Shiloh was the religious and defacto political capital of the Israelites during the first three centuries or so of their occupation of Canaan. Established by Joshua, Shiloh was home to both the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant throughout the era of the Judges. Three times per year, every Israelite was required to visit the Tabernacle to leave offerings, a custom that was later assumed by the Temple in Jerusalem. Once the most important pilgrimage site in Israel, Shiloh’s importance waned with the rise of the Tribe of Judah, and was all but forgotten during the Diaspora. Currently a Jewish enclave in Palestine, it remains a sacred place, especially to the area’s small surviving community of Samaritans.
In the years following the initial Israelite conquests in Canaan, Joshua had the newly won lands divided up by lot, with each tribe receiving a portion. The tribe of Ephraim, to which Joshua belonged, received one of the best lots at the very heart of the newly won realm. This territory included such luminous places as Gilgal, where the Israelites erected their first altar in the Promised Land, and Shechem, where Abraham almost sacrificed his son to prove his loyalty to God. Naturally, because of its central location, Joshua decided to give the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant a permanent home in the territory of Ephraim. The place he chose was Shiloh.
Before that period, Shiloh had been little more than a small Canaanite settlement. After the Tabernacle was established there, it quickly grew into a thriving town. It became the chief seat of the descendents of Aaron, home of the Israelite high priests, and the religious heart of the new nation. It eclipsed Hebron in terms of its spiritual importance, becoming the Promised Land’s chief pilgrimage destination. Whereas the Israelites might visit the Tomb of the Patriarchs once in their lives, they were required to make several visits to Shiloh every year, in order to present their sacrifices and offerings to the priests.
The Tabernacle and Ark remained in Shiloh throughout the period of the Judges. However, following the Battle of Aphek in which the Israelites were routed by the Philistines, the Ark was taken and Shiloh was sacked. It is likely that the Tabernacle was destroyed at this time, for there is absolutely no knowledge of its subsequent whereabouts; and while the Ark of the Covenant was eventually recovered by the Israelites, it never returned to the lands of Ephraim. The loss of the Tabernacle and the Ark were a great blow to Shiloh’s prestige and religious importance from which it never recovered.
Nevertheless, Shiloh continued to play a minor roll in the history of Israel. Samuel, the last and greatest of the Judges of Israel, studied in Shiloh in its waning years under Eli, one of the greatest of the High Priests. Later, in the years following the death of Solomon, it was in Shiloh that the Prophet Ahijah declared the independence of the northern ten tribes of Israel from the southern kingdom of Judah. Although Shiloh remained a significant population center until the Assyrian conquest, it was thoroughly eclipsed by the new capital cities of Jerusalem in Judah and Samaria in Israel, and never again regained its former importance or glory.
The site where ancient Shiloh once stood was abandoned for many centuries, despite its excellent geographical location. It is possible that the local population began to shrink after the sack of the city and loss of the Ark. A new town, dating entirely from the 20th century, now stands on the ancient site. Because of its relatively small modern population, new Shiloh has a very quaint feel, especially compared to the crowded metropoli or vast empty deserts that seem to characterize the Holy Land’s other sacred places.
The area in and around the new town is replete with ruins that date back to the original settelement and earlier. Among the many finds there are a public building and grain silos. There are also remains of a Byzantine-era church. Though the Tabrnacle once dominated the crown of the village’s hill, no trace of it has ever been discovered. A Jewish Yeshiva now stands on or near the ancient spot. The Tabernacle is commemorated in the Mishkan Shilo Synagogue, which is modeled after the fabled tent of the Exodus.
The modern town of Tel Shilo is located approximately twenty miles north of Jerusalem along the main road to Nablus. A Jewish outpost in the middle of Palestinian territory, Tel Shilo is a semi-private community. While there are theoretically no restrictions for Jewish visitors, getting to and from the site, or even on and off the site, can be difficult due to reasons of security. No other visitor information was available as of the time of this writing. Web: http://shilo.org.il (official website of Tel Shilo)
In addition to the Jewish sites of interest, the remains of a Byzantine Church have recently been uncovered in Shiloh. Tradition has it that the church stood on the site where the Ark of the Covenant had been kept in ancient times.