Early Jerusalem PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
Article Index
Early Jerusalem
Top of the Hill
Water systems
Spine of the City

The Top of the Hill

Apart from the vulnerability of its spring (discussed on the next page), the original Jerusalem had one major defensive problem. No deep valley protected it on the north. Instead, a hill rose gradually, with the result that archers, standing on what would later be the Temple Mount, could easily attack. We can see this by noting the contour lines in the Ordnance Survey by Captain Charles Wilson (1876):


Obviously, the Jerusalemites would have needed a strong fortress on the north. In fact, at the point I have marked "Fortress of Zion" on Wilson's map above,  archaeologist Eilat Mazar discovered, in 2005 - 2007, what she has dubbed the "Large Stone Structure" (LSS). It was built as a single unit with the longer-known "Stepped Stone Structure" (SSS), which faces the Mount of Olives on the east. In the enlargeable photograph on the right, taken from the east, you can see how the SSS merges into the wall of the LSS. The photograph below also shows that the SSS seamlessly joins the eastern foundation-wall of the LSS (in the foreground and stretching south, where it is preserved to a thickness of more than 5 meters). Although Jerusalem existed already in the Middle Bronze Age IIB (1750 - 1650 BC) and perhaps in the previous millennium (Early Bronze), Mazar's dig revealed no trace of a building on this spot from those times (she did find MB pottery, though). Perhaps the city's northern limit was south of here before the 12th century. Until the SSS was built, the fragility of the karstic bedrock may have made it impossible to build a heavy fortress this far to the north.

Bonding of SSS and LSS

Here is a view from above, showing the structural unity:


On the inside to the west, here are further foundation walls of the LSS:


Together, the SSS and the LSS amount to a massive project. But when was it undertaken?

Archaeological dating is difficult in early Jerusalem for a number of reasons: 

a) The hill is mostly occupied by private houses, under which one may not dig.

b) The slopes are so steep that ancient builders either re-used existing structures or cut back to bedrock, dumping earlier remains, so that little could be found in situ.

c) Part of the hill was used as a quarry, probably in the Roman period but perhaps as far back as Nehemiah (5th century BC).

d) Much of it was explored by early archaeologists. The importance of broken pottery for dating had not yet been discovered. They threw away the sherds they found.

However, Jerusalem's first archaeologists avoided spots where the debris was heavy. One of these was the area beneath the entry platform of the current visitors' center, where Mazar found the LSS. She has dated the project to David, identifying it with the palace that the Phoenicians built for him (2 Samuel 5: 11). This is also the dating preferred by many guides. It is probably the reigning current opinion. Nevertheless, a close, well-argued reappraisal of Mazar's findings has been done by archaeologist Avraham Faust, who suggests a date in the 12th or 11th centuries BC, the time of the Jebusite "fortress of Zion" (2 Samuel 5: 6). I shall now present Faust's reasons.

Several indicators point to a Jebusite date of construction. Beneath the building, Mazar found a deliberately flattened surface on top of which was an earth accumulation containing pottery from the city's earlier periods through Iron I (1200 -1000 BC), no later. She held that the LSS was constructed on top of the earth-accumulation. However, her cousin, archaeologist Amihai Mazar, noted that the earth-accumulation was not just below some of the structure's walls, but also at a level even with their lower courses. That would suggest a construction date in Iron I.

The season of 2006-2007 was especially important in this regard. In the floor of a room within the LSS, Eilat Mazar found a thick layer containing Iron I pottery as well as crucibles such as were used then in metallurgy. This layer continues eastward, abutting the massive eastern foundation wall (W20 in the second photo above). The joining of the crucibles-layer with this foundation wall indicates that the crucibles-layer belonged to the original building. In the layer above the crucibles-layer, she found large sherds of collar-rim jars that are also typical for Iron I. We may conclude that the building - and the whole massive project - originated at a time when Iron I still had a significant period ahead of it. In that case, the construction probably preceded David (who is generally dated to ca. 1000 BC), for in strata throughout the country, according to Faust, the emergence of the Israelite monarchy is associated with the pottery of Iron IIA (1000-900 BC), never Iron I.

We shall see that archaeologist Jane Cahill, who is responsible for presenting the finds from the major dig that took place here in the 1980s, dates the SSS to around 1200 BC, the start of Iron I. The LSS was likely the Fortress of Zion in which the Jebusites took pride (2 Samuel 5: 6-7 ). To be sure, on assuming power in Jerusalem, David could have adopted/adapted the LSS as his palace. Or it could have functioned, in whole or in part, as the city's first "House of Yahweh" (2 Samuel 12: 20; cf. 2 Sam. 22: 7).

It may be the case that the LSS continued in use only until about 900 BC. Although its high, flat area should have been prime real estate even after the city expanded northward (people were then building on the slopes, after all!), hardly any remains were found that could be dated to the rest of the Iron Age, to the Persian period or to the Hellenistic period. The next clear architectural features here come from Herod's time. The missing periods may be explained, however, if we take into account the fact that the Romans tended to clear a space entirely before building on it. 

At the eastern foot of the hill, an earlier archaeologist, Kathleen Kenyon, found a huge voluted capital (now displayed in the Israel Museum), similar to capitals from Israelite royal structures in Samaria, Megiddo and Hazor. The latter are dated, however to a century after David - a time for which, as said, very little was found in the area where the LSS had been.

The Stepped Stone Structure

We walk east and behold the steep drop to the Kidron Valley. Across from us rises the southern extension of the Mount of Olives.

This southern part of Olivet is called the Hill of Offense, because of a legend that upon it King Solomon erected altars to the gods of his thousand pagan wives. On its steep slope today is the Arab village of Silwan, whose houses seem stacked on one another. The impression is perhaps like the one that Jerusalem offered  3000 years ago, when the houses hung thus on the slopes. In the time of the First Temple, the hill where Silwan is today was honeycombed with cave-tombs hewn into the rock. Most of them are now hidden by the houses. To judge from the workmanship, these were the tombs of the upper classes. The people of ancient Jerusalem lived facing their eminent dead.

We can spot the location of the Gihon Spring at the bottom of the hill we are on. We can see that the inhabitants would have had a problem reaching it in times of siege. An enemy could stand on the other side of the narrow valley, where Silwan is today, and shoot arrows or hurl spears at anyone fetching water. We shall see how the early Jerusalemites solved this problem.

Descending a staircase to what is called Area G, we turn and examine again the massive, curved Stepped Stone Structure. It continues far beneath the viewing platform. No one has been able to determine how deep it goes (or how wide it is), for much is still covered by debris from the destruction of 586 BC. Some 58 courses of masonry have been exposed, overcoming a difference in height of 17 meters, but Kathleen Kenyon, in the 1960's, unearthed what may be part of it much further down. If so, the difference in height would amount to at least 30 meters. (Indeed, 37.5 meters would have brought it up against the city wall, which would have supported it.) The probable function of the SSS was to reinforce the bedrock (which is cracked by karstic fissures), on which stood the fortress (the LSS). Where we stand the SSS is close to the bedrock that it strengthens, but below, out of our sight line, Kenyon made a probe to determine its thickness. After penetrating horizontally for eleven courses of stones, she feared a collapse and stopped.

The SSS consists of a substructure and a superstructure linked by a rubble core. The substructure, writes Cahill, "is composed of a series of interlocking terraces formed by north-south spine walls and closely spaced east-west rib walls," creating interlocking compartments. These were "capped by a rubble core that keyed them to a superstructural mantle."  This is the mantle of which we see a part, albeit interrupted by later buildings. "The stepped mantle capped and sealed the rubble core, which in turn capped and sealed the soil- and stone-filled terraces." I should mention that archaeologist Yigal Shiloh, under whom Cahill worked in the 1980's, dated the mantle to the 10th century BC but the terraces beneath it to the 14th or 13th.


Shiloh probed into the SSS at two places. Cahill interprets the findings as evidence that the substructure, core, and mantle were built as a single unit. Shiloh also found evidence for the date of the construction. This consists of some 500 sherds from the fills of the substructures and the rubble core; the vast majority, says Cahill (here in agreement with Shiloh), are typical for the Late Bronze Age II  (1400 - 1200 BC), and none are later than early Iron I, about 1200 BC, so the SSS was likely constructed not long after 1200. She reports that Shiloh found sherds from the 10th century only on top of the completed mantle. The dating of the SSS to around 1200 fits what we have seen concerning the date of the LSS, which was built, we recall, together with the SSS as a single, massive project.

Here we find ourselves within the current debate, which to many will seem abstruse. In brief: Taking a different view, Eilat Mazar "tries to push the date of the LSS to the late Iron Age" (Faust, op. cit., pp. 124-25) and on this basis, she claims that the Shiloh/Cahill dating of the SSS pottery is too early. She claims that the whole structure was built during the years of transition from Iron I (1200-1000 BC) to Iron IIA (1000-900 BC), and she puts the reign of David in that transition. Elsewhere, however, she places David solidly within Iron IIA, as do most scholars.

We may note, though, that a construction date in the first half of the 12th century makes good historical sense. It coincides with the period of the great upheaval in the eastern Mediterranean and with Egypt's consequent withdrawal from the country (ca. 1150 BC). The massive defensive project of the SSS-LSS may reflect the loss of Egypt's protection at a time when hundreds of new settlements were springing up nearby in the central mountain range. The project may explain why Jerusalem was not destroyed in the great upheaval, as were Megiddo, Hazor, and almost every other major city in the Levant. 
At some stage (we shall discuss the date soon), people cut into the SSS to build houses. Standing on the tourist path, looking west, we can see the remains. To the left are two squared monolithic pillars (numbered "2" in the photo above). They belonged to the west side of a house about 8 meters deep and 12 wide, which probably had a second story. (The archaeologists pulled down the remains of the east side in order to explore the continuation of the SSS.) This house, Shiloh noted, was better built, its ashlars more finely chiseled, than the houses he found in a residential area to the south. Inside was an inscribed stone weighing the equivalent of exactly 2500 shekels by the Phoenician standard (i.e., 18.971 kg.) - evidence that very large items were weighed here. (Dozens of weights were found in the next house to the south.) Just south of the pillars is part of a staircase that probably led up to the next terrace, which has since disappeared. Just north of the pillars the diggers found the remains of three service rooms, one containing 37 storage jars from the 7th century BC, the time of Jeremiah. Another small room in the house had a stone toilet (one of five found in the city of this time), still visible, which is shaped for sitting. There is a hole in its center, and beneath it is a pit about eight feet deep. (Investigation of the ancient excrement revealed that the inhabitants had worms.) Inscribed potsherds (ostraca) were also discovered in the house, written in a Hebrew script typical for Jeremiah's time. One contains the name "Ahiel," which modern scholars have used to designate this villa.

Shiloh made a thorough exploration of this house and the one to its north (the "burnt room," discussed below). The dating is important, because the inhabitants would not have risked cutting into and possibly harming the SSS if it had still had its original function, namely to shore up the bedrock supporting the city's fortress (the Large Stone Structure or LSS). By the time this residential quarter was built, in other words, the fortress had probably become irrelevant - i.e., the city had expanded northward. Using the Bible and geographical logic, one would think that the expansion occurred when Solomon built his palace and temple, because the only viable place for such big buildings would have been in the area of today's Dome of the Rock. Excavation is not permitted there, but thorough excavations have occurred in the area between the City of David and the al-Aqsa Mosque. (This area is today called by the biblical term "the Ophel" - a modern mistake so deeply embedded that I shall perpetuate it here; Norma Franklin has made a persuasive case that the biblical term Ophel signified the SSS.) Now here's the rub: hardly any pottery preceding the 8th century BC has been found in the Ophel. This fact might lead us to think that the city did not expand northward until then (and that the writer of Kings, working in the 7th century BC, misattributed to wise and wealthy Solomon the 8th-century structures he saw on the peak). On the other hand, as Cahill likes to point out, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. By dating the houses in the SSS, we can get at least circumstantial evidence as to when the city's northward expansion occurred. I quote from an abbreviated version of Cahill's article, dating the houses in the SSS to the 10th century BC:

Each of these houses exhibited more than one phase of occupation, shown by multiple floors laid one atop another. The earliest in both cases was the floor of Stratum 14—from the time of the United Monarchy. The pottery assemblage from the Stratum 14 floor cleared in the Burnt Room House includes an imported Cypro-Phoenician bichrome flask that clearly dates to the earliest phase of Iron Age II [Iron Age A, 1000 - 900 BC - SL]. In addition, there was a substantial amount of local pottery traditionally dated to the tenth century B.C.E. (Although Israel Finkelstein, arguing for a minimalist position, might date this pottery to the ninth century B.C.E., the assemblage is closely comparable to the pottery assemblage from Stratum 12 at Arad, which all scholars—including Israel Finkelstein—agree dates to the tenth century B.C.E.)
We recall that the Large Stone Structure appears to have been defunct by 900 BC. Thus we have indirect evidence for a 10th century expansion of the city to the north.

About 5 yards north of Ahiel's house, there is part of a second staircase adjoining the wall of another structure. Archaeologists call this "the burnt room," for they found many lumps of carbonized wood in it. These included finely worked pieces of boxwood (not native) with motifs such as the palmette, also known from the ivories of this time. Mixed among the pottery sherds were arrowheads of bronze and iron. The impression is one of battle and fire, and to this we can relate the destruction by the Babylonians in 586 BC, as told in 2 Kings 25:8-9:

Now in the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month, which was the nineteenth year of king Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, came Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard, a servant of the king of Babylon, to Jerusalem.  He burnt the house of Yahweh, and the king’s house; and all the houses of Jerusalem, even every great house, burnt he with fire.

East of Ahiel's, beneath the path we stand on, the diggers discovered another burnt house with arrowheads from that day… and more: 49 bullae, i.e., clay seals from the letters received by the person who lived in this dwelling. The fire had burned the letters and baked the seals. 45 of the 49 consist of names without images, often including a variant on the name Yahweh - e.g., Gemar-yahu son of Shaphan, mentioned in Jeremiah 36: 1-12. In their avoidance of images they resemble 211 bullae and seals that were bought from antiquities shops (including some fakes, no doubt) by various people in the mid-1970's. These were published by Nahum Avigad, who dated them on paleographic and onomastic grounds to ca. 600 BC. Taking the two collections together, 89% consist of writing only. (Of the rest, some are heirlooms and others do not go beyond figures of plants.) This fact is important because it demonstrates the historicity of King Josiah's reform (621 BC), which banned graven images. in accordance with the part of Deuteronomy discovered in his day. The ban stands in stark contrast with the continued use of images in neighboring lands. But not only that. It also contrasts with the situation in Judah and Jerusalem before Josiah, when images abounded. They appeared not only on seals and bullae: excavation has brought forth, from almost every pre-Josianic house in Jerusalem and Judah, a small, rather standardized statue of a fertility goddess, whose function no doubt was to help with childbirth, and who may have been modelled on a statue of Ashera in the temple (Keel ). 

Forty-eight years after the Babylonian destruction, the edict of Cyrus allowed the exiles to return and rebuild the Temple. Under Nehemiah (5th century BC), the city wall too was rebuilt, although it enclosed a much smaller area than before the Babylonian destruction. Shiloh found no trace of Nehemiah's wall (against an earlier interpretation by Kenyon), but he did find many sherds from the Persian period, including 23 jar handles stamped with a striding lion that may perhaps be attributed to Nehemiah. According to both Kenyon and Shiloh, it was the Hasmoneans, three centuries after Nehemiah, who built the wall to which belongs a tower that adjoins the upper part of the SSS. Most Jerusalemites at the time of the Hasmoneans lived on the larger hill to the west; there was no longer a need to build houses on the steep slope, so the wall could run this high up, near the spine of the hill. Nehemiah's famous wall, built in 72 days, may lie beneath the Hasmonean wall (# 5 in the photo on the right, which you can click to enlarge).

We shall now head downhill to see how the people of the first Jerusalem defended their water supply