Discovery Of The Temple Of Ashtaroth

Report Of The Expedition To Palestine

By: Alan Rowe

Originally Published in 1925

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And it came to pass on the morrow, when the Philistines came to strip the slain, that they found Saul and his three sons fallen in mount Gilboa. And they cut off his head, and stripped off his armour, and sent into the land of the Philistines round about, to publish it in the house of their idols, and among the people. And they put his armour in the house of Ashtaroth; and they fastened his body to the wall of Beth-shan.

I SAMUEL 31: 8-10.

The excavations of the University Museum at Beisan, Palestine, were resumed on the first of September last and the season’s work has already produced very important results, throwing much new light on the history of the locality as well as on the religion of the Philistines in whose possession it remained for so long. The discoveries that I have now the honor to report concern the whole history of Palestine.

Beisan is the biblical Beth-Shan, and lies at the eastern end of the Valley of Jezreel overlooking the Valley of the Jordan. In Hellenistic and Roman times it was known as Scythopolis or Nysa, and was the chief city of the famous Decapolis or league of ten cities, all of which, with the exception of Scythopolis, were on the east side of the river Jordan. The nine other cities were Pella, Dion, Gerasa, Philadelphia, Gardara, Raphana, Kanatha, Hippos and Damascus. Scythopolis and Pella, which almost face one another across the Jordan, are both referred to in an interesting hieroglyphic inscription which we found at Beth-Shan in 1923. This inscription occurs on a stela set up there by King Seti I of Egypt, and is dated in the first year of his reign, that is to say in 1313 B. C.

The text describes the invasion of Eastern Palestine by the king, and states, inter alia, that the chief of Hamath had collected together many people, and had attacked Beth-Shan and allied himself with the people of Pella. He also had laid siege to the city of Rehob. The king thereupon divided his army and sent the division of Amen to the city of Hamath, the division of Ra to the city of Beth-Shan, and the division of Sutekh to the city of Yenoam, and overthrew the enemy in the space of a day. Rehob and Hamath have recently been identified with certain mounds just to the south of Beth-Shan. The position of Yenoam is as yet uncertain.

Many other references to Beth-Shan occur in old Egyptian literature. It is also mentioned in one of the letters of the famous Tell el-Arnarna cuneiform tablets, of the fourteenth century B. C., found in Egypt and containing the official correspondence between king Amenhetep III and Amenhetep IV of Egypt and their tributary kings and governors, of Western Asia. In the letter in question, Abdi-Khiba, one of these viceroys, writes as follows to his master the king of Egypt:

“Tagi has got the land of Gath-Carmel, and the men of Gath are in occupation of Beth-Shan.”

The derivation of the name Beth-Shan, or “House of Shan,” is uncertain, but it is quite possible that Shan was the name of some local Canaanite deity. Variant passages in the Old Testament give the name of the town as Beth-Sha’an, which may be rendered ” House of Security.”

The high tell or mound which we are excavating consists of a series of superimposed cities. The excavations of the previous seasons had already cleared away from its summit the Arabic and Byzantine levels, and had revealed beneath them part of a large Hellenistic temple as well as the brick walls of a great Egyptian fort. This season’s work has cleared the whole of the temple, which is about 120 feet in length by about 71 feet in width over all, and is similar in plan to the Roman temple of Bacchus at Baalbek, Syria. It had a row of large columns all round it, with Attic bases and Corinthian capitals; the entrance was at the east. The foundations of the temple had cut right through the walls of the old Egyptian fort, and in carrying out their work the builders must have destroyed a certain quantity of valuable Egyptian historical material, the amount of which can almost be gauged by the important objects which are known to have escaped destruction.

The fort now being excavated was doubtless built by King Seti I, and we may be sure that the king, in accordance with the usual Egyptian practice, bestowed upon it some picturesque name, but this has not yet come to light. It was held by the Pharaohs until the time of Rameses III of the Twentieth Dynasty, who reigned from 1198 to 1167 B. C., when the latter monarch came to Beth-Shan, and erected there a statue of himself which was found in our last season’s excavations. After that a group of peoples coming from Crete and the south coasts of Anatolia, generally known as the Philistines, entered Palestine and occupied the fort until they were driven out by King David about 1000 B. c. Some twenty years before the latter date, the Philistines who had defeated King Saul of Israel upon the neighbouring Mount Gilboa, hung his body to the walls of Beth-Shan and placed his armour in the house of the goddess Ashtaroth. This very house of Ashtaroth has been found this season and will be described later on.

A considerable number of important Egyptian objects have been brought to light this year, the first one in order of finding being the XIXth Dynasty stele of an official or private individual, whose name seems to be Amen-em-Apt, and who is shown on the monument in a kneeling position with both hands raised in adoration. The accompanying texts mention the Egyptian gods Ra-Harmachis-Tem-Khepera ; Thoth, “lord of divine words”; Shu; Tefnut; Osiris, “at the head of the west, the great god, the king of eternity”; and Ra the sun god. Amen-em-Apt prays that he may have a happy burial in the heights of his town, and that his soul may come forth as it desires, without being shut up in the tomb, and also that he may see Ra, and the gods who are adoring the sun god, as his solar barque traverses the heavens. The name of Amen-em-Apt recalls at once to one’s mind a maher, or trained scribe, of that name referred to in the famous Anastasi Papyrus of the XIXth Dynasty (in the time of Rameses II). The scribe is bantered by Hori, another scribe, for his incompetence, and is spoken to by Hori as follows: “Pray, teach me about K-Y-N (Kanah?), Rehob, Beth-Shan and T-r-k-el. The stream of the Jordan, how is it crossed? Cause me to know the crossing over to Megiddo.” Near this monument, but in another room, was found the missing fragment of the stele of Seti I discovered the last season at Beisan; this fragment mentions Kharu (Palestine), a word which is met with on the famous Israel stele of King Merenptah, now in the Cairo Museum. “Israel is desolated, and his seed is no more, and Kharu has become a widow for Egypt.” A few feet away from this fragment we have lately unearthed the centre portion of a XIXth Dynasty statue of a king or royal personage, very similar in style to the statute of the prince Kha-em-Wast, son of Rameses II, exhibited in the British Museum, and to a certain statue of King Merenptah in the Cairo Museum. The statue represents a man standing upright, with arms held straight down by his sides, supporting a long staff in each hand. From the same room and from under its floor, which was made of hard clay, came a most important monument of basalt, dedicated by an Egyptian named Hesi-Nekht, who lived under the XIXth Dynasty. This monument shows a figure of the goddess Ashtaroth, who is depicted as wearing a long dress and the usual conical crown of all Syrian goddesses, with two feathers attached. She holds the was sceptre in her left hand and the ankh sign of life in her right hand. The interesting thing about the monument is the fact that, although the goddess is depicted as Ashtaroth, she is called Antit (Anaitis), which deity elsewhere is invariably shown as seated on a throne, holding a battle axe in her left hand and a shield and spear in her right hand. In front of the goddess is Hesi-Nekht, and an altar stand with a lily over it. Above her is written “Anaitis, lady of heaven, mistress of all the gods,” and against the man, “May the king give an offering—Anaitas—may she give all life, strength and health, to the double of Hesi-Nekht.” Recent research shows that Ashtaroth and Anaitis were merely different names for the same deity.

Very near the stele we came upon a number of baked clay objects, which were evidently connected with the cult of the goddess Ashta-roth, and which appear to throw an extremely interesting and new light upon the early religion of Palestine. These cult objects take various shapes, and examples of them have never been found before in this country. Some of them are in the form of rectangular shrines, in two stages, surmounted by a rounded top bearing the figures of birds, probably doves and ducks. In the upper stage are two windows and two doors, with the nude figure of a female, who must be Ashtaroth, standing looking out from the door on each side. She holds birds in both hands. The lower stage has a window on every side, and a snake winding up from near its base towards the goddess above. Other cult objects are in the form of circular stands with two handles near the top, and with bellshaped open bases. The top is like the rim of a jar. On the top of each handle are birds, while in the sides of the object are openings, four, or sometimes eight, in number, in whch sit other birds, towards some of which face the heads of the serpents coiled round the stand. Other stands of a similar shape have no serpents or birds on them, but possess two handles and openings. It is well known that serpents and doves were sacred to Ashtaroth. Soon after the Israelites entered Canaan, and subsequent on the death of Joshua, they appear to have worshipped Baal and Ashtaroth, a fact which is referred to in Judges 2:13. Also, “Ashtaroth the goddess of the Zidonians” was worshipped by Solomon. The room in which the stele of Ashtaroth-Anaitis was found had four solid stone drums concealed under its floor of hard clay; these must have at some time formed the bases for wooden columns. One of two things must have taken place. Either the builders (probably of the XIXth Dynasty) of the floor removed the superstructure of a slightly earlier temple, or were themselves the persons who erected the bases, which, owing to a change in plan were never used for their original purpose.

One of the most important things that we have just unearthed is a large temple which is situated on the extreme south side of the tall summit, in the Egyptian level. It is about twenty four metres long, by nineteen metres broad, with its axis running west to east. It comprises a rectangular building containing a long central hall with three circular stone bases on either side, the bases being built into brick walls. Wooden columns must have been set up on these bases. To the south of the hall are three store rooms, on the floor of one of which was discovered a peculiar pottery cylindrical shaped object with the forepart of a bull at one end, and the forepart of a lion the other end. The eastern end of the temple had been smashed away by two large reservoirs, one Byzantine and one Hellenistic, one above the other. From the temple floor level came a number of the goddesses, serpent, and bird cult objects described above. Against the centre column base on the south side of the wall was discovered a foundation deposit, consisting of a pot filled with ingots, rings, and earrings of electrum, an alloy of gold and silver, the intrinsic value of which, apart from the archaeological value, must be considerable. A similar deposit, consisting of gold objects, was found against the column on the opposite side of the hall. All the available evidence shows that the temple was erected by the Egyptians to the goddess Ashtaroth, and it was, so far as we know, the only temple intact at Beth-Shan at the time the Philistines conquered and lived in the city. It is more than probable that it is none other than the “house of Ashtaroth ” mentioned in I Samuel 31:10, within which was hung the armour of King Saul after his death. The account in I Chronicles 10:10 is not so precise as that in Samuel, for it merely says the armour was placed in the “house of the gods.”

We can confidently refer the date of the Ashtaroth temple to the XIXth Dynasty, for its floor level is exactly on the same plane as the floor level of the rooms containing the monuments of Seti I and Rameses II, found last season. Further than this, we actually discovered on the temple floor a very valuable serpentine cylinder seal, inscribed with the cartouche of the latter king, who reigned from 1292 to 1225 B. c. The seal shows the figure of Rameses, wearing the battle helmet, and shooting an arrow at his Semitic enemies. Facing the monarch, is the figure of the Canaanite warrior god Reshpu, who holds a scimitar in his right hand. Between the two figures is the standard of a Canaanite fort, comprising a shield pierced with three arrows and supported on a pole; at the base of this emblem are two captive bearded Canaanites. The seal is quite unusual, and the whole scene is remarkably well cut.

Upon an inscribed stone door jamb found in the temple debris, we came across the name of the commandant of the Beth-Shan fortress, doubtless in the time of Rameses II, or a little later. His name was Rameses-wesr-khepesh. Among other things he was “fortress commandant of the bowmen of the king, scribe, and steward of Pharaoh.” He was the son of a man whose name is missing, but who was a royal fanbearer at the right hand of the king. Perhaps Rameses-wesr-khepesh was actually the man who built the Ashtaroth temple, of which the stone formed a part. It was found in the debris a little way inside the entrance. On the other hand, if he was not its builder, he may have been its restorer.

Underneath the XIXth Dynasty temple is another temple, which may possibly turn out to be one erected by King Thothmes III of the XVIIIth Dynasty, 1501-1447 B. C., whose scarab was found in the debris a little below the level of the upper temple, together with over a thousand beads of carnelian, gold, crystal, etc. The axis of the lower building, unlike that of the upper one, runs from south to north, and at the northern end, the only one that has so far been excavated, is an altar in a small room, which room has a flight of six steps leading up to it from the main floor of the temple. The altar is composed of a brick base supporting two large stone slabs, one of which appears to be a sacred object from some other building, for it is hollowed out on the underside, with a depression in one part of the hollow. The top of the altar is flat, and slants down from the back to the front. On the floor of the room, which was coloured a bright blue, we discovered a lifesized stone hawk, wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt, and standing on a base. The hawk is well made and was painted in a vivid manner. Under one part of the floor of the room was a gold scaraboid, and on the floor itself four bronze straight sided pots, a stone four handled bowl, a Hyksos seal cylinder, and some strips of gold foil. Later on, we shall search for foundation deposits under the altar itself. From a room outside the XIXth Dynasty temple came a pottery cult object composed of three stages. On the uppermost stage is a figure of a seated goddess, who must be Ashtaroth. Below her, and on the second stage, are the figures of two men, one all but broken away, each with a hand on the other’s head. By the side of one of the men are the feet of a bird, and under him, the head of a snake, which winds up the lowest stage. Behind the other man, and on the side of the second stage, is a figure of a lioness. What the whole scene actually represents is uncertain. Perhaps the lioness is meant to be chasing the man, who flies to the goddess for protection. But this is only a provisional hypothesis which may be modified later.

It seems certain that the part of the tell on which the two Egyptian temples were erected, the one over the ruins of the other, was the sacred part of the mound, and we may well find a Canaanite high place under the lower temple which we have provisionally dated to the XVIIIth Dynasty. Perhaps the peculiar hollowed out stone referred to above originally belonged to this high place and was used as a libation tank. The temples are the only Bronze Age buildings of their kind found in Palestine. The excavation of the lower Egyptian temple is now proceeding, but a huge amount of debris has to be removed before it can be completely cleared. Several stone column bases in situ have already been unearthed.

Beisan, October 15, 1925.

Cite This Article

Rowe, Alan. "Discovery Of The Temple Of Ashtaroth." The Museum Journal XVI, no. 4 (December, 1925): 307-313. Accessed February 22, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/journal/1359/


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