Pharaoh Merneptah’s Destruction of Gezer

Editor’s Note: This blog article contains an image of human skeletal remains.

The Canaanite city-state of Gezer was destroyed at the end of the Late Bronze Age, during the reign of Pharaoh Merneptah. This “patrician house” shows evidence of a violent conflagration.
Courtesy of Tel Gezer Excavation Project, S. Wolff.

Archaeologists excavating Canaanite Gezer unearthed a large building apparently destroyed by fire. Dating to the late 13th century B.C.E.—the very end of the Late Bronze Age—this destruction was most likely due to Pharaoh Merneptah’s military campaign into southern Canaan around 1210 B.C.E. Writing for the Summer 2022 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Steven Ortiz and Samuel Wolff report on this discovery in their article “Pharaoh’s Fury: Merneptah’s Destruction of Gezer.”

Beginning in the early 15th century B.C.E., pharaohs of the 18th and 19th dynasties expanded the Egyptian presence in Canaan and penetrated as far north as Syria. The powerful New Kingdom pharaohs stationed small garrisons in major towns along the Mediterranean coast and even in Jerusalem. For Egypt, the many city-states of Canaan served as a buffer against more powerful empires located in Syria and Anatolia, and as a source of trade, tribute, and taxes.

This letter of Yapahu, the governor of Gezer (Gazru, see highlighted), to Pharaoh Amenhotep III is one of the Amarna Letters, which attest the close ties between Egypt and the local rulers of Canaan.
Courtesy Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Gezer was one of the more prominent Canaanite city-states to come into contact with Egypt. Located in the Judean foothills midway between Jerusalem and modern Tel Aviv, on a major route between the Mediterranean coast and the central hill country, Gezer appears frequently in ancient texts. It is included in the Egyptian list of Canaanite cities conquered by Thutmose III (r. 1479–1425 B.C.E.) that was carved in the Temple of Amun at Karnak. It also features repeatedly in cuneiform tablets known as the Amarna Letters, which is a corpus of mid-14th-century diplomatic correspondence between the Egyptian administration and rulers in Canaan. A letter known as The Plea for Help, addressed to Pharaoh Amenhotep III, says: “Message of Yapahu, the ruler of Gazru [i.e., Gezer], your servant, the dirt at your feet, the groom of your horses. Truly I fall at the feet of the king, my lord, my god, my Sun, the Sun from the sky, seven times and seven times, on the stomach and on the back.”

However, following the death of Ramesses II a century later (in 1213 B.C.E.), many Canaanite vassals rebelled against Egypt, and Pharaoh Merneptah had to mount a military campaign to pacify rebellious elements in the region. It is in this context that we read the final two lines of the famous Merneptah Stele, which says: “Canaan is seized by every evil, Ashkelon is carried off, and Gezer is seized.”

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In “Pharaoh’s Fury: Merneptah’s Destruction of Gezer,Steven Ortiz of the Lanier Center for Archaeology at Lipscomb Universityand Samuel Wolff of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) share the results of their 2006–2017 excavation project at Gezer that led to the discovery of a “patrician house.” Like other buildings of this well-attested type in Late Bronze Age Canaan, this large house apparently belonged to a wealthy or elite family, possibly one with direct links to the Egyptian administration in the region.

Inscribed with the throne name of Pharaoh Amenhotep III (r. 1390–1353 B.C.E.), this scarab from the “patrician house” misled archaeologists to believe the destruction occurred in the early 14th century. Subsequent investigation linked Gezer’s Late Bronze Age devastation with Pharaoh Merneptah.
Courtesy Tel Gezer Excavation Project, S. Wolff.

“It was violently destroyed, as evidenced by the destruction debris found throughout the complex. This ashy debris was sometimes 3 feet thick and included collapsed stone walls, fallen and burnt mudbrick, burnt timbers, and the broken remnants of crushed pottery vessels,” describe Ortiz and Wolff. “But what really brought to life the brutal end of Late Bronze Age Gezer was the discovery of the remains of three people—two adults and one child—who died as the building burned and collapsed around them.”

A gruesome witness to the dramatic end of Late Bronze Age Gezer, these are the remains of an adult male who died under layers of ash and debris in the main room (D) of the “patrician house.”
Courtesy Tel Gezer Excavation Project, S. Wolff

To examine Gezer’s Late Bronze Age destruction and to explore the evidence that links this destruction to the campaign under Pharaoh Merneptah, read Steven Ortiz and Samuel Wolff’s article “Pharaoh’s Fury: Merneptah’s Destruction of Gezer,” published in the Summer 2022 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Subscribers: Read the full article “Pharaoh’s Fury: Merneptah’s Destruction of Gezer,” by Steven Ortiz and Samuel Wolff, in the Summer 2022 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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Read more in Bible History Daily:

OnSite: Tel Gezer

Gezer Excavations Uncover Previously Unknown Canaanite City

Merneptah Owned Egypt’s Largest Sarcophagus

Does the Merneptah Stele Contain the First Mention of Israel?

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