Earlier this week, I took a break and went back in time – at least 3,000 years and a few hundred meters from where, according to tradition, it all began.
Jerusalem Post staffers left current affairs, as far as you can ever escape them in Israel, and had a brief tour of the City of David, led by Ze’ev Orenstein, the enthusiastic director of international affairs of the Ir David Foundation.
We enter the site near the Old City’s Dung Gate and the first surprise is how calm the area seems, standing on the hilltop looking at a spectacular view of splendidly green hills and the Kidron Valley. Here, you can truly appreciate the phrase “Jerusalem encompassed by mountains.”
This is David’s Jerusalem, Orenstein states, and for the rest of the short trip rolls off a list of archaeological findings to prove his point.
To the north is Mount Moriah, the Temple Mount, where, according to some traditions, the world began and which is literally the center of the world, according to Jewish (and Christian) tradition.
The Old City walls are impressive, notes Orenstein, but they are only 450 years old, not much at all by Jerusalem standards.
When the Ottoman ruler Suleiman built the walls, from his perspective only the Old City was Jerusalem, ignoring the area that dates back 3,800 years to the Canaanite period.
To the east, we see the Mount of Olives, where the earliest Jewish burial sites date back 2,800 years. According to Jewish tradition, when the Messiah comes, those buried there will be the first to be resurrected.
Carved into the nearby mountain, under the village of Silwan, we can see the remains of burial caves. Orenstein points out that the Hebrew phrase of the dead being “gathered unto their ancestors” used to be literal. The bones of the recently buried bodies were collected and placed together with those of their grandparents and great-grandparents.
Silwan is today a mainly Arab village, although it wasn’t always so.
There used to be a Yemenite Jewish community there (perhaps excluded through snobbery from the Old City).
In Mandate times, the British center of command was on the hilltop named Armon Hanatziv (the High Commissioner’s Palace), where today the UN has its local headquarters. It can be seen to the south. During the Arab Revolt of the 1930s, the British, fearing they couldn’t protect the Yemenite Jews there, evacuated them to the Old City, creating the Jewish Quarter.
To the west is Mount Zion.
As Orenstein points out, the Bible is full of topographical descriptions that come to life – like David’s poetry – when you’re standing in the Holy Land.
You can almost imagine David looking down on Bathsheba bathing.
The Bible certainly doesn’t gloss over human foibles and frailty.
The Canaanites built the site long before, Orenstein says, but he is convinced that the spot where we were standing, enjoying the breeze and scenery, is the Citadel of Zion that David built according to the Book of Samuel.
The two things every ancient city required were water and defenses.
Standing on top of the hill, it’s clear that protection is taken care of. The water source also becomes apparent: the ancient Gihon Spring below us.
A significant archeological find, the Shiloah (Siloam) Inscription, dated to the eighth century BCE, records the construction of the tunnel responsible for diverting the water of the Gihon Spring to the Shiloah Pool, undertaken by King Hezekiah and mentioned in the Second Book of Kings and II Chronicles. In one of those only-in-Israel phenomena, today the Jerusalem water company is called Gihon, after the spring, and the walks through the ancient waterfilled tunnels are one of Ir David’s most popular tourist attractions.
David’s astuteness is apparent in other ways. For the first seven years of his rule, he controlled only of tribe of Judah, with Hebron as his capital.
When other tribes ask him to be their king too, he realizes he needs a new capital – one that will unite them all.
“David was a warrior and a poet but also a politician,” says Orenstein.
Had he kept his capital in Hebron he would have been accused of favoritism, so his first act as king of all Israel is to move his capital to Jerusalem, taking it from the Jebusites, because it strategically straddles both Judah and Benjamin, and does not lie in just one territory.
The bird’s-eye view of history from the top of the mountain is nothing compared to what was discovered below, among the huge stones and amazing fortifications – an engineering feat even by today’s standards.
It is here that archaeologist Eilat Mazar earns a place in the archaeologists’ Hall of Fame, if there were one, as Orenstein puts it. Although her initial work at the site was criticized for being published before it was subject to peer review, later examinations back her findings, he says.
As Orenstein tells it, Mazar came to the Ir David Foundation one day and told them they’d have to move their visitors’ center because it was situated on the site of the citadel itself.
In an article titled, “Did I find King David’s Palace?” which originally appeared in the Biblical Archaeological Review, Mazar wrote: “Choosing a site for his palace adjacent to the northern side of the Jebusite fortress would have been a very logical step for someone who was already planning a northern expansion of the city – an expansion for the Temple on what was to become the Temple Mount, for which David bought land from Araunah the Jebusite (II Samuel 24:18–25). In peaceful times, the palace inhabitants would not be exposed to danger, and in the unlikely event of a threatening military assault, such as a Philistine offensive, the palace could be abandoned and the occupants could descend to the stronghold within the barricaded city. And in fact that is what II Samuel 5:17 (and the chapter generally) refers to when it says that David went down to the fortress to protect himself against the Philistines, who attacked after he had been crowned king of all Israel.”
One of Mazar’s findings was a Phoenician pillar. Why should a foreign pillar be so exciting to someone trying to establish the presence of David’s dynasty at the site? Because in II Samuel, chapter 5, it says that after David captured the city, he hired carpenters and stonemasons from Tyre to build his palace (perhaps the first foreign workers, as Orenstein quips).
Two of her most astonishing finds are clay bullae (seals), found in 2005 and 2008, dating to the sixth century BCE, bearing the names of two ministers of King Zedekiah, the last king to rule in Jerusalem before the destruction of the First Temple.
One seal bears the name Gedaliah ben Pashur and the other Yehuchal ben Shelemayahu. Both names appear in the Book of Jeremiah (38:1).
“Not only are the names found in the same book, they are in the same chapter and the same verse. And not just that, but they are found back-toback,” says Orenstein.
LEAVING THE underground excavations, we move over to the Givati parking lot. In a reversal of Joni Mitchell’s lament that “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot” and “Don’t it always seem to go/That you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone,” here they dug up the parking lot, in keeping with Israel Antiquities Authority requirements to check the area before construction, and found that somebody had built there before them.
Lots of people or peoples, in fact.
The layers of excavation go down through some 10 civilizations that once stood at the site, including the Ottoman and early Muslim, Roman, Byzantine and Persian, to the First and Second Temple periods.
As Orenstein sees it, there will be enough work for archaeologists at the site, one of the most important in the world, for years to come.
The Ir David Foundation and Israel Antiquities Authority decided to keep exposed a bit of each of the different layers they found. I think of it as the “anti-ISIS approach”: Instead of destroying evidence of the past, preserve it for the benefit of all.
TIME WAITS for no man, let alone a busy journalist, even in a place with nearly 4,000 years of history.
We continue our journey. Skipping the popular Warren’s Shaft water channel, Orenstein leads us to part of the 2,000-year-old Jewish pilgrimage route still being excavated, that starts at the Shiloah Pool (which once served as a ritual bath for the pilgrims), and originally led up to the Temple.
As we walk through a tunnel, we see a huge foundation stone of the Western Wall.
Along the way, Orenstein tells us of various finds, including what appears to be one of the gold bells that adorned the garments of the high priest, and the method used to count the half shekels (as mentioned in this week’s Torah portion).
We exit by means of another Herodian period drainage channel, coming out near the Davidson Center Archaeological Park and Robinson’s Arch, where signs of the destruction by the Romans can still be seen in the fallen rocks and boulders.
We gather next to an ancient stone, clearly inscribed in Hebrew “to the trumpeter’s house.” With exquisite timing, the sound of a shofar followed by singing can be heard: A boy is being accompanied in style to his bar-mitzva celebrations at the Western Wall.
It is the perfect note on which to end our trip.[email protected]