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

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?

After we issue forth from the Siloam Tunnel, our bus can receive us near the Pool of Siloam, but if we prefer, we can make the steep climb up the spine of the ancient city, or in the words of Psalm 24, we can "ascend the hill of Yahweh." (There is also a shuttle service after 11 a.m. to the top of the hill.) On scaling the edge, we stop for a look at the meeting of the valleys: the Kidron, the Tyropoeon and the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom, which join and cut from here through the wilderness to the Dead Sea.

Covering most of the Second Testament Pool of Siloam is a rich green area. We saw its edge at the pool, but now we see all. Here, probably, was the royal garden mentioned in Nehemiah 3:15, where Shelah is Siloam (shiloach in Hebrew):

Shallun the son of Colhozeh, the ruler of the district of Mizpah repaired the spring gate. He built it, and covered it, and set up its doors, its bolts, and its bars, and the wall of the pool of Shelah by the king’s garden, even to the stairs that go down from the city of David.

We would have liked Shallun's stairs on ascending a minute ago! Continuing upward, we soon find a wire gate on our right. We enter and head a bit further east until we see, to the northwest, the openings of two large rock-cut horizontal shafts (there is a third behind them). They may have once been even longer, but already in antiquity this area became the focus of intensive quarrying - perhaps for the stone to build the Byzantine Pool of Siloam and its church. The marks of quarrying suggest the original lengths.


Egyptologist Raymond Weill, who studied the shafts and the area around them in the early 20th century, proposed that here were the tombs of David and his royal successors. David, we know, "slept with his fathers and was buried in the city of David" (1 Kings 2:10). The same formula is repeated for Solomon, Rehoboam, Asa, Jehoshaphat, Ahaziah, Joash, Amaziah, Azariah (2 Kings 15:7, despite 2 Chronicles 26:3), Jotham, and Ahaz. Only to the kings does the Bible attribute burial within the city. (For the later tradition of David's Tomb on Mt. Zion, see here.)

Furthermore, the next verse in Nehemiah is this (3:16):

After him, Nehemiah the son of Azbuk, the ruler of half the district of Beth Zur, made repairs to the place opposite the tombs of David, and to the pool that was made, and to the house of the mighty men.

So the author and first audience of Nehemiah 3 understood the tombs to be not far from the steps going down, where we ascended. It seems we are in the area, which was that of Weill's investigation. In the early 20th century, furthermore, the hill was hardly inhabited; if there had been any other likely places into which so many kings could have been gathered, you would think he would have encountered them. On the other hand, we have no fancy sarcophagus or inscriptions from that time, so we cannot know.

Archaeologists respond to Weill's conviction about these shafts with a kind of pooh-poohing. Such a find, after all, would be too good to be true. But they possess no strong arguments contra. True, the tombs don't look like Judahite tombs we know, but the latter date from two hundred years later. True, a bit of the grayish cement that is typical of the Hasmoneans was found on a bit of the wall, along with a typical Hasmonean lamp-niche, but by that time the memory may have been lost and the tombs may have been re-used. True, there are signs of a synagogue in the vicinity, including a ritual bath and a long dedicatory inscription in Greek (found by Weill), so indeed the shafts could have served as basements to it, but that says nothing about their original use. True, the shafts seem rather simple for royalty, but simple likewise are other known royal tombs from the Middle Bronze and Late Bronze ages in the ancient Near East, as Jeffrey Zorn points out in an essay that is my source for much on this page.    

david-shaft-interior.jpgNow let us turn to the positive features (though many could be later modifications). The shaft on the west, which is currently the more impressive, is about 54 feet long, 8 wide, and 6 high. (To judge from the quarrying marks in front, both shafts were once much longer - you could call them tunnels.) At a certain phase people lowered the floor of the first 32 feet, increasing the height there to 12 feet. They then cut a doorway and steps to enable access to this lower portion. Long horizontal grooves on both sides, at the height of the original floor, may have served to insert a platform, so that the result was two floors. In the upper section, in the back, there is a rock-cut depression, 6 feet by 4, which could have held a sarcophagus or a body together with grave offerings. It is the shadowy area in the photo on the left; its long side stretches away from us. Weill found two low masonry walls with a blackish coating that turned the depression - he thinks at the time of the Second Temple - into a basin; he also dates the blackish covering on the ceiling to that time.

Heading north, east of the shafts, we continue our upward climb. Soon, on our right, we can see below us the ruins of a residential section protected by a stretch of the eastern city wall. The latter was built in part by reusing stones of the Cyclopean wall from a millennium earlier, the same one that Kenyon found below Warren's Shaft.



We continue to ply our way up the mountain toward the site of the ancient temple. If the going is hard, let us remember what we are ascending. There was a time when most Jerusalemites lived on this hill, which they would mount in procession toward the temple. We may imagine them singing, as they climbed, Psalm 24.