What we call Israel today had the misfortune to be located between the Assyrians and Egyptians and therefore at the whim of these two militant nations. It was quite a small settlement until the times of David (1010-1002 BCE King of Judah, 1002-970 BCE King of Israel) and Solomon (970-931 BCE King of Israel) when it became an overcrowded place.
As we saw Moses had told his people to dispose of waste away from their dwellings (to bury it) and had extolled the virtues of washing with water. Jewish religious observance had thus evolved to enshrine rules of bathing and hygiene, this meant that the temples had their own supply and waste water systems and excreta was taken out through the ‘Dung Gate’.
In 605 BCE Nebuchadnezzar II, king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, had defeated the Assyrians and then turned his attention against Egypt, defeating them. On his return he laid siege to Jerusalem, capturing it by 597 BCE. But the region was subject to regular revolts so he reacted by destroying the city and its temple in 587 BCE, subsequently deporting many of its citizens to Babylon.
In 332 BCE the city found itself on the route that Alexander the Great chose to expand his imperial ambitions, he marched through Palestine and visited Jerusalem where he respectfully met with the Jews’ high priest and his retinue. Alexander defeated and annexed Persia and as result Jerusalem and Judea became Hellenistic in style and practice. But after his death Ptolemy I took over Jerusalem from 305 BCE, succeeded by the Seleucids in 198 BCE and the Maccabees by 141 BCE. Each of these peoples brought their own ideas of hygiene to the region and the city.
The next turning point for the city was when the Romans conquered the region, renaming Judah as its Judea province. Pompey the Great made the surrounding region secure and sieged Jerusalem in 63 BCE. Taking control he established Herod as a puppet king.
By 38 BCE Herod had rebuilt Jerusalem’s temple and set about installing Roman-style plumbing and practices. He improved the systems in Jerusalem and the site of his palace in Masada.
For his palace dams were built up in the hills and cisterns were placed at the top of the citadel but the water had to be manually hauled up to it by slaves. However, there were systems created for catching and storing rain. The palace was abandoned until in 70 CE rebellious Zealots took shelter there from the Romans. The water of Herod’s cisterns allowed them to hold out for three years before, facing a massive Roman assault, they committed suicide rather than be taken prisoner.
Beit She’an (aka Scythpolis and Beth Shean) was one of the Decapolis, ten cities in this Roman region that were the centres of Greek and Roman culture across Palestine, Jordan and Syria. It sat strategically where the Jordan River valley met the fertile Jezreel valley.
South of Jericho lies Qumran, the community from which. in the late 1940s/early 1950s, some 900 parchment and papyrus scrolls were discovered in eleven caves. They became known as the ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’. It is considered to be where the sect called the Essenes, a Sadducean group, lived and studied their scriptures, many living in the caves.
There was a nearby well, some 3 kms to the south, but dating from 134 – 68 BCE the community created a number of water management features. An aqueduct brought water from a nearby stream and helped to fill a series of ten large cisterns, these also captured what rainfall there was in this dry region.
Josephus, the Roman-Jewish historian, reported that the community used one cistern as a ritual bath, stating that they ‘clothed themselves in white veils […] then bathe[d] their bodies in cold water.’
The Essenes, inhabitants of Qumran, at year 0 were very devout and followed the Torah faithfully. Moses had advised the Israelites to build their latrines outside their camp. Several of the Qumran scrolls are more specific suggesting that this should be 1,000 cubits or 2,000 cubits away from the camp. A Hebrew cubit is said to be 44.5 cms (17.5 inches), the measure from the tip of the fingertips to the elbow (though this varied between the cultures of the Middle East – Egyptian cubits were 52 cms!). So they had a 400 metre or longer trek to relive themselves, but worse for the Essenes, they were not allowed outside the camp on the Sabbath, so could not use the loo for 24-hours! Though one private pit latrine has been discovered inside the settlement.
Early Christian filth
Christianity was founded and grew from this area. Yet despite the history of sanitation and hygiene that the region had enjoyed, this new religion showed little interest in prescribing systems and processes for washing, bathing or waste removal.
In fact in its early centuries the church considered cleanliness to be the materialistic, luxurious lifestyle that they were preaching against. Their oppressors, the Romans, were seen as a sensuous and hedonistic symbol that they sought to replace.
Disciples, saints, monks and hermits were considered all the more holy the dirtier they were. Saint Francis of Assisi preached that an unwashed body showed the height of pious intent. Gregory the Great, the very first monk to become a Pope, allowed his adherents a Sunday bath, but cautioned that it should not be allowed to become a time-wasting luxury. As we shall see Christians in the Middle Ages were content to live in crowded dirty cities, surrounded by waste and fecal matter (human and animal), drinking from polluted water sources, with their hair and clothing harbouring infestations of lice and other horrors.