Who actually lived in ancient cities?
Modern cities are home to every stratum of human society, from the rich and powerful to the poor and sidelined. It can often be very difficult, however, to determine who actually lived in ancient cities. Textual records can help us reconstruct the social demographics of some ancient cities, such as the well-documented Ugarit, but other sites can be much more challenging. That is the case with the Canaanite lower city of Tel Hazor, “the head of all those kingdoms” (Joshua 11:10).
In her article “Who Lived at Hazor?,” published in the Spring 2023 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Shlomit Bechar explores the possible demographics of this ancient and powerful city. Although excavations began at Hazor over half a century ago, very little is known about who actually lived within its walls.
In general, there are three broad possibilities when considering the social demographics of a city. The inhabitants could have been either predominantly commoners, or elites, or a mix of the two. At the site of Tel Hazor, it is still unclear which of these three options is the most accurate. This is in part due to the lack of complete housing units yet excavated within Tel Hazor’s lower city, as well as the surprising lack of textual records yet discovered within the city itself, despite the long-running search for Hazor’s royal archives.
Although historical movies frequently present city streets filled with lowly peasants, pre-industrial populations would have been predominantly situated in the hinterland. Indeed, in some cases, as little as ten percent of the area’s population lived within the city, and those were mostly individuals connected with the royal court. However, some other cities were much more socially diverse.
Bechar writes: “Canaanite farmers and herders most probably did not dwell in cities, but rather in rural settlements. Yet some of the urban inhabitants might have owned agricultural lands, even if they did not farm the land themselves. But what about Hazor? Several towns and villages have been identified in its vicinity in the Middle Bronze Age, but not so in the Late Bronze Age.”
So, where did the commoners of this Canaanite city-state live? As the largest Canaanite city during the second millennium BCE, spanning more than 200 acres, Tel Hazor certainly had enough room to house more than just the royal court and military. But that does not mean it did. As director of the Tel Hazor Lower City excavations and research fellow at the University of Haifa, Bechar hopes that her team’s continued excavations in the city will answer this question once and for all.
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