Mareshah: Battles and Burials

Feb 19, 2022 | Bible Archeology | 0 comments

Mareshah is where our Diggings group has been excavating for the last five years, and it has had a colourful history. It was one of the most important cities in Israel during the Old Testament period, and during the Roman period it held such an important position that a large amphitheatre was built there.

It is mentioned six times in the biblical record, first as a city allocated to Judah when the Israelites conquered the land of Canaan, Joshua 15:44, and last when it was mentioned by the prophet Micah who was probably a native of Mareshah. Micah 1:1,15. In between it was the scene of the dramatic battle between king Asa of Judah, Solomon’s great grandson, and an army of one million Ethiopian soldiers and 300 chariots.

Asa realized that he was up against impossible odds when he was confronted with this great army, but he offered a humble prayer for deliverance. “Asa cried out to the Lord his God and said, It is nothing for you to help, whether with many or with those who have no power, help us, O Lord our God, for we rest on you, and in your name we go against this multitude.” 2 Chronicles 14:11.

According to the Bible, his prayer brought results. “The Lord struck the Ethiopians before Asa and Judah, and the Ethiopians fled.” Verse 12.

According to the traditional chronology this verse is unhistorical, for there was no Ethiopian or Egyptian king of the 22nd dynasty at that time who could have raised an army of a million soldiers, but a revised chronology would place this incident at the time of Amenhotep II of the 18th dynasty. He recorded two military campaigns into Palestine. He did not of course admit any defeats during his first campaign, but neither did he claim any significant victories at that time. As he reigned from Luxor his main army would have included soldiers from Nubia (ancient Cush or Ethiopia) and Upper Egypt.

In Old Testament times most cities were built on the crest of low hills and Mareshah was no exception. This was mainly for defensive purposes and the ruins that were left behind are called `tells’. In the Greek and Roman periods less dependence was placed on elevation and more reliance was placed on strong walls and well-organized armies. In the Greek period the residents of Mareshah spread down the side of the hill and the city was called Marissa.. Several tombs cut into the side of the hill are lavishly decorated and are the most spectacular tombs ever found in Israel.

A significant feature of this period was their disposition to live and work underground. The area lent itself to this life-style as the bedrock was made of soft limestone which could be easily chipped away yet was strong enough to remain stable. So literally hundreds of man-made caves have been identified from this period. There were huge water cisterns into which water was channelled during the rainy season, olive presses and long underground passages that were pock-marked with thousands of small neat holes in the walls which pigeons used for nesting. For that matter they still fly into the tunnels and nest there.

For a long time it was assumed that this was a crafty scheme for obtaining eggs for their omelettes, or for the birds themselves to be made into pigeon pies, or maybe to collect the dung from the floor for fertiliser. But as more and more of these caves came to light it was realised that these products would be far more that would meet the needs of the local inhabitants. Now Israeli archaeologists think that the pigeons could have been sold to the traders in Jerusalem who supplied the temple with doves that were needed as sacrifices for the poor in the temple at Jerusalem.

The main offerings for sin in the temple were goats and sheep, but not everyone could afford such an expensive offering, so provision was made for the poor. “If he is not able to bring a lamb, then he shall bring to the LORD, for his trespass which he has committed two turtledoves or two young pigeons; one as a sin offering and the other as a burnt offering.” Leviticus 5:7.

Mary and Joseph were among those who took advantage of the cheaper offering when they dedicated the baby Jesus at the temple. “Now when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord… to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the law of the Lord. A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” Luke 2:22,24.

It was the abuse of this temple trading that prompted Jesus Christ to drive the greedy traders from the temple. “He found in the temple those who sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the moneychangers doing business. When he had made a whip of cords he drove them all out of the temple.” John 2:14,15..

The olive presses consisted of a round circular groove in a large block of stone. In the centre was a pivot containing a shaft which could be pulled around and around by an animal or by manpower. Attached to this shaft was a circular stone which rolled in the circular groove into which olives were thrown. The circular stone crushed the olives to pulp.

Then to remove the oil the pulp was placed in wicker baskets. A long pole was pivoted in a wall and the baskets placed underneath the pole. Stone weights were hung on the end of the pole to squeeze the oil out of the baskets. The oil ran down into troughs from where it was collected. The number of oil presses functioning in Marissa would have provided considerably more oil than would have been needed for their own domestic use, so it must have been an export industry.

During the Roman period the city buildings were erected even further down the hill until they were on the plain. A wall was built around the city which in the second century AD was named Eleutheropolis, meaning “City of Free Men.”

The city became so important that an amphitheatre was built there, and next door to it a large bath house. Nobody knew the amphitheatre was there until 1981 when Dr Amos Kloner noticed a circular depression in the ground which he suspected was an amphitheatre. He began large scale excavations in 1991. It turned out to be elliptical in shape 71m x 56m in area. It was probably built in the latter half of the second century AD. It continued to be used as an amphitheatre for 200 years until a heavy earthquake struck it in 363 AD. Subsequently its corridors were used as a bazaar and in Ottoman times they were used as stables.

Stone seats capable of accommodating some 3,500 spectators surround the venue with two special sections set aside for VIPs. In the centre of the arena an underground pit where wild animals could be kept was discovered in 1993. There is a ramp leading to the surface up which the animals could enter the arena. 650 bronze coins were found in this underground system. They were probably buried there in the earthquake of 363 AD.

As an amphitheatre it was used for combats, gladiators fighting each other and fighting wild beasts such as lions, bears, leopards and wild boars. There were probably times when Christians were martyred here. Only 100 km north of here was Caesarea where Bishop Eusebius described such persecution.

“Did any man see them without being amazed at the merciless floggings and the endurance displayed under them by those truly astounding champions of pure religion; at the ordeal with man-eating beasts which came directly after the floggings when they were attacked by panthers, bears of different kinds, wild boars and bulls goaded with red-hot irons; at the unflinching courage of those noble people in the face of every one of the beasts? When these things were going on I was there myself, and there I witnessed the ever-present divine power of Him to whom they testified… They stood naked, and in accordance with their instructions, waved their hands to attract the animals to themselves.” The History of the Church, pages 335,336.

A rather mysterious room on the western side was excavated in 1994. It was identified as a chapel for contenders to petition the gods for victory in their combats. It contained two Roman altars and 100 complete oil lamps, probably devoted to the gods to guarantee success, were found here. Most of them were painted red. On one of the altars was an inscription saying, “With good luck for the salvation of Commodus the lord, to the god Heliopolites.”

Another intrigueing find was of three rolled lead tablets. Such tablets had been found in other amphitheatres. On them were inscribed signs and magical formulas, presumably to call down curses on an opponent.

The Roman bath house next door was not just for the citizens to get clean. It was a social centre, the men’s club where the wealthy and important citizens came to talk about business, families and politics. Of course there were the hot baths, steam baths, tepid baths and cold baths for the comfort of the patrons, and no doubt pretty girls were also available.

The bath house has been thoroughly excavatede but underneath this building there are several drains that had not been emptied of debris and the Israeli archaeologists invited our Diggings group to undertake this task. I readily agreed as I expected that these drains would not only have been used for carrying the surplus water away, but would have also been handy receptacles for anything that was not wanted. My surmise was correct and we made a lot of interesting finds.

We found many delicate glass goblets. They were slightly damaged but the thin translucent blue glass was exquisite. We discovered some broken oil lamps and three very nice lamps that were in perfect condition. Why they had finished up in the drain was a mystery to us. One of them had been painted red and still bore a lot of red paint. The lamp that caused most excitement however was one that had a menorah, (branched lamp stand), moulded into the top surface. What was so remarkable was that instead of seven lamps it had eight, with a central lamp called the `shamash’.

In the Mosaic sanctuary and later the temple of Solomon, directions had been given to install a golden lamp stand with seven lamps. The idea of eight lamps was derived from the experience of the Jewish people in 165 BC, when Judas Maccabaeus cleansed the temple for 8 days after it had been desecrated by Antiochus Epiphanes, the Greek ruler who conquered Jerusalem in 168 BC. Judas “made it a law that the days of the dedication of the altar should be celebrated yearly at the proper season for eight days.” 1 Maccabees 4:59.

Today this ceremony is observed every year by Jewish people and it is known as Hanukkah, a Hebrew word meaning `Dedication’. Judas made no mention of eight lamps being used, but our discovery was evidence that this custom had been in use from early times.

Before we started our excavations a block of stone on which a board game was chiselled had been found. When we published a picture of this find in Archaeological Diggings several readers wrote to us saying that the game is still played in some places in Europe today. It is known as “Nine Men’s Morris . One reader even told us how it was played.

But what excited us about it was that one day we recovered an ivory dice from among the debris, and next day we found another four dice. They were not just plain dice with painted spots on them either. They had mother of pearl inlay dots. Whether the dice had been used with the board game we had no way of knowing, but it was interesting to speculate that others had found the board game and we found the dice.

Of course what we would have liked to have known was why these dice had finished up in the drain. Had someone accidentally dropped them? Had someone lost his money at gambling and thrown them away in disgust? Had a puritan regime taken over and forbidden all gambling? We may never know but it is interesting to speculate.

In our latest excavations we worked on the side of the hill where we were delighted to find an intact tomb. This find was reported in the October 2001 edition of Archaeological Diggings.

Article used with permission of Diggins Online. You can find more useful material at Apologtetics Courses, Free Courses and Brethren Assembly. Secular materials can be found at Coins Encyclopedia and Guide For Income

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