The town of Beth Shemesh, meaning “house of the sun” or “temple of the sun” in Hebrew, was named after the Canaanite sun-goddess Shemesh who was worshiped there prior to Israelite arrival to the city. By combining the evidence found during recent excavations at an archaeological site in Beth Shemesh (a plaque depicting a female ruler) and a reference to this woman on several Egyptian tablets dated to around 1350 B.C., it has been suggested that at one point this ancient Canaanite city-state was actually ruled by a female king. Females ruling as kings were rare in Egyptian history and prior to this revelation unheard of in this region. The archaeologists make a note to call her “king” rather than “queen,” which at the time described the wife of a male king. I’d like to add that female rulers trying to make themselves appear (at least in title) more masculine to in some way perhaps legitimize their claim to the throne is not something completely uncommon throughout history (most notably the Pharaoh Hatshepsut and King Jadwiga of Poland).
The region of Canaan was made up of several city-states which paid tribute to their super power neighbor Egypt. The Amarna Tablets are diplomatic correspondences between Egyptian administrators and their Representatives in various city-states. There are a total of 382 of these tablets that have been discovered and they are all written in the unusual language of Akkadian cuneiform, the writing system of ancient Mesopotamia rather than ancient Egypt. Apparently this language was used for diplomatic purposes. Tablets EA#273 and 274 were sent to Egypt around 1350 B.C. and were signed by a female ruler Belit-nesheti whose name is commonly translated to “Mistress of the Lionesses” or “Lady of the Lions”. She wrote twice begging the Pharaoh Akhenaten for military assistance against the mysterious Apiru.
EA 273: “From a queen mother”
“Say to the king-(i.e. pharaoh), my lord, my god, my Sun: Message of fNIN-UR.MAH.MEŠ, your handmaid. I fall at the feet of the king, my lord, 7 times and 7 times. May the king, my lord, know that war has been waged in the land, and gone is the land of the king, my lord, by desertion to the ‘Apiru. May the king, my lord, take cognizance of his land, and may the [k]ing, my lord, kn[ow] tha[t] the ‘Apiru wrote to Ayyaluna and to Sarha, and the two sons of Milkilu barely escaped being killed. May the king, my lord, know of this deed.” -EA 273, lines 1-26 (complete)
EA 274: “Another city lost”
“Say to the king, my lord, my god, my Sun: Message of fNIN-UR.MAH.MEŠ, your handmaid, the dirt at your feet. I fall at the feet of the king, my lord, 7 times and 7 times. May the king, my lord, save his land from the power of the ‘Apiru..–lest it be lost. Sapuma has been take[n]. For the information of the king, my lord.” -EA 274, lines 1-19 (complete)
The Lady of the Lions wasn’t the only King to request aid from the Pharaoh for the exact same reason. But just who the Apiru (sometimes called Habiru or Hapiru)were is a topic of debate. Some say they were a group of unemployed agricultural workers who rebelled against authority in a time of poverty and went looting around the countryside. Others say they were mercenaries for hire for any man ambitious enough to try to overthrow a monarchy. And even more intriguing is the theory that the Apiru may have actually been the early Israelites that left Egypt and conquered land in Canaan pretty close to this time period, and in fact eventually took control of Beth Shemesh itself, or at least a city by that name. Whether or not these people were the early Israelites who migrated west is still being researched and debated, what is known is that they are mentioned in Sumerian, Egyptian, Akkadian, Hittite, and among other sources.
King Belit-nesheti and her people received no aid, and she lost control of her city, or so the new theory goes. Until recently Belit-neshti’s city was unknown.
Was a ‘mistress of the lionesses’ a king in ancient Canaan?
The legend is that the great rulers of Canaan, the ancient land of Israel, were all men. But a recent dig by Tel Aviv University archaeologists at Tel Beth-Shemesh uncovered possible evidence of a mysterious female ruler.
Tel Aviv University archaeologists Prof. Shlomo Bunimovitz and Dr. Zvi Lederman of the Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations have uncovered an unusual ceramic plaque of a goddess in female dress, suggesting that a mighty female “king” may have ruled the city. If true, they say, the plaque would depict the only known female ruler of the region.
The plaque itself depicts a figure dressed as royal male figures and deities once appeared in Egyptian and Canaanite art. The figure’s hairstyle, though, is womanly and its bent arms are holding lotus flowers – attributes given to women. This plaque, art historians suggest, may be an artistic representation of the “Mistress of the Lionesses,” a female Canaanite ruler who was known to have sent distress letters to the Pharaoh in Egypt reporting unrest and destruction in her kingdom.
“We took this finding to an art historian who confirmed our hypothesis that the figure was a female,” says Dr. Lederman. “Obviously something very different was happening in this city. We may have found the ‘Mistress of the Lionesses’ who’d been sending letters from Canaan to Egypt. The destruction we uncovered at the site last summer, along with the plaque, may just be the key to the puzzle.”
Around 1350 BCE, there was unrest in the region. Canaanite kings conveyed their fears via clay tablet letters to the Pharaoh in Egypt, requesting military help. But among all the correspondence by kings were two rare letters that stuck out among the 382 el Amarna tablets uncovered a few decades ago by Egyptian farmers. The two letters came from a “Mistress of the Lionesses” in Canaan. She wrote that bands of rough people and rebels had entered the region, and that her city might not be safe. Because the el-Amarna tablets were found in Egypt rather than Canaan, historians have tried to trace the origin of the tablets.
“The big question became, ‘What city did she rule?'” Dr. Lederman and Prof. Bunimovitz say. The archaeologists believe that she ruled as king over a city of about 1,500 residents. A few years ago, Tel Aviv University’s Prof. Nadav Naaman suggested that she might have ruled the city of Beth Shemesh. But there has been no proof until now.
“The city had been violently destroyed, in a way we rarely see in archaeology,” says Prof. Bunimovitz, who points to many exotic finds buried under the destruction, including an Egyptian royal seal, bronze arrowheads and complete large storage vessels. They suggest a large and important city-state, well enmeshed within East Mediterranean geo-political and economic networks.
Tel Aviv University archaeologists say that the new finds might turn the interpretation of pre-biblical history on its head. The people of the time were pagans who had a very elaborate religious system.
“It was a very well-to-do city,” says Lederman. “Strangely, such extensive destruction, like what we found in our most recent dig, is a great joy for archaeologists because people would not have had time to take their belongings. They left everything in their houses. The site is loaded with finds,” he says, adding that the expensive items found in the recent level points to it as one the most important inland Canaanite cities.
The discovery of the plaque, and the evidence of destruction recorded in the el-Amarna tablets, could confirm that the woman depicted in the figurine was the mysterious “Mistress of the Lionesses” and ruled Canaanite Beth Shemesh. “There is no evidence of other females ruling a major city in this capacity,” Lederman and Bunimovitz say. “She is the only one. We really hope to find out more about her this summer.” (from http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-04/afot-wa040609.php)
The city that Belit-neshti lived in was completely destroyed. But was rebuilt. People have lived on that land for thousands of years and it is common for such excessively used land to have cities built on top of each other. The History Channel’s show Cities of the Underworld is dedicated to exploring these types of ruins that have become foundations for modern cities. According to the Tel Aviv University department of Archaeology website, excavations started at Beth Shemesh in 1911 and have taken this long to dig through all the layers from modern times back to Biblical days and even further back to the pre-Israelite inhabitants. There is a lot of history at that site, and I’m sure if they continue digging they will find plenty more goodies.
The town has a great wealth of Biblical significance. The Bible mentions Beth-Shemesh in the description of the northern border of the Tribe of Judah (Joshua 15: 10-11) and as a Levitical city in the territory of Judah (Joshua 21: 16). Following the battle of Ebenezer and the capture of the Ark of the Covenant by the Philistines, the ark was returned to Beth-Shemesh (1 Samuel 6: 9-18). The town is listed in Solomon’s second administrative district (1 Kings 4: 9), and it was here that the battle between Joash, king of Israel, and Amaziah, king of Judah, took place (2 Kings 14: 11-13). Shortly thereafter, Beth-Shemesh passed into Philistine control, but was restored to the Kingdom of Judah under Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 28: 18). The town was destroyed by Sennacherib, king of Assyria, during his campaign in Judah, in 701 BCE. Now add another 2500 years of history to that!