Under the Holy City
Archaeology|January/February 2022
A long-running excavation in Jerusalem unearths evidence for two of the city’s least-known eras
Andrew Lawler

Just steps from the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, Tel Aviv University archaeologist Yuval Gadot stands in a deep pit and peers at two massive and finely dressed limestone pillars framing a doorway. More than 2,500 years ago, they marked the entry into a large two-story building in a prestigious area of the bustling city. Stepping across the threshold, Gadot points at a rough stone surface bordered with soil that has an eerie yellow hue. When the building burned, “the earth was heated to such a high temperature that it turned the ground into a yellow crust,” he says. The fire that swept through the structure in August 586 b.c., when a Babylonian army invaded the doomed city, also collapsed the second floor, sending plaster, stone, and timbers crashing down. “They set fire to God’s temple and broke down the wall of Jerusalem,” records the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Chronicles. “They burned all the palaces and destroyed everything of value there.”

That description fits neatly with what Gadot and his colleague, Yiftah Shalev of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), found when they began to excavate the structure in 2017. But not everything was lost. Even though the building was one of the casualties of the conflagration, evidence of its once-impressive appearance remains. Gadot and Shalev’s team found chunks of thick plaster floors and wooden timbers that rested on sturdy square pillars. Amid the rubble, the team unearthed storage jars that contained residue of seasoned wine and small dishes that may have been filled with hors d’oeuvres. This suggests that the second floor may have been an elegant reception room for important guests. In one chamber, excavators uncovered the right shoulder of a goat or sheep, the portion of the animal typically reserved for sacrifice. They also found an agate seal carved with a Hebrew name, “Ikkar, son of Matanyahu,” as well as a lump of clay bearing the impression of a seal with the name of “Nathan-Melech, servant of the king,” a high-ranking official and perhaps the same one mentioned in the Bible as a courtier under King Josiah in the decades just before the Babylonian invasion. These finds suggest that the building, which may date back to the eighth century b.c., was an important administrative space when Jerusalem was the capital of early Judea. Gadot believes it may have served as a kind of conference center. “It’s a game changer,” he says as he surveys the ruin. “It puts a spotlight on a significant piece of Jerusalem’s urban fabric. We can really see, for the first time, how the royal elite of Judea lived.”

Yet what excites him even more than uncovering evidence of this monumental building are smaller finds related to the dimly understood 400-year period that stretched from the Babylonian destruction to the rise of the homegrown Hasmonean Dynasty, which emerged beginning in 140 b.c. These discoveries—made during the city’s largest and longest-running excavation—provide insight into the lives of Jerusalem’s inhabitants not found in ancient texts. They are also upending old notions about a city considered holy by billions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

The small swath of land—an irregular trapezoid about the size of a city block—where the team works sits on the northwestern slope of a rocky ridge that projects from the city’s famous acropolis, known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary. The area currently being excavated has a long and varied history. It was at the heart of Jerusalem for nearly 1,000 years until a Roman army destroyed the city in a.d. 70. In the following century, the Roman emperor Hadrian (r. a.d. 117–138) rebuilt the ruined city and renamed it Aelia Capitolina. Engineers leveled the area to make way for an elegant villa, sealing the layers below. The villa fell victim to an earthquake in a.d. 363, at the start of the Byzantine period, and was later rebuilt. Eventually, the space became an orchard as the city’s center moved to the hills to the north and west. After members of the new Islamic faith established control over the city in the seventh century a.d., the area served as a marketplace and sleepy suburb. By the time the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (r. a.d. 1520–1566) ordered Jerusalem’s crumbling walls rebuilt in 1535, the site lay outside the city and was inhabited mainly by grazing sheep and goats. In the late twentieth century, it was a dusty lot used to park tour buses; local boys who lived in the rapidly expanding Arab neighborhood of Wadi Hilweh also used it as a soccer field.

Undisturbed ground in one of the world’s most densely packed cities is rare, and millennia of construction has often obscured or obliterated older layers. A plan to build a large visitor’s center in the area now being excavated, which Israeli Jews refer to as the Givati site, provided an unusual opportunity for archaeologists to examine large swaths of the city’s past. Initial work began in 2005. Two years later, a team led by IAA archaeologists Doron Ben-Ami and Yana Tchekhanovets launched in-depth excavations. The site lies in East Jerusalem, which, like the West Bank, is considered by the international community to be Israeli-occupied territory. Under the 1954 Hague Convention, which Israel is a party to, archaeological digs in occupied territories are limited to salvage work at ancient sites under threat, and then only in cooperation with authorities of the territory. But the Givati excavation has proceeded without the cooperation of Palestinians, who have opposed the dig through demonstrations, complaints to the United Nations, and lawsuits claiming that the work has damaged nearby Arab homes.

Gadot maintains that the fight over who owns the land today is unrelated to rigorous research into all eras of Jerusalem’s past, not just its Judean heritage. “Up to now, there has been no clear archaeological evidence establishing Jerusalem’s size or even its location in the centuries following the Babylonian destruction,” he says, climbing up a ladder that leads out of the ruined building. “We have a gap of over four hundred years in the archaeological record.”

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