Archaeologists believe they have uncovered origins of monotheism in northern Jordan
Daily Star, Lebanon
5 March 2002
AMMAN: In a remote corner of Jordan, archaeologists have uncovered a room that may transform the way we think about God.
Its massive stones still clinging to the damp hills of the Jordan River Valley, the Migdol Temple at first appears to be little more than an ancient network of fortified walls. Yet when Jordanian and Australian archaeologists working at the site of ancient Pella began piecing it together in 1997, it didn’t take them long to realize that they were reconstructing something extraordinary: a 3,600-year-old textbook in stone.
The Migdol Temple charts within a single room one of the most important events in human history: the transition from polytheism to the belief in one God.
Measuring an impressive 29 by 22 meters, the Migdol Temple is the largest Bronze and Iron Age Temple known to man, an enormous structure justified in its size and emotional impact to the worship of a single God, and which may at one point have functioned as a four-storey temple to the Canaanite god El. These days, however, religious and historical scholars are far less excited about the temple’s size than by the magnitude of its historical importance.
Continuously in use from 1650 BC to 850 BC , the Migdol Temple holds within it hundreds of religious artifacts that point to five very distinct phases of occupation and rebuilding.
Constructed, destroyed, and reconstructed time and time again, the Migdol Temple records changing cult practices during the Canaanite Hyksos ascendancy, then again during the Egyptian New Kingdom Empire, the Philistine Era, and the Age of the Local Kingdoms.
A stone spectator to a period of intense religious and political upheaval, every single one of the periods bruised, scarred, and left its mark on the temple, transforming the unassuming circular stones into a time capsule that is transforming the understanding of religious history.
Archaeologists have already found 250 artifacts from each of the periods of occupation, and that means that the Migdol Temple is no longer being seen as simply a temple.
Scholars are hoping that this simple stone room will help tell the story of God.
Today, a scholar with enough archeological and historical background can view the evolving layers like an epic film describing the birth of monotheism. Stephen Bourke, the University of Sydney archaeologist who has led the Pella excavations since 1992, explains that the temple allows historians to actually “read” religious history through the artifacts it left behind, such as idols and the remains of a “Holy of Holies.”
“The Pella Midgol Temple, because of its many building and occupation phases, its richness in finds, effectively contains local religious history fossilized in stone,” he told The Daily Star over e-mail.
Moreover, the “local religious history” in the Migdol Temple just so happens to have occurred at the same time and in the same region as the founding of religious monotheism recorded in the Old Testament. The Migdol Temple was in use during the arrival of the Israelites and the establishment of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah an event that marked the foundation of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is in this respect that the excavations have had another bit of exciting and somewhat shocking religious history to reveal.
During the approximately 800 years of its occupation, those who used the Migdol Temple slowly changed their Bronze Age polytheistic beliefs into Iron Age “henotheistic” beliefs, a period during which officials allowed communities to believe in more than one god, but encouraged them to concentrate their veneration on one god over all others.
Known as “state monotheism,” the most famous example of this change in belief is that of Yahweh in Israel. But according to Bourke, archaeological evidence is revealing that this new emphasis on one god was not reserved for the Israelites, but occurred simultaneously in several nation states throughout the Middle East, with Yahweh in Israel, Hadad in Damascus, Milkom in Amman, Chemos in Moab (in present-day Jordan) and Qos in Edom (in present-day Israel).
The newest finds at the Migdol Temple suggest that the region had its own distinct form of monotheism, and that monotheism arose in several areas of the Middle East at once in order to unify small nation-states.
“The Migdol Pella Temple evidence suggests that the pathway to national consciousness occurs in many different centers at around the same time in effectively the same way,” said Bourke.
“There is nothing unique about the Israelite experience, as the same sort of development happened at the same time, all over the region. And the Pella Temple records this unfolding in northern Jordan.”
And the excavations are only the beginning of Pella, a site that has slowly been transforming into an archaeological textbook of Middle Eastern history. Unlike other Roman cities that have become archaeological theme parks, excavation at Pella has continued methodically for over a century.
Described by Bourke as “Jordan’s Jericho,” today Pella is a contender for the title as one of the oldest inhabited cities on earth, with nearly 9,000 years of occupation, including thriving periods during the Decapolis and Byzantine eras. When excavators went to work on the Migdol Temple, they had to dig through, literally, 30 meters of ancient cities.
“The site of Pella is unique, not for its Roman columns or its Byzantine churches, but for the length of its occupation,” Burke insists. With the longest sequence in Jordan, the Pella site allows archaeologists to study how human culture in a single place evolved over 10,000 years. “No other site can study history in such depth,” Burke concludes. “That’s why Pella matters.”