Kuntillet Ajrud
Ze'ev Meshel

Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1991 AD

(Kuntillet Ajrud, Ze'ev Meshel, Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1991 AD)


The Arabic name, meaning "hill of the water-source," of a site located in N Sinai. Ruins of the site date to the 8th century B.C. (the time of the Israelite monarchy), and various remains suggest that it served as some sort of a religious center. Of particular significance are inscriptional references to "Yah-weh of Samaria and his Asherah" and to "Yahweh of Teman," which provide important evidence of the complex nature of Israelite religion during the OT period (Meshel 1979; and relevant articles in AIR.

A. Location

B. Initial Exploration of the Site

C. Recent Excavations

1. Structural and Pottery Remains

a. The Western Structure

b. The Eastern Structure

2. Textile Remains

3. Epigraphic Remains

4. Artistic Remains

D. Conclusion

A. Location

Kuntillet cAtrild is located approximately 50 km south of Kadesh-barnea and about 15 km W of Darb el-Ghazza, a road which since antiquity has run N-S, connecting Quseima and Kadesh-barnea to Elat and S Sinai. The isolated hill rises prominently from the broad valley of Wadi Quraiya (or "wadi of the small building"), which forms a natural W-E route. See Fig. KUN.01. The top of the hill is a long and narrow plateau, and the actual ruins are found at its W end. At the foot of the hill there is a concentration of shallow wells providing one of the few reliable sources of water in this arid and isolated area. These wells made this site an important crossroads in the past—a fact also recorded on old maps of the modern period. The combination of water and crossroads undoubtedly contributed to the selection of the site for a small settlement.

B. Initial Exploration of the Site

The site has long been known to travelers. Edward Palmer, one of the first explorers of Sinai, visited the sitein 1869. He arranged an exploratory dig at the site during which the first written find was discovered: the letter 'alef incised on a fragment, which Palmer mistook for a Greek alpha. Palmer erred greatly in dating the site, and identi-fied it with the Roman "Gypsaria," which on the -tabula Peutingeriana" appears between "Elusa" (Halutza) arid "Ada" (Eilat).

In 1902 the surveyor H. Musil visited the site. He arrived after hearing a rumor about the discovery of an ancient inscription there. He described in colorful detail the vio-lent confrontation with the local bedouin, who tried to stop him from ascending the hill (since they considered it to be a sacred place). Prof. Beno Rothenberg visited the site after the Six-Day War in 1967, and dated it correctly to the Israelite period. Dr. Ze'ev Meshel visited in 1970 and later directed three seasons of excavation at the site (October 1975-April 1976).

C. Recent Excavations

1. Structural and Pottery Remains. The site contains two structures: a main structure (A) spanning the width of the W end of the plateau; and a secondary structure (B) 10 meters to its E. The structures differ greatly from one another in the state of their preservation. See Fig. KUN.02.

a. The Western Structure. The walls of structure A are at points preserved to a height of 1.5 meters. The building itself extends over an area of approximately 15 x 25 meters. It is rectangular, with four corner rooms protrud-ing outward (resembling "towers") and with indirect entry from a small eastern vestibule. The plan initially seems to resemble a small fortress, similar in appearance to the Israelite citadel-with-towers found at Kadesh-barnea, Arad, and `Uza. Structure A differs, however, in a number of important respects: it lacks the casemate walls typical of these fortresses, and its remains are unusual for a fortress and suggest a different type of function altogether.

Structure A was entered through a small exterior court area (locus 15) surrounded by stone benches. "The benches, floor, and walls were plastered with white plaster. Some of the pieces of plaster that were in the debris on the floor were adorned with colorful pictures of a figure sitting on a throne and various floral motifs. It seems that part of the inner walls of this exterior court area were colorfully adorned at a specific height above that which was preserved.

From the court area, one entered the main structure proper by first passing through a small gate room (locus 5), turning left into a narrow room divided into two wings, whose walls were surrounded by plastered stone benches. This "bench room" (locus 6) extends N-S across the entire width of the building and apparently was the most important part of the site. The plastered stone benches take up most of the area, with only a narrow passage remaining between them, suggesting that the main function of the room is to be associated with the benches, not the passage-way. An additional function is suggested by the manner in which the wings of the bench room are connected to the two corner rooms at their respective ends (loci 7 and 13). These have no usual doorway but instead are connected to the bench room by very narrow "windows" whose sills are formed by the lateral benches themselves. By examining these benches it became clear that they had been constructed in a second phase, thus partially blocking the small openings that were present in the first phase of the building. Apparently these openings were merely structural features serving no other purposes, and the first phase was merely the stage of the building's construction.

The fragments of plaster that had dropped from the walls of the bench room included two Hebrew inscriptions written in Phoenician script. A part of a third inscription was found in situ about 1.5 m above the floor level on the N doorpost of the entrance leading to the main courtyard of structure A. This, along with other evidence discovered near other doorways (see below), possibly testifies to the sort of practice advocated in Deut 6:9—"And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house, and on your gates."

In addition to these plaster inscriptions, most of the other significant finds were discovered in the bench room, in the corner rooms abutting its two wings, and in adjoin-ing parts of the structure. These included two large pithoi adorned with inscriptions and pictures (see 3.e below), and of donors incised on their rims (see 3.c). In general, the pottery in this part of the structure was comprised essen-tially of small vessels such as flasks, lamps, juglets, and bowls, quite different from the pottery found in the other rooms of the structure (primarily pithoi and storage jars). The bulk of the pottery was found in the two corner rooms, which perhaps served as favissa depositories for vessels that initially had been displayed on the benches. The bench room's design and its remains (particularly the inscriptional remains—see below) suggest that here travel-ers could honor the Israelite god by offering various items to him.

The two long rooms to the S and W of the main courtyard served as storerooms for hoarding food sup-plies: in fact, the bases of the pithoi and large storage jars housed here were discovered still in situ, firmly embedded in the hard-earth floor and covered by the fragments of their own upper parts. Names, inscriptions, and letters of the alphabet were written on the shoulders of many of these larger vessels (see 3.a-b below). These vessels were stored so compactly that it is difficult to imagine how

The larger pithoi (1 meter in height and more than 0.5 meter in diameter) were concentrated mainly in the W storeroom, from one end to the other. At the E end of the S storeroom the builders took advantage of the natural depression in the bedrock to construct a type of cellar (locus 8). Among the items that had either fallen or been tossed into the cellar were a large woven sieve, whole pomegranates, fragments of wooden containers, and many tree branches that served as rafters. Next to the entrance of the S storeroom was found a large stone bowl bearing an inscription (see 3.c below), apparently dragged here from the bench room area. Among the debris around the entrance to the W storeroom were discovered fragments of another plaster inscription. One could guess that origi-nally it, too, was written on the doorpost. (A picture drawn in red, black, and yellow was also discovered on one of the stones of the doorpost of the S storeroom.)

The main courtyard was essentially empty except for two "kitchens" (loci 51, 101) at the SW and SE corners near flights of stairs apparently leading to the roof. In each "kitchen" were found three ovens which, judging from their respective floor levels, were used consecutively, not simultaneously. It is difficult to determine how long each oven was in service, but it is safe to assume that the oven sequence corresponds to the total time-span the site was occupied.

Structure A is well preserved, making it possible to ascertain some interesting details about its construction. The walls were built of unhewn chalk cut from local deposits. At a height of about 1.2 m a middle layer of (mostly tamarisk) branches was placed lengthwise and crosswise, thereby strengthening the wall by forming an intermediate layer separating the lower course of stone from the upper one. This technique was obviously well known since it was used in the construction of the Jerusa-lem temple (1 Kgs 7:12), although at Kuntillet cAjrild this technique was obviously applied on a more modest scale. A superior whitewashed plaster covered the walls, floors, and benches of the entry complex and the bench room, but all the other walls were covered in mud plaster mixed with straw. The ceilings were made of branches of local trees, most of which were found in the debris of the rooms. It seems that the entire structure was built with a single, preplanned design and a specific purpose already in mind. The dimensions and orientation of the structure were laid out with respect to the oblong surface of the plateau. The actual construction, however, was not perfect: the lines of the walls are not straight, the widths of the rooms are not uniform, and the two wings of the bench room are far from symmetrical.

b. The Eastern Structure. In contrast to structure A, structure B is poorly preserved, and its layout and design have not become clear. The white plaster that covered all its remaining parts and the many decorated plaster frag-ments found in its debris (particularly near doorways), however, suggests that the building was elegantly adorned with murals. It is possible that this was an anterior entrance to the main structure; it is also possible that this structure is an E wing to an entrance courtyard between the two structures. Although it seems unlikely, it is furthermore possible that the two structures were not contemporaneous and that the E structure slightly preceded the W one.106 • IV

In the N part of structure B was a long room that originally extended to the edge of the plateau (locus 159); its floor and walls were covered with white plaster. The entrance to the room was from the W; the doorway was indicated by two pillasters projecting out from the line of the wall, around which were found fragments of decorated plaster. Some traces of walls from the S part of the struc-ture also remained.

Because the site was occupied for a relatively brief time span, the large mass of pottery discovered there presents interesting analysis. If the site indeed can be dated to ca. 800 B.C.E., then the pottery corpus from Kuntillet Ajrud could serve as an important comparative standard for identifying contemporaneous levels at other sites. Analysis of similar pottery forms suggest that four different areas could have been a source for most of the pottery types: the S coast, central Judah, the N kingdom of Israel (i.e., Ephraim), and Phoenicia. Surprisingly, the site yielded no "Negeb-type pottery" supposedly associated with the no-madic inhabitants of the area.

2. Textile Remains. Kuntillet cAjrtid is unique in that it yields textile remains from the period of the Israelite monarchy. About one hundred cloth fragments, almost all of linen (only seven of wool) were discovered among the ruins. A. Sheffer (1978) details the superior quality of the threads and the unique characteristics of the fabrics. It has been noted that, in violation of biblical law (Lev 19:9; Deut 22:9-11), some of these fabrics were made by combining wool and linen (on one piece red woolen threads were interwoven with blue linen ones.) Loom weights and wooden beams found at the site confirm the possibility that actual weaving was done there. In light of the preponderance of linen fabrics from the site, it is worth pointing out that according to the OT the "holy garments" of the Jerusalem priests were supposed to be woven of linen (Ezek 44:17-18). The Bible also indicates that weaving activities were often associated with cultic establishments (2 Kgs 23:17). These factors, in addition to the inscriptional re-mains, suggest that the site was inhabited by priests.

3. Epigraphic Remains. The most important finds at-testing to the significance, uniqueness, and nature of the site are the Hebrew inscriptions and pictures. The inscriptions, some written in ancient Hebrew script and some written in Phoenician script, can be categorized as follows:

a. Letters incised on pottery prior to firing. On the shoulders of most of the pithoi recovered from (mainly the storerooms of) the site—and only on this type of vessel—are one or two letters. The most frequent letter is the 'alef, while the letter yod is more scarce, and twice the combination qop-re§ appears. Thus far we know about similar inscriptions only from the excavations of the City of David (Jerusalem); incisions of the letter let were found there also on the shoulders of an identical type of pithoi. This strengthens the assumption that these letters are abbreviations indicating types of offerings and "tithes," a practice described a millennium later in the Mishna (111daser Sheni 4:11) and Tosefta (Macaser Sheni 5:6). Thus it is possible that qop-rd indicates qorbän ("offering"), that yod indicates mace-s& ("tithe"), and that 'alef indicates "first harvest," either in a temporal or superlative sense. In any case, the letters were incised prior to firing. Neutron activation examination of the clay of the pithoi proved that they were made in the vicinity of Jerusalem. This perhaps reinforces the suggestion that priests lived at the site and received supplies in the forms of these sacrifices and tithes.

b. Inscriptions incised on the pottery subsequent to firing. Among the seven such inscriptions written on the shoulders of storage jars are four reading L'srcr, obviously to be read legar (ir, "(belonging or were sent) to a city official" (i.e., an official in charge of the place). It is thought that at least part of the supply was consigned to him or registered at the site in his name.

c. Inscriptions incised on the rims of stone bowls. Among the four inscriptions of this type, the most com-plete one reads: 1(1)dyw bn (dnh brk h' lyhw, "(was given) by Obadio son of Adnah; may he be blessed by YHW(H)." These stone bowls were apparently dedicated to the god of Israel by donors who sought his blessings.

d. Inscriptions written in ink on plaster walls. Frag-ments of three such graffiti inscriptions, written in Phoe-nician script but in the Hebrew language, were found in the bench room, while parts of another two, written in ancient Hebrew script, were found in the debris of the entrance to the W storeroom. Only one inscription was found in situ on the N doorpost of the opening leading from the bench room to the courtyard, but it was the most fragmentary and faded. Several phrases could be read on the second, two-line inscription:

This is a blessing or prayer addressed to "Yahweh of Teman and his Asherah." The third inscription is obvi-ously a piece of an ancient theophany describing the revelation of God in language echoing the OT:

It is noteworthy that Baal and God (Heb 5e1) are mentioned here in poetic parallelism, in connection to a possible reference to a "day of war" (yOm

e. Inscriptions (and pictures) written on pottery. The main examplars of this type are two large pithoi decorated with inscriptions and pictures in red ink. They were found (broken), one in the bench room and the other at the E end of the adjoining courtyard. The large pithoi had been used as convenient surfaces for writing and drawing. It is reasonable to suppose that the pithoi had been moved here for that purpose from the storerooms, since on their respective shoulders were also incised the letters 'alef and qop-reg.

Among the inscriptions are four repetitions of the al-phabet, with the letter pc preceding the letter cayin and not following it. There is also a list of personal names, as well as a text containing phrases echoed in the OT:

There are two blessings written on pottery which on the one hand resemble typical epistolary-greeting formulas, and on the other hand resemble the priestly benediction. One of these (see Fig. KUN.03) was written above two figures of the (Egyptian-in-origin) god Bes, and may be reconstructed as follows:

If this reconstruction is sound, it is possible that we have in 'Syw hmlk a transposition of the name yw'3", Joash, referring to the king (hmlk) of Israel who reigned from Samaria (ca. 801-786 B.c.E.), perhaps providing an important synchro-nism for dating the site. The second blessing reads: 'mr 'mryw 'mr I'd(w)ny 't(h) brktk lyhwh t(y)mn wPgrth ybrkk wylmrk wyhy (in 'd(w)ny [ . . .]. These inscriptions, with their references to "Yahweh of Samaria (or of Teman) and his Asherah," have generated a great deal of scholarly discus-sion (see Meshel 1979: Dever 1984; and discussions in AIR). Not only do they shed light on the cultic and reli-gious character of the site, but they also provide revealing glimpses into the history of Israelite religion.

4. Artistic Remains. The quantity and variety of pictorial and decorative art found at Kuntillet Ajrqd were unprecedented for an Israelite site. This art was drawn on the plaster of the walls, on doorposts, on pottery (primarily on the two large pithoi mentioned above), and also on one of the stones in the jamb of the central opening to the S storeroom.

The two pithoi depict various divine, human, and animal figures. On one of them, beside two representations of the god Bes, a female figure is portrayed seated and playing a lyre. See Fig. KUN.03. The familiar "tree of life flanked by two goats" motif is also found on this vessel, as well as pictures of a lion, a procession of animals, and a cow licking the tail of a suckling calf. On the other vessel are depicted five figures raising their hands in a gesture of prayer, and an archer raising a bow. Even though most of these artistic motifs are well known from the Syro-Phoeni-cian world, the actual renderings themselves are here very crude and perhaps also reflect "Arab" N desert influence. Despite their lack of artistic proficiency, the Kuntillet `Ajrild artists were familiar with and influenced by the prevailing art styles of the time, and they appreciated the significance of duplicating those styles. In short, the pic-tures are an expression of "folk art" as opposed to profes-sional "court art."

Just as the inscriptions on the pithoi were not all written by the same person on one specific occasion, so also the pictures seem to reflect various hands. While it is difficult to draw definitive conclusions about such things, it has been suggested that, according to style and line, three different artists can be identified, at least one of whom drew on both pithoi (Beck 1982).

The plaster art (in black, red, and yellow ink) differs in some respects from that drawn on the pithoi, primarily in being more decorative in character. From the E building (structure B) were recovered many fragments of decora-tive art: a running pattern (perhaps a frame) surrounded by two rows of lotus flowers and two rows of intertwined circles; a geometric checkerboard pattern with red and

KUN.03. Drawings and inscriptions on a pithos—Kuntillet <Ajrud. (Courtesy of Z. Meshel)

yellow squares; but also a picture of people standing atop a fortified wall. The fragments of plaster found near the exterior court of structure A (locus 15) were restored revealing a large red, black, and yellow picture of a figure sitting on a throne smelling a lotus flower. (A third picture of a figure sitting on a throne was also discovered on a pottery fragment.) Some fragments revealed that in several sections there were at least two layers of plaster one over the other.

There is no clear answer to whether or not the artist responsible for the decorative art on the plaster also drew the pictorial scenes on the pithoi; while the Syro-Phoeni-cian artistic influence is common to both, the technical quality of the plaster art is superior to that of the pithoi art, and the respective subject matters tend to be different. Most of the artistic parallels are dated to the 9th-7th centuries, generally corroborating the conclusion that the site was occupied around the year 800 B.C.E.

D. Conclusion

The unusual finds (especially the inscriptions and pictures) testify to the- uniqueness of the site. The subject matter of the inscriptions, the references to various deities, and the presence of dedicated vessels all suggest that Kuntillet Ajrad was a religious center; however, the lack of things usually associated with ritual sacrifice (e.g., altars) and the architectural layout of the site indicate that the remains are not those of a temple. It appears that the site may have served as a "wayside shrine" that, due to its location, was associated with journeys of the Israelite kings to Elat and to Ezion-geber, and perhaps also with the travels of pilgrims to S Sinai. These were able to journey S along the Darb el-Ghazza from Kadesh-barnea, stopping at the place to make dedications to Israel's god in the bench room of the main building.

The strong N (Israelite, not Judean) influence in the remains seems to connect Kuntillet Ajrud with the N kingdom of Israel or with one of the Judean kings closely aligned with the N kingdom of Israel. This N influence is evident in the reference to "Yahweh of Samaria," in the Phoenician-style writing, in the cosmopolitan style and motifs of the decorative and pictorial artwork, in the pottery types, and in the onomastic conventions (names ending in -yau, and not -yahu). The site, occupied for only a few years, was likely inhabited by a small group of priests dispatched from the N kingdom of Israel with an officer at their head. They were sustained by the various sacrifices and tithes that were sent as provisions primarily from Judah; in return, they rendered their cultic services to travelers.

The date of the site

The date of the site, determined by typological and paleographic analysis, and by the need to identify an historical period in which N Israelite influence over Judah was especially strong, points to the period after the death of Jehoshaphat of Judah (ca. 850 B.C.E.). The reigns of Jehoram, Ahaziah, and Athaliah (between 850 and 837 B.C.E.) seem distinct possibilities. However, the period of Joash king of Israel (ca. 801-786 B.C.E.), who captured Amaziah king of Judah, broke down the wall of Jerusalem, and seized the treasures of the Jerusalem temple and palace (2 Kgs 14:1-16 = 2 Chr 25:1-24) seems especially well suited. This would be reinforced if the reconstruction of )3"yw hmlk on the top line of the Bes figurine inscription indeed is a reference to Joash. It may tentatively be suggested that Joash intended to gain direct access to the Red Sea, and that this was the reason for the war between the two kings. The victory of Joash is reflected in the construction of the buildings at Kuntillet Ajrud, and accounts for the concurrent references to the "Yahweh of Samaria" and the "Yahweh of Teman"; i.e., Samaria's god (as well as its king) having dominion over the entire region through which one reached "Teman" (meaning "the far south").


Beck, P. 1982. The Drawings from Horvat Teiman (Kuntillet Ajnad). TA 9: 3-86.

Dever, W. G. 1984. Asherah, Consort of Yahweh? BASOR 255: 21-37.

Meshel, Z. 1978. Kuntillet (Ajrnd: A Religious Centre from the time of the Judaean monarchy on the border of Sinai. Israel Museum Catalogue, no. 175.

. 1979. Did Yahweh Have a Consort? The New Religious Inscriptions from Sinai. BARev 5/2: 24-34.

Sheffer, A. 1978. The Textiles. In Meshel 1978.


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