City of David - Gone but not forgotten

The ongoing excavations at the City of David seem to confirm many a biblical narrative and gives some fascinating insights into ancient life.

Fromany vantage point in Jerusalem the City of David is a prettyunimpressive sight. Indeed, it is hard to believe that this neglectedpatch of land, a tiny triangle located outside the Old City walls andsouth of the Temple Mount, was once the splendid capital of the mightykingdom of Judah.

But don't be deceived by appearances: Underneath the stones, weeds, andrubble, the City of David is actually a work in progress where ongoingexcavations seem to confirm many a biblical narrative.

Begin at Jeremiah's Pit, just inside the entrance to the City of DavidNational Park. The largest of the cisterns uncovered here, it islocated in what was probably the courtyard of the contemporaryIsraelite king.

The 6th-century BCE prophet Jeremiah predicted that Jerusalem would belost and her people exiled to Babylon. When King Zedekiah couldn'tstand hearing so much doom and gloom, he ordered Jeremiah lowered intoa cistern which 'had no water in it, only mud, and Jeremiah sank downinto the mud' (Jeremiah 38:6). Both its size and its location indicatethat this could be the famous pit.

Climb to the roof of the Judy Steinberg Exhibition Hall, situated atthe top of ancient Jerusalem. Look down and you will be surprised tofind that the original Holy City was very small. In fact, says tourguide Donna Goldberg, at its widest point it was barely 100 meterswide, and, from north to south, a mere 250m.-300m. long. There weren'tthat many people here either: All told, in David's time Jerusalemprobably held less than 2,000 inhabitants.

David probably chose this site in an effort to unify his subjects. AJebusite (Canaanite) city as yet unconquered by the Israelites andtherefore still neutral, it lay on the border between the territoriesallotted to Benjamin and Judah. It was also situated further north thanHebron, closer to the center of the Promised Land, and flanked by deepvalleys that provided strategic protection on two of its three sides.

Besides, notes Goldberg, as it was off all the main routes, there was agood chance that future conquering armies would pass it by.

Just as important was the presence of the Gihon Spring, also known asthe Shiloah. The only natural water source in the entire area, thebountiful Gihon originates in rain that falls on the Judean Hills andseeps through the region's porous limestone. Although the water appearsto flow continuously, it actually gushes out at regular intervalsseveral times a day.

Directly before you lies the Kidron Valley, much deeper in David's timethan it is today. The Arab village on the other side is Silwan, namedfor the Shiloah (Silwan) nearby.

Until the late 19th century this entire slope was almost unpopulated.

Almost, but not quite, because the hill was just outside David's Cityand therefore handy as a First Temple period burial site. Lookcarefully at the houses and see that they either incorporate or arebuilt on top of typical First Temple Period burial caves.

In 1882 a large group of Yemenite Jews walked across the desert to theLand of Israel. The penniless Yemenites were not welcomed into theovercrowded Old City, where almost all of the Jews lived at the time.Instead, they built simple Yemenite-style housing on the empty slopeoutside the city walls in what is present-day Silwan.

But in 1929, when Arabs rioted all over the country, the Yemenites herefled for their lives. Those who returned were forced to leave theirhomes again - this time for good - in 1936, when Arabs once againrioted. Little by little, local Arabs began constructing homes on theslope.

Walking towards the excavations you'll see a huge stone wall called the'stepped-stone structure.' At least 3,000 years old, sturdy and stable,it probably served as a retaining wall for the royal palace on top ofthe hill.

The ruins you are about to see were burned to a crisp by Nebuchadnezzarin 586 BCE when he conquered the city. Look for a two-story dwellingwhose rooms were divided by four pillars and a typical First Templeperiod 'four-space' home. Archeologists named it the House of Ahiel,based on an inscription found in its ruins.

Just to its right stands a large rectangular rock with a hole in themiddle. Believe it or not, this was a First Temple period privy, placedon its side so it can be seen by visitors. Chemical analysis of thematter directly beneath the hole revealed remains from a dietchock-full of meat - consistent with what you would find in a besiegedpopulation. During Nebuchadnezzar's siege of Jerusalem, people wereunable to gather produce from the fields. And, lacking extra provisionsfor their animals, they slaughtered their beasts and ate them inquantity. In the 2,500-year-old matter scientists also found aparticular intestinal parasite that was consistent with this kind ofdiet.

Next look for the Burnt House, named for the charred beams discoveredwithin that date back to the destruction of Jerusalem and the FirstTemple (586 BCE). The staircase leading from what was the first floorto what would have been the second indicates that this, too, was atwo-storied villa - and a fancy one, at that. For among the remainsfound were pieces of furniture imported from Syria - the firstdiscovery of this kind in Israel, according to Goldberg. Scores ofarrowheads, mute testimony to the fierce battle that waged in the city,were also found in its ruins.

Now follow the path down the steps and to the left. Then turn right atthe sign for 'Warren's Shaft.' This is where, in the past, you wouldhave walked into a tunnel, begun a steep descent, and stopped at theedge of a vertical shaft named for the young British officer whodiscovered it.

Captain Charles Warren was hired by the Palestine Exploration Fund in1867 to lead a survey of Palestine. Along with a 13-meter-deep naturalshaft, Warren exposed an astonishing water system that appeared to dateback to at least the 11th century BCE. It would have enabledinhabitants to reach the Gihon spring without ever having to leave thecity's protective walls. Experts assumed that women descended thetunnel, lowered their pails into the shaft, and brought up water from apool below.

Exciting though this discovery was, however, Biblical archeologistswere most amazed by the shaft's possible connection to the Scriptures.It seemed to solve a biblical riddle that had been puzzling scholarsfor centuries: the question of how David's army managed to penetratethe Jebusites' highly fortified defenses. Following this discovery itseemed obvious that Joab, David's bravest soldier, gained entrance tothe city by climbing up the shaft and entering the Jebusite watersystem! Until very recently, visitors at this point retraced theirsteps and, huffing and puffing, returned to the entrance. Not anymore!Today you ascend a few steps and continue through another, recentlyopened tunnel into the 'spring house' and ongoing excavations.

In 1997, prior to construction of a visitors' center, archeologistswere called in to examine the work site and made discoveries thatchanged archeologists' earlier views. According to the new theory,explains Goldberg, Joab couldn't have climbed up the shaft because inDavid's time it was hidden from view. In fact, it was embedded in thebedrock, under the path taken by Jebusite women on their way to drawwater.

While you are still standing at the edge of the shaft, look up to see adistinct crack in the wall. Notice that the rock above the crack is ofa different appearance from the rock below. Apparently, when theJebusites carved out the original tunnel, probably back in the 18thcentury BCE, that crack was at floor level. This means that the pathyou are on was inside the bedrock.

If the Jebusites didn't draw water through Warren's shaft, where didthe water come from? Go up the stairs and walk through the newly openedcontinuation of the ancient Jebusite tunnel.

You have reached a gigantic pool, discovered in the latest excavationsand well outside the original city. The Jebusites channeled water fromthe spring to this pool, and guarded it from enemies with at least twoenormous towers. Look up, down, and around you to see rocks ofmind-boggling size: part of the ancient towers.

Well fortified though they were, the towers weren't good enough forKing Hezekiah. In 701 BCE, to prepare for a potentially disastroussiege by Assyrian King Sennacherib, he decided to bring the Gihon'swaters into the city. Finally, the water would be completely out of theenemy's reach.

Beginning at opposite ends of the bedrock, and listening for thepounding of their cohorts on the other side, Hezekiah's engineerscarved out an amazing tunnel over half a kilometer long. If you feellike having some fun, you can walk through Hezekiah's windingwater-filled tunnel and exit at what remains of the Shiloah Pool.Before you enter the water, look to the left to see an opening. This isanother tunnel, currently being excavated, that was carved through themountain's bedrock and channeled water to fields in the valley.

Should you decide to forgo the water walk, turn left when you leave the'spring house.' As you climb up the hill you may be able to discernpieces of the original Jebusite and Israelite walls. You should alreadybe planning your next visit: when you come again, there willundoubtedly be all kinds of new theories to tickle your fancy!

Take advantage of aspecial offer during Hol Hamoed, when the low price includes not onlyDavid's City and free guided tours but also the Ophel Gardens andDavidson Center (just inside Dung Gate).

During Hol Hamoed freeguided tours at David's City in English at 10:30 and 14:30, in Hebrewevery half an hour from 10-17:00. Today and Tuesday there is oneEnglish tour at 10:30.

Hours: 9-17:00; Friday 9-13:00.
Buses 1,2, or 38 to the Jewish Quarter (and walk).
Site is well guarded.
To walk in Hezekiah's Tunnel (highly recommended):
Wear waterproof shoes and roll up the legs of your trousers (or hike up your skirts). Bring one flashlight per person!