Fit for a king

An archeological dig reveals that Ramat Rahel was once a major royal Judean site

By DAVID A. SMITH
September 21, 2006 19:10
Fit for a king

ramat rachel 88. (photo credit: )

 
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Abraham saw this place when he left his home, going south through Canaan. He saw it again when joyously returning from a profitable trip to Egypt, reunited with his wife - and again, tragically, as it offered his first view of Mount Moriah, where he had been commanded to make the ultimate sacrifice. Ramat Rahel is a plateau just west of the patriarchal highway and halfway between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Although its name in the Bible is unclear, if mentioned at all, the location has played a vital role in the biblical epic. Excavated by the biggest names in Israeli archeology - Yigael Ya'din, Yohanan Aharoni and Gabriel Barkay - the site is now being explored by Tel Aviv University professor Oded Lipschits and Jacob Wright of Heidelberg University. The 2005 and 2006 seasons yielded a palace or administrative center, as well as a water works system that is "unparalleled in Eretz Israel," according to Lipschits. What distinguishes this site, he insists, is that they did not find a destruction layer. Each empire (Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian) made use of the existing facility and its water installations, adapting them to their needs or aesthetic tastes. It continued to be used through the Roman period. The water system, cut deep into the rock, includes large underground reservoirs, five open pools, small canals that transported water between the pools and three underground canals covered by stone slabs. While Barkay holds the palace belonged to King Hezekiah, Lipschits and colleague Yuval Gadot, a professor at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, maintain it was an administrative center used by the Assyrian empire to collect taxes from Judah, one of its vassal states. From the shade of Ramat Rahel, Lipschits waves his hand toward Jerusalem. "Why do you have to rule from Jerusalem? Here you have room, a breeze. There [in Jerusalem] only tension and problems." He adds that the Greeks did set up their administrative quarters near the temple. That miscalculation ignited the Maccabean Revolt. Bar-Ilan University professor Barkay excavated Ramat Rahel in 1984, and recently published some of his findings in Biblical Archeology Review. Barkay says the palace belonged to Hezekiah, who built it because "Jerusalem had been the capital for 300 years already. It was a dense, shabby city. He wanted a place that would reflect his grandeur" to his international guests such as the emissaries of the King of Babylon (2 Kings 20). Bolstering his argument, Barkay notes the similarities between the palace at Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom, and Ramat Rahel. "Hezekiah is certainly the last king who had some idea of the palace at Samaria." The Ramat Rahel construction is consistent with the biblical record of the King Hezekiah, who built a wall in Jerusalem (Isaiah 22;10) to withstand Assyrian battering rams, as well as his hydrotechnology project to get water from the City of David to the eighth century city (2 Kings 20:20). Excavators found 164 jar handles imprinted with l'melech or "[belonging] to the king" which have been dated to the time of Hezekiah. Barkay suggests these jars contained "taxes in kind" such as grain, wine and oil which were collected at four centers (imprinted on the jar handles) located strategically throughout Judah. Barkay says three of the centers are known, but the fourth, MMShT (lacking vowels, scholars do not know how it was pronounced), is not identified. Barkay believes the evidence in terms of size and location point to Ramat Rahel. Lipschits agrees that the l'melech handles belonged to jars containing wine as tax revenue, but holds that Hezekiah was responsible to the Assyrians for collecting the produce, then delivered it to them at Ramat Rahel. Whether the taxes were intended to pay for Hezekiah's building projects or were levy to a governing empire, these jar handles seem to testify to the truth of eighth-century prophet Isaiah's criticism of governors who have "eaten up the vineyard" (Isaiah 3:14) through taxation. Since the site was a reminder of Judah's vassal status, Lipschits believes the place name is not prominent in the Bible, but proposes that Jeremiah 41:17, which refers to gerut kimham (possibly translated "foreigners like them"), as near Bethlehem might be a reference. There is a Christian tradition that Mary, mother of Jesus, sat near one of the wells on her journey to Bethlehem. Consequently the remains of a Byzantine Church called "Kathysma" (from the Greek word for "seat") are found below the present dig. Lipschits's discoveries also include 18 ritual baths (mikvaot) from the Hellenistic period, a bathhouse and villa. Some of the mikvaot required an extraordinary effort, as they were hewn out of rock composed of limestone chalk and flint. A number of proto-aeolic capitals were found at the site earlier. Also called pre-classical capitals (although Lipschits calls that a "Euro-centric viewpoint"), these pre-dated the similar ionic columns. "They appear for the first time in Israel. We find the earliest ones in Megiddo in the 10th century" but by the seventh century the motif made its way to the Greek world through Cyprus, according to Barkay. Gila Yudkin is a guide who participated in both years (2005, 2006) of the recent excavation. The Connecticut native says, "Digging the land is like stepping into the Bible on a personal level," calling the land as much a character in the Bible as Abraham or Moses. "After pottery wash, I witnessed a number of spectacular sunsets over Jerusalem to the west. And between sunrise and sunset, I felt I was engaged in rummaging through Jerusalem's buried secrets." Still, she insists, "the most important part of the dig was the human element - meeting a wide spectrum of people interested in theology and archeology from different cultures from around the world." New Yorker Marc Suvall agrees. The 51-year old math teacher from south Bronx says, "One of the completely unexpected treasures of the trip was the people I met there. I was expecting many more Americans. But I ended up meeting some wonderful religious Christians from Germany and Holland. It was a tremendous opportunity for interfaith dialogue. That was the highlight of the trip." Defining the work as a combination of hard physical labor followed by "finesse" work, Suvall says, "Sometimes you're working with a pick axe and other times you're working with small tools literally just dusting off rocks for any information that is helpful." Suvall says the war in the North was not an issue while he was on the dig in August, "although it was upsetting from a humanitarian viewpoint. I was sad for Israel." Lipschits plans to excavate a large reservoir during the 2007 season. He is confident he knows where it is. Future excavations will yield more answers to the Ramat Rahel riddle and present assumptions may be confirmed, tweaked or cast aside. Other questions will remain. No matter. Lipschitz plans to uncover it all. "We will dig to bedrock!" he insists.

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