Hathor and the Mines of Timna



It would be difficult to overemphasize the importance of copper in the Ancient Near East, from the days before the Giza pyramids were built (pre-Bronze Age), all the way down to the emergence of Israel (early Iron Age). Egypt's rise to power at the southern end of the Fertile Crescent was based largely on her control of the local mineral wealth: gold in Nubia, gold and copper in her Eastern Desert, and copper and turquoise in the Sinai. Gold and turquoise were very important in the production of luxury items for the upper classes and "money" for internal commerce and international trade. Copper was the metallic backbone of the earliest civilizations, indispensable in war, industry, construction, and trade. Egyptians were not the first in the area to mine, refine, and utilize the metal however.

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Between the southern end of the Dead Sea and the northern end of the Gulf of Aqaba stretches the arid wastes of the Southern Arabah Valley. Rocks bearing copper ore can be found throughout this area, but are primarily concentrated at the Timna, Feinan, and Punon sites (see map below). The red metal was recovered from these locations far back into antiquity and they may well have seen humankind's first large-scale mining efforts. The mines in what would eventually become Edom were worked more intensively at some periods than others, a fact probably due to fluctuations in the local population density, settlement patterns, and, most importantly, in control of the trade routes which ran through the area.

Timna Area Map 320x416 jpeg (77k)
Detail Map of Southern Palestine (Early Iron Age)


In his recent book, Living on the Fringe (Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), Israeli Archaeologist Israel Finkelstein has demonstrated convincingly that "copper production might have been a crucial factor in the sedentarization" of this region's desert peoples in early Bronze Age, and again in the early Iron Age (p 100ff). In the earlier period the ancient walled town of Arad owed its existence and local power to control of the area's trade routes. If the Arad people didn't actually control the mines, they at least controlled the copper trade with Canaan, and perhaps with Egypt. After a period of decline in town life later in the Bronze Age, a similar situation arose again around the beginning of the Iron Age, but this time with the Amlekites in control of the local trade routes.

We first hear of Ir Amalek, the Amalekite's Negev capital, in relation with King Saul's campaign to extend Israelite power into the region (ISam 15:5). But the town had already been in existence for several generations and had probably felt "Israelite" military pressure before Saul's time. Since several of the post-exodus "wilderness wanderings" stories place the followers of Moses in and around Kadesh-barnea, the land between that oasis and Ir Amalek may have been the scene of some early confrontations between proto-Israelites and the semi-settled desert tribesmen.

While most of the copper trade probably joined the flow of spices and other exotic items up from Arabia and into Canaan, along the inland trade routes, some exchange with Egypt may have also been carried out via the Gulf of Aqaba. At the site which would later become Ezion-gezer under the Israelite monarchy, an ancient refinery turned copper ore into the pure metal. Although tin is not available locally, other metals may have been combined with copper here to from alloys related to bronze. The location of such a complex so near the shores of the sea indicates that Egyptian ships must have put into port here to pick up refined copper and metal products. Exactly when the Egyptians first appeared is unrecorded, but by the early part of their 18th Dynasty they controlled the "King's Highway" through Moab, Edom, and the Sinai. This would have given Egypt de facto control over the Timna copper mines, even if the Empire's soldiers and priests didn't arrive in significant numbers until after the Amarna era.

Timna Hathor Temple Ruins
Ruins of the Hathor Temple at Timna, in modern Israel


Although the signs of ancient mining and smelting activities in the Timna Valley of Israel had long been known, it was only in the mid-1970's that Israeli archaeologist Benno Rothenberg began to conduct an extensive exploration of the site. His excavation of the Hathor temple under the overhang of a massive cliff demonstrated conclusively not only the early 19th Dynasty Egyptian presence at the mines, but also that the Serabit el-Khadim "Mistress of Turquoise" had taken up residence among the miners. Rothenberg has written a number of scholarly articles and books about the site and its copper industry, and thus has made some major contributions to the knowledge of ancient mining and metal working.

The Timna temple was a rather simple structure, compared with its older sister at Serabit. The fact that it has a layout more common to Syro-Palestinian temples than any Egyptian counterparts may indicate that Nile valley architects and skilled builders were in short supply at Timna. It may also indicate that, unlike the Serabit El-Khadim shrine, it saw few of the great Egyptian mining expeditions sent out to the Sinai to gather turquoise and copper ore. This brings up the probability that most of the worshippers at Timna were unlikely to have been Egyptians. It is even possible that maintenance and safeguarding of the shrine was left in the hands of local people, under the direction of relatively few Egyptian priests. If this were the case, then the local population came to venerate the site to the point that they felt compelled to maintain a shrine there after the foreigners had departed the area.

The "Midianite" tent-shrine erected over the ruins of the Hathor temple did not continue the Hathor cult, but it almost certainly carried on the tradition that Timna was sacred ground and that certain rites should be conducted there. Since nearly nothing is known of "Midianite" religious beliefs it is impossible to know how much, if any, of the Hathor cult traditions were carried over into their activities at the shrine. It may be that at least a few fragments of the Egyptians' prayers, songs, and festivals were preserved here into the Israelite period.


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last updated: Feb. 1, 2006