Unusual tombs in the Kidron Valley

Allegro had no problem financing his excavation, which was under the auspices of Britain’s Daily Mail tabloid newspaper, and Jordan provided workers and transportation.

At the Ha’ofel Road lookout: There is a wonderful view of Absalom’s Tomb, Zechariah’s Tomb and a variety of hollows in the rocks (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
At the Ha’ofel Road lookout: There is a wonderful view of Absalom’s Tomb, Zechariah’s Tomb and a variety of hollows in the rocks
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
 In the early 1960s, British scholar John Marco Allegro led an expedition to Jordanian Jerusalem in an attempt to recover hidden treasure.
Allegro – an expert in Hebrew dialects – had been the first to translate a 2,000-yearold copper scroll unearthed in 1952 deep inside a cave near the Dead Sea. What he discovered from the scroll was astounding: Over 100 tons of gold and silver treasures from the Second Temple had been hidden in over 60 locations. According to his understanding, one of the locations the scroll mentioned was in the immediate area surrounding what was believed to be the tomb of the prophet Zechariah in the Kidron valley.
Allegro had no problem financing his excavation, which was under the auspices of Britain’s Daily Mail tabloid newspaper, and Jordan provided workers and transportation.
There was just one hitch: Dozens of Jews were buried around the tomb. Allegro solved this problem by receiving permission from the Kingdom of Jordan to clear away the graves.
While he didn’t uncover even a single treasure, he did expose a cave beneath the monument to Zechariah. Steps going to and from the cave led archeologists Boaz Zissu and Avraham Tendler, years later, to the supposition that it was a crypt: part of a church that Byzantine-era Christians had constructed next to Zechariah’s Tomb.
After hearing about Allegro’s adventure, I decided to check things out for myself on a cool afternoon outing. My guide on this tour was Danny Herman (a.k.a. Danny the Digger), whose expertise as an archeologist imparted an added dimension to our jaunt.
We began at an observation point along Ha’ofel Road, located across from the Old City’s eastern wall and above the Kidron Valley. From the lookout, there is a wonderful view of Absalom’s Tomb, Zechariah’s Tomb, and a variety of hollows in the rocks.
Down below and way off to the right, at the end of a row of houses in the Silwan neighborhood, stands a cube-shaped one-story building that, at one time, was undoubtedly topped by a pyramid. Legend has it that this is the tomb of Pharaoh’s daughter, the only one of King Solomon’s many wives who rated a specific mention in the Bible. Maybe she received this special treatment because she brought the Canaanite city of Gezer with her as a dowry.
Some of the most important events in the life of Jesus occurred on these slopes, which are studded with magnificent churches. From here, you can look left to see the glistening facade on the Church of All Nations, built by Catholics from all over the world. Adjacent to the church is the ancient olive grove known as the Garden of Gethsemane.
Signs on the sidewalk point down to “Absalom’s Pillar” and “The Last Path.”
Herman remarked that the latter was related to the final trek Jews made when they buried their departed on the Mount of Olives. Or perhaps this was the path that Jesus took to Gethsemane on his last night of freedom – or the route he followed when he was arrested by the Sanhedrin and brought to Mount Zion.
We descended a long staircase to come face-to-face with Absalom’s Tomb, by far the most magnificent structure in the Kidron Valley. A lofty 22 meters high, with its bottom portion hewn out of the rock, it is completely separate from the slope behind it. Semi-columns and capitals decorate the massive lower part of the monument, which is distinguished by a round top ending in a long, thin point. The shrine dates back to the end of the Second Temple period – nearly a millennium after King David’s son Absalom rebelled against his father and then died when the king’s captain ran him through with a javelin.
It was a custom in ancient times to erect an impressive monument in memory of one’s deceased parents. If you had no offspring, however, you might have to put one up for yourself. While the Bible notes that Absalom fathered three sons and a daughter, they must have died while still young: “During his lifetime Absalom had taken a pillar and erected it in the King’s Valley as a monument to himself, for he thought, ‘I have no son to carry on the memory of my name.’ He named the pillar after himself, and it is called Absalom’s Monument to this day” (II Samuel 18:18).
Tradition places that monument here, identifying the Kidron Valley with the King’s Valley.
For centuries, passersby of all religions would throw stones at Absalom’s mammoth structure. Indeed, Muslims, who revere King David, practically covered it with rocks. It is said that Jewish parents would bring disobedient offspring to the almost-hidden monument, point out the stones, and warn them that “this is what happens to children who behave badly toward their fathers!“ HERMAN BELIEVES that a Jewish Temple priest was buried under the shrine. In fact, in 2001, archeologist Joe Zias discovered that a Greek inscription (now illegible) on the pillar’s southern wall identified the monument in Byzantine times as the grave of Zechariah, a Temple priest and the father of John the Baptist.
A few years ago, the late archeologist Ehud Netzer discovered a tomb at Herodion National Park that most experts presume to have held the remains of King Herod. Herman disagrees, however; he believes that the site’s tomb belonged to a family member instead. He hopes one day to lead an expedition that will uncover what he and a few others believe is the real Herod’s tomb.
As you face Absalom’s Tomb, you encounter iron bars blocking the entrance to a structure on your left. Uncovered in 1924 and thought by some to be the tomb of ninth-century-BCE King Jehoshaphat, it contains several chambers and a splendidly ornamental lintel.
Zechariah’s Tomb next door is the only pyramid-topped structure in the valley.
Herman pointed out that unlike Absalom’s Tomb, all of Zechariah’s Tomb was carved out of the slope’s rock face and yet is completely detached from the mountainside.
Over 10 m. high, it dates, like Absalom’s pillar, to the Second Temple period, with a lovely façade covered by ionic pillars. Only the front is carefully chiseled: Whoever erected this shrine didn’t go to the trouble of continuing the beautiful work on its back and sides.
A great wrong was done to the prophet Zechariah, who predicted the downfall of Jerusalem and was executed by the King of Judah for his efforts. According to the biblical text, “the Spirit of God came upon Zechariah.... He stood before the people and said, ‘This is what God says: “Why do you disobey the Lord’s commands? You will not prosper. Because you have forsaken the Lord, he has forsaken you.”’ But they plotted against him, and by order of the king they stoned him to death in the courtyard of the Lord’s temple” (II Chronicles 24:20-21).
Jews so revered Zechariah that over the centuries they asked to be buried as close as possible to his grave. At one time, the Jews of Jerusalem offered eulogies here and would come to Zechariah’s Tomb to mourn the destruction of the Temple on Tisha Be’av.
One year, Jerusalem suffered from a terrible drought. Legend has it that the city’s Arabs prayed to Allah, but rain didn’t fall.
They then sent a delegation to Jerusalem’s Jewish inhabitants, warning them that if they couldn’t make it rain, they would be in deep trouble. According to this oft-repeated story, the Jews immediately declared a fast, and on its third day, they made a pilgrimage to the tomb of Zechariah.
Throwing themselves upon the ground next to the tomb, they prayed, then walked around it seven times while singing Psalms.
By evening, the sky was black. Heavy rain, accompanied by thunder and lightning, fell on the Holy City. The Jews were saved, the city’s cisterns filled with water, and the sanctity of Zechariah’s Tomb was reaffirmed.
Behind the shrine, graffiti was scratched on the walls by family members of Jews who were buried next to Zechariah’s Tomb but whose graves were lost when Allegro had them cleared away. Two tombstones were recently restored and lie in state behind the monument. They belong to Avraham Shlomo Zalman and his wife – grandparents of pioneer Yoel Moshe Salomon, who founded the Nahalat Shiva neighborhood, and great-grandparents to Haim Salomon, co-founder of the flourishing Teva pharmaceutical company. Zalman, who was prominently involved in the construction of the 19th-century Hurva Synagogue, was murdered in 1851 and is often called Israel’s first victim of Arab terrorism.
You can enter the burial chambers located beyond the gate on one side of the shrine. Chisel marks on the interior walls prove this was not a natural cave. If you carefully walk out onto a balcony above the valley, you’ll find a barely legible ancient Hebrew inscription on the exterior of the cave, relating that the six sons of the priestly Hezir family are buried within.
This was not just any priestly family, according to Herman: One of the Dead Sea Scrolls mentions that the Hezirs operated the Temple on Yom Kippur. The Bible refers to the distinguished Hezir family twice: first when King David gives the priests their sacred duties, and again at the end of the Babylonian exile. At that time, Nehemiah puts the Hezirs on the list of families who sign a declaration of faith and take an oath to follow God’s law.
Tradition places the biblical King Uzziah at this site as well, but during his lifetime. It is believed that he lived here in what the Bible calls a “separate house.” Uzziah was a boy of 16 when he became king, and he reigned over Judah for 52 years. A great builder, he constructed towers, strengthened Jerusalem’s defenses and put together a great army. “But after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall,” II Chronicles relates.
“He... entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense.... The priests... became angry. While he was raging at the priests in their presence... leprosy broke out on his forehead... and [they] hurried him out. King Uzziah had leprosy until the day he died. He lived in a separate house, leprous and excluded from the temple of the Lord” (26:16-21).
Although you can see the façade of the burial complex from the lookout above the valley, on the walk back to Absalom’s Tomb, there is an excellent close-up view. Herman explained that it boasts a Greek design called distylos in antis: two columns between two walls.
“It was such a popular architectural motif at the time that even the Jewish Temple façade incorporated this motif,” he added.
In the past, Christians believed Zechariah’s Tomb to be the tomb of Jesus’s brother James, the first bishop of Jerusalem. Tradition holds that after Jesus was crucified, James hid from the Romans in the Hezir family tomb. Later on, James was martyred here: thrown over a wall of the Temple, stoned by the populace, and then clubbed to death in the Kidron Valley.
Back at Absalom’s Tomb, you can return to your starting point by climbing back up the steps.
Before you do, though, you can take a load off and rest in the lovely little park nearby. • Note: If you cannot walk steps, you can begin your tour just below the Church of All Nations (in Gethsemane) and take an accessible path down into the valley.