The Mount Of Olives PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
Article Index
The Mount Of Olives
City Of David
Solomon to Herod
Pater Noster Church

The first Jerusalem and the City of David:
Historical Geography

[The following article deals with the first Jerusalem as seen from the Mount of Olives. For our more complete coverage, see here.]

We can locate the original Jerusalem from the Mt. of Olives. We must look south of the golden Dome of the Rock, to the left of the bend in the modern street, outside the present Old City walls. Three houses left of that bend, we find what was probably the northernmost point of the pre-Solomonic city (see photo, below). From there, that is, Jerusalem extended to the left (south), on the ridge. If the open palm of the right hand represents the Old City, then the original Jerusalem is the last two sections of the pinky.


jm-w-david-palace.jpgNote that the original Jerusalem was protected by deep valleys. These were the Kidron and an unnamed valley. The latter has been largely filled in by garbage and sewage, but in antiquity it was deep. The 2009 excavations show that it angles southwest from the Dung Gate; there is evidence of  habitation on the city's western slope as early as the 9th century BC. (After the city expanded to include the western hill, this valley ran through its middle.) A third valley stretched from the early city's southern tip westward. This is the Hinnom, Gai Benai Hinnom in Hebrew, which came to be called Gehenna (associated with hell). Thus the original Jerusalem, about 300 yards north-south by 80 east-west, had excellent natural defenses on all sides except for its narrow north. Here the hill sloped upward, forcing the city's first residents to build a high wall against potential archers. This hill can be considered part of the plateau of Benjamin (to be discussed shortly).

We can see the defensive problem by studying the contours that Charles Wilson was able to determine in the 19th century, thanks to the Ottoman sultan's permission for probes and soundings:




Here is a view from the south:


Jerusalem had a spring, the Gihon or "gusher," which is located today in an opening just beneath the floor of the Kidron Valley. (The Kidron was deeper in David's time.) The Gihon can supply about 2500 people. But we should also remember that the city was surrounded by watersheds (a major one on the north and west, but another formed by the ridge of the Mount of Olives on the east), so that there would have been run-off from three sides to fill its cisterns. 

Here is a view of the Old City and the Mount of Olives from the west:

It has become fashionable to point out what a tiny village Jerusalem was in the time of David and Solomon. Indeed the spur is small. Yet the settlements nearby were much smaller, and the other cities on the central mountain range were not as well defended by valleys.


Jerusalem was already important enough 800 years before David to attract an Egyptian curse in the Execration Texts.


What made this first Jerusalem important? The answer includes two factors.

First, on its north side begins a plateau (10 miles south-to-north by 4 miles east-to-west). Since most of it belonged to the tribe of Benjamin, we can call it the Benjamin plateau. The southernmost good link road between the international trade routes here met the only north-south route in the central highlands. This link road used an unbroken ridge (rare in these parts), ascending from the west through Beth Horon toward Gibeon on the plateau, then descending to Jericho and crossing the Jordan to Heshbon on the King's Highway.

The photograph (right)  shows the western part of the ridge road, not included in the map above.

Armies coming from the west to attack Jerusalem tended to take this unbroken ridge road, reaching the plateau and turning south: for example, the Seleucids on their second attempt to quell the Maccabean revolt, the Romans under Cestius Gallus, the Crusaders, and the British in 1917. 

We have already seen the second reason for Jerusalem's early importance: Many other cities enjoyed the commercial advantages of the central Benjamin plateau: Bethel, Beeroth, Mizpah, Rama, Gibeon, and Gibeah, while Jerusalem clung to its southern edge. But although these other towns were closer to the intersections, only Jerusalem had deep valleys for defense.
Jerusalem's access to the Benjamin plateau, combined with its defensibility, were among the factors that led David to make it his capital.

David had other reasons too for choosing Jerusalem as his capital:

After the death of Saul, the whole land was exposed to the Philistines. David, chief of a warrior band, went up to Hebron and ruled Judah. Hebron is ideally situated for controlling the southern quarter of the central highlands, but no more than that. According to 2 Samuel 5: 1-3, after seven years, in response to the Philistine threat, the other tribes asked David to rule over them. Hebron would not be suitable as a capital for such an expanded kingdom: it lay too far south, and its connection with the north was tenuous. Now David cast his eye on Jerusalem: it bordered his home tribe of Judah, and it gave him access to the  Benjamin plateau. From here he could connect to all points. On the other hand, if he let it fall to the Philistines, he would be blocked from contact with the north. This particular Philistine threat may have been his principal motive, as Keel suggests. 

Concerning the conquest,  we read in 2 Samuel 5:6 that Jerusalem belonged to the Jebusites. When David and his forces arrived, "the Jebusite" taunted him, saying that the lame and the blind would suffice to keep him out of the city. Verse 7 says: "And David captured the Fortress of Zion, it is the City of David." (The word for "captured" can mean "ensnared.") And the next verse reads (sticking close to the Hebrew):

And David said on that day, "Whoever strikes a Jebusite and touches (v'yigga) the tzinnor, and the lame and the blind are hated of David's soul, which is why it is said that a lame or a blind person shall not enter the house."
If the sentence about "Whoever strikes a Jebusite" sounds ungrammatical, well, it is! Usually the verse is taken to explain how David conquered the city. But notice the gap after tzinnor. No verb follows the subject-clause ("Whoever..."). Elsewhere in the Bible such a phrase introduces an expression like, "...will be put to death" (Exodus 21:12-17). One might then take the three verses, 6-8, as a chronological sequence: (6) David is taunted; (7) David ensnares the city; (8) David at once issues an edict forbidding his soldiers to harm a Jebusite or touch the tzinnor. This interpretation fits well with the fact that Jebusites continued to live in the City of David. We know they remained because David later bought a threshing floor from Araunah the Jebusite on the peak of the city's hill and erected an altar to Yahweh there (2 Samuel 24:16-25). It is remarkable that the Araunah story survived: According to Deuteronomy 7:1ff.; 20:17 (cf. Joshua 6:21) all non-Israelites were to be driven from the land or killed, and this view clearly guided the editor of the so-called Deuteronomic history (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings). A continued presence of non-Israelites in Jerusalem was an embarrassment for the editor (as in Jericho and Gibeon, where suitable stories explain the anomaly). Perhaps, that is why we do not hear of any other Jebusites by name in the city (this may also explain the above-mentioned gap in the Hebrew of 2 Samuel 5:8). But it is noteworthy, as  Keel points out, that after David arrives in Jerusalem from Hebron, he gets an additional high priest (Zadok) to the one he had in Hebron (Aviathar) and an additional military commander (Benayah) to the one he had in Hebron (Joab). Keel believes that the new, additional leaders were veteran Jerusalemites. He also counts Bathsheba and the prophet Nathan in this group. On such a view, the "capture" of the city may have involved an agreement: many of the Jebusites might well have preferred David's rule over the only alternative: the Philistines. ("The Jebusite" [singular] who taunted David may have represented an opposing faction.) On "ensnaring" the city, David amalgamated his Hebron cabinet with part of the existing Jerusalem (Jebusite) leadership. He managed to hold the two groups together until his death, when the veteran Jerusalemites, led by Bathsheba's son Solomon, defeated the Hebron crowd (Adonijah and Joab were murdered, Aviathar exiled).   

By force or accommodation or a little of both, David assumed power in Jerusalem and made it his capital. Solomon built the Temple there. This was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC but restored 70 years later by returning Jewish exiles. In 23 BC, Herod began to rebuild it in grander style. To this city and its Temple Jesus made pilgrimage around 30 AD, followed by the many pilgrims who came in his footsteps starting 250 years later. Several centuries after that, Muslims identified Jerusalem as the place of Muhammad's ascent into heaven. All these traditions have led to the growth of the metropolis that we see  today.