Recently haredi (ultra-Orthodox) yeshiva students tried – not for the first time – to prevent a group of Christians from entering the building on Mount Zion which, according to tradition, houses the Tomb of David, on the ground floor, and the Room of Jesus and the Disciples’ Last Supper, on the upper floor.
The actions of these young haredim are deplorable under any circumstances; it has been the pride of Israel’s reuniting of Jerusalem to guarantee access to the holy places of every religion to all. (Although this does not extend to the Temple Mount, where unfortunately Israel’s writ does not run). Even if Jewish religious sensitivity were to be considered as a legitimate cause for such actions, they would still be wrong in this case – for the simple reason that this site does not contain the tomb of King David.
In King David’s time, 3,000 years ago, the city of Jerusalem was restricted to the slopes of the ridge running south from the Temple Mount – the area known today as the City of David. It was only in the time of David’s son King Solomon that the city was extended to include the Temple Mount; and it was a further 200 years, in the time of King Hezekiah, before the city started to spread westward.
At the time of King David, the south-western hill now known as Mount Zion was an uninhabited area far outside the city walls. The Bible states clearly (I Kings 2:10) that David was buried in the City of David; if anywhere should be hallowed as a place for pilgrimage and prayer, it is there.
So where does this perverse tradition, that identifies Mount Zion as his burial place, come from? The Crusaders, who controlled the Holy Land for nearly 100 years in the 12th century, left behind many vestiges of their presence, on the land and on the city of Jerusalem, which are still here 800 years after they left.
Apart from the remains of many fortresses and churches – among them Jerusalem’s Citadel, aka “David’s Tower,” and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher – they are also responsible for the creation and perpetuation of the myth that associates King David with Mount Zion.
The Crusaders were principally known for their strength of arms – usually indiscriminately directed against anyone who was not a Crusader.
The Hebrew Bible and biblical geography, on the other hand, were not the forte of these poorly educated European louts. When they captured Jerusalem in June 1099, they slaughtered all of its inhabitants – Muslims and Jews; there were no survivors who might have given them some hints about local geography, so they had to make it up for themselves. The most egregious of the many mistakes they made was identifying the south-western hill of Jerusalem – what had until then been known as the “upper city” – with biblical Zion.
The Bible uses several terms to refer to what we now call the Temple Mount; the Holy Mountain, The House of the Lord, and of course Zion.
For the Crusaders, reading these references literally, they were all distinct and separate places in Jerusalem. Accordingly, they had to identify a location and attach one of these names to it; even they knew where the Temple had stood, so that could not be Zion.
The south-western hill had already become an important part of Christian Jerusalem during the Byzantine period four centuries earlier, and had acquired traditions associating it with events in the Christian scriptures. It may well have been for this reason that the Crusaders decided that this was biblical Zion; and Mount Zion it has remained ever since.
In II Samuel 5:7, the Bible says that David “captured the fortress of Zion which is the City of David.” In the Crusaders’ time, the real City of David had for many centuries been buried under the debris of Roman destruction, and long forgotten.
There was thus only one contender for that title; the newly christened Mount Zion. It may not have been the Crusaders themselves who “found” the tomb of the king, but where else would it be? The Bible itself tells us that he was buried in the city that bears his name. From there, it was an easy stretch for later visitors and inhabitants to identify the tomb of some long forgotten knight as that of David himself.
Where does that leave us today, now that we have found the original and genuine City of David? Should we not now restore the name of Zion to its true biblical location, and rename the south-western hill, perhaps honoring one of its Christian associations – Mount Cenacolo , referring to the Last Supper, or Dormition Hill, after the Catholic Abbey on its crest? Things in Jerusalem however are never as simple and straightforward as that.
The city we know today and its many famous landmarks are the accumulation of the beliefs and faith of the multitude of people who have lived here and visited here during the past two millennia.
Over the centuries, many places in and around the Old City of Jerusalem have acquired names or associations with historical figures whose claims to objective historicity are somewhat dubious. “Hezekiah’s Pool” in the Christian Quarter – part of the Herodian water supply system for Jerusalem – was built 700 years after the death of the celebrated Judean King, Hezekiah.
The landmark monument in the Kidron valley to the east of the city, known as Zechariah’s tomb, is clearly the mausoleum of an unknown but rich family living in the Hellenistic period some 2,200 years ago, rather than the tomb of a biblical prophet.
Nonetheless, the names, and beliefs, and the traditions associated with these locations – stubbornly resisting the onslaught of modern rationalism – have over the years served to add further rich layers to the main threads of Jerusalem’s history.
As a licensed guide, I am normally careful to avoid upsetting tourists’ beliefs by being too categorical about the dubious historicity of some sites; sometimes faith and beliefs are more important than historical facts. I would not seriously suggest a wholesale renaming of parts of the city in the light of modern knowledge – not even of Mount Zion.
However, belief in the so-called Tomb of David is not just a harmless folk belief; the recent aggressive haredi colonization of this tomb interferes with legitimate Christian interest in the site identified as the Room of the Last Supper above it, and provides yet another cause for friction with the Christian communities with which we share this city.
I would like to see prominent signage at the site that succinctly explains how and why it acquired its name, and indicating where the more likely location of King David’s Tomb is. Perhaps, in time, the site will become no more than an interesting historic curiosity, rather than a contested holy place. The haredim, of course, will go on believing what they will, and can continue worshiping at the sepulcher of some medieval Christian knight – as long as they are not allowed to impose the consequences of their misapprehensions on others.The author is a licensed tour guide.