The little-known historic significance of east Jerusalem

One may mistakenly assume that areas within Jerusalem containing large Arab populations are of less historical significance to Jews and Christians, yet nothing can be further from the truth.

May 9, 2019 23:09
THE GOVERNMENT HOUSE, atop the ridge of Jebl Mukaber, in southeastern Jerusalem.

THE GOVERNMENT HOUSE, atop the ridge of Jebl Mukaber, in southeastern Jerusalem. The location has long been identified as the location of the Palace of the High Priest Caiaphas, where the decision to crucify Jesus was made; a site known in Christian tradition as the Hill of Evil Counsel. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)


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When one thinks of Jerusalem and the sites that imbue it with deep religious and historic significance, many come to mind. Among them, the Temple Mount, Western Wall, Mount of Olives, City of David, Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Garden of Gethsemane are known collectively as the Holy Basin. All of these sites are located in east Jerusalem.

Less commonly known is that beyond the Holy Basin, east Jerusalem is home to countless other sites of great significance to Jews and Christians, including within the neighborhoods of Shuafat, Jebl Mukaber, Sur Bahir and Sheikh Jarrah, to name a few. One may mistakenly assume that areas within Jerusalem containing large Arab populations are of less historical significance to Jews and Christians, yet nothing can be further from the truth.

Shuafat, located in northern Jerusalem, is best known for its densely populated refugee camp. Within Shuafat is the hill of Tel el-Ful. It was on this hill that King Hussein of Jordan began construction of his palace – which was halted by the outbreak of the Six Day War, leaving the frame of the incomplete structure standing until today.

In 1922, American archaeologist William F. Albright identified Tel el-Ful as the biblical city of Gibeah – also known as Gibeah of Saul or, in Hebrew, Givat Shaul – not to be confused with the current Givat Shaul in Jerusalem – recounted in the Book of Samuel as the site from where King Saul, Israel’s first king, ruled. On this site, an ancient fortress was discovered, believed by some archaeologists to date to his reign. Gibeah is also associated with the site of the tragic events recounted in the Book of Judges, known as the Concubine of Gibeah incident.

Atop the ridge of Jebl Mukaber, in southeast Jerusalem, is a compound known as the Government House, which serves as the Middle East headquarters for the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO). During the Mandatory period, it had been the seat of rule for the British High Commissioner. The ridge has long been identified as the location of the palace of the high priest Caiaphas, where the decision to crucify Jesus was made: a site known in Christian tradition as the Hill of Evil Counsel.

Jebl Mukaber has long been associated by tradition as the place referred to in the story of the Akeidat Yitzhak (Binding of Isaac) recounted in the Book of Genesis, where Abraham, journeying with his son Isaac, “looked and saw the place from afar.” Topographically speaking, this would have been the first place from where Abraham, journeying from the biblical Beersheba (not to be confused with the modern city), would have been able to see Jerusalem and, more specifically, Mount Moriah/the Temple Mount.

Today, on the slopes of Jebl Mukaber, one can see the openings of a tunnel – approximately 400 meters long – which was part of an aqueduct built some 2,200 years ago during the Hasmonean dynasty, which channeled water from Solomon’s Pools, south of Bethlehem, to the Temple in Jerusalem that was needed for the daily service.

SOUTHWEST OF Jebl Mukaber and adjacent to the US Embassy in Arnona is the neighborhood of Sur Bahir. Today, an ornate stone door stands on display at the Louvre in Paris, one of the world’s largest art museums. The door – discovered in the 19th century and dated to the time of Jesus – once covered a Jewish burial chamber, representing one of the many Jewish burial caves located within Sur Bahir.

Next to Sur Bahir is the village of Umm Tuba – identified as the Biblical town of Netofa. A salvage dig carried out by the Antiquities Authority in 2009 uncovered royal seal impressions bearing the Hebrew inscription: “for the king,” dating to the reign of the biblical King Hezekiah of Judah during the First Temple period (late eighth century BCE). Seal impressions of two officials from Hezekiah’s court, Ahimelekh ben Amadyahu and Yehokhil ben Shahar, were also discovered.

The Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood is located on the upper slopes of the Kidron Valley, just north of Jerusalem’s Old City. At the beginning of the 20th century, legendary French archaeologist Father Louis H. Vincent discovered Second Temple-period burial caves in Sheikh Jarrah, also dating to the time of Jesus, with sculptured headrests for the deceased – a rare feature for that period.

Within the neighborhood, according to Jewish tradition, lies the tomb of Shimon Hatzadik (Simeon the Just), who lived in the fourth century BCE, and who – according to the Talmud – was said to have interceded with Alexander the Great, successfully annulling a decree for the city’s destruction. Next to this tomb is a site known as the Cave of the Minor Sanhedrin, a burial cave also dating to the Second Temple period.

Adjacent to Sheikh Jarrah, on the slopes of Mount Scopus east of the American Colony Hotel, may be the location of the biblical city of Nob. The first mention, in the Book of Samuel, tells of the residents of the priestly city being put to death for giving refuge to David, who was fleeing King Saul. Centuries later, Nob is mentioned in the Book of Isaiah as having been, in 701 BCE, the last city that the Assyrian king Sennacherib traveled through prior to his failed attempt to conquer Jerusalem. During the Persian period, Nob is mentioned yet again, described by Nehemiah as a city just north of Jerusalem, populated by those returning to Zion after the Babylonian exile.

Terms like east and west Jerusalem may sound definitive, but Jerusalem’s rich archaeological heritage is not bound by any arbitrary lines in the sand. While diplomats may debate the merits of Israel’s sovereignty in east Jerusalem, what is not up for debate is the incontrovertible evidence affirming the millennia-old bond between Jews and Christians to the city – overwhelmingly found within the neighborhoods known today as east Jerusalem.

The writer is the co-director of the Temple Mount Sifting Project and was the recipient of the Jerusalem Prize for Archaeological Research. He is a professor at Bar-Ilan University.

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