What did Jerusalem look like at the time of the original Tisha Be'av?

To this day, the day that marked this destruction, the 9th of Av in the Jewish calendar, has been a day of fast and mourning.

The Givati Parking Lot Excavations. (photo credit: Israel Antiquities Authority)
The Givati Parking Lot Excavations.
(photo credit: Israel Antiquities Authority)
In the 1970s, prominent archaeologist Nahman Avigad, who was conducting excavations in the Old City of Jerusalem, came across a small complex in the Jewish Quarter.
The structure, which became renowned as “the Burnt House,” turned out to be one of the most meaningful testimonies of how the city lived, and fell, in the first century – the house of a priestly family razed when the Romans captured Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple in 70 CE.
To this day, the day that marked this destruction, the 9th of Av in the Jewish calendar, has been a day of fasting and mourning.
However, the tradition had started centuries earlier, after the first Jewish Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE.
“Thus said the Lord of Hosts: The fast of the fourth month, the fast of the fifth month, the fast of the seventh month, and the fast of the 10th month shall become occasions for joy and gladness, happy festivals for the House of Judah; but you must love honesty and integrity,” reads the Book of Jeremiah (8:19).
It expresses the prophecy that in the time of the Redemption all the fasts with a connotation of mourning, including the 9th of Av – the fifth month according to the biblical calendar – will become festive occasions.
Half a century after the discovery of the Burnt House, today a popular museum, a lot more is known about what Jerusalem looked like and how its people lived on the eves of those days of destruction.
That knowledge comes not only through textual sources from the Bible or Roman writers, but also from excavations and research projects that have allowed scholars to see and touch countless remains and objects from those times. They offer a very vivid picture of a city that appears to have been as unique and fascinating back then as it is now.
“We have extensive knowledge about both moments because destructions have the ability to freeze the instant in time,” Tel Aviv University Prof. Yuval Gadot told The Jerusalem Post. He is the co-director of the Givati Parking Lot Excavation of the City of David by the Temple Mount.
“From the archaeological perspective, a destruction leaves remains that are much clearer than those that are the result of a process where a site is gradually abandoned or reused,” he said. “The more radical the devastation is, the more numerous and revealing are the traces it leaves behind.
“This is one of the reasons we know less about the Babylonian conquest compared with the Roman one: It appears that the Babylonians did not destroy everything at the same level and with the same intensity than the Romans did.”
However, there is more than enough to know that in the seventh century BCE, Jerusalem was an important and refined city, Gadot said.
“Even though we do not have any archaeological evidence for the First Temple, we know that the Temple Mount was the city’s focal point, and we believe that the palace of the king was also very close to it,” he said. “Over the decades, archaeologists have uncovered remains of imposing public buildings, a sophisticated bureaucracy and writing system, a rich material culture.”
Among the findings are pottery, furniture, private altars and bullae (seals), testifying to the presence of a wealthy elite living in the city, Gadot said.
While it is hard to give a precise number of how many people lived in Jerusalem at the time, scholars estimate that it was in the tens of thousands, he said.
“For this period, though, we do not have archaeological evidence of the presence of pilgrims, contrary to the Second Temple period, when we know that dozens of thousands of them visited the city every year,” Gadot said.
To describe what Jerusalem looked like half a millennium later on the eve of the second 9th of Av, Dr. Guy D. Stiebel, a senior lecturer at TAU, chose an image from first-century CE Roman-Jewish historian Josephus.
“He talked about how in the winter, when the snow fell, the city glittered in white and gold, which gives us not only the idea of how beautiful and impressive Jerusalem was, but also of its wealth, as we know about also by the fact that after the Romans destroyed it, the price of gold crashed all over the empire, so plentiful the spoils they brought back were,” he told the Post.
Stiebel highlighted how the constructions initiated by King Herod the Great (c. 73-74 BCE), inspired by what Roman leaders such as Augustus did to leave an immortal mark in the world, redesigned Jerusalem, making it and its Temple even more splendid than in the past.
“The city was vibrant and impressive. The pilgrims pouring into it three times a year from the whole region gave it a great economic boost,” he said, referring to the Jewish tradition of visiting the Temple on Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. “We can only imagine how a lay person, a farmer or even just a tourist might have felt, finding themselves before what was one of the, if not the, largest ritual center in the world.”
On the hills surrounding the city, agriculture flourished, and an abundance of natural pools and mikvaot ritual baths served the visitors for purification purposes, and more of them were available inside.
“Recently, archaeologists even discovered a fountain with running water in the Western Wall tunnel,” Stiebel said. “The city was larger than the Old City today. The palace of the king stood not far from the area of Jaffa Gate, surrounded by gardens. We know that the priests and the ruling class lived in large houses and were heavily influenced by the Roman customs.”
Slightly further away from the Temple, there were more-modest residential areas. Not far from the religious center, a theater and a hippodrome also operated, which was not viewed positively by the more-observant part of the Jewish population. But it shows how the city was also a center of culture and business.
From time to time, new archaeological findings add another piece to the puzzle of what life in Jerusalem was like when the Temples still stood. For example, a recent study showed that pigeons and doves were sacrificed in great amounts at the Temple, as described in the Bible.
As the archaeologists pointed out, the traces of Jerusalem’s past are all over the city. And 2,000 years later, Jerusalem has not ceased to represent a symbol and an attraction to people and visitors from all over the world.