The once and future city

What do recent finds at the City of David mean for J'lem's history? The answer depends on who you ask.

david dig 88.298 (photo credit: )
david dig 88.298
(photo credit: )
The first major archeological digs in Jerusalem since the 1980s have uncovered some of the most significant - and the most highly controversial - finds ever discovered in the area known by most, and revered by many, as Ir David - "The City of David." For decades, archeologists had assumed that there was little new to uncover at the site, already one of the most visited archeological sites in Israel. Yet in the past year, two archeological teams, each with a different vision and each supported by private institutions, have made discoveries that have surpassed even their own expectations. Different experts attach different significance and meaning to these discoveries. As Yair Zakovitch, professor of biblical studies at the Hebrew University, observes, "Everyone uses the Bible for their own agenda. Jerusalem is a sensitive place, and everyone uses the digs to prove what it is they want to prove. "Which is why objectivity is so critical," he says, "although it is perhaps impossible under the circumstances." Yet even the critics of these excavations, who downplay their significance, agree that the recent discoveries have the potential to change the prevailing views, not only of Jerusalem's ancient past, but of its future as well. Archeological excavations at David's City began in 1973. Captain Charles Warren, sent by the Palestine Exploration Fund to search out and explore holy sites, inadvertently discovered what is now known as Warren's Shaft. This and other discoveries led him to conclude that the ancient City of David must have been located outside the walls of what is today called "the Old City." Subsequent excavations in the area were carried out by Robert Macalister, who excavated the site in the 1920s, and Kathleen Kenyon, who excavated in the 1960s. Yigal Shiloh conducted the last major dig in Jerusalem in the 1980s. The site then remained largely untouched until 1995, when the Ir David Foundation, an organization dedicated to promoting development, preservation and Jewish settlement in the City of David area, began renovations to build a visitors' center in two rooms above the Gihon Spring. In the course of the construction, workers pushed out a wall and discovered hewn stones dating to the Middle Bronze Period (1850 BCE). According to Israeli law, when such discoveries are made, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) must perform "salvage digs." Archeologist Ronny Reich, now a professor of classical archeology at the University of Haifa, carried out the work for the IAA, later joined by archeologist Eli Shukran. They intended to carry out these standard excavations for about six months; but now, 10 years later, they are still excavating the site. The funding, however, now comes from the Ir David Foundation, which, in 1986, was granted the authority to act on behalf of the Jewish National Fund to "reclaim" land in the area. This is also in accordance with the law, says a spokesman for the IAA, which mandates that the organization which intends to develop an area, as is the intent of the Ir David Foundation, is also required to fund and execute any and all archeological digs on the site. Reich's and Shukran's digging has unearthed valuable finds. Most recently, they have uncovered over 60 bullae (broken clay seals) and six stamps used to seal letters, attesting to the fact that literacy and a system of administration were in place in Jerusalem as early as the ninth century BCE. They have also discovered thousands of fish bones that, together with the bullae were found in an area that Reich and Shukran believe to be the Shiloah Pool, used as a ritual bath for the Temple Mount, and a tiled road which ends at the pool and has its origins near the Temple Mount. Ostensibly, this is the road that worshipers used to go back and forth between the Shiloah Pool and the Temple Mount. The second team, headed by Dr. Eilat Mazar, entered the picture in 1997. Mazar, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem-based conservative think tank, is a graduate of the Hebrew University, and granddaughter of the famous archeologist Binyamin Mazar. Mazar has said that she uses clues and evidence garnered from the Bible and from years of digging with her grandfather. In an article published in the Biblical Archeology Review in 1997, Mazar wrote that she thought she knew where to find King David's palace. When Kenyon dug in the 1960s, she found a casement wall that she dated to the 10th century BCE. Mazar thought that this wall could well be part of the palace. Additionally, Kenyon found proto-Aeolic capitals (elaborately engraved stone structures that stood atop large columns). According to most experts, these capitals are the most beautiful and impressive ever found in Israel,, suitable for a palace. Mazar further hypothesizes that since in II Samuel 5:17 it is written that David descends from his residence to the citadel, David must have come from the north. The north, she explains, is the only direction that he could have "come down from," since the rest of the city is surrounded by valleys. Furthermore, she reasons, it would have made sense for the citadel to have been built on a high point, and, because the north of the city was always vulnerable to attack, it would have required such a citadel for its defense. Mazar began her excavation in 1999 in a project jointly funded by the Shalem Center and the Ir David Foundation. She uncovered a large building that, she believes, was built approximately in 1000 BCE - about the time that David is thought to have conquered Jerusalem from the Jebusites. She further claims that pottery shards that she found date from the 10th to the sixth century BCE, which attests to the constant use of the site over periods of many centuries. One of Mazar's most significant finds was a seal with the name Jehucal son of Shelemiah, a figure mentioned in Jeremiah 37:3. Mazar dates the seal to the First Temple Period, based on the dating of similar seals discovered by Shiloh in the 1980s excavations. In contrast to Reich and Shukran, who have made modest claims and have been wary of publicity, Mazar was initially very vocal about her findings and conclusions. In August 2005, corroborating her conclusions with biblical verses, Mazar announced that she had found King David's palace. Put simply, Mazar seems to contend that King David most definitely had a palace, based on the fact "that the Bible tells us so." On this basis she has sought, and, she believes, found, the archeological evidence that supports that claim. In another article published in Biblical Archeology Review in 2005, Mazar writes, "The biblical narrative, I submit, better explains the archeology we have uncovered than any other hypothesis that has been put forward." Although previously she presented her findings prominently, Mazar has been more reticent recently and has declined to grant interviews to the press. In a written response to questions posed by In Jerusalem regarding the significance of her findings, she answers, "Ir David holds the most ancient core of the history of Jerusalem. King David was the first to build outside the ancient city of David and it hasn't stopped growing since." Professor Israel Finkelstein, chairman of the Archeology Department of Tel Aviv, University is one of Mazar's fiercest opponents. A 2005 recipient of the prestigious Dan David Prize, awarded for outstanding scientific, technological, cultural or social achievements, Finkelstein contends that all of the recent discoveries from Ir David are merely "Messianic eruptions in biblical archeology." Finkelstein is best-known for his claim that certain impressive structures found throughout the country that were originally dated to the 10th century BCE, the time of David and Solomon, were actually built at least a century later, a theory known as "lower dating." He argues, "You cannot study biblical archeology with only a simple reading of the text. The Bible cannot be understood without a knowledge of the millennia of biblical criticism that has gone along with it, not the least of which necessarily includes the dating of different sections of the Bible according to who wrote them and when." He concedes that "The Bible is an important source, but we can't take it seriously." Clearly referring to Mazar's hypothesizing, he says, "That David took two steps down and four steps up and saw Bathsheba bathing on a rooftop does not prove that you have found King David's palace. Reading the Bible in that way is insulting to its various composers. Spinoza wouldn't have interpreted that verse in that way. Biblical archeology is the only discipline I know in which time stopped four centuries ago and no progress has been made since then." Accordingly, he believes, based on biblical scholarship, that the biblical tales of David and Solomon are, at best, an exaggeration. In his influential book, The Bible Unearthed (The Free Press, 2001), Finkelstein argues that Jerusalem in the time of David and Solomon was no more than a small village of 500 inhabitants. "The glorious epic of united monarchy was - like the stories of the patriarchs and the sagas of the Exodus and conquest - a brilliant composition that wove together ancient heroic tales and legends into a coherent and persuasive prophecy for the people of Israel in the seventh century BCE," he writes. Yet when speaking with In Jerusalem this week, Finkelstein was a bit more subdued. "In my opinion, David and Solomon are historical figures who had a territorial state and founded a Jerusalem dynasty, but whether the kingdom was small or big is a question that can't be answered in Jerusalem." He says the building that Mazar discovered is impressive, but adds, "Because there was no floor discovered and no pottery assemblages or olive pits or seeds, the building could be from the ninth century or the eighth or the eighth, or from two minutes ago, there is no way to know." He is similarly unimpressed about the significance of Mazar's findings. "Unless you find an inscription not written last week that says my name is David and I ruled from Damascus to the Nile, it would be hard to convince me. Even that wouldn't be enough unless it was accompanied by other evidence. It could be a typical Near Eastern text, most of which are generally characterized by much exaggeration." Amichai Mazar, professor of biblical archeology at the Hebrew University, who has carried out extensive excavations in the Beit She'an Valley (and is a cousin to Eilat Mazar), refers to Mazar's and Reich's finds as "something of a miracle." He disagrees with Finkelstein's "lower dating system" and also disputes Finkelstein's claims about the size of Jerusalem, saying that big buildings such as those found by Mazar necessarily show proof of the city's ancient importance. "Mazar and Reich have changed the way we must think about the time period," he declares. He acknowledges that without digging on the Temple Mount and under the mosques, only limited knowledge is available, which necessarily lends itself to speculation. But he adds, "Whether you believe or don't believe, the Bible is the only text we have for this time period. It's what we have to go on. And these finds put Jerusalem in a completely different light." What does this different light reveal, and what is its significance? For Finkelstein, these finds are important solely because they may prove that in the ninth century the city experienced a period of re-growth, something unknown until now. Reich and Shukran attach similar significance. Shukran says that these digs contribute to a discovery of "the truth" of the history of Jerusalem. "Until we began these excavations, we thought the Shiloah Pool was located... outside the walls of the city of David. The Shiloah Pool that we found was clearly within the walls of the city of David and this significantly extends the city's boundaries." Furthermore, he claims, the thousands of fish bones attest to the fact that the people who lived here could afford to purchase fish from locations as far away as the Mediterranean Sea and even the Nile in Egypt. This trade activity demonstrates that the city was an important and wealthy center. The bullae too, attest to Jerusalem as a site of large quantities of mail, indicating that the city was a major administrative center. "I don't believe in having preconceptions when you start to dig. "These finds are important because they are helping us understand how people in ancient Jerusalem lived. That's important to me because it is a part of my history," Shukran says. But neither the Ir David Foundation nor the Shalem Center are funding these digs solely in order to understand more about the past. In interviews with IJ, representatives of both organizations acknowledged that their involvement was geared towards bolstering Israel's current claims to the Jerusalem as Israel's united capital and developing the ancient city of Jerusalem as a constitutive component of Jewish identity. According to Doron Spielman, spokesman for the Ir David Foundation, their goal has always been to secure as much land as possible in the area, though both settlement and purchase. To this end, philanthropist Nissan Khakshouri had contributed more than $3 million to the excavation project, but stopped funding the project in 2003. Today, Spielman refuses to say who is funding the project at this time, saying that the funding comes from Ir David's "operating budget." However, sources close to the project believe that at least some of the funding can be directly and indirectly linked to funders in the United States who have regularly supported right-wing and settlement activities throughout Jerusalem and the West Bank. Says Rabbi Yehuda Mali, vice president of the Ir David Foundation, "Israel became a people on this small hill. The 12 tribes united under David and became a nation in this place. Ir David, as the center of Jerusalem, attests to the fact that we were once a united people and that we have the ability to become a united people once again." He points to the central nature of the story of David in Jewish tradition. "David is the most written-about figure in all rabbinic literature, second perhaps only to Moses. He is so central to our collective past that the word Zionism comes from his citadel, Metzudat Zion. The very movement that brought Jews back to this land was called 'Hovevei Zion' (the lovers of Zion) and 'Shivat Zion' (the Return to Zion). Zion is the central place for the entire Jewish people." Although the Shalem Center would not arrange an interview with Eilat Mazar, David Hazony, editor of Azure, the center's magazine, did eventually agree to an interview. "Zionism as a whole rests on a major assumption about where Jews came from, that we once had a thriving kingdom ... [and] that the Jewish people have a right to reclaim their ancestral land and establish a sovereign state there." Referring to Finkelstein, Hazony contends that "the work that many new historians and biblical archeologists are doing in rewriting our Zionist history undermines our traditional Zionist self-understanding and by extension our claim to this country and the city of Jerusalem." He continues, "The Shalem Center supports Eilat Mazar's excavations because we are always interested in supporting good scholarship when it comes to attacks on our classical narrative. When the truth is on your side, all you need is good scholarship. "Jerusalem is no longer [considered] a hilltop village. The debate is over. We have made a step towards reclaiming the city." Reviewing the competing claims and interpretation, biblical scholar Zakovitch comments, "Frankly, it doesn't matter to me how big David's kingdom was. I believe that David was a king and that he was a king in Jerusalem and in my opinion there is no reason to debate that. "The Bible has a power that has lasted for over two millennia. People longed for Jerusalem, people came here and felt that they were walking in the footsteps of David. So revealing even half a palace doesn't really change anything for most people. In fact, those who are looking for definitive proof will be disappointed. You are never going to find a plaque on a wall which says David the son of Jesse lived here." And anyway, he continues, "Even if you find David's palace, it doesn't change anything politically. We have the Cave of Machpela in Hebron and some people think we should be there and some people think that we should give it up. Similarly, people who think Jerusalem should be united will keep their opinion no matter what is found, and people who think the city should be divided will keep their opinion as well, and if they want to go visit David's palace they will go with a visa or a passport."