Jordan’s Bronze Age Site Khirbet ez-Zeiraqoun Surprises With Glyphs and Water System

Chances are you have never heard of Khirbet ez-Zeiraqoun, also known as Khirbet ez-Zeraqon. Its a 25 hectare fortified town in Northern Jordan that was occupied during a period known as the Early Bronze III (2700 BC -2300 BC).

This time period was a high water mark for many great civilizations. The royal burials at Ur, the construction of the Pyramids at Giza and the rise of the twin cities of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa in the Indus Valley all these things happened in this narrow stretch of time.

Khirbet ez-Zeiraqoun was excavated in the 1980s and 90s, and the analysis of this site continues today. However, unlike the great finds mentioned above, this site has received little publicity. While there are scholarly articles you will be hard-pressed to find anything in the popular realm.

This is surprising to me since this town has some amazing construction projects of its own. The people created a network of underground tunnels running as deep as 100 meters below ground. They did it to get their water and its a mystery as to how they were able to do it without the system collapsing in on itself.

I went down 100 meters of rope, I went down 70 meters on one shaft, then it levelled off, and then there were branches cutting off in different directions. – Tim Harrison

A few weeks ago the excavator of the site, Professor Moawiyah Ibrahim of Yarmouk University, was in Toronto and gave a presentation at the University of Toronto campus. I attended the presentation and interviewed him afterwards. He also generously granted us permission to publish the pictures that he brought with him.

Professor Ibrahim also serves in a diplomatic role. He is Jordan’s representative to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee. The committee is tasked with helping to protect heritage sites around the world.

Also at the presentation was Professor Tim Harrison. He was a team member at the time of the excavationsandpersonally descended into the ancient tunnel network on a rope.

Crossroads of the Ancient World

As you can see from the map Khirbet ez-Zeiraqoun is up in the north of Jordan. Its position, straddling the ancient stateslocated inEgypt, Syria and Mesopotamia, gave it a unique vantage point when it came to trade. Professor Ibrahim told me that he believes that the people of this town traded olive oil, and possibly wine, with all three areas. These contacts also led to the creation of some unusual glyptic symbols that Ill return to later in the article.

But, while Khirbet ez-Zeiraqoun had some unique trading advantages, the people seemed to be greatly worried about their security. The town is surrounded by a fortification wall that was more than five meters wide at some points.

This wall was ringed with projecting towers, which were 17 meters tall and five meters wide. The only section of the town that was left unprotected was the eastern section. This part faced a steep valley slope, one that no ancient army could hope to climb.

The Underground Tunnel Network

Perhaps the towns most awesome achievement was its underground tunnel network.It was used for something of vital importance in Jordan water.

The team has found three entrances to this network. Professor Tim Harrison has a unique perspective on this network. As a student he descended into it, on a rope, nearly 25 years ago.

I dont really think they were wells as such – they were tunnels that (were) carved as a network, he said. I went down 100 meters of rope, I went down 70 meters on one shaft, then it levelled off, and then there were branches cutting off in different directions.

Professor Ibrahim told me that there was a staircase that would have taken people down into the system. The tunnels were cut into the bedrock and went all the way down to the water table.

Its a, highly sophisticated water system, he said. The people of Zeiraqoun have to secure (their) water supply in critical times. Droughts, invaders, water shortage these threats would have provided encouragement to create such an elaborate system.

Harrison said that he believes there were hundreds of meters of tunnel in ancient times. You could enter in one entrance and pop out of another.

The sophistication of the system has led some scholars to suggest that it was built in much later times. I dont see any reason for that, Ibrahim said, as the bulk of the finds at the site date to the 2700 2300 BC.

I asked Ibrahim how the people were able to build this network without it collapsing in on itself. He replied that he did not know, maybe it did!

People living nearby, in recent times, were aware of this network. Professor Ibrahim said that people in a nearby village, told me that 40 or 50 years ago they were using these shafts to (get) water.


Another important mystery that scholars are investigating is the meaning of the 130 glyptics that were uncovered during excavation.

Writing existed at this time in Mesopotamia, Syria and Egypt. There has, however, not been a single written document found in Jordan. The glyptics found at Khirbet ez-Zeiraqoun show patterns, rituals being enacted and artistic scenes.A few pictures of these glyphs were released and I’m showing one of them here.

Ibrahim says that they dont convey a formal written language. Some of these artefacts were likely imported from Syria, but there might be some which were locally made.

So far scholars have detected influences from Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia another indication of the widespread contacts these people had.

Khirbet ez-Zeiraqoun is not the only place in Jordan that these glyphs have been found. However Professor Ibrahim said that the finds at this site make up half of the total number in the region.

The Rulers

Archaeologists have identified one building in particular that seems to be a palace or administrative centre. As you can see from the picture here, it is not wildly impressive. Its basically a hallway with rectangular rooms on the side.

Professor Ibrahim used the term city-state to describe what the government would have been like. The town was controlled, probably by a central government that had control over neighbouring settlements.

This would have been necessary to organize the towns defences and build the impressive network of underground tunnels.

Like the more famous entities in Greece, the rulers of Khirbet ez-Zeiraqoun would have controlled the surrounding area (including the all-important agricultural land).

Whether the government was headed by a king, or had a more informal system, is hard to say. Ibrahim pointed out that city states, in the Middle East,are presentuntil modern times. You still have, until recently, some of these city states in the gulf region, something like Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain practically city states.

What Were They Worshipping?

Its difficult to say for sure what the religion of these people was like. Archaeologists have only the temple remains from the site to work with, along with textual records from Mesopotamia and Syria.

A temple complex was found in an elevated part of the settlement (known as the upper town). They appear to have been rectilinear buildings, with round altars – that were clustered together.

An artefact found in another area of the town (pictured here) depicts a person standing beside an altar, with an offering.

I would say that the main deities were the moon god (something like Sin) and the sun god, which are well attested in Mesopotamia as well, said Professor Ibrahim.

Professor Harrison said that the temples found at Khirbet ez-Zeiraqoun have a lot in common with those built in later periods.

I see these temples as being part of a religious architectural tradition that continues down into the middle bronze age and into the later bronze and even into the early Iron Age. The early Iron Age starts around 1200 BC.

He said that he cant say what exactly they were worshipping although something like the god Baal is a possibility.

An Ancient Ghost Town

At some point, ca. 2300 BC, the site turns into a ghost town. All the major buildings were not functioning anymore, there was just a seasonal settlement, said Ibrahim.

Khirbet ez-Zeiraqoun is far from alone. Around this time the Egyptian state starts to decline and eventually collapses, ushering in the First Intermediate Period.

To the north the site of Ebla, in Syria, is destroyed. To the east the Akkadian Empire rises around 2300 BC, but collapses in 2083 BC.

To the far east the Indus Valley Civilization goes into decline and collapses as well. The population of Harappa was cut in half while Mohenjo-daro was abandoned all together.

Climate change on a large scale, and the political effects of it, is an increasingly popular explanation for the widespread calamity. One group of scientists took deep sea cores from the Gulf of Oman.

Our results document a very abrupt increase in eolian dust and Mesopotamian aridity, they said in their abstract, publishedin the year 2000.

I asked Professor Ibrahim whether the town was ever attacked by a large military force. He said that its possible but archaeologists cannot prove it.

After this collapse Zeiraqoun never re-emerged in a significant way. There were some artefacts that date to after the early Bronze Age, but the site wasnt settled permanently.

Without written records, or the ability to better interpret their glyptics, we are not going to be able to hear what it was like for the people to see their town become abandoned.

Leaving their stronghold for the uncertain future of nomadic life, or a new settlement, must have been difficult. Especially when you consider that Zeiraqoun was hundreds of years old.

But, for now at least, were going to have to let the ruins and the artefacts do the talking.