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.

From any vantage point in Jerusalem the City of David is a pretty unimpressive sight. Indeed, it is hard to believe that this neglected patch of land, a tiny triangle located outside the Old City walls and south of the Temple Mount, was once the splendid capital of the mighty kingdom of Judah.

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

Begin at Jeremiah's Pit, just inside the entrance to the City of David National Park. The largest of the cisterns uncovered here, it is located in what was probably the courtyard of the contemporary Israelite king.

The 6th-century BCE prophet Jeremiah predicted that Jerusalem would be lost and her people exiled to Babylon. When King Zedekiah couldn't stand hearing so much doom and gloom, he ordered Jeremiah lowered into a cistern which 'had no water in it, only mud, and Jeremiah sank down into the mud' (Jeremiah 38:6). Both its size and its location indicate that this could be the famous pit.

Climb to the roof of the Judy Steinberg Exhibition Hall, situated at the top of ancient Jerusalem. Look down and you will be surprised to find that the original Holy City was very small. In fact, says tour guide Donna Goldberg, at its widest point it was barely 100 meters wide, and, from north to south, a mere 250m.-300m. long. There weren't that many people here either: All told, in David's time Jerusalem probably held less than 2,000 inhabitants.

David probably chose this site in an effort to unify his subjects. A Jebusite (Canaanite) city as yetunconquered by the Israelites and therefore still neutral, it lay on the border between the territories allotted to Benjamin and Judah. It was also situated further north than Hebron, closer to the center of the Promised Land, and flanked by deep valleys that provided strategic protection on two of its three sides.

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

Just as important was the presence of the Gihon Spring, also known as the Shiloah. The only natural water source in the entire area, the bountiful Gihon originates in rain that falls on the Judean Hills and seeps through the region's porous limestone. Although the water appears to flow continuously, it actually gushes out at regular intervals several times a day.

Directly before you lies the Kidron Valley, much deeper in David's time than it is today. The Arab village on the other side is Silwan, named for 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 City and therefore handy as a First Temple period burial site. Look carefully at the houses and see that they either incorporate or are built on top of typical First Temple Period burial caves.

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

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

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 of the hill.

The ruins you are about to see were burned to a crisp by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE when he conquered the city. Look for a two-story dwelling whose rooms were divided by four pillars and a typical First Temple period '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 the middle. Believe it or not, this was a First Temple period privy, placed on its side so it can be seen by visitors. Chemical analysis of the matter directly beneath the hole revealed remains from a diet chock-full of meat - consistent with what you would find in a besieged population. During Nebuchadnezzar's siege of Jerusalem, people were unable to gather produce from the fields. And, lacking extra provisions for their animals, they slaughtered their beasts and ate them in quantity. In the 2,500-year-old matter scientists also found a particular intestinal parasite that was consistent with this kind of diet.

Next look for the Burnt House, named for the charred beams discovered within that date back to the destruction of Jerusalem and the First Temple (586 BCE). The staircase leading from what was the first floor to what would have been the second indicates that this, too, was a two-storied villa - and a fancy one, at that. For among the remains found were pieces of furniture imported from Syria - the first discovery of this kind in Israel, according to Goldberg. Scores of arrowheads, 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 at the sign for 'Warren's Shaft.' This is where, in the past, you would have walked into a tunnel, begun a steep descent, and stopped at the edge of a vertical shaft named for the young British officer who discovered it.

Captain Charles Warren was hired by the Palestine Exploration Fund in 1867 to lead a survey of Palestine. Along with a 13-meter-deep natural shaft, Warren exposed an astonishing water system that appeared to date back to at least the 11th century BCE. It would have enabled inhabitants to reach the Gihon spring without ever having to leave the city's protective walls. Experts assumed that women descended the tunnel, lowered their pails into the shaft, and brought up water from a pool below.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beginning at opposite ends of the bedrock, and listening for the pounding of their cohorts on the other side, Hezekiah's engineers carved out an amazing tunnel over half a kilometer long. If you feel like having some fun, you can walk through Hezekiah's winding water-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 is another tunnel, currently being excavated, that was carved through the mountain'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 discern pieces of the original Jebusite and Israelite walls. You should already be planning your next visit: when you come again, there will undoubtedly be all kinds of new theories to tickle your fancy!