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The Battles of Armageddon: Megiddo and the Jezreel Valley from the Bronze Age to the Nuclear Age

Author introduces the reader to a rich cast of ancient and modern warriors and ties together the wide range of conflicts that have taken place.

By Eric H. Cline
Assistant Professor of Archaeology and Ancient History
Department of Classical and Semitic Languages and Literatures
The George Washington University        

    The Apocalypse. Judgment Day. The End of Times. Armageddon. Students of the Bible know it as the place where the cataclysmic battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil will unfold. Many believe that this battle will take place in the very near future, but few know that Armageddon is a real place—one that has seen more fighting and bloodshed than any other spot on earth. 

    Armageddon is a corruption of the Hebrew Har Megiddo and means literally “the mount of Megiddo.” During the past 4000 years, at least 34 bloody conflicts have already been fought at the ancient site of Megiddo and adjacent areas of the Jezreel Valley. Egyptians, Canaanites, Israelites, Midianites, Amalekites, Philistines, Hasmonaeans, Greeks, Romans, Muslims, Crusaders, Mamlukes, Mongols, French, Ottomans, British, Australians, Germans, Arabs and Israelis have all fought and died here. The names of the warring generals and leaders reverberate throughout history: Thutmose III, Deborah and Barak, Sisera, Gideon, Saul and Jonathan, Shishak, Jehu, Joram, Jezebel, Josiah, Antiochus, Ptolemy, Vespasian, Saladin, Napoleon, and Allenby, to name but a few of the most famous. 

    Throughout history Megiddo and the Jezreel Valley have been Ground Zero for battles that determined the very course of civilization. It is no wonder that the author of Revelation believed Armageddon, the penultimate battle between good and evil, would also take place in this region!

    My book, The Battles of Armageddon: Megiddo and the Jezreel Valley from the Bronze Age to the Nuclear Age (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000), introduces the reader to a rich cast of ancient and modern warriors. While doing so it ties together, for the very first time, the wide range of conflicts that have taken place at Megiddo and in the Jezreel Valley from the Bronze Age to the Nuclear Age, in the place called Armageddon. 

    Megiddo, a fascinating site of twenty cities built directly on top of one another and inhabited continuously from 3000 to 300 BC, lies at a strategic junction of roads running north-south and east-west. Whoever had control of Megiddo had control of one of the major trade routes of antiquity, the Via Maris (the “Way of the Sea”) Wending its way directly through Israel, right past Megiddo in the Jezreel Valley, this strategically placed road ran between Egypt in the south and Mesopotamia (modern Iran/Iraq) or Anatolia (modern Turkey) in the north. Virtually every invading army that came through this region during the past 4000 years fought battles for control of Megiddo and the Jezreel Valley. The only exception was the army of Alexander the Great, who didn’t have to fight because the area surrendered to him first. 

    One lesson that can be learned from the history surrounding the area is the importance of maintaining a strategic presence on military and/or mercantile routes. We also see that, while weapons and technology have changed over the millennia, the strategies and tactics frequently have not. Often the strategies used in the battles fought at such places are repeated by different commanders and different armies in different eras. Finally we learn that, probably as a result of the necessity of occupying such strategic positions, certain areas of the world have seen consistent fighting for literally millennia. 

    In the case of Megiddo in particular, there has been so much fighting that John, the author of the Book of Revelation, was convinced that Megiddo would also be the site of Armageddon, the apocalyptic battle between good and evil to be fought sometime in the future. That is, in fact, where we get our word Armageddon today, as I have mentioned above — it comes originally from the Hebrew Har Megiddo, meaning “Mount or Mountain of Megiddo.” There were so many battles in this little valley, which measures only 20 miles long by seven miles wide, that one might paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill and say “never in the field of human conflict have so many fought so often over so little space!”

    My book is a detailed history of the 34 battles that we know have been fought at Megiddo or in the surrounding Jezreel Valley over the past 4000 years — from 2350 BC right up until the 1973 war. I’ve tried to reconstruct each battle to the best of our knowledge and to put it into the larger context of the period during which it was fought, from the early campaigns by the Egyptian pharaohs to the battles fought by the invading Israelites against the Canaanites and Philistines; from the conquering armies of the Greeks and Romans to the armies of the Islamic and Crusader forces; and from the battles of Napoleon to those of the modern Arab-Israeli conflicts. 

    Whenever and wherever there are parallels between the battles, I call attention to those facts. An example is the 1918 case where Allenby appears to have deliberately repeated the same tactics used by Pharaoh Thutmose III more than 3400 years earlier. In an effort to help interpret why some battle strategies failed while others succeeded in this small valley, I also try wherever and whenever possible, to utilize some of the pithy observations of the 5th century BC Chinese military tactician Sun-Tzu and the 19th century AD Prussian military genius Clausewitz.

    From the beginning, I envisioned this as a book aimed at a general audience and tried to write it so that it could be read and understood by anybody with an interest in either military history or the history of Israel and Palestine. It was my intent to also appeal to those who weren't already knowledgeable about those topics as well as to people whose interests were targeted to a specific period or person, like the Crusades or Napoleon. On the other hand, I also wanted the book to be useful to scholars and teachers in military academies or biblical studies programs. Therefore, the book is written in such a way that it makes a good case study to teach in a class or seminar on military strategy or biblical history. While I tried to make it read and flow smoothly, almost like a novel or a detective story in places, there are many footnotes discreetly tucked away at the back of the book for scholars and others who wish to further investigate a topic on their own. 

    Researching and writing as I was from 1994 until 1999, I was quite aware that, since the new millennium was rapidly approaching, the potential existed for a great deal of public interest in at least the final chapter of the book. This final chapter is a serious, lucid discussion from a military point of view of the Battle of Armageddon as described by John in the Book of Revelation. Unfortunately, it took so long to research, write, and publish the book that it wasn’t published until late November 2000 and I almost missed the coming of the new millennium!

    I see my book as a pioneering effort, most notably in its use of the idea of looking at the military history of one specific area diachronically, that is, through years and years of history. While some books have studied specific areas over the course of millennia, such as the city of Jerusalem for example, and other books have studied the general military history of a country or region, I do not know of another book that looks at the military history of such a small area for such a long period of time. Yet, in hindsight I realize that it is such an obvious type of study that I suspect we will quickly begin to see similar studies written about the military history of other sites and specific areas of the world. This kind of a study will be of obvious use to military historians, and the fact that the particular area that I was studying, i.e. Megiddo and the Jezreel Valley, is in the Holy Land, means that my study will be of use also to Biblical scholars, as well as to interested laypeople, particularly those fascinated by the concept of Armageddon. 

Eric H. Cline is a distinguished Assistant Professor of Archaeology and Ancient History with the Department of Classical and Semitic Languages and Literatures at George Washington University