By Ran Shapira
"To the king my lord and my sun: These are the words of your servant, Belit-nesheti [literally, "mistress of lions/lionesses"]. I fall at the king's feet seven times over. I must tell the king that this country is witnessing [acts of] hostility and that the land of the king, my lord, will be lost forever."
A Canaanite queen from one of the cities in Palestine's lowland sent this desperate request in the 14th century B.C.E. to Pharaoh, king of Egypt. The name of the city ruled by Belit-nesheti is not mentioned in this letter or in others that depict violent acts that aroused in her a justified feeling that she was facing a dire threat.
During that period, the city of Gezer, and the Ajalon and Sorek valleys were the scene of events that seriously challenged the rule of Belit-nesheti and other monarchs.
In another letter, she conveys the following information: "The Apiru have written to Ajalon and Zorah and the two sons of Milkilu [king of Gezer] have been almost beaten to death. I must inform the king of this act." In yet another letter, she relates that one of the cities in the area under her rule has fallen to the Apiru, and she calls to the king, "I beg the king to save his land from the hands of the Apiru, before it is too late."
The Apiru, mentioned in various documents from different parts of the ancient Near East, were a people that had been uprooted from society and which had abandoned its native land. They formed bands that engaged in robbery and in the collection of protection money, and they served as mercenaries whom the rulers of the various Canaanite cities under Egyptian rule at the time recruited as a military force when they wanted to attack their enemies. The Apiru were supported by the powerful rulers of neighboring cities who sought to seize control of her city.
Her cries for assistance from Pharaoh, who was during this period the supreme ruler of the region and of a number of Canaanite cities, elicited no response, as indicated by the findings that have recently been discovered in Tel Beit Shemesh, about a half-hour's drive from Jerusalem. Prof. Shlomo Bunimovitz and Dr. Zvi Lederman, both of Tel Aviv University's Sonia and Marco Nadler Institute of Archaeology, have been conducting excavations there since 1990. In their scholarly opinion, the city was devastated in a monstrous wave of violence; the remnants extant from that massive act of destruction have been uncovered in the past few weeks. In Tel Beit Shemesh, site of this ancient Canaanite city, archaeologists have discovered entire walls that collapsed in a huge fire, which apparently occurred in the mid-14th century B.C.E. Inter alia, they have found a structures containing more than 200 toppled bricks, which show the effects of exposure to the extreme heat of the massive blaze. Adjacent to the bricks, the foundations of the plastered walls from which they fell have also been uncovered.
In one room, under a layer of rubble, more than 30 vessels, some of which served as grain storage jars, have been found, and thus scholars are assuming that this was a storeroom. On a plastered bench that stood in one corner of the room, archaeologists found a vessel for libations, two chalices and two oil lamps; these findings are cogent evidence that the city's inhabitants also used the room for ritual purposes. Not far away, the excavations uncovered entire brick walls that had collapsed. The archaeologists intend to dig under these walls.
Evidence of the desperate attempt made by Belit-nesheti and her subjects to defend their city is provided by bronze arrowheads discovered among the fallen bricks. They perhaps indicate that the capture of the city was preceded by a battle.
Belit-nesheti's letters are part of a collection of letters written in cuneiform in the Akkadian language (the lingua franca of that era) on clay tablets, that was discovered in the late 19th century in Egypt in Tel Amarna, which is located midway between Cairo and Luxor. The letters belong to the royal archives of King Amenhotep IV, the husband of the celebrated Nefertiti. He carried out a religious revolution, transferring the royal capital from No-Amon (present-day Luxor) to Amarna. The king, who changed his name to Akhenaten, deposited in the archives of the new capital some of the royal correspondence dating from the reign of his father, Amenhotep III. After Akhenaten's death, his son, the boy-king Tutenkhamun, abandoned the new religion, which was a form of sun worship, and returned to the old capital.
The excavations at Tel Beit Shemesh uncovered a large royal Egyptian seal, bearing Amenhotep III's name. From the seal we can learn that the destruction of the Canaanite city occurred toward the end of his reign or during his son's reign. Figurines of Canaanite goddesses were also found in the excavations.
Apparently, the clay tablets that were left at Amarna, which are the remnants of what the Egyptian foreign ministry's archives contained in the 14th century B.C.E., bear the texts of letters that dealt with matters that had already been agreed upon; the Egyptian officials no longer needed them for their contacts with neighboring world powers or with the governors of the Canaanite cities that were under Egyptian control. The archives also contain letters that, like those from Belit-nesheti, were sent by governors of these Canaanite cities to the Egyptian king. The letters are primarily complaints about neighboring rulers and about the precarious security situation in Canaan under Egyptian rule. They also contain numerous reference to the Apiru.
Most of the letters are signed by men; thus, Belit-nesheti, the female governor of a city (a very high position), is an exception in this male-dominated environment. Scholars have noted that, except for the letters quoted here, we have no information on Belit-nesheti's family or biography or on the circumstances that led to her playing such a high-profile rule; what is clear that she was extremely unusual for women of her era.
Lederman and Bunimovitz point out that the Norwegian Assyriologist Jorgen Alexander Knudtzon, who published the first scholarly edition of the Amarna letters as early as 1915, observed that there was considerable similarity between Belit-nesheti's letters and those of other rulers in Palestine's lowland. The similarity can be seen in the cuneiform characters and in the clay from which the tablets were made. Knudtzon's hypothesis has been solidly confirmed in a recent, comprehensive study of the clay components of the Amarna letters, which was conducted by Prof. Yuval Goren, Prof. Nadav Na'aman and Prof. Israel Finkelstein, all of Tel Aviv University's Nadler Institute of Archaeology. According to that study, at least one of Belit-nesheti's letters was written in Gezer. In the wake of this finding, Na'aman has offered the hypothesis that the author of that letter resided in what is present-day Beit Shemesh, on the southern border of the Gezer kingdom.
In 1911 and 1912, Scottish archaeologist Duncan Mackenzie conducted a dig in Tel Beit Shemesh, and, between 1928 and 1933, the American scholar Elihu Grant spent several excavation seasons at this site. In these two excavation cycles, the remnants of a prosperous Late Bronze Age (1550-1150 B.C.E.) Canaanite city were uncovered. An excavation party led by Bunimovitz and Lederman has now exposed the northern quarter of this city, which faces the biblical Valley of Sorek.
Up until recently, the excavations at Tel Beit Shemesh, which have been conducted in a fairly intensive manner since 1990, have focused on the impressive ruins of the settlements that were in existence during the biblical period - that is, in the era depicted in the Book of Judges and in the years when Beit Shemesh was part of the kingdom of Judah. Over the past few years, archaeologists have been discovering more and more Canaanite communities lying underneath the biblical ones. Alongside the storage jars that were discovered in the storeroom, other vessels have now been found; they were imported to Beit Shemesh from Cyprus and Mycenae (in Greece). It should be noted that the storeroom is located in a spacious building that has so far been only partially exposed. This building, scholars point out, is adjacent to the ruins of the Middle Bronze Age (17th and 16th centuries B.C.E.) city wall, which was constructed from massive rocks.
Did the ancient wall serve to protect the city or was it simply a support wall intended to prevent earth from sliding down the slope into the valley atop which the city had been built? The answer to this question is highly significant because scholars today all believe that the Late Bronze Age Canaanite communities, where the events described in the Amarna documents took place, were not fortified. The lack of any fortifications was in accordance with a policy enforced by Egypt's rulers, who wanted to weaken the Canaanite cities.
If the Canaanite city that is slowly being uncovered at Tel Beit Shemesh is, in fact, the city ruled by Belit-nesheti, these impressive archaeological findings supply fascinating evidence of the day-to-day reality in Canaan that is depicted in the Amarna documents.