When was Jerusalem founded? What was its history? Calling into question the Bible version, which took precedence until now, dozens of digs carried out by Israeli archaeologists are upsetting the official history. Hypotheses on the size of the town around 2000 years BCE, prior to the arrival of the Israelites, remain controversial.
In the Bible, the history of Jerusalem starts after David fought and beat the giant Goliath. The young shepherd continued his military career and is said to have entered Jerusalem at night, through a well that supplied it with water from the nearby Gihon Spring. This is how David is said to have become king of Judah and of Israel. Again, according to the Bible, he made it his capital. There, he is said to have placed the Ark of the Covenant, where the Tablets of Law were kept, and founded a vast kingdom. His son Solomon is said to have built a temple (and his palace) on Mount Moriah, overlooking the city, to house the Ark.
Is there any historical accuracy to this story? Archaeology has found almost no traces of King David, and even fewer of the Ark. As for Solomon’s Temple, it should have been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar II, in 587 BCE. Today, Mount Moriah, also known as Temple Mount, and rebaptised “Noble Sanctuary”, is crowned by the Dome of the Rock, now the most distinctive monument in the city (and by el-Aqsa mosque).
The only ruins of the ancient Jewish temple are four powerful supporting walls, including the western wall which borders the esplanade and is more commonly known as the Wailing Wall. However, it is far more recent than Solomon’s Temple. This is the supporting wall of the so-called “Second Temple”, built on the same site as the first by King Herod the Great, a few years BCE.
So, how far back does Jerusalem go exactly? Was it really founded by King David? Did he even really exist? Did the arrival of the Israelites in the Bible mark the emergence of the city as a capital? These are just some of the questions the archaeological digs are trying to answer. Since 2005, several dozen sites (of varying size and duration) have been undertaken by the Israeli Antiquities Authority in the Ancient City and nearby, specifically in the City of David, to the south of Temple Mount and around the Gihon Spring. The resulting discoveries are forcing us to take another serious look at our understanding of Jerusalem’s history. Against the background of political, ideological and religious tensions, this review is the subject of passionate debate which everyone is trying to commandeer for their own cause.
Ceramic fragments from the 4th millennium BCE point to the presence of humans. But for a long time, the place remained a village of no importance. When did it become a capital, or at least a city important enough to merit conquering? At the start of the Israelite period or well before? Going against current opinion, the second option is suggested by searches carried out by Ronny Reich, from Haifa University, and Eli Shukron from the Israeli Antiquities Authority, around the Gihon Spring. The search was conducted in the area above the city’s only permanent water point (see map below). This spring rises in the south of the city and flows along the valley to the Dead Sea, nearly 30km to the east. Work was undertaken early on to reach the waters through a well or to divert them by means of a tunnel. These constructions can be seen as a sign of a desire to safeguard the town’s water supply in the event of a siege.
Elements revealed by the archaeologists go well beyond a make-shift construction (1). There is a set of very wide walls laid directly on the bedrock, a sign (however questionable) of its age. They were built to ensure access to the source from the upper part of the City of David. It is a robust system, comprised of a fortified passage (Pool Tower) with two parallel walls, 3.5m wide and 7m high. At the bottom is a rectangular tower (Spring Tower) positioned exactly over the Gihon Spring and overlooking a reservoir hewn out of the rock (Rock-Cut Pool). The walls were dated using fragments of ceramics found nearby. They were probably erected during the Middle Bronze Age II (or the 1st half of the 2nd millennium BCE). Their method of construction confirms this hypothesis. Built using Cyclopean masonry, i.e. large juxtaposed stones, they appear as characteristic of the period.
Other, older digs support this dating: those conducted by the British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon between 1961 and 1967, and those by Yigal Shiloh from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, conducted between 1978 and 1985. They revealed portions of wall dating from the Middle Bronze Age II. Finally, the hypothesis is backed up by Egyptian Execration texts found on clay bowls in Egypt. These magical texts were meant to bring misfortune on the enemies of Egypt and seems to mentioned “Jerusalem”. All these clues point to the fact that the town was important about 2,000 years BCE, almost 700 years before the development of the Israelites villages in the region.
Such fortifications could only have been erected by powerful locals and by a relatively large and well-organised population. Problem: no public buildings (palace, temple) have been found from this period. This could be for one simple reason: if a Canaan temple (from the population of the time) existed in Jerusalem four millennia ago, it could have been placed for religious / strategic reasons on the summit of Mount Moriah, today covered by the esplanade of Mosques. And remains therefore inaccessible to archaeological investigation…
BETWEEND BRONZE AND IRON
The hypothesis of a large fortified town well before the arrival of Israeli populations is however controversial. The Israeli archaeologist David Ussishkin, in particular, questions these dates. For him, the Gihon Spring fortifications date from the Iron Age II, i.e. the 9th 4th century BCE. While Middle Bronze Age ceramics were found near the supporting walls, he believes it is because they were already present for centuries in the earth used by the builders to consolidate the wall. Thus, the fortifications could be contemporaneous with the political development of the kingdom of Judah - between the 9th 4th and 6th centuries BCE. - and therefore partly corroborate the Biblical chronology in part.
This viewpoint recently received considerable support. In the spring of 2017, Elisabetta Boaretto and her team from the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, published an article in the journal Radiocarbon. They revealed the results of carbon14 dating carried out on samples of charcoal recovered under the base of large blocks from the Spring Tower, in an area where they were not resting on the bedrock. Stupefaction: the dates obtained did not correspond to the start of the 2nd millennium, but to the 9th BCE! The authors recognise however the difficulties in interpreting these new dates. They may have studied an area of the wall that had undergone renovations well after its construction… The debate on the urban foundation of Jerusalem is ongoing.
Whether the fortification of the Gihon Spring dates from the 2nd or 1st millennium BCE, what is certain is that the destiny of the town changed under the influence of the kings of Israel. The Merneptah Stele, now housed in the museum of Cairo, tells how this pharaoh was confronted in Canaan by a people called “Israel”. The existence of Israelite populations is thus confirmed in the region from the 13th century BCE, through this first mention of Israel outside the biblical context. This period is the object of a dig currently being carried out in the City of David. It is located close to the south of the esplanade of Mosques. It stretches over a few hectares and covers a rocky outcrop that overlooks the Gihon Spring. A strategic place, both due to the proximity of the spring which provided the population with water, and due to the view over the surrounding land. Since the 19th century and the first archaeological discoveries, this area is traditionally associated with the position of biblical Jerusalem.
What does the terrain say? Investigations in the Givati parking lot, west of the City of David and conducted by the archaeologists Doron Ben-Ami and Yana Tchekhanovets, started in 2007 on an area of about half a hectare and are still continuing today. They have revealed four layers lying on the bedrock and confirm village occupation since the 9th century BCE (2). This is believed to have continued until the Byzantine period. A treasure of more than 264 pieces of gold, probably hidden inside a wall just before the conquest of Jerusalem by the Persians in the year 614, was found in 2008.
However, these digs did not reveal anything that pointed to a fortified town. The excavation area had indeed been chosen for that very reason. If, during the 9th and the 8th century BCE, Jerusalem had had a wall, it would logically have been built here, at the edge of the deep Tyropeon valley, to protect the city. For the archaeologists therefore, under Kings David, Solomon and their direct descendants, Jerusalem was not a fortified site. It was only fortified toward the end of the 8th century BCE, probably to protect it from the threat of rising power from the Assyrian Empire.
If the City of David was not fortified, could it have been a capital city nevertheless? This is suggested by the recent and surprising discoveries made during other investigations, carried out opposite the Givati parking lot, in the upper part of the City of David, between 2005 and 2008. The archaeologist Eilat Mazar, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, found a large stone structure that she interpreted as part of King David’s palace (3). It would be the first archaeological remnant of the presence of this King in Jerusalem. Until now, only the Tel Dan stele, a stone commemorating the victory of an Aramaic King over the kingdom of Israel, dating from the second half of the 9th century BCE, mentioned “Beit David” (David’s house). Eilat Mazar’s discovery would be extraordinary, were there more to it.
The architectural element exhumed is mainly comprised of two wide walls, poorly preserved. They form a corner over the stepped structure discovered in the 1920s. This structure is incorrectly dated, between the 13th and 9th centuries BCE. The dating of the walls dug by Eilat Mazar suffers from the same inaccuracy. Sherds from the 10th and 9th centuries BCE have indeed been found on the rock, but they cannot be attributed to a specific stratigraphic layer as digs were done in several places in more recent periods. Neither archaeological equipment nor stratigraphy enable these ruins to be dated reliably.
For many archaeologists, including Israelis and international personalities, the hypothesis of these walls corresponding to David’s palace is influenced by too literal a reading of the biblical text. Yet, this is the interpretation of the traces preferred in the official version of the site’s history published by the Ir David Foundation which manages the archaeological park. Identity reading (?) of the ruins is proving particularly successful with visitors to the City of David. They come just to see the ruins of this wall, material proof that supposedly legitimises the place name. Historians wishing to keep to the archaeological traces therefore have to deal with conflicting clues: the very ancient fortifications of the Gihon Spring, but no walls dating from the time of King David. No walls, but a construction that conveys a palace… These contradictions may just be reconciled by a new hypothesis, put forward in 2011 by Israël Finkelstein, Ido Koch and Oded Lipschits. These archaeologists from Tel Aviv University envisage placing the biblical Jerusalem not near the Gihon Spring, but at the summit, on Temple Mount.
In the 2nd millennium BCE, Jerusalem, built on Mount Moriah, would quickly have become an important regional urban centre. It would have benefitted from new growth in the whole of the “South Levant”, known as the “second urban revolution”, opening up a long period as a political and religious capital. Unfortunately, this original city was probably boxed in a few years BCE by the huge platform for the temple of Herod the Great, currently serving as the esplanade of Mosques. The authors believe that this hypothesis remains unverifiable but has the merit of offering a solution to the sparse presence of archaeological traces of Jerusalem in the 2nd and at the start of the 1st millennium BCE.
Digs in Jerusalem have offered some indications, but the task remains immense. And difficult; despite the interest to historians, many places cannot be explored, either because they are in a dense urban environment, or because they are on holy or politically sensitive sites. In some districts, the municipality and the Israeli government are in continual opposition with the local Palestinian population. In this geography, the summit of the Temple Mount is focusing political and religious challenges. This archaeological untouchable and unknown area has become the object of historical fantasies in many minds.
(1) R. Reich and E. Shukron, Tel Aviv, 37, 141, 2010.
(2) D. Ben-Ami, Tel Aviv, 41, 3, 2014.
(3) Eilat Mazar, The Summit of the City of David. Excavations 2005-2008. Final Reports Volume I, Academic Research and Publication, Jerusalem, 2015.
The slightest discovery in Jerusalem ignites passion, worry and sometimes street demonstrations. And can cause reactions thousands of kilometres away. The excavations conducted in 2005 near the Wailing wall, near the Dung Gate, led to riots as far away as Indonesia. In this context, interpreting and revealing discoveries becomes a highly delicate exercise. The heritage found is often rapidly made available to the public, even though the dig or the investigations are incomplete. These places go from being “archaeological sites” to “archaeological parks”, with cultural, identity and political dimensions. The hunger for historical justification leaves room for all sorts of instrumentalization by certain non-archaeological organisations, with ideological or political motivations. Tourists, scholars and soldiers are offered ideologically-oriented tours of the City of David for example. The idea that archaeology proves the existence of King David and a large kingdom is promoted, even though this cannot be deduced from current digs. But the Israeli authorities like the idea, as it offers Israel territorial legitimacy in this part of East Jerusalem. The ideological use of digs also helps confirm the Israeli public’s search for identity. But it tends to exclude the Palestinian inhabitants, who cannot see themselves in the place’s history. This rejection is all the stronger as dig sites which cannot be built or lived on, are depriving them of land. Uses of this ancient heritage is therefore increasing tensions between communities. And archaeology does not have the answer to this situation.
A ROYAL PALACE UNDER A CAR PARK
The dig in the Givati car park reveals a more recent period, when Jerusalem was living under Greek influence (around 332-142 BCE), and then Roman influence at the start of our era. In 2015, a wall 20m long and 4m wide was presented to the public. It is a fragment of Hellenistic fortifications, interpreted as being the Acra, a 2nd century BCE Seleucid fortress, built under King Antiochus IV and sought for a long time. Additional archaeological investigations should confirm or deny this hypothesis. The later reign of King Herod the Great was marked by formidable constructions. In 2009, a vast building was uncovered. It is said to be the palace built in the 1st century for Queen Helena of Adiabene, mentioned by the Roman historian Flavius Josephus. Originally from Northern Mesopotamia, this Queen converted to Judaism at a time when the great temple of Herod was operating nearby.
Michaël Jasmin is an independent archaeologist, and associate researcher at the CNRS UMR 8167 Eastern & Mediterranean Laboratory.