Kadesh Barnea
(Ain el-Qudeirat)
A fortress from the time of the Judaean Kingdom
Rudolph Cohen
The Israel Museum, Jerusalem 1983 AD

The Site

Biblical Tradition

Kadesh-barnea's importance in the history of the Jewish people derives primarily from its biblical association with Israel's sojourn in the desert. As a consequence, numerous scholars of past generations have attempted to equate biblical Kadesh-barnea with sites in Sinai, the Negev, or even more distant places. Early in this century, a general scholarly consensus emerged, identifying Kadesh-barnea with Tell el-Qudeirat, located in the fertile valley watered by the spring of 'Ain el-Qudeirat.

In the Bible, Kadesh-barnea, also known as Enmishpat, "The Spring of Judgement" (Gen. 14:7), served as a nomadic and semi-nomadic judicial and cultic centre for the confederation of tribes which wandered in the Negev and Sinai. This can be inferred from the account of the war between the four kings of Aram-naharaim and the five kings of the Jordan Plain (Gen. 14:1-11). Abraham's role in this episode, as well as the description of his dwelling in the Negev "between Kadesh and Shur" (Gen. 20:1) connects Kadesh-barnea with the Patriarchal Age.

Most of the references to Kadesh-barnea, however, are connected with the period of the Israelites' sojourn in the desert, attesting to its important position in the biblical tradition of the Exodus. The Israelites remained at Kadesh-barnea and in its immediate vicinity for "many days" (Deut. 1:46), and this was the first national-religious centre around which the Israelite tribes under Moses coalesced. It was from Kadesh that Moses sent twelve men to spy out the land (Num. 13:26), and messengers to the king of Edom to request passage through his territory (Num. 20:14).

The abundance of water at the Kadesh-barnea oasis is connected with a miracle performed by Moses (Num. 20:11), and the episode preceding this miracle gave the site the name, "the Waters of Meribah (strife)" (Num. 20:13, 24; Deut. 33:8; Ps. 81:8; 106:32), or "the Waters of Meribath Meribath-kadesh" (Num. 27:14; Deut. 32:51; Ez. 47:19; 48:28). Moses' sister, Miriam, died and was buried at Kadesh (Num. 20:1). Aaron died at Mount Hor, located in the vicinity of Kadesh (Num. 20:22).

Kadesh-barnea's location, to the south of the Land of Israel, can be inferred from the description of the southern border of Canaan, i.e., the Promised Land of the Israelites (Num. 14:4; Ez. 47:19; 48:28), as well as from that of the southern border of the territory of Judah (Josh. 15:3). Kadesh-barnea was situated in the Wilderness of Zin (Num. 20:1; 27:14; 33:36), although it is also associated with the Wilderness of Paran (Num. 13:26) and defined as a city on the border of Edom (Num. 20:16). The sanctity of the site seems to derive, at least partially, from its geographic proximity to Mount Sinai and Mount Horeb. According to Deut. 1:2, Kadesh is located eleven days from Horeb by way of Mount Seir.

Another biblical tradition (Deut. 1:19) records that the way from Horeb to Kadesh-barnea "went through all that great and dreadful wilderness which you saw, on the way to the hill-country of the Amorites".

The Identification of Kadesh-barnea

The pioneering explorers of the early 19th century sought Kadesh-barnea in the Aravah. In 1836, for example, von Raumer proposed 'Ain Hosb (Haseva) as a candidate for the site, while Robinson, in 1838, preferred 'Ain el-Webeh (`En Yahav). In 1881, however, Trumbull advocated the identification of Kadesh-barnea with 'Ain Qedeis in northern Sinai, basing himself on the similarity between the Arabic name qedeis and the biblical "Kadesh". In 1905, Schmidt suggested an identification of Kadesh-barnea with 'Ain el-Qudeirat. He was apparently the first to have noticed the tell in the vicinity of the spring. A similar suggestion was advanced by Kuhtreiber. Today, most scholars accept the identification of Kadesh-barnea with Tel el-Qudeirat, especially since Woolley and Lawrence discovered at the site the remains of a rectangular fortress with eight projecting towers, which they dated to the period of the kings of Judah and Israel. Numerous scholars have subsequently visited the site, and contributed to the proper recognition of its historical importance. Particularly noteworthy in this regard are Glueck (1934), de Vaux (1937), and Aharoni (1956).

Excavations at Tell Kadesh-barnea

In 1956, Dothan conducted excavations at the site, and was able to clarify many details connected with the ground plan of the fortress. Dothan ascribed its construction to the 8th-7th centuries B.C.E. (during the reign of Jehoshaphat), and its destruction to about the same time as that of the First Temple (586 B.C.E.). He also distinguished a phase, preceding the erection of the fortress, which he associated with the so-called "Negebite" pottery - crude, handmade vessels characteristic of the central Negev. A settlement phase could also be observed following the destruction of the fortress, which continued through the 5th-4th centuries B.C.E. This phase yielded pottery characteristic of the Persian period and imported Greek vessels. Between 1976-1982, the author carried out ten seasons of excavations at Kadesh-barnea. These excavations revealed that the site consisted of three superimposed fortresses, each one built over the remains of its predecessor, covering a time span from the 10th century B.C.E. to the destruction of the First Temple. The site was occupied by an unwalled settlement during the Persian period following the destruction of the last fortress (5th-4th centuries B.C.E.).

The Early Fortress

The earliest remains at Tell Kadesh-barnea comprise a fortress and settlement erected in the late 10th century B.C.E., on a low hill adjacent to the northern bank of Wadi el-`Ain. The remains of this phase were discovered some 5 meters below the surface of the mound.

The first, though fragmentary, indications that such a phase existed appeared already in 1976, the first season, in the southeastern section of the tell. During the following years, additional sections of the fortress were cleared, and it became evident that its walls on the east side projected beyond the ramparts of the later structures. After several seasons, its ground plan and character became clear, and it could definitely be established that the earliest fortress was oval in ground plan, and smaller in area than the later, overlying fortresses, with a diameter of merely 27 m. It also became clear that the contemporary remains to the west of the fortress consisted of a number of buildings and silos. A structure uncovered in the northwestern corner of the site comprised a number of chambers, including a rectangular room (ca. 6 x 4 m.) with a stone bench running along its walls.

On the ash-covered floors of the casemate rooms was a rich assemblage of pottery which could be classified into two types: one consisted of wheelmade vessels, including large storage jars (pithoi), regular storage jars, juglets, flasks, oil-lamps, and bowls, all characteristic of the 10th century B.C.E. throughout the Land of Israel. The other type is crude and handmade. Vessels of the latter type included kraters, cooking-pots, large and small bowls, chalices, goblets, oil-lamps, baking trays, and juglets. Among the other finds were two "Horus' Eye" amulets and the fragment of a faience statuette.

The early fortress at Kadesh-barnea is similar in its oval ground plan to that at 'Ain Qedeis and to the other Israelite fortresses in the Central Negev such as Atar Haro'a, Horvat Haluqim, Nahal Horsha, and Nahal Sirpad. The Kadesh-barnea fortress, like the others, appears to have been erected during Solomon's reign in the context of his building projects, and served to fortify the southern frontier of his kingdom. Several years ago, the author noted the striking similarity between the fortress line in the Central Negev and the southern border of the territories of Judah, as delineated in Josh. 15:1-4. The fortress of Kadesh-barnea was apparently destroyed in the course of Pharaoh Shishak's campaign into Palestine. (About 925 BC: 2 Chron 11:5-10; 12:2-9; 1 Kings 11:40)

The Middle Fortress

After the destruction of the earliest fortress (About 925 BC), the site seems to have been abandoned for some time. However, unlike numerous other Central Negev strongholds, which were not rebuilt, at Kadesh-barnea a new fortress was erected over the ruins of the old, and it is this that makes the site unique.

The middle fortress had a completely different ground plan: it was rectangular (ca. 60x40 m.), with broad solid walls (ca. 4 m.), preserved to the height of about 1.80 m., and eight projecting towers. The fortress was entirely surrounded by an earthen glagis that rested against a buttress wall, built to the height of ca. 2.50 m. This buttress wall was completely exposed along the east side of the fortress, as well as to a great extent along the north and south sides. Small sections were also cleared along the west side. In the final season it was discovered that the fortress was also protected by a moat, ca. 4 m. wide and ca. 2.50 m. deep. Sections of this moat were cleared along the north, east and west sides of the fortress, but not along the south side, where a moat was considered unnecessary owing to the protection of the wadi.

The interior structures of the middle fortress were almost completely exposed. Three occupational phases could be distinguished. In the principal phase, a street (ca. 3.50 m. wide) divided the space enclosed by the fortress walls into two structural halves. The northern half contained the remains of five building units, separated by narrow passageways (ca. 1.50 m.). These units were some 10 m. long, and their walls were constructed of mud-brick or stone foundations. Particularly noteworthy were two adjacent units in the northwestern corner of the fortress (10 x 7 m, each), comprising five oblong rooms (ca. 4 x 2.50 m.), as well as mud-brick installations with traces of fire in their vicinity. The finds on the floors of these two building units included, in addition to wheelmade pottery, "Negebite" ware, such as small knob-decorated bowls, a goblet, oil-lamps and juglets. Numerous animal bones were also uncovered. South of these units a water-supply system was cleared, including a cistern, ca. 10 m. across, constructed of large stones, and plastered in the lower part. The descent to the bottom was facilitated by 25 steps. The cistern's capacity was about 180 cubic meters. A plastered conduit, running underneath the rampart walls, directed the spring water from outside the fortress into the cistern. Some 5 m. east of the cistern, Inside the fortress, a rectangular room (ca.5.50 x 3.80 m.), was uncovered, whose walls were preserved to a height of 2.80 m. The floor of this room was paved with large stones, and it appears to have served as a silo. Nearby was a circular silo ca. 2 m. across. Four granaries were discovered outside the fortress walls on the north side, between the central and northeastern towers. The largest was ca. 1.80 m. in diameter. They were built of large, undressed stones and small pebbles. To the west of the granaries was a room (4 x 3 m.) attached to the fortress walls. Set into the floor of this room was an oven containing a complete hand-made cooking-pot.

Wheelmade pottery characteristic of the 8th-7th centuries B.C.E. was found on the floors of the rooms of the middle fortress along with numerous "Negebite" vessels, including kraters, cooking-pots, knob-decorated bowls, and bowls with bar-handles.

The middle fortress at Kadesh-barnea may have been erected during Uzziah's reign in the course of the 8th century B.C.E. The three occupational phases indicate that the fortress continued to exist for a considerable time. The final phase of the fortress may have been destroyed towards the end of the reign of Manasseh of Judah, about the mid-7th century B.C.E.

The Upper Fortress

The last fortress at Kadesh-barnea was erected a short time after the destruction of its predecessor. The ground plan is almost identical to that of the middle fortress, but now casemate walls replaced the thick, massive walls. There were apparently some twenty casemate rooms, all of which were cleared, except for two or three in the southeast which were completely eroded. The earthen glagis of the middle fortress was strengthened and adapted to the new walls, and the moat seems to have been used again.

Inside the fortress, the layout changed completely. In the northwestern part, a building was exposed (25 x 10 m.) containing three oblong rooms con-nected by a stone-paved hall (15 x 10 m.). At the western end of the pavement was a round mud-brick structure, 1.90 m. in diameter, preserved to the height of ca. 1,20 m. It contained a thick layer of ashes, and next to it numerous pottery vessels were uncovered, including a small incense burner, and animal bones. Adjacent to this was an additional brick installation which also contained a thick layer of ashes.

The water-system of the previous phase continued in use, and descent into the cistern was evidently adapted to the living level of the inhabitants of the upper fortress by the addition of several steps.

Numerous sherds belonging to the time of this last fortress were found on the bottom of the cistern.

East of the water system, a structure consisting of a number of rooms attached to the southern casemate rooms was excavated. In one of these rooms an important ostracon was discovered (see below).

Two casemate rooms were particularly rich in finds. One was exposed at the northern end of the eastern side. Twenty-five complete vessels were uncovered on the floor in a thick ash layer; they included both wheel-made and handmade "Negebite" pottery, such as storage jars, cooking pots, bowls, jugs, juglets, oil lamps and a flask. The head of a horse figurine and an ostracon were also found. The second casemate room was excavated at the southern end of the western side. Five complete storage jars were found in a thick ash layer, leaning against the wall in the north corner of the room. One of the jars was still full of burnt wheat.

On the ash-covered floors of the other casemates and interior rooms of the upper fortress a large assemblage of ceramic vessels was uncovered, ogain belonging to two types: wheel-made pottery characteristic of the 7th-6th centuries B.C.E., and the handmade "Negebite" pottery.

An Unwalled Settlement from the Persian Period

The third and last fortress to be erected at Kadesh-barnea was apparently built by Josiah, and was destroyed in a great conflagration at about the same time as the First Temple - 586 B.C.E.

After the destruction of the upper fortress, an unwalled settlement was established on the site in the Persian period (5th-4th centuries B.C.E.). There are indications that some of the casemate rooms of the fortress, particularly along the east side, served as temporary dwelling quarters. In the northern part of the site a small room, apparently built by these settlers, was excavated. There is evidence that a similar room existed in the southern part of the site. The majority of the finds from this period, however, come from pits dug into levels of the earlier settlements. These include storage-jars, juglets, bowls, and imported Greek vessels.

The Handmade Pottery

Together with the wheelmade pottery, crude handmade vessels were found at Kadesh-barnea in all three fortress levels. This rather coarse ware has been known for some time. First reported by Lawrence and Woolley in their exploration of our site, it was subsequently discussed by Glueck (in connection with his excavations at Tell el-Kheleifeh) and Aharoni. The latter associated it with nomad potters active in the Negev and Aravah who lacked the knowledge and equipment to produce more finished ware. Glueck ultimately subscribed to this view, connecting such pottery with the nomadic and semi-nomadic inhabitants of the region, such as the Kenites, Rechabites, Calebites, and Yerachmeelites.

The excavations at Kadesh-barnea have contributed considerably to our understanding of this ware.

The repertory of known types has been greatly enlarged, and the association of such pottery with all three successive fortress levels, spanning some five hundred years, has allowed a developmental typology to be drawn up. The author agrees that this "Negebite" pottery should be connected with the wandering desert tribes, and would further suggest that it should be specifically associated with the Kenites, particularly since in the Bible a close relationship is implied between the Kenites and the Israelites.

The Ostraca

Although the excavations at Kadesh-barnea yielded only a few ostraca, they are important because they contribute to our understanding of the inhabitants' identity. No ostraca were found in the earliest fortress, which is not surprising in view of the fact that very few ostraca from the 10th century B.C.E. are known. Two ostraca were found in the middle fortress. One is inscribed with the Hebrew word I'dny (to my lord) on the base of an oil-lamp; this may well be the first element of a composite name, such as Adonizedek, Adoniyahu or the like. The second bears the last three letters. of a name ...dmy, inscribed on the rim of a handmade bowl. The letters are too few to enable us to reconstruct the name.

As we mentioned above, a number of ostraca were recovered from the ruins of the upper fortress. The most important document comes from one of the rooms attached to the southern casemate wall. It bears six columns in hieratic writing, comprising numbers and measurement signs. The numbers are arranged in a column from one to ten consecutively, then from ten to a hundred (in units of tens), from one hundred to a thousand (in units of hundreds), and from one thousand to ten thousand (in units of thousands). The number "ten thousand" was written with the hieratic digit for 10 followed by the Hebrew word 'If (thousand) in Hebrew characters. This formula (an exercise?) is repeated at least twice. The shekel symbol appears next to the figures in columns 4 and 5, containing numbers 1 through 900 only. On the back of the ostracon, at the bottom, there are three numbers: four thousand, five thousand, and six thousand. To the right of these numbers are additional figures. These possibly comprise the numbers between one hundred and four hundred, but they are very indistinct, and this is not certain. In the middle of the ostracon, the number one thousand was deciphered. At the top appears the number three thousand and next to it a Hebrew word, of which the first letter, alef, is clear, so that it might also be the word 'Ifm (thousands).

Another ostracon (15 x 10 cm.), found in the northeastern casemate room, contains three columns written in Hebrew characters and hieratic numbers. The third line (the clearest) includes numbers arranged in a column from 100 to 800, each number followed by the Hebrew word gerah - the smallest known weight measure, amounting to about 0.50 grams. Other ostraca bear hieratic numbers or fragments thereof, including one ostracon of five lines, featuring the hieratic numerals from 100 to 500, followed by the shekel sign.

Two Hebrew ostraca were also found. One (16 x 12 cm.) includes three lines in black ink, but the characters were so indistinct that its contents could not be deciphered. The second ostracon (4.50 x 4.50 cm.) bears three consecutive letters -- ie yin, Pet, tet - and apparently formed part of a Hebrew alphabet.

Another ostracon featuring the words'skr tb was found in the interior of the upper fortress; its context, however, is not certain, as it was found in the vicinity of an ash pit from the Persian period. The word 'skr means "offering", as in Ps. 72:10: "The kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts", and in Ezek. 27:15: "They brought you as tribute horns of ivory and ebony". Accordingly, 'skr tb would mean "good offering".

Another important find was a seal impression yhd, stamped on a jar-handle, common in the post-exilic period within the borders of the satrapy of Judah. (Similar impressions have been found in Jerusalem, En-Gedi and elsewhere, but this is the first time that one has been discovered in a more southerly area.)


The importance of Kadesh-barnea and its central role in the region in the period of the Monarchy are reflected in the archaeological finds. The excavations attest to settlement continuity from the 10th to the 5-4th centuries B.C.E.

The earliest remains uncovered in the excavation date to the 10th century B.C.E., and no artifacts or structures were found which could be assigned to the time of the Exodus. The earliest fortress and settlement at Kadesh-barnea formed part of a defensive system established by Solomon for safeguarding his southern border. As mentioned earlier, the ground plan of this fortress is similar to that of many other strongholds in the Central Negev. Hence it appears that Kadesh-barnea belonged at this time to this geographical-national entity, and accordingly shared the same fate as the other fortress settlements in the course of Pharaoh Shishak's invasion.

Unlike the other Central Negev sites, however, at Kadesh-barnea, a new fortress was established following a period of abandonment of undetermined length. This middle fortress had a completely different groundplan. Its construction, which may be ascribed to the Judean King Uzziah, was impressive both for its size and solidity, as seen in the powerful rampart walls, towers, earthen glagis, and protective moat. This was clearly a royal building project, and as such has no parallel anywhere in the Central Negev or northern Sinai. What was the reason for erecting such an imposing fortress in this remote area? The explanation must be connected with the resurgence of the kingdom of Judah, and the attempt to push back the Philistines and their descendants from the area of Nahal Besor and the coast. That time the geographic-national line clearly followed the Nahal Besor and the Beersheba region, since the Central Negev was not settled.

Other reasons, not clearly traceable today, may have also contributed to the choice of the site. There may have been a revival of interest in the origin of the nation and the sojourn of Israelites in the Kadesh-barnea region after the flight from Egypt.

The middle fortress existed for a considerable time, but despite its impressive fortifications, it evidently fell victim to an attack by some enemy whose identity is unknown. The possibility cannot be excluded that the destruction of the fortress may have been wrought, not by Egyptian or Assyrian forces, but by desert raiders.

The last fortress, whose construction is attributed to Josiah, was destroyed in a great conflagration, which left its traces in all the casemate and interior rooms. It seems reasonable to associate its destruction with the same political factors that brought about the downfall of Jerusalem and numerous other Judean cities in 586 B.C.E.

Settlement at Kadesh-barnea continued in the post-exilic period with the establishment of an unfortified village on the site. There is evidence of similar settlement, though on a very restricted scale, elsewhere in the Central Negev (e.g., Horvat Ritma). In Beersheba and Nahal Besor region there is ample proof of resettlement -between ancient Arad and Tell el Far'ah in Nahal Besor, even though the character of this settlement is difficult to define. It would seem that the Kadesh-barnea settlers were somehow connected with the Jewish presence in the satrapy of Yehud, as perhaps is indicated by the seal impression (yhd) recovered in the excavations. It is probable that the biblical "Way of the Spies", along which many of the Israelite fortresses in the Central Negev were located in the 10th century B.C.E., was in use in this period as well.

Archaeological surveys conducted in the area of Kadesh-barnea point to extensive settlement in the periods preceding the First Temple. Numerous settlement remains from the Early Bronze II and Middle Bronze I have been discovered between 'Ain Qedeis and 'Ain el-Qudeirat. None of the surveys, however, have recorded remains from the Late Bronze Age.

The surveys also revealed an interesting settlement picture in the Nabatean and Byzantine periods. The dams and aqueducts along Wadi 'Ain el-Qudeirat attest to its importance in providing the region's inhabitants with their agricultural livelihood.

Photos appearing in Hebrew section:

  1. "Negebite" pottery incense-burners from the middle fortress
  2. "Negebite" pottery altar, from the upper fortress
  3. "Negebite" vessel from the early fortress
  4. Plan of the early fortress
  5. Isometric drawing of the early fortress
  6. Eastern casemate-room of the early fortress
  7. Assemblage of pottery vessels from the.early fortress
  8. Pottery juglets from the early fortress
  9. Plan of the middle fortress 1
  10. Isometric drawing of the middle fortress
  11. Silos, outside the middle fortress walls
  12. Assemblage of pottery vessels from the middle fortress
  13. Water-system
  14. To the right: stone altar. To the left: tripod bowls, "Negebite" vessel on the right, wheelmade vessel on the left
  15. Plan of the upper fortress
  16. Isometric drawing of the upper fortress
  17. The structure in the north-west part of the upper fortress
  18. Pottery juglets from the upper fortress
  19. The round mud-brick structure
  20. Assemblage of pottery vessels from the upper fortress
  21. Pottery jars, on floor of western casemate-room
  22. "Yhd" seal-impression on jar handle
  23. Lekithos, imported from Greece
  24. Assemblage of pottery vessels from the Persian period
  25. Group of pottery, hand-made, "Negebite", vessels
  26. Tabun with "Negebite" cooking-pot, uncovered in a room outside the middle fortress wall
  27. Group of "Negebite" pottery vessels
  28. Pottery pendants and lids
  29. "I'dny"
  30. "...dmy"
  31. The letters zayin, het, tet
  32. Ostracon, list of numbers from one to ten thousand
  33. Back side of the ostracon, with list of numbers-
  34. Key to the numbers on the ostracon
  35. List of numbers followed by the weight measure-gerah
  36. List of numbers from one to five hundred
  37. "'skr tb..." ("good offering")


(Rudolph Cohen, Kadesh Barnea: A fortress from the time of the Judaean Kingdom, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem 1983 AD p7-21)



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