The key to David's city

Archaeologist believes she has found King David's palace exactly where bible says it should be.

Eilat Mazar521 (photo credit: Abir Sultan/ Flash90)
Eilat Mazar521
(photo credit: Abir Sultan/ Flash90)
Was the Biblical figure of David a leader of the first Jewish empire, the legendary king of Jerusalem, or just some minor figure, a mere tribal chieftain? Did he even exist at all? To Eilat Mazar, scion of Israel’s most prominent family of archaeologists, the evidence she has uncovered suggests that the Bible got it right: that David, who is thought to have ruled from 1010 to 970 BCE, was indeed a larger-thanlife political and military leader – and that ancient Jerusalem was a formidable center in Biblical times.
Her main archaeological find is a mighty structure at Jerusalem’s City of David that she believes may well have been King David’s Palace when he reigned in the early part of the 10th century BCE.
Given that archaeologists have uncovered almost no relics from the period of the Biblical King David about 3,000 years ago, Mazar’s discovery of the “Large Stone Structure,” as she calls the putative palace, could be one of the biggest breakthroughs of Biblical archaeology.
The discovery has triggered fierce debate, making Mazar perhaps the country’s most controversial archaeologist.
It also frayed Arab nerves sensitive to any new evidence that appears to substantiate Jewish claims to Jerusalem.
Her excavations at the City of David have undoubtedly dented the Arab claim that, because Jews never ruled the city in the past, the Arabs deserve sole sovereignty over Jerusalem.
But Mazar is uninterested in the debate.
Unconcerned with politics
“I am not trying to deal with what other people say,” she tells The Jerusalem Report. “I don’t care about politics when it is directly connected to our archaeological work. We who do archaeology in Jerusalem have to deal with the principle that it is important to reveal the remains of ancient Jerusalem in the most scientifically accurate way.”
She punctuates our conversation with outbursts of emotion and smiles whenever she talks about digging up Jerusalem’s past.
Decidedly unreligious, Mazar, a Jerusalem resident, suggests that her interest in the Bible is of a scholarly nature. The Bible is Jerusalem’s greatest road map, in her view. She treats every word in the Bible as a possible clue for what really transpired.
As we talk, David seems to loom all around us. We are sitting at the YMCA, located on King David Street opposite the King David Hotel. It is only fitting that the warrior-musician famous for slaying the Philistine giant Goliath is linked to modern-day Jerusalem by street and hotel name.
But Mazar’s claims about King David are not accepted by everyone. Her most prominent critic is Tel Aviv University scholar Israel Finkelstein, who claims that the Biblical David was neither a political heavyweight nor a military conqueror. At best, concedes Finkelstein, if David existed at all, he was in charge of a small, marginal entity.
She came upon the “Large Stone Structure” in 2005, while digging in the northern sector of the 10-acre City of David, just south of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. Restrained in her claims, Mazar says only that the structure may have been David’s Palace.
Mazar insists her discovery puts to rest Finkelstein’s claim that David was a minor figure.
“In light of our excavations, what he thinks has no basis,” she says. “The evidence is very strong that the regime was powerful enough to construct such a building, leading me to conclude that this was indeed David’s Palace. It is not that I am bothered when Finkelstein claims that David was marginal. I think it needs to bother him.”
Her critics, interpreting ancient relics differently from Mazar, suggest that the palace that she discovered is from 300 years later.
“She is a good archaeologist and does good work,” says David Ussishkin, emeritus professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University, “but our view is that her palace belongs to a later period.”
That view, if correct, could unhinge all of Mazar’s claims regarding King David.
Proving the Biblical David’s existence was never part of her mission. She says her goal has been to offer the best possible evidence of how ancient Biblical Jerusalem appeared.
If she could unearth incontrovertible proof that David existed, that would unquestionably draw huge headlines, but, as a realist, she has more modest pursuits in mind. She simply wants to examine the holy book and let it send her in the right direction so that she can locate the stones and buildings that shed light on all that is described in the Bible. “Archaeology,” says Mazar, “can sometimes give us tangible evidence of the Bible’s stories.”
Relying on the Bible to point the way to the evidence and on modern-day forensics to help her date pottery finds at the site, Mazar gained early insight into the possible location of David’s Palace by scrutinizing certain Biblical passages, trying to understand each and every word. Of particular relevance for her in the quest for David’s Palace was II Samuel 5:11: “And Hiram king of Tyre sent messengers to David, and cedar trees, and carpenters, and masons: and they built David a house.” There it was, a Biblical assertion that David’s Palace had once existed.
Where was the palace?
But where was the palace precisely? Another Biblical passage (II Samuel 5:17), offered a clue: “But when the Philistines heard that they had anointed David king over Israel, all the Philistines came up to seek David; and David heard of it, and went down to the hold.” The key phrase was “went down” – a phrase that, to Mazar, may have meant that David had gone down or descended from his residence to a citadel or fortress in the City of David.
Down from where? She asked herself.
The obvious answer: Presumably from where he lived – his palace. The topography of the City of David shows that David could have only gone down to the citadel from the north, since on every other side deep valleys surrounded the city. Common sense indicates that the citadel would have been located at the high point in the City of David – in its northernmost sector – to protect the city on its only vulnerable side – the north – with its lack of a natural defense. From that, Mazar deduced that King David’s Palace might well have been located in the northernmost section of the City of David.
Reinforcing her hypothesis was the discovery of pottery that was typical of the 10th century BCE. Ideally, had a “daled” – the first initial of David’s name in Hebrew – shown up on the pottery, that could have provided further evidence. But, Mazar says with a smile: “Things like that don’t happen.”
Archaeology is Mazar’s birthright: her grandfather was the world-famous archaeologist Benjamin Mazar. He is best known for his pathfinding excavations near the most significant Biblical site in Israel – the Temple Mount. From the age of 10 she hung around her grandfather’s Temple Mount digs, starting her “magical journey” into a career as a professional archaeologist. “I loved it,” she says simply.
Pursuing archaeology as an undergraduate at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, she received no special treatment as Benjamin Mazar’s granddaughter. Indeed, it was the opposite. At age 22, she happened to give birth to her first child the same day that she was due to take an exam in ancient pottery.
Unwilling to let her take a postponed exam, the Archaeology Department insisted that she had to redo the entire course.
Over the next 33 years, Mazar, through her digs, has done much to shape the way the world thinks of ancient, Biblical Jerusalem.
She emphasizes that an archaeologist in Jerusalem encounters so many difficulties that only the brave, the persistent, and the assertive, succeed.
Jerusalem resident Mazar, a mother of four, is now a senior research fellow at the Hebrew University’s Institute of Archeology.
She says government officials failed on occasion to provide proper approvals in a timely fashion for excavations. “They can do whatever they wish,” she sighs. Finding adequate funding was another obstacle. “It’s not easy to get your way in archaeology these days,” she says.
That she is a woman has never bothered her. At first, she suspected that her male colleagues viewed her as weak, or even manipulative.
But if male colleagues treated her with any disrespect, cynicism, or wariness, today she refuses to condemn them.
Other obstacles did prove frustrating.
Red tape always was vexing to her. When archaeology authorities insisted that she create a small “archaeological site” – rather than a regular large one – so that tourists could get a good view of her dig, she balked, arguing that such a demand harmed her work. A small site would have been convenient for gawking tourists, but Mazar required a much larger area for her dig. “You can’t dig simply as a tourist gimmick,” she says. In the end she got her way.
Even with her unremitting enthusiasm, she encountered challenges that made her wonder whether she really wanted to continue in Biblical archaeology. Perhaps worst of all for her were the local authorities who, thinking her intrusive, sought to place obstacles in her path. She says those authorities would not let her dig at the City of David for 10 years. She was, the authorities believed, too scholarly, too much of an outsider.
“They thought I was a disturbance,” she says.
“Nobody liked me. Nobody likes to be disturbed.
They tried to tell me what to dig, but I would not accept what they asked me to do.
I can’t work like that.”
The attacks and threats took their toll and she thought of quitting.
“It takes so much of your health. Sometimes I felt like, wow, I cannot do this anymore.
It is frustrating to have to fight all the time.
But in the end, the archaeology always pays you back.”
She knows other archaeologists who steered clear of digging in Jerusalem as too emotional and controversial to make it worthwhile. But Mazar has been willing to get her hands dirty.
Working with the Bible in one hand and her excavation tools in the other, she remains open-minded about finding new archaeological treasures. “I try to consider everything,” she says.