Nomadic tents, houses and villages in Old and New Testament times


  Most of the tribal people ('the people of the land') in the Books of Genesis,  Samuel, Kings and Chronicles lived in tents. The Canaanites had villages and fortified towns; the Israelites copied them, living on arable land in permanent settlements.  


People in ancient Israel were often on the move, looking for fresh pasture for their flocks - tent housing was ideal for them.  Houses were permanent shelters for  the farmers who worked the land.


Tents were used as portable housing  by most people in the ancient Middle East. Clusters of houses sprang up wherever there was good land.
Note: this page does not include the 'grand' buildings of the Bible. To see these, go to BIBLE TOP TEN: BUILDINGS

  INTERESTING WEBSITES                                                                                  SCROLL DOWN FOR IMAGES









Tents in modern Iran


ANCIENT HOUSES,HOUSING,TENTS:BIBLE ARCHITECTURE: Woven tent of goats' hair, with front section open ANCIENT HOUSES,HOUSING,TENTS:BIBLE ARCHITECTURE: Tent interior, a modern Bedouin family

Woven tent of goats' hair, with front section open
A flap could be pulled across this opening, 
sealing the tent against the weather

         Inside the tent of a modern Bedouin family



An ancient wooden mallet - this one is from 14th century England, but it is similar to the type of mallet 
the Israelites would have used to put up their tents

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
     * semi-nomadic people, who were based in a village but lived part of the year in upper or lower pasture areas.


The tents were larger than most modern tents, and had two separate sections. 
The front section was used for work. It was the public area of the tent, open to visitors. The men of the family lived here, gathered here with family members or friends, and conducted business here if necessary. The men ate their meals in this area. The front part of the tent would be left open in warm weather.

The second or rear part of the tent was private. A dividing curtain separated it from the front area. It was here that the women, children and babies lived and slept. 


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. 




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.





    ANCIENT HOUSES,HOUSING,TENTS:BIBLE ARCHITECTURE: artist's reconstruction of houses within a walled city

ANCIENT HOUSES,HOUSING,TENTS:BIBLE ARCHITECTURE: Excavated floor plan of an Iron Age dwelling
    A reconstruction of houses within a walled city; this is the sort of housing that 'ordinary' people like Jesus and his family would have lived in  


  Excavated floor plan of an Iron Age dwelling 
with central courtyard



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.

  ANCIENT HOUSES,HOUSING,TENTS:BIBLE ARCHITECTURE: Reconstruction of  a 1st century farmhouse complex with oven and olive press;courtyard and roof are work areas




ANCIENT HOUSES,HOUSING,TENTS:BIBLE ARCHITECTURE: Model of a four-roomed house excavated near modern Amman   ANCIENT HOUSES,HOUSING,TENTS:BIBLE ARCHITECTURE: Model of interior of a four-roomed house  
     Model of a four-roomed house excavated near modern Amman


   Model of interior of a four-roomed house


    ANCIENT HOUSES,HOUSING,TENTS:BIBLE ARCHITECTURE: photograph of    ANCIENT HOUSES,HOUSING,TENTS:BIBLE ARCHITECTURE: artist's reconstruction of a 1st century AD house in Palestine  

     A 19th century photograph of 
the courtyard of a house in Palestine    


Artist's impression of 
a 1st century AD house in Palestine



 ANCIENT HOUSES,HOUSING,TENTS:BIBLE ARCHITECTURE: Qumran ground plan of excavations      


This aerial shot of Qumran shows a floor-plan designed to cater for a large self-supporting community





ANCIENT HOUSES,HOUSING,TENTS:BIBLE ARCHITECTURE: Reconstruction of house interior,kitchen area


ANCIENT HOUSES,HOUSING,TENTS:BIBLE ARCHITECTURE: House interior with narrow shuttered window

     Reconstruction of house interior, 1st century AD   House interior with narrow shuttered window  





HOUSES 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. 


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.


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:
     * the mikveh, a pool of clean rainwater used for ritual cleansing by both men and women
     * a stone-based cooking area with a fire, cooking utensils and possibly an oven
     * stone or clay implements for grinding small amounts of grain
     * a covered area where people sat while they worked or talked
     * a covered area for animals - people lived at close quarters with their animals.
This outside area was, if the weather was good which it mostly was, a center of activity and socializing.


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 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.

Given this, Joseph of Nazareth was probably a builder rather than a carpenter, since the inhabitants of a small village like Nazareth did not need much furniture.


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 those in the villages and cities of the coastal plain used sandstone.  Stone was generally used at least in the foundations of houses.

Iron tools made stone-dressing easier. The stone was smoothed on three or four sides, with dressed margins and a projecting boss (a carved projection along the edges of the stone). In Megiddo, ashlar pillars were built into the wall at regular intervals to give strength to the structure. In Herod's time, large blocks of up to 9metres (30feet) were used. These stones were polished along the edges, leaving either a shallow boss or a projecting boss in the center.

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.

  ANCIENT HOUSES,HOUSING,TENTS:BIBLE ARCHITECTURE: making bricks in ancient EgyptBut 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.




INTERESTING SITES - stories, pictures, reconstructions, information


Housing for 'ordinary' people like Jesus and his family: 

Jael is only able to perform her bloodthirsty task in the privacy of her tent:

The Top Ten Buildings of the Bible: 



Custom Search

Housing in Old and New Testament times - Architecture of the Bible
Nomadic tents, houses, villages; archaeology - Bible Study Resource