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

Jerusalem from Solomon to Herod, as seen from the Mt. of Olives 

sol-jm.jpgExtending northward from the ridge of the original Jerusalem is the hill upon which Solomon built the Temple. There has been no archaeological excavation in the inner area of the Temple, but an informed guess is that the sanctuary containing the Holy of Holies stood where the Dome of the Rock  is today.

Solomon surrounded the Temple with a wall. Its north side (where the city lacked a deep valley defending it) probably ran along the north side of the platform with the arches. (A moat just north of this platform may have been dug at this time.) There would be little point in such expansion, however, unless there was a large enough army in the city to defend this longer wall. For Solomon's reign was one of internal dissent (see 1 Kings 11:14-40), which led to the split in the kingdom after his death.

Since the chief water source, the Gihon Spring, could only support about 2500 people, one wonders how Solomon managed so great an expansion. Where would he have gotten water to supply the population that would have been needed to produce and support enough soldiers to defend the longer wall? He may of course have used mercenaries, as his father David had, but mercenaries too have families.
It is possible, of course, that Solomon did not expand so far to the north and that his temple was not where the consensus puts it. For evidence on this location we have only Josephus, who is often dead wrong, plus the archaeologically established fact that the Herodian temple was in the expanded area.


These then were the dimensions of Jerusalem down to the time of King Hezekiah. It was the city that the prophet Isaiah referred to as Zion.

In the 8th century BC, Assyria expanded, conquering much of the Levant, including the northern kingdom of Israel. Those areas that retained independence had to pay heavy tribute. When Sargon II of Assyria died in 705, the tribute-payers, among them Hezekiah of Judah, prepared a revolt. Knowing that the Assyrian army would soon be approaching, Hezekiah took measures: he stored up supplies in the cities and readied them to absorb large numbers of refugees from the villages. In Jerusalem, he extended the wall to the hill on the other side of the valley later known as the Tyropoeon (Cheesemakers') Valley. Pieces of this wall have been exposed in the Jewish quarter, but it is not yet clear how far to the west the expanded city went.

This larger Jerusalem needed more water. It was Hezekiah, apparently, who had a basin dug in a valley north of the Temple (cf. 2 Kings 18:17). It later became the northern basin of the Pool of Bethesda

Hezekiah also had a winding tunnel excavated, leading the water of the Gihon spring 1750 feet to a pool in the south, far enough from the Mt. of Olives that a wall could protect the water-drawers from Assyrian arrows.

Jerusalem survived the Assyrian attack, though again by paying heavy tribute. It did not survive the Babylonians, however, in 586 BC. The Temple was destroyed, and the people went into exile.

The Period of the Second Temple

When Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon, he published an edict (538 BC) allowing the Jews to return. Both Temple and city were rebuilt on a modest scale. Jerusalem does not seem to have extended beyond the old Solomonic boundaries.

After Alexander defeated the Persians, his successors in Egypt, the Ptolemies, took over the land, including Jerusalem and the Temple. In 200 BC, however, they lost it to Alexander's successors in Syria, the Seleucids. Sensitive to the rising power of Rome and encouraged by Hellenizing Jews, the Seleucid ruler, Antiochus Epiphanes IV, sought to homogenize his empire. He tried to bring the Jews into line with the dominant pagan cult. He took over Jerusalem, sacrificing a pig on the altar of the Temple. Five brothers from the priestly house of Hasmon, known as the Maccabees, launched a revolt.


These Hasmoneans captured Jerusalem from the Seleucids in 164 BC. They re-dedicated the Temple, inaugurating the festival of Hanukah (Hebrew for "dedication"). In the following decades, they expanded the city to its natural defense lines: the Hinnom Valley on the south and west and the Kidron on the east. If we could shove the present Old City south a bit and perch its southern wall over the Hinnom, we would almost have it. To this much larger Jerusalem, the Hasmoneans would have had to bring water. Since they had the technology of the aqueduct, we may assume that they were the ones who first led water to Jerusalem from a strong spring south of Bethlehem, in the area known as Solomon's Pools.

Seam marking Herodian extension in eastern retaining wall of Temple
Taking over in 37 BC, Herod made Jerusalem the focus of great projects. He received permission from the Jewish priests to tear down the modest Second Temple and build it anew. He expanded its platforms on all sides except the east, where the hill slopes steeply to the Kidron. We can see this older eastern wall in the photo above. If we start at its southern corner, then follow the lower courses 105 feet to the right (north), we note a sudden change in the way the stones are cut. Those 105 feet were Herod's addition. The lower courses north of it are probably Hasmonean, maybe older. This was the outer wall of "Solomon's portico," where Jesus taught.

Herod tore down much of the Hasmonean city, rebuilding it in grand Hellenistic style. He built an additional wall, extending Jerusalem northward as far - it is thought - as today's Damascus Gate.


map of Herodian Jerusalem

According to Josephus, Herod included a theatre and a hippodrome (neither has been found). The platform of his palace is on the Old City's west side in today's Armenian quarter: it is almost a thousand feet long. Towers guarded it, three of them on its vulnerable north. The lower part of one is still there. The towers had names; this one was probably Hippicus or Phasael.

Later the procurators stayed in the palace when visiting Jerusalem. From Josephus  we learn that in 66 AD, one of them set up his tribunal  before it and condemned Jewish demonstrators to crucifixion. Since this was also the highest part of the Herodian city, some think it may have been the "Gabbatha" (Hebrew, high place) of the Gospel (John 19:13 ), where Pilate condemned Jesus. In that case, the Via Dolorosa started there.

One important part of today's Old City was not within the Herodian walls: the area where we today see the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. We know it was not within the walls, because it contains graves from the Herodian period, and Jews do not and did not bury their dead inside their cities. This point will be important for the question of the Sepulcher's authenticity. 

We return to Herod's Temple compound. It extended from the black-domed al-Aqsa Mosque  of today (then a huge colonnaded stoa or portico) past the Dome of the Rock, as far as there are trees. At its northwest corner there is now a minaret; from it, stretching toward us, was the Antonia Fortress, high enough to be in visual contact with Phasael and the other towers on the west side. The Antonia had the double function of guarding against attacks from the north and enabling the ruler to supervise the Temple area, where protest demonstrations might start. Since the day of Jesus' trial was a Passover, according to the synoptic gospels, it makes sense that Pontius Pilate would have been here that morning, watching for trouble. Here is another possibility, then (the traditional one, in fact) for the beginning of the Via Dolorosa.


The platform was an irregular polygon, roughly 1500 feet long by 1000 wide. It was the biggest structure ever built as a single project, having 35 acres, large enough to accommodate 400,000 pilgrims, as sometimes it still does during Muslim festivals. The Temple compound  took up a fifth of the city.

"Now the outward face of the temple in its front ...was covered all over with plates of gold of great weight, and, at the first rising of the sun, reflected back a very fiery splendor, and made those who forced   themselves to look upon it to turn their eyes away, just as they would have done at the sun's own rays. But this temple appeared to strangers, when they were coming to it at a distance, like a mountain covered with snow; for as to those parts of it that were not gilt, they were exceeding white." (Josephus War , V 5.6.)

Such was the Temple and the city that Jesus saw on coming over the Mt. of Olives.