From the Army of Judah to the Israeli Defense Force

Watchtower from the time of King Hezekiah uncovered by IDF soldiers.

An observation tower from the time of the King Hezekiah (8th century BCE) was recently exposed in archaeological excavations by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) in Southern Israel, together with the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). The excavation was part of the "IDF Defense for Nature - Commanders Responsible for their Environment" project. The project is led by the IDF’s Technology and Maintenance Corps and was established in 2014 to cultivate a sense of responsibility amongst IDF commanders and soldiers to an active involvement in protecting the natural landscape and cultural heritage of their surroundings. About 150 IDF soldiers participated in the tower’s excavation over the course of several months.

The 2700-year-old tower at the paratroopers base.  Courtesy, IAA.

The 2700-year-old tower at the paratroopers base. Courtesy, IAA.

During the First Temple period, watchtowers were an important part of ancient Judea’s  defense system. "The strategic location of the tower” says Sa'ar Ganor and Valdik Lifshitz, the directors of the excavation on behalf of the IAA, “served as a lookout and warning point against the Philistine enemy, one of whose cities was Ashkelon.” The tower’s  base dimension are 5x3.5 meters and some of the stones used in the lower course weigh up to 8 tons. Although the walls were only preserved about 2 meters high, the hefty foundation would have supported a tower tall enough to see the Philistine plane, Ashkelon, and other hostile territories. Ganor and Lifshitz explain, “In the days of the First Temple, the Kingdom of Judah built a range of towers and fortresses as points of communication, warning and signaling, to transmit messages and field intelligence.”

The 2700-year-old tower at the paratroopers base.  Courtesy, IAA.

The 2700-year-old tower at the paratroopers base. Courtesy, IAA.

A number of ancient sources refer to beacons or ‘pillars’ of smoke being used during the time of the ancient Judean Kingdom as signals. Judges 20:38-40, for instance, describes a battle against the Benjamites saying, "The Israelites had arranged with the ambush that they should send up a great cloud of smoke from the city, and then the Israelites would counter attack.” The collection of ostracon (letters written on clay tablets) discovered at Lachish also show that beacons were used as part of the defense system during the Iron Age. Letter no. 4 reads, "May Yahweh cause my lord to hear reports of good news this very day …. Then it will be known that we are watching the (fire) signals of Lachish according to the code which my lord gave us for we cannot see Azekah.” According to Ganor and Lifshitz, “This tower is one of the observation points connecting the large cities in the area…In ancient times, to transmit messages, beacons of smoke were lit during the day and beacons of fire at night. It is probable that the watchtower now uncovered is one of the towers that bore some of the beacons.”

The excavation revealed the tower entrance was blocked up and no longer used just before the Assyrian invasion of Sennacherib in 701 BCE. Presumably, the forces stationed at the tower converged at one of the fortified towns. Biblical sources as well as archaeological data demonstrate that Sennacherib’s attack laid waste to Judea, destroying some 46 cities and 2,000 villages and farms. Today, 2,700 years after Sennacherib’s conquest, IDF soldiers uncovered the Judean watchtower, similar to the ones they use today.

IDF soldiers at the excavation site.  Courtesy, IAA.

IDF soldiers at the excavation site. Courtesy, IAA.

Second Lieutenant Roi Ofir, age 21, commander of the recruit team in the reconnaissance battalion of the Paratroopers Brigade, from Rosh Ha'ayin, says "The archaeological excavation was a routine break from my point of view. I saw soldiers enjoying manual labor that has added value.This is the first time I participated in excavations. The connection to the land, and the fact that there were Jewish fighters in the past, gave me a sense of mission. The fact that there was also a connection to the area where we carried out our own military maneuvers; left us with a feeling that we were giving back.” 

To our delight, each project creates solidarity, strengthening the connection between the soldiers and their surroundings.The IDF, a melting pot of Israel’s diverse population, is a unique meeting place for people from all parts of the country, which, through environmental activities, creates between them a stronger awareness to the preservation of nature and the Israeli heritage.
— Guy Saly, director of the IDF Nature Defense Forces Project

Abby VanderHart, FIAA Contributor

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