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Megiddo - the eternal battlefield

The Fortress on Tel Megiddo with its panoramic view

While Tel Megiddo is a tranquil tourist destination, the famed archeological site reveals a history of violence and war over the centuries. Whoever controlled Megiddo had control of the vital Mediterranean and overland trade routes linking Africa, Asia and Europe. Modern weapons systems, the ease of intercontinental travel, religious fundamentalism and political vagarfies have in many respects turned Israel itself into the modern Megiddo. Unlike Megiddo of old, Israel is not only at the trade junction of Africa, Asia and Europe, but also at the junction of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, adding a whole new dimension to the dangers the country faces.

The Jezreel Valley, with Megiddo at its centre, is no stranger to war and violence. Starting with the First Battle of Megiddo in 1500 BCE and ending with a major suicide bombing 15 years ago, the area has known very little peace over the millenia.

The Jezreel Valley running from Haifa to the foothills of Mount Gilboa

The primary reason for most of the wars can be attributed to the position of Megiddo astride the Via Maris, the main trade route between Egypt, the Levant and Asia Minor. Control of the Megiddo fortress, situated at the southwestern edge of the Jezreel Valley and to the south east of the Carmel highlands, afforded the occupant with significant strategic control over the important trade route. Besides the Via Maris, routes to the north and south along the valley could be easily monitored and defended from Tel Megiddo, with its panoramic view.

My plans for the future include designing a War Routes Tour of the Megiddo Region, which will enable visitors to have a better understanding of the famous battles that were fought, the factors leading up to the battles and the aftermath for both the victors and the losers.

The First Battle of Megiddo

The confrontation known as the First Battle of Megiddo, took place in 1500 BCE between Egyptian forces commanded by Pharaoh Thutmose III and a combined force composed of Arameans, Canaanites, Assyrians and many smaller tribes in the Levant. Victory in this battle gave Egypt control of the Via Maris and subsequently the entire Levant. The Middle Eastern Empire which resulted from this victory lasted for some 300 years, with Egypt reaching its peak as an imperial power during that period. Thutmose used the Musmus Pass route to carry out a surprise attack on the enemy, who were expecting the attack to come via the easier north or south approach routes. There is a strong belief that Egypt “borrowed” cuneiform writing, which had developed in ancient Sumeria, during the imperial period. Extant tablets found in Egypt about the exploits of Pharaoh Thutmose III, provide us with the very first written documents recording an important event in military history .

Megiddo lay at the centre of several approach routes through various passes

Musmus Pass, still a narrow track between two headlands as it approaches Megiddo

Highway 65 from Hadera to Afula follows the same path as the track in the photo

King Saul and the Philistines

We fast forward some 400 years to the period immediately after the end of the Egyptian Empire to the reign of Israelite King Saul and his frequent inconclusive battles against the Philistines. The last and most momentous battle took place in the Jezreel Valley, not far from Megiddo, and ended with the death of the first Israelite king on Mount Gilboa. This paved the way for David to ascend to the throne, which resulted in an expansion of Israelite territory and the uniting of the Northern and Southern Jewish kingdoms, Israel and Judea. David’s son and successor, Solomon expanded the Kingdom of Israel to include the kingdoms of Edom and Damascus, becoming the regional super power of its day. The building of the Temple in Jerusalem was a highpoint of Solomon's reign, with over 27 tons of gold used in the construction and embellishments, making a statement about Solomon's wealth and power. Israel unfortunately became allied with Egypt in an attempt to curtail the expansionist policies of the Hittite kingdom (modern Turkey), fighting to an indecisive stalemate at the Battle of Kadesh in western Syria. This was the start of Israel’s decline which led to the eventual breakup of the United Kingdom after the death of King Solomon.

The 2nd Battle of Megiddo

The 2nd Battle of Megiddo was a direct reversal of the alliance between Israel and Egypt 300 years earlier, when Josiah, king of Judah, went to war against Egypt in an effort to prevent Egypt from joining with Assyria to attack Babylon. The battle between the two armies was fought at Megiddo and ended in the death of Josiah and a resounding victory for Egyptian Pharaoh Necho. While Egypt gained control over Judah, the Egyptian Assyrian alliance was soon totally overwhelmed by the Babylonians, with the latter becoming the dominant force in the Levant for the next 70 years, after which the Persians became the major regional power.

Roman Legion at Megiddo

Recent archaeological discoveries have established that the headquarters of the Roman 6th Legion was situated at Legio, which lies between Tel Megiddo and the nearby Kibbutz Megiddo. The Roman Sixth Legion, Ferrata, or Ironclad Legion, was based at Megiddo and was virtually destroyed during the Bar Kochba revolt, which tragically ended in the destruction of the 2nd Temple by the Romans. The 6th Legion was brought up to strength and became a participant in the sack of Jerusalem. Following the destruction of the Temple, the Legion remained quartered at Megiddo for the next 200 years as a peacekeeping force, to ensure that there was no further uprising by the local population.

Battle of Ain Jalut

The next major battle with global consequences, which took place in the Jezreel Valley was the Battle of Ain Jalut, between the all conquering Mongolians and the Muslim occupiers of what had been Israel, before being renamed as Palestine by the Romans. The decisive battle on 3 September 1260, took place very close to where we find the modern Kibbutz Ein Harod, about 25 kms from Megiddo. This was the first time the Mongolian army was halted in the numerous wars it had fought; which resulted in a Mongolian Empire, which covered much of Asia and a large part of Eastern Europe. Victory at Ain Jalut would have opened the road to Egypt and Africa for the Mongolian army, instead of which the defeat it suffered heralded the beginning of a shrinkage in the size of the empire and its eventual demise.

Napoleon at Megiddo

The military annals of Megiddo would not be complete without the great European conqueror, Napoleon Bonaparte, putting in an appearance. Mount Tabor, about 30 kms from Megiddo was the site of the 1st Battle of Mount Tabor, which we are told in the Book of Judges, took place between an Israelite army commanded by Barak and the Canaanite under the command of Sisera. The 2nd Battle of Mount Tabor was fought between French forces under Napoleon and an Ottoman army in April 1799. Napoleon had laid siege to Akko and sought to intercept Ottoman reinforcements from reaching Akko by preventing them from using the route through Megiddo to get to Akko. The result was that a French army of some 4,000 men caused the 10,000 strong Ottoman army to retreat in great disorder and abandon any plans of reaching Akko. Despite this victory Napoleon was forced to lift the Siege of Akko a month later, following the loss of 2,000 of his men who died of bubonic plague. Legend has it that Napoleon had vowed to capture Jerusalem and return the city to Jewish control, although this has never been confirmed with certainty.

Napoleon Bonaparte at the Siege of Akko

3rd Battle of Megiddo

We finally reach the 20th century and the First World War, which saw British Empire troops under the strange title of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, commanded by General Edmund (Bull) Allenby, engaged in battle with a combined Turkic (Ottoman) German army commanded by German general Liman von Sanders. The British victory brought an end to 700 years of Ottoman rule in Palestine, paving the way for the implementation of the Balfour Declaration, which tragically took another 20 years, while 6 million Jewish lives were lost, before the establishment of the envisage Jewish homeland. Much of the definitive engagement between the two armies, which ended in defeat and an Ottoman retreat into Syria, took place in the Jezreel Valley and was aptly named the 3rd Battle of Megiddo. The capture of Musmus pass to open the route to Afula saw Allenby copy the approach tactics that Pharaoh Thutmose had used 3,500 years earlier, with the same victorious result. The old saying history repeats itself, certainly holds in this case.

Battle of Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek

During the 1948 War of Independence Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek, just 5 kms from Megiddo, came under an intense 10 day attack, from 4 to 15 April, by the numerically superior Arab liberation Army commanded by Kaukji. The lightly armed kibbutz defence of 170 men, which was later supplemented by about 300 Palmach soldiers, held out against repeated Arab infantry forays and artillery bombardments to eventually counterattack and rout Kaukji’s forces. This was the end of the Arab Liberation Army (ALA) as an effective fighting force. Jordanian Army commander General Glubb commented that the ALA “devoted more time to looting from the Palestinian Arabs than they did to fighting against the Jews”.

Megiddo Suicide Bombing

The end of the 1948 War of Independence and the advent of the modern State of Israel has unfortunately not ended the eternal cycle of violence that has become a hallmark of Megiddo. A terrorist suicide bomber belonging to the Islamic Jihad detonated a massive car bomb after stopping next an Egged bus a few hundred metres from the Megiddo Junction. The bus was carrying soldiers who were returning to their bases on Sunday morning 5 June 2005, after having enjoyed the weekend off duty. The choice of attacking a bus full of soldiers, 17 of whom lost their lives, was significant as it was on the date the anniversary of the outbreak of the Six Day War, 5 June 1967. We must hope that the 2005 bombing will be the last violent event at Megiddo, and that peace will reign in the region going forward.

Wreckage of the Egged bus after the suicide bombing

Memorial to the 17 fallen soldiers at Megiddo Junction

Attribution: צילום:ד"ר אבישי טייכר

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