Woven tents, exterior
Tents in modern Iran
Woven tent of goats' hair, with front section open
Inside the tent of a modern Bedouin family
wooden mallet - similar
A wooden tent peg
Tents were used by
nomadic people who followed their flocks to
pasture and water, and moved around according to the seasons
Two separate areas
had two separate sections.
Making the tents
These tents were made from goats' hair or dark sheep's wool, woven in rectangular strips on large looms. Women wove the fabric for the tents, stitched them together, and kept them in good repair. They also made the ropes that tethered the tents to the ground. In effect, they were the craftspeople who produced the housing.
Setting up the tent
They also set up the tents each time the clan/tribe moved to a new site. They selected a suitable site - on hilltops in summer to capture the breeze, and in winter on the leeward side of valleys, just above the base where flash floods could occur. They used wooden mallets and tent pegs they hoisted up and secured the unwieldy tents. When it was time to move on, they took down the tents, folded them and stowed to for the journey. This would seem heavy work to us, but the Hebrew women were sturdy and skilled, and they worked as a group.
Polygamy was the norm in the early period of Hebrew history, at least for the tribal leader. An important man would have a number of wives and concubines - primary and secondary wives depending on their pre-marriage status and background. A woman with a respectable dowry could expect to be a full wife; a servant girl without dowry who married a tribal leader would probably be classed as a concubine.
To accommodate this range of wives, the Hebrews (and other nomadic tribes) used an ingenious system: each woman had her own tent. It was her domain, containing her possessions. In it, she would receive her husband when he cared to visit. She raised her children there and also housed any personal servants she might have. This system did much to avoid rivalry or ill feeling between the various wives.
A reconstruction of houses within a walled town; this is the sort of housing that 'ordinary' people like Jesus and his family would have lived in
floor plan of an Iron Age house
(Right) Reconstruction of a 1st century farmhouse complex with oven and olive press (upper right); the courtyard and roof are clearly work areas; the roof has a shaded work space and separate areas for drying flax, farm produce, etc.
Model of a four-roomed
Model of the interior of a four-roomed house
19th century photograph of
shot of Qumran shows a floor-plan designed to cater
Reconstruction of house interior, 1st century AD
began to be built as soon as people discovered agriculture. Villages and then towns appeared wherever there was arable land. Many groups still used tents when they needed to move around the country, but houses and villages largely replaced the nomadic way of life.
Floor plan of a house
At first, the basic floor plan followed the layout of the tents: one long room at the front, and another one immediately behind it. However, as villages became the predominant pattern of life, the basic floor plan of a modest house changed. Now it had a central courtyard with a number of rooms opening off it. These rooms were small by our standards, with a minimum of windows. Lattice work and shutters were used to cover window openings.
The size of the rooms was limited by the fact that rooms could only be as wide as the beams that supported the roof. Beams, usually wooden and roughly shaped, reached from one wall to the other, and were covered with a mixture of woven branches and clay, which was smoothed with a stone roller.
Roof and courtyard
Stairs or a wooden ladder led up onto the roof, which was used as an outdoor room that was partly shaded by matting or a tent-like superstructure.
The inside rooms tended to be small and dark, so the courtyard and the roof were important parts of the house, used for tasks that needed good light - such as spinning and weaving, and food preparation. The flat roof area might also be used for sleeping, or for drying food or textiles (see the story of Rahab the prostitute in Joshua 2:6). In the earlier period of Jewish history, it may also have been used for bathing - Bathsheba was probably bathing herself on the flat roof of her house when she was seen by King David (see the story of this famous act of voyeurism in 2 Samuel 11:2-4).
In the courtyard of a 1st
century AD house you might find:
Decoration and furnishing
The inner walls were finished with a smooth coat of clay or plaster, which could be decorated with frescoes, elaborate in the houses of the rich, simpler in the houses of ordinary people. Wide benches of mud brick or stone for sitting and sleeping, and shelves for storage, were built into the structure itself.
By modern standards, the houses of people in ancient Palestine were sparsely furnished. Ordinary people sat on cushions, mats or carpets on the floor to eat, rather than sitting on chairs at a table. They slept on padded matting filled with stuffing. Tables, couches and beds were only used in the houses of the rich.
The earliest type of domestic building was the wide-room house. Its floor was below ground level and the house was entered by two steps. Benches ran along the walls. This basic form was enlarged by the addition of annexes and additional rooms, and a house often had several rooms, in which the entrance from the street was in the shorter wall.
Until the beginning of the 1st millennium BC, the biblical lands were a place of city states, independent of each other and, if we can judge from the amount of attention lavished on the walls and fortifications, often warring with each other.
Palestine was a fairly well-forested area in biblical times, and wood was used for houses. Ordinary people used the local sycamore, and the rich imported cedar and fir from Lebanon and Syria.
Stone was a common
building material. People in Galilee used basalt, and
villages and cities of the coastal plain used sandstone.
was generally used at least in the foundations of houses.
After the invention of the arch in the early Roman period, stone was also used for roofing. Granite and porphyry were imported from Egypt for columns and wall-facing.
But brick was the most common building material. It was cheap, and could be produced by anyone. Mud was mixed with straw and trodden until it became pliable. Wooden moulds were used to get a regular shape, and the bricks were dried in the sun. Of course this meant they were not particularly durable. Most structures needed continual renovation, carried out after the long dry summer, before the rains, and again after the rainy season.
Only in Roman times did this arduous process give way to a brick that was fired in a kiln. The Roman-era brick was thinner than the earlier bricks, and could be made in any shape required. Roof tiles were also produced in this manner, making roofing cheaper.
Mortar, a mixture of lime, sand, ashes and water, was used for plastering cisterns and reservoirs to make them water-resistant. It was of such fine quality that some reservoirs built in the Roman period can still hold water today.
Bible Architecture: Ancient houses of brick and stone; nomad's woven tents; villages and towns; building materials, decoration, ownership
Copyright 2012 Elizabeth Fletcher