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Jerusalem Archaeological Sites: The City of David

The City of David - another term for the Jerusalem of ancient times - was located on a narrow ridge south of the present-day Old City. It borders the deep Kidron Valley to the East, where the Gihon Spring, the city’s main water source, is located.

The archeological exploration of the City of David began in the middle of the 19th century and continues to this day. It has fired the imagination of many scholars from different nations and backgrounds who came to excavate in Jerusalem. The latest excavations were carried out between 1978 and 1985 and there is an ongoing process of updating and revising previous interpretations.

Early Settlement

The earliest permanent settlement uncovered is represented by several rectangular buildings with benches along their interior walls. These buildings, dated to the Early Bronze Age (3rd millennium BCE) are typical of Canaanite urban settlements at that time.

During the Middle Bronze Age, as early as the 18th century BCE, a massive wall was built around the city, of which a 30 m. long section has been exposed above the Kidron Valley. Within this wall buildings were excavated, indicative of city life during that period.

Finds of the Late Bronze Age (1600 - 1200 BCE) are few and disappointing. This is in marked contrast to the common view of Jerusalem as an important Canaanite urban center, based on mention of the king of the city of Jerusalem in the 14th century BCE archive found at Tel el-Amarna in Egypt. In Joshua 10, the defeat of Adonitzedek, king of Jerusalem, who led a coalition of five Amorite kings, is described. Defeat but not conquest: Jerusalem is later mentioned as a Jebusite city (the Amorite and Jebusite peoples were part of the collectively known “Canaanites”) in Judges 19:10-12.

During the 13th-12th centuries BCE structural operations changed the topography of the upper part of the city: interlocking and intersecting stone walls created terraces which provided an artificial surface, apparently the podium of the citadel of the Canaanite-Jebusite city of Jerusalem.

During the excavations, Warren’s Shaft (named for Ch. Warren, an English archeologist who pioneered systematic excavations in Jerusalem between 1864-67), the earliest water system of the City of David was cleared. This underground system, constructed at the end of the second millennium BCE, enabled the citizens of Jerusalem to draw water from the Gihon spring without leaving the fortified walls of their city. A recent geological survey has shown that Warren’s Shaft incorporates a number of geological features which give credibility to the assumption that it was functioning even before David's conquest of Jerusalem and may be the tzinnor (Hebrew for pipe or conduit) mentioned in 2 Samuel 5:8.

The Monarchic Period

A 10th century BCE massive retaining structure for a monumental building (capping earlier Jebusite terraces), is assumed to be part of the fortress of Zion, residence of King David. (2 Samuel 5:7-9)

In the 8th century BCE Jerusalem expanded; during the reign of King Hezekiah the hill to the west of the city of David was encompassed within its walls. The course of the strengthened eastern wall of the city was traced for approximately 120 m., virtually along the course of its Bronze Age predecessor and in places incorporating remnants of it. Within the walls, buildings were separated by alleyways and drainage channels emptying into the Kidron Valley via a small opening in the wall. Remains of several structures dating to this time were also revealed outside the city walls, evidence that the city was densely populated. It would appear that these quarters were abandoned during the Assyrian siege of 701 BCE described in the biblical narrative. (2 Kings 18-19)

During the 8th and 7th centuries BCE Jerusalem enjoyed a period of prosperity. Parts of prominent structures have been uncovered, attesting to this as well as to the intensity of the Babylonian destruction in 587-6 BCE.

The Ashlar House, a large structure on the southeastern slope of the city, was built of huge dressed stones and is assumed to have been a public building. Another house, containing the “burnt room,” named after the thick layer of charred debris covering its floor, is also from this period.

The House of Ahi’el, on the northeastern slope, is a typical four-roomed Israelite dwelling of this time. The name derives from the Hebrew inscription on a pottery fragment found in the house, which includes this personal name. The house had an external stone staircase leading to a second story. In a small storage room over fifty restorable jars were found and in another small room a limestone toilet seat was embedded in the plaster floor, with a cesspit beneath it.

The Bullae House, east of the House of Ahi’el, is so named for a collection of almost 50 clay sealings (bullae) with Hebrew lettering found there. The floor of this house, only partly excavated, was covered by a thick charred destruction layer containing the bullae as well as pottery vessels, arrowheads and limestone cult stands, all of which attest to the character of the house as a public building. The finds are typical of the final stage of the Iron Age and the bullae found in this context clearly date to the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 587-6 BCE. The bullae, made of fingernail-sized lumps of soft clay shaped as flat disks, were affixed to a string binding a papyrus document and then stamped with a seal. To open and read the document, the bulla sealing had to be broken in order to separate it from the string. The conflagration that destroyed the house and burnt the documents stored in it also fired the clay of the bullae, thus preserving them in very good condition - fully legible. They bear dozens of Hebrew personal names, two of them belonging to personages known from the Bible. One is Gemaryahu son of Shafan, a high official at the court of King Jehoiakim of Judah who reigned on the eve of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians:

Then Baruch read from the book the words of Jeremiah in the house of the Lord, in the chamber of Gemaryahu the son of Shafan the scribe, in the upper court at the entrance of the new Gate of the Lord's House in the hearing of all the people. (Jeremiah 36:10; see also 11-12, 25)

The second biblical personage is Azaryahu son of Hilkiyahu, a member of the family of high priests who officiated at the end of the First Temple period. (1 Chronicles 9:10)

The bullae from the City of David, uncovered in controlled excavation in clear stratigraphic context and supported by historical evidence, are one of the most important discoveries ever made in Jerusalem.

The massive destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians is apparent both in the layers of charred remains and in the thick layer of rubble from collapsed buildings found on the eastern slope of the City of David. This vivid archeological evidence sheds light on the biblical description of the destruction of Jerusalem in 587-6 BCE. (2 Kings 25:8-10; Jeremiah 39:8; 2 Chronicles 36:18-19)

The City of David was resettled by the Jews exiled to Babylon who returned during the Persian period (6th century BCE). The new wall built by Nehemiah did not follow the line of the old wall, but for the first time was built atop the northeastern slope of the City of David.

During the Hellenistic and Roman periods, the city’s center shifted to the western hill. By medieval times, the southern wall of Jerusalem was built along the line of the present Old City wall. As a result, the City of David, the site of biblical Jerusalem, remained uninhabited outside the present Old City walls.

New Discoveries

In December 2007, the Israeli Antiquities Authority uncovered an edifice in the City of David thought to be from the Second Temple period and belonging to the family of Queen Helena of Adiabene. The edifice is part of a huge series of excavations being conducted in the City of David that includes massive foundations; walls, some of which are preserved to a height in excess of five meters and built of stones that weigh hundreds of kilograms; halls rising to a height of  two stories or more; a basement level covered with vaults; remains of polychrome frescoes; water systems and ritual baths (mikva'ot).

According to the writings of ancient historian Josephus Flavius, the edifice that was uncovered was probably erected by the Hadyab family, which includes Queen Helena of Adiabene, who converted to Judaism, made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and was subsequently buried there. Among the finds recovered are pottery and stone vessels and coins that date to the end of the Second Temple period. The latest coin dates to the end of the Great Revolt against the Romans in 69-70 CE. The demolishing of the building during the Roman conquest is evident in the remains strewn across the destruction layer in the basement, as well as the narrow openings from which the residents attempted to flee.

Unique Biblical Discovery at City of David Excavation Site

A 2,600 year old clay seal impression, or bulla, bearing the name Gedaliah ben Pashur was uncovered in August 2008 completely intact during archeological excavations in Jerusalem’s ancient City of David, located just below the walls of the Old City near the Dung Gate. The name appears in the Book of Jeremiah (38:1) together with that of Yehuchal ben Shelemayahu, whose name was found on an identical clay bulla in the same area in 2005. The two men were ministers in the court of King Zedekiah, the last king to rule in Jerusalem before the destruction of the First Temple.

According to Dr. Eilat Mazar of the Hebrew University  who is leading the dig, this is the first time in the annals of Israeli archeology that two clay bullae with two Biblical names that appear in the same verse in the Bible have been unearthed in the same location. 

“It is not very often that such a discovery happens in which real figures of the past shake off the dust of history and so vividly revive the stories of the Bible,” Mazar noted.

The first bulla was uncovered inside an impressive stone structure, which Mazar believes to be the Palace of David, while the second bulla was found at the foot of the external wall of the same structure, under a tower that was built in the days of Nehemiah.

Both bullae, clearly preserved, measuring 1 cm. in diameter each and lettered in ancient Hebrew, were found among the debris of the destruction of the First Temple period (8th to 6th centuries BCE).

Dr. Eilat Mazar recently completed the third phase of her excavation of what she believes to be King David’s palace at the City of David site. More finds are expected as archeologists continue to sift through the rubble from the dig, which was sponsored by the Ir David (City of David) Foundation together with the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Hebrew University, and the Shalem Center.

The City of David is the original hilltop upon which King David dedicated ancient Jerusalem as his capital 3,000 years ago. Deep underground, the City of David is revealing some of the most exciting archeological finds of the ancient world, while above ground, the site is a vibrant center of activity and popular tourist attraction for families, complete with visitor’s center, 3D exhibition and guided tours through the excavations that include Warren’s Shaft, ancient water systems such as Hezekiah’s Tunnel and the Second Temple Shiloah pool. During the busy summer and festival periods, the site offers added family-friendly attractions, festivals, concerts, guided tours etc.

Sources: Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs (August 18, 2008)