At the ancient site of Megiddo, archaeologists unearth new scientific insights that may turn centuries of gospel on its head.
Driving north to Tel Megiddo, I am traveling back in time.
Receding behind me, the Wi-Fi cafe culture of Tel Aviv, the white city on the beach. Looming ahead, Highway 6, tracing the Via Maris, the major trade route of the ancient world. Stretching from Egypt to Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq), the road passed the overlook city, Megiddo, making the community atop the mound a player in the history of wars and men.
One of the most embattled sites of antiquity, Megiddo has another name: Armageddon, the place the book of Revelation says we will savage each other in the last days of Earth.
Back in Tel Aviv, sirens will soon be sounding, the Iron Dome defense system blasting missiles out of the sky. Atop Tel Megiddo, I’ll mainly hear wind and doves. The contrast is deceptive: Beneath the dusty mound, or tel, are at least 20 layered cities destroyed by war, by fire, now densely packed and superbly preserved through millennia.
Israel Finkelstein, an archaeologist at Tel Aviv University, has championed microarchaeology methods at Megiddo since the early 1990s.Courtesy of Isreal Finkelstein
Commanding an army of workers bearing chisels and brushes, the iconoclastic Israel Finkelstein, a Tel Aviv University archaeologist and director of the Megiddo Expedition, orchestrates an upheaval of his own: By opening the belly of Megiddo, he is challenging the narrative of the Bible, upending ancient Israeli history and derailing what we thought we knew about the Iron Age in this region called the Levant.
Much of the uproar concerns a long-standing fight over David and Solomon, the legendary Iron Age kings. The father and son duo likely ruled some 3,000 years ago, between 1010 and 931 B.C., but the extent of their power and kingdom has been subject to fierce dispute. Were they, as the Bible says, powerful monarchs of a united, monumental Israel, stretching from Beersheba in the south to Samaria in the north? Or were they petty chieftains commanding a ragtag band of hundreds — their capital city, Jerusalem, an outpost so hardscrabble it lacked even a blacksmith to shoe a horse?
The answers are important because the palaces and chariot cities historically considered the kings’ legacy might have been built by other leaders and groups in other times. The reallocation of credit could alter whose version of history — secular or religious, Jewish, Christian or Muslim, one school of archaeology or the other — rings most true in this turbulent land. And there is much at stake.