By Bill Broadway
Five George Washington University students and their archaeology professor went to Armageddon this summer, not to search for clues to a cosmic battle yet to come between good and evil, but to seek understanding of civilizations past.
One of the most important issues they addressed was whether a palace attributed to King Solomon in what is now northern Israel was in fact built by Solomon, the son of King David renowned for his wise leadership and for his illicit relationship with the queen of Sheba.
It’s no small question, and it has great significance for Jews and Christians alike, said Eric Cline, associate professor of ancient history and anthropology at George Washington University, who co-directed a dig on a hill about 15 miles southeast of Haifa, Israel, known as Megiddo. (Armageddon is a Greek corruption of the Hebrew word har, meaning mount, and Megiddo.)
Little evidence has been uncovered to prove Solomon’s ties to a particular building – or to prove that he existed at all. Some European scholars who call themselves “biblical minimalists” maintain that Solomon is a mythological figure, a kind of Jewish King Arthur.
“These guys are nuts,” Cline said in a terse assessment of their thinking.
Cline and other archaeologists believe that Solomon’s Palace at Megiddo, which some consider a cornerstone in understanding Solomon’s life and times, was constructed in the 9th century B.C., a century after Solomon’s reign. This conclusion is based on recent excavations at the site, which is one of the world’s richest archaeological fields and has yielded the layered remains of two dozen cities over a 6,000-year period.
Strategically located on the Via Maris, the region’s primary highway connecting Egypt in the south with Syria and Mesopotamia to the north and east, Megiddo guarded the agriculturally rich Jezreel Valley 70 to 100 feet below. Generations of inhabitants in a city that was destroyed and rebuilt 25 times looked down on bloody conflicts involving armies of such groups as Assyrians, Canaanites, Egyptians, Israelites, Philistines, Greeks, Romans, Crusaders and Germans.
Napoleon fought there in 1799, winning a battle against the Ottoman army but losing the campaign to control the region. In 1918, the British army defeated the Turks in a decisive battle that wrested control of Palestine from the Ottoman Empire for the first time in 400 years.
Megiddo is important to biblical scholars because it was inhabited during every period of the Hebrew Bible. “It’s simply the most important site of the biblical period in the country,” said David Ussishkin, 68, one of three directors of the Megiddo Expedition, based at Tel Aviv University.
This summer’s dig was the sixth installment of the expedition, which was launched in 1992 and brings excavators to the site every two years. Earlier digs were conducted by the German Society for Oriental Research, from 1903 to 1905; the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, from 1925 through 1939; and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, from the late 1960s through the early 1970s.
George Washington University is one of half a dozen colleges in partnership with Tel Aviv, supplying student volunteers who work three or more weeks on the site, in one or two sessions, and professors who teach classes and supervise portions of the excavation. Few if any American students participated in the 2002 excavation because of security concerns after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and increased violence between Palestinians and Israelis.
The 20-acre site, managed by the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority, is laid out in a grid with such identifying labels as H, J, K, L and M. Mapping the site allows different generations of archaeologists to compare findings.
Cline’s students, who registered through Tel Aviv University and joined their professor at the site, didn’t find an inscription or other definitive evidence to connect the palace to Solomon, who the Bible says built Megiddo as part of a construction program that included a temple at Jerusalem (1 Kings 9:15).
In the palace area, where Cline and co-director Margaret Cohen of Penn State University supervised 14 people, including George Washington anthropology major Sarah Loyer, 19, of Chelmsford, Mass., two horse-head figurines were uncovered.
The horse images represent another Megiddo debate – whether a stable area traditionally believed to have been Solomon’s was actually built by him – and whether it even was a stable. Some scholars argue that the structure, possibly constructed with stones from the palace after it was destroyed by humans or an earthquake, might have been a warehouse or an opium manufacturing plant.
“It would have been nice if we had found the horses’ heads in the stables,” said Cline, who had to leave after the first half of the summer dig to assume his new job as chair of George Washington’s Department of Classical and Semitic Languages and Literature. “But we found the horse heads in the palace level, above the stables.”
Do the heads represent a Solomonic connection? “Who knows?” Cline said, adding his conviction that the building was a stable for some ruler.
Cline, 43, has participated in Megiddo excavations five times but has researched the site’s history throughout his career. Four years ago, in time for millennial celebrations, he published “Battles of Armageddon,” a book on 34 major conflicts that have taken place in the 30-mile-wide Jezreel Valley, five of them recorded in the Old Testament.
Cline said many professional and student archaeologists are drawn to Megiddo by the Armageddon connection. Many biblical scholars believe that the Jezreel Valley will be the site of the penultimate battle between the forces of God and Satan, with the final conflict and return of the Messiah taking place in Jerusalem. But dig participants have come from a wide spectrum of beliefs – Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, agnostic – and most come with open minds about the connection of archaeological finds and history as recorded in the Bible, Cline said.
Cline’s students said they were drawn to the dig for a variety of reasons, mostly for its importance to the history of Israel and the site’s extraordinary record of human accomplishment.
“Some people (in the United States) can’t fathom having to get around in a horse and buggy,” Saltzman said. “To think about how people lived 3,000 years ago boggles the mind.”
Prutzman recalls her daily ritual of leaving the kibbutz where most students stayed at 4:45 a.m. for a 15-minute walk to the site for the 5 o’clock start. “I’d watch the sun rise and the cars moving in the valley. ... And I’d see the lights of Nazareth and Mount Gilboa above the plain and think, ‘This area is so beautiful!’ ”
The draw of the land, combined with the rush of finding “a person or even a pot that hasn’t seen light in 1,000 years,” will bring her and other students back to Megiddo.
“This will not be my last season,” Prutzman said. “I
have every intention of going back in 2006.”