslan Tash and Nimrud are quite different stylistically to the “woman at the window” found in Samaria.
Trustees of the British Museum

Much has been written on the massive assemblage of around 12,000 ivory pieces discovered at the site (not to mention many more charred pieces) and their relation to this passage. One of the most notable observations is that the ivories contain many Egyptian religious themes. Yet to an Egyptologist, the artistic style of the ivories is clearly not Egyptian, as noted by Kenyon. The ivories found at Samaria are distinctly Phoenician in style (where Egyptian motifs were heavily utilized), which makes sense considering Samaria’s Phoenician masonry and Phoenician queen.

Similar assemblages of ivory have been found at other Middle Eastern sites—the most notable being Arslan Tash (ancient Hadātu) in Syria, and Nimrud, in Assyria. But the ivories discovered at Samaria are quite different stylistically from ivories discovered at other sites.

There are three main styles of art found on Iron Age ivories: North Syrian, Phoenician and South Syrian (which is an intermediate style between North Syrian and Phoenician). The Arslan Tash ivories are categorized as South Syrian, not Phoenician like the Samarian ivories. Although these differing ivory assemblages indicate a similar prevailing culture, they come from two different places or, at least, two different artists.

It is tempting to conclude that the ivories found at Nimrud were taken and pillaged from Ahab’s collection. After all, Nimrud was the capital of Assyria under Sargon ii, who captured Samaria. But the ivories found in Assyria, though depicting the same scenes found on the Samarian ivories, are carved in a completely different style. Nimrud archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan said that some ivories were probably carved to suit the Assyrian style (Mallowan, Nimrud and its Remains, Vol. I). Despite the suggestion that they were pillaged from the Assyrian invasion of Samaria, it doesn’t make much artistic sense that Ahab’s ivory house would have the same scenes carved in completely different styles. Even if he did, why would the Assyrian looters leave some 12,000 pieces behind? In fact, given how many of the Samarian ivories were destroyed, and that the rest were found under a pile of mud-brick, it is entirely plausible that the marauding Assyrians were unaware of the ivory inside the structure they were destroying.

Understanding ancient Samaria is crucial to understanding biblical history. As the capital of the north, Samaria was more than just a city, it was a symbol for the kingdom of Israel.

Stylistic debates aside, these contemporary ivories give insight into what might have been present in Samaria. The ivories at Arslan Tash, for example, were decorated with glass inlays, gold leaf and even paint. Ivory-decorated bedsteads were also uncovered at Nimrud, which could have existed in Samaria per Amos 6:4 (a verse that decries the lazy, inequitable opulence of Samaria).

The ivories at Samaria, for their part, were probably affixed to something, such as a wall or a piece of furniture, seeing as they were mostly carved in low relief. (One exception is a pair of lions, which were carved in the round and had two holes in each ivory. Perhaps these were worn on a necklace.) The ivories also give insight into the royal architecture of the time, namely volute capitals and triple-recessed frames depicted on the scenes. These ivories paint a vivid picture of the Samaria of the Bible, depicting the luxurious and opulent lifestyles of Israel’s kings.

Most importantly, the fact that the ivories from Samaria, Arslan Tash and Nimrud depict similar scenes shows the prevailing cosmopolitan zeitgeist during Iron Age ii, of which the northern kingdom of Israel took part.

Assemblage of Ostraca

Also uncovered at Samaria was an assemblage of ostraca (potsherds with engraved writing) near the southeastern section of the palace. These ostraca, dated to periods iv and v, are administrative records of shipments of oil and wine. They are dated in regnal years, indicating a king that ruled for either 9, 15 or 17 years, thus narrowing down the identification of the king in question to the reign of either Jehoahaz, Jehoash or Jeroboam ii. The style of script rules out Jehoahaz, and the fact that the epigraphs were written on ostraca and not on papyri indicates either the late years of Jehoash or the early years of Jeroboam ii (as described in “Algorithmic Handwriting Analysis of the Samaria Inscriptions Illuminates Bureaucratic Apparatus in Biblical Israel,” in plos One).

The fascinating part of these ostraca is who wrote them. A recent undertaking at Tel Aviv University used computer algorithms to analyze the handwriting to determine the probable number of scribes. A similar operation has been performed on 18 ostraca from Tel Arad in Judah, dating to 600 b.c.e. With these ostraca, a total of six writers was originally proposed, though upon further inspection, the number is now closer to 12 scribes for the 18 epigraphs. This indicates widespread literacy in Judah during the seventh and sixth centuries b.c.e.

However, the Samarian ostraca tell a different story: Using the same algorithm to analyze 31 epigraphs at Samaria, scientists discovered that the ostraca were penned by only two scribes. This was interpreted in the above-mentioned article as an indicator that literacy was very low in Samaria at this time, before a resurgence in literacy around the seventh and sixth centuries b.c.e. Still, this point of literacy has been contested: While the Tel Arad ostraca represent the letters of numerous military servicemen, the Samarian ostraca simply represent the work of the equivalent of an accountant’s office (listen to our podcast Reexamined: Biblical Era Writings Reveal Royal Administration in Israel). Thus, in the case of determining literacy in the northern kingdom, care should be taken in extrapolations from such a limited, nonrepresentative data set.

In Summation

Understanding ancient Samaria is crucial to understanding biblical history. As the capital of the north, Samaria was more than just a city, it was a symbol for the kingdom of Israel. Even the name “Samaria” became synonymous with the entire kingdom it ruled.

The archaeological findings at Samaria paint a detailed picture of what the ancient city was like, highlighting the luxurious lifestyle of the monarchs and the cosmopolitan nature of its society. The discovery of cisterns from a pre-Omride era, the grand ninth-century masonry at Jezreel, the Samaria pool, the ivories and the ostraca all come together to give cultural background for understanding the ancient city.

The findings at Samaria clearly and powerfully support the biblical account. Sure, there is still room for debate regarding minute specifics of dating or artistic style, but the archaeological finds at Samaria provide a more-than-coincidental portion of evidence supporting the historicity of the biblical account.