What Is A Tel?

Faithbased Tour To The Holyland
Tel Bet She’an and the Roman Cardo (street)

A “Tel” is not short for telephone, nor is it a habit that gives you away….a Tel is the site of an ancient city and most are Biblical. In the Old Testament, God instructs the Israelites to destroy pagan cities, leave them in ashes and walk away from the rubble. Sometimes they did and sometimes they didn’t….we know, because many archaeological sites in Israel and the Middle East contain historical artifacts from pagan and Israelite inhabitants.

“Tel” In The Bible

The word “Tel” is written six times in the Hebrew Bible, and is translated in King James Version as “heap” and in more modern translations, “ruin.”

Deuteronomy 13: 16 describes the Tel as a ruined city. God commanded the Israelites to burn down cities of evil people, and turn them into a hill (Tel) of ashes. 16 And thou shalt gather all the spoil of it into the midst of the street thereof, and shalt burn with fire the city, and all the spoil thereof every whit, for the LORD thy God: and it shall be an heap for ever; it shall not be built again.  

Joshua followed the Biblical directive in Joshua 8: 28, and burnt down the evil city of Ai: “And Joshua burnt Ai, and made it an heap for ever, even a desolation unto this day”.

In Jeremiah 49: 2, Jeremiah prophecies that Rabat Amon (today, capital of Jordan) will perish, using the word “heap.” “Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will cause an alarm of war to be heard in Rabbah of the Ammonites; and it shall be a desolate heap, and her daughters shall be burned with fire: then shall Israel be heir unto them that were his heirs, saith the LORD”.

Tel Bet Shean Aerial (Photo: Courtesy of the Pictorial Library of Bible Lands)
Tel Bet She’an Aerial (Photo: Courtesy of the Pictorial Library of Bible Lands)

A Tel Story

The environment of the Middle East is harsh and most of it unsuitable for settlement. In order for a location to be habitable three conditions were needed:

  1. Water
  2. Occupation (farming, some type of industry, or a location on a trade route)
  3. Defense

People Need Homes

If the three conditions were met, eventually a settlement would be established and through time, grow large enough for a city wall and gate. After that the ruler or king would build a palace and a temple, and finally the people would build homes inside the wall.

Faithbased Tour To The Holyland
Tel Dan

Enemies Covet Their Homes

As the city prospered, it became attractive and enemies or rivals would decide to conquer and destroy the city…. leaving smoking ruins! For these reasons and others, such as drought, earthquakes or natural disasters, the cities might be abandoned. However, if the three conditions remained in place after a destruction, a new city would be built in the location. In ancient times removing rubble was difficult so, people use what was left for building material (ancient recycling!) and constructed a new city right on top of the smoking ruins. This cycle repeated itself over the centuries and viola….today you will find a Tel in that spot!

Modern Tels

Modern cities today are also tells, although no-one calls them that. Beneath the homes and streets of these cities are cemeteries, roads, and building foundations from centuries ago. For example, in New York City, the 19th century streets and building foundations of the notorious Five Points neighborhood was unearthed several feet below the modern city streets and in London, a medieval hospital was unearthed beneath a city neighborhood.

Faithbased Tour To The Holyland
Megiddo and Valley of Armageddon Beyond

“TEL” Facts

  • An archaeological mound created by the cycle of human occupation and abandonment over many centuries
  • A classic tel looks like a low, shortened cone with a flat top and sloping sides
  • A mound not connected to other hills, appears alone without neighboring hills
  • The term is mainly used of sites in the Middle East where “Tel” is often part of the locality’s name
  • Generally cities were built on top of hills for strategic purposes—easier to defend
  • Usually the hill was reinforced with walls and ramparts making it higher
  • After a war or battle, in which the city was leveled another city would be built on top because….
    • Building material was easy to find
    • Water was still available
    • The area was still strategic
    • The occupation was still in place
  • The height of the hill grew depending upon the number of times a city was destroyed and reconstructed
  • Tels can reach 20—30 layers
    • Contain 20+ settlements over 25 centuries of history
    • a destruction every 100 years is not unusual
  • Jerusalem facts
    • not called a Tel
    • continuously inhabited for 5000 years
    • original city is at least 30 feet under the present day city
    • Jerusalem has been partially destroyed 40 times, totally destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times & captured 44 times
  • Tels read like a history book
  • Archaeologists usually slice them down the middle, examine the artifacts along the cuts and read the layers
  • Fascinating Tels in Israel you should visit
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9 thoughts on “What Is A Tel?

  1. Please do know that a “Tel” as it exits still today can be a temporary or a permanent residence of a group of people and as such can be compared to a encampment or settlement, a quarter, or a village.

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