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The Jewish Temples: Jerusalem During the Second Temple Period

(516 BCE - 70 CE)

During the reign of King Herod (end of the 1st century BCE), Jerusalem grew enormously in area and intensive building activity, unparalleled in the city's history, took place. Many public buildings were constructed - the most impressive of them the Temple Mount and the Temple itself.

The city was surrounded by walls with many towers. At the northwestern corner of the city wall, Herod built three massive towers that protected the royal palace just south of them. Of these towers, only the base of the one traditionally known as the "Tower of David" remains today; it was incorporated into the Ottoman citadel of the city, south of the Jaffa Gate.

The residential area on the western hill of Jerusalem during the Second Temple Period (its area today extends over the Jewish and Armenian quarters of the Old City and Mount Zion beyond the walls, to the south) became known as the "Upper City". The name stems from the fact that it is topographically higher than the rest of the city, even the Temple Mount. It was re-planned and rebuilt in the finest Roman tradition by Herod and his successors, with blocks of large buildings separated by streets, and plazas along which palaces and public buildings stood.

The Upper City was the neighborhood of the rich, with large, elaborate dwellings inhabited by the families of the high priests and of the local aristocracy. Here were the palaces of the Hasmonean kings, of King Herod and of the High Priest Caiaphas (who is mentioned in the New Testament). Here, Jesus was arrested and held for a night before he was handed over to the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate, for sentencing. (Matthew 26: 57-75; Luke 22:54-71, 23:1) According to Christian tradition, the palace of the High Priest Caiaphas stood on Mt. Zion, which today is outside the Old City wall, to the south.

The walls, the towers and the elaborate palaces of the Upper City are described in detail by the contemporary Jewish historian and native Jerusalemite, Josephus Flavius. He was an eyewitness to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, and he also describes the conquest of the Upper City, where the Roman soldiers plundered the palaces and elegant homes and burnt them to their foundations, on the 8th day of Elul in the year 70 CE, one month after the destruction of the Temple.

Caesar, finding it impracticable to reduce the upper city without earthworks, owing to the precipitous nature of the site, on the twentieth of the month Lous (Ab) apportioned the task among his forces. The conveyance of timber was, however, arduous, all the environs of the city to a distance of a hundred furlongs having, as I said, been stripped bare. The earthworks having now been completed after eighteen days' labor, on the seventh of the month Gorpiaeus (Elul) the Romans brought up the engines. Of the rebels, some already despairing of the city, retired from the ramparts to the citadel, others slunk down into the tunnels. Pouring into the alleys, sword in hand, they (the Romans) massacred indiscriminately all whom they met, and burnt the houses with all who had taken refuge within. Often in the course of their raids, on entering the houses for loot, they would find whole families dead and the rooms filled with the victims of the famine... Running everyone through who fell in their way, they choked the alleys with corpses and deluged the whole city with blood, insomuch that many of the fires were extinguished by the gory stream. Towards evening they ceased slaughtering, but when night fell the fire gained the mastery, and the dawn of the eighth day of the month of Gorpiaeus (Elul) broke upon Jerusalem in flames - a city which had suffered such calamities...The Romans now set fire to the outlying quarters of the town and razed the walls to the ground. Thus was Jerusalem taken in the second year of the reign of Vespasian, on the eighth of the month of Gorpiaeus. (20 September, 70 CE)

(War VI. 8-10)

From 1969 to 1982, when the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem was rebuilt, the Upper City of the Second Temple period became subject to comprehensive archeological investigation. Impressive remains of continuous settlement on the western hill were uncovered - from the end of the First Temple period (8th-7th centuries BCE) to modern times.

Remains of the dwellings of the Upper City, which had been buried for almost 1,900 years, were exposed. Houses and artifacts were preserved almost in their entirety, protected by a thick blanket of the debris of later occupation. The finds confirm very precisely the written evidence of Josephus Flavius and the fierceness of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Upper City.

Upon completion of the excavations, remains from the Upper City were preserved as museums, beneath the new buildings of the Jewish Quarter. Visitors may walk through the courtyards and the rooms of houses, in which the stone furniture and vessels used by the inhabitants 2,000 years ago stand intact. They provide a vivid record of the way of life that ended there in the year 70 CE.

The Herodian Quarter

This was the main excavation site in the Jewish Quarter, with parts of six or seven houses covering an area of some 2,700 sq. m. The houses were built on terraces, on the slope of the hill facing eastward toward the Tyropoeon Valley, opposite the Temple Mount.

The Palatial Mansion

The "Palatial Mansion" in the Herodian Quarter is the largest, most complete and most elaborate of the Second Temple period dwellings uncovered in the Jewish Quarter. It faithfully represents the architecture, and the splendor of the buildings typical of the Upper City.

Located at the eastern edge of the Upper City, the building was constructed during the reign of King Herod. It provided a good view of the Temple Mount and the Temple, and extended over three terraces with a total area of 600 sq. m. Remains of two stories of this house were excavated: the ground floor in the western portion of the house included a central courtyard and living quarters; a basement in the eastern and northern portions included water installations, storage and service rooms. The house had thick walls built of well-trimmed Jerusalem limestone and its foundations were laid on bedrock. Some parts of the house were preserved to an impressive height of 2-3 m.

The central courtyard (8 x 8 m.) on the ground floor was paved with square stones. It was surrounded by many rooms and gave access to the other wings of the house. On the eastern side of the courtyard was an opening to a large underground cistern, which was hewn into the rock and plastered with thick gray plaster to prevent seepage. From the mouth of the cistern, a narrow shaft led down into its bell-shaped cavity. Rainwater was collected from the roofs and courtyards of the house and carried via a network of channels and pipes into the cistern, which had a capacity of several hundred gallons and provided water for daily use during the dry summer months.

The ground floor of the elaborate western wing of the Palatial Mansion included a vestibule (entrance room) with a mosaic pavement consisting of a colored square panel with a multi-petalled rosette in the center and pomegranates at the corners.

On the walls of the room next to the vestibule, frescos were preserved to a considerable height. These colored frescos are in the style popular at the time in the Hellenistic-Roman world, with colored panels, imitation marble, architectural elements and floral motifs.

Numerous examples of colored mosaic floors were found in the houses of the Upper City, both in reception halls and baths. These are the oldest mosaic floors found in Jerusalem to date. Similar designs were found in King Herod's palaces at Masada, Herodium and elsewhere. The decorative motifs in these mosaics include geometric designs - interlacing meanders, wavy lines and pleated bands. Floral motifs are also common, especially stylized rosettes with differing numbers of petals. It is also noteworthy that the corpus of decorative motifs used in the mosaics and frescos of the Second Temple period did not include representations of humans or of animals, since Jews strictly avoided figurative art.

The reception hall of the house was particularly large (11 x 6.5 m.) and very elaborate. Its walls, preserved to a height of 3 m., were covered with white stucco, modeled in relief as panels. The imitation is of the costly Hellenistic-Roman construction of ashlars with marginal boss, as in the retaining walls of the Herodian Temple Mount complex. To the west of the reception hall, three rooms partially cut into the rock of the hillside, were uncovered. The walls of these rooms, decorated with frescos, were found covered with a layer of white plaster in preparation for redecoration, indicating that the residential wing of this mansion was in the process of renovation when the Romans destroyed it.

East of the central courtyard a small room with a bench and a mosaic floor was uncovered, with a small mikve (Jewish ritual bath, pl. mikva'ot) next to it. From the courtyard two stone staircases led to the basement level: one to a storage room and a mikve; the second to a network of storage areas, rooms and mikva'ot in the northern and eastern parts of the house. One of the rooms on the basement level was paved with a mosaic in chessboard pattern (black and white stones) and from it a double entrance gave access to a large mikveh with a vaulted ceiling.

Mikva'ot are among the most common features in the residences of the Upper City of Jerusalem. In each house there were one or two - and sometimes more - mikva'ot, evidence of the importance accorded to ritual purity. A typical mikve was cut into the rock, plastered and roofed with a vaulted stone ceiling; a broad flight of steps led to its bottom. The mikva'ot were filled in winter with rainwater and in summer with water from the cisterns. At times bathtubs, constructed of small stones, cement and plaster were placed next to the mikva'ot.

It might be assumed that the Palatial Mansion, with its location overlooking the Temple Mount and its large number of mik'vaot, was owned by a priestly family.

The Burnt House

The residence known as the Burnt House, located north of the Palatial Mansion, also dates from the Second Temple period. Here, for the first time, evidence was found of the total destruction of the city by the Romans in the year 70 CE. Although only a small area of the house was exposed, it proved to be far richer in small finds than the other houses uncovered in the Upper City.

The ground floor of the Burnt House was exposed, including a small courtyard, four rooms, a kitchen and a mikve. The walls of the house, built of stones and cement and covered with a thick white plaster, were preserved to a height of about one meter. In the floors of the rooms, of beaten earth, were the sunken bases of round ovens made of brown clay, indicating perhaps that this wing of the house was used as a workshop.

The courtyard of the house was paved with stone, and through it one reached the kitchen and the other rooms. Three of these were medium-sized and a fourth, a side room, extremely small. The mikve is very small, covered with gray plaster, and has four steps descending to its bottom. In the corner of the kitchen was a stove, basalt grinding-stones next to it, and a large stone tray.

The Burnt House was found buried under a thick layer of destruction. Throughout the house, scattered in disarray among the collapsed walls, ceilings and the second story, were fragments of stone tables and many ceramic, stone and metal vessels, evidence of pillaging by the Roman soldiers. Leaning against a corner of one of the rooms was an iron spear, which apparently had belonged to one of the Jewish fighters who lived here. At the entrance to the side room, the arm bones of a young woman were found, the fingers clutching at the stone threshold. The many iron nails found in the ruins are all that was left of the wooden roof, the shelves and furnishings which were completely burnt. Numerous coins minted during the rebellion against the Romans (66-70 CE) attest to the date of the destruction of this house.

In one of the rooms a round stone weight, 10 cm. in diameter, was found. On it, in square Aramaic script was the Hebrew inscription (of) Bar Kathros, indicating that it belonged to the son of a man named Kathros. The "House of Kathros" is known as that of a priestly family, which had abused its position in the Temple. A ditty preserved in talmudic literature speaks of the corruption of these priests:

Woe is me because of the House of Boethus,
  woe is me because of their slaves.
Woe is me because of the House of Hanan,
  woe is me because of their incantations.
Woe is me because of the House of Kathros,
  woe is me because of their pens.
Woe is me because of the House of Ishmael, son of Phiabi,
  woe is me because of their fists.
For they are the High Priests, and their sons are treasurers, and their sons-in law are trustees, and their servants beat the people with staves.

(Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 57, 1
Tosefta, Minhot 13, 21)

Can we assume that the Burnt House was actually the House of Kathros?

Finds from the Second Temple Period in the Upper City

Hundreds of complete pottery vessels were found, mainly in the mikva'ot and the cisterns of the houses, where they had apparently been placed during the siege. Many of the artifacts and vessels, objects of daily use in the 1st century CE, are currently displayed in the museums of the Herodian Quarter and the Burnt House.

Tables - fragments of dozens of stone tables of two types - typical household furniture - were discovered in the excavations. Large tables of local limestone consist of a rectangular tabletop (averaging 85 x 45 cm.) engraved on three sides with geometric and floral motifs, which stood on one, central leg (70-80 cm. average height) in the form of a column with a base. These heavy tables were placed against a wall.

Small, round tables, ca. 50 cm. in diameter, made of different stone including local limestone and imported granite and marble, stood on wooden tripod legs that have not been preserved. These were portable tables used for serving food to guests who reclined on low wooden couches in the elaborate reception rooms.

Stone Vessels - An enormous number of stone vessels of the Second Temple period were found in the houses of the Upper City. The vessels were made of easily worked, soft local limestone, found in abundance in Jerusalem and especially on Mount Scopus and on The Mount of Olives. The vessels were made on a lathe or by hand. More unusual are the large, lathe-made vessels. They are 60-80 cm. high with thick straight or rounded walls, goblet-shaped with wide mouths, on a pedestal. Most of the smaller vessels are also lathe-made, in a wide variety of sizes and shapes: bowls, cups and vessels in imitation of imported pottery. Among the vessels made by hand with a broad-bladed gouge are trays and containers of various sizes. The so-called measuring cups, shaped like mugs with straight walls and large handles, were also handmade.

The stone vessel industry that flourished in Jerusalem during the 1st century CE is clearly related to the strict observance of Jewish laws governing ritual purity, according to which stone does not absorb impurity. (Mishna, Kelim 10:1; Parah 5:5) The purity of stone vessels is also mentioned in the New Testament, in the miracle of the changing of water into wine at Cana. (John 2: 1-7)

Menorah Engraving - Two fragments of light-colored plaster, dating to the Second Temple period, on which a seven-branched menorah (candelabrum) is depicted, were found in the Jewish Quarter. The menorah engraving is 20 cm. high and 12.5 cm. wide. It has seven high branches, with a flame on top of each branch; it stands on a tripod base and is decorated with circles separated by pairs of lines. This decoration corresponds to the biblical description of the menorah:

On one branch there shall be three cups shaped like almond blossoms, each with calyx and petals, and on the next branch there shall be three cups shaped like almond blossoms, each with calyx and petals.
(Exodus 25:33)

Make its seven lamps - the lamps shall be so mounted as to give the light on its front side.
(Exodus 25:37)

This appears to be the earliest detailed drawing of the menorah that stood in the Temple of Jerusalem and was taken as booty by the Romans when they conquered the city.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry