Ancient architecture in Bible lands: tents, houses

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Houses in Nazareth

Model of one of King Herod's palaces in ancient Jericho

King Herod's palaces

Solomon's temple, the walls of Jericho, the gates of Megiddo

Ancient buildings

Tombs: houses for the dead

Houses for the dead

Harem women look out a palace window

Solomon's palace

Reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, 1st century AD

Jerusalem buildings

Four-sided sacrificial altar

Ancient temples






Nomads'  tents


Woven tents, exterior


Tents in modern Iran

ANCIENT HOUSES,HOUSING,TENTS:BIBLE ARCHITECTURE: Woven tent of goats' hair, with front section open

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

Inside a tent belonging to a modern Bedouin family

         Inside the tent of a modern Bedouin family


A wooden mallet - similar to ones 
the Israelites 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 pastures.

Two separate areas

The tents 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. 

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.


Village Houses


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

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

Excavated floor plan of an Iron Age dwelling with central courtyard

Excavated floor plan of an Iron Age house 
with central courtyard

1st century farmhouse complex, oven, olive press, roof workspace

(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.

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

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 the interior of a four-roomed house


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

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

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


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

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.

ANCIENT HOUSES,HOUSING,TENTS:BIBLE ARCHITECTURE: ancient kitchen interiorThe 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:
     * 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.
If the weather was good which it mostly was, this outside area was a center of activity and socializing.

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.

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

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. 

Building materials

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.  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 9 metres (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.

But brick was the most common building material. It was cheap, and could be produced by anyone. ANCIENT HOUSES,HOUSING,TENTS:BIBLE ARCHITECTURE: making bricks in ancient Egypt 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.



Most of the tribal people ('the people of the land') in the Book of Genesis were nomads who lived in tents. The Canaanites had villages and fortified towns; as time went by 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 - tents were ideal for them. Houses were permanent shelters for  farmers who worked the land.


Tents were used as portable housing in the ancient Middle East. Clusters of houses sprang up wherever there was good land.


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Bible Architecture: Ancient houses of brick and stone; nomad's woven tents; villages and towns; building materials, decoration, ownership

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Copyright 2012 Elizabeth Fletcher