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Ai [‛Ay; now Khirbet al-Tall; et-Tell, Arab.: ‘The Ruin’]locked

  • Joseph A. Callaway

Site of a walled Early Bronze Age city of 11.1 ha, 24 km north of Jerusalem. It was built c. 3100 bc by outsiders from north Syria over a village of c. 3200 bc. It survived through four major phases until c. 2350 bc, when an unknown enemy sacked and burnt the entire city and drove away its inhabitants; even its ancient name was lost. In about 1200 bc, pioneer settlers from the coastal region moved inland and established a village of 1.2 ha on the acropolis ruins of the ancient site, which was occupied until c. 1050 bc. The site was excavated from 1933 to 1935 by Judith Marquet-Krause and from 1964 to 1972 by Joseph Callaway. Finds are in the Rockefeller Museum and the Hebrew University, both in Jerusalem. The site has been identified as the biblical city of Ai, captured by Joshua (Joshua 7:2–5 and 8:1–29), although there is, in fact, no evidence of occupation then.

A temple-palace complex dominated the city at its highest point, and it was surrounded by an enclosure wall 2 m wide. This basic plan was kept throughout the Early Bronze Age urban phases. The original temple was founded upon unworked cyclopean stones, and its roof was supported by five piers resting on flat stone bases in a straight line across a long rectangular central room. In about 2650 bc the temple-palace complex was reconstructed using fine Egyptian-style workmanship. Four stone bases replaced the five original ones; they were shaped by sawing deep grooves outlining a rectangle on the top, after which the stone outside the grooves was chipped away, leaving a clean raised surface upon which piers of stacked stone could rest. Some trimming on top of the rectangle indicates that the edges of the piers were set in about 40 mm on top of the base, leaving a sharply defined projection around the base of the pier. This provided a pleasing detail between the smoothly plastered surface of the floor and the pier, and added a unique and significant element to the building.

The walls of the temple were constructed of hammer-dressed stones shaped and laid like large bricks. The interior walls preserve fragments of a thick layer of red clay and straw plaster on the face of the brick-like walls, covered with a thin layer of fine white plaster, which apparently extended to the ceiling and joined the plastered floor surrounding the piers. It is probable that the piers of stacked stones were also plastered to the ceiling, giving the interior an elegant off-white décor. One patch of wall plaster preserved traces of black paint, suggesting a possible cultic design, although this cannot be reconstructed.

Two large alabaster bowls, probably imported from Egypt, were recovered in the excavation of the temple. Several other bowls and objects were found in a nearby structure designated a ‘sanctuary’ by the excavator, including a segmented alabaster jar and fragments of an alabaster zoomorphic vessel shaped like a waterskin.

Callaway (1972) argued that all the alabaster and stone vessels from the sanctuary belonged originally in the temple building, and that they were moved when the acropolis area was taken over by a non-Egyptian-orientated régime in the last phase of the city and used as an administrative centre. This associates the Egyptianizing phase, in which the highest cultural achievements at Ai took place, with the beginning of the 3rd Dynasty (c. 2650–c. 2575 bc). The technique of mud-brick construction faced with plaster is evident in the Hesyre [Hesy; Hezire], tomb of, and the pyramid complex of Djoser (see Saqqara, §1) has a temenos wall of coursed rubble masonry of local limestone set in clay like bricks. A transitional period in Egypt between the 2nd and 3rd Dynasties paralleled that at Ai from Early Bronze II to Early Bronze III (c. 2650 bc). It is possible that the new temple was completed by the time of Djoser’s reign (c. 2630–c. 2611 bc), early in the 3rd Dynasty. At the same time, also with Egyptian influence, a unique stone-paved water reservoir was constructed in the south-east corner of the city walls to collect up to half a million gallons of water for use by the estimated 2000 inhabitants.


  • J. Marquet-Krause: Les Fouilles de ‛Ay (et Tell) 1933–1935, 2 vols (Paris, 1949)
  • R. Amiran: ‘The Egyptian Alabaster Vessels from Ai’, Israel Exploration Journal, 20 (1970), pp. 170–79
  • J. Callaway: The Early Bronze Age Sanctuary at Ai (et-Tell) (London, 1972)
  • J. Callaway: ‘New Perspectives on Early Bronze III in Canaan’, Archaeology in the Levant: Essays for Kathleen Kenyon (Warminster, 1977), pp. 46–58
  • J. Callaway: The Early Bronze Age Citadel and Lower City at Ai (et-Tell), The American Schools of Oriental Research (Cambridge, MA, 1980)

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