The recently ended season of excavations at the top of the City of David slope was accompanied by much excitement. With every passing day, more and more parts of an enormous building were unearthed. Dr. Eilat Mazar, the archaeologist in charge of the site, believes this could be the palace King David built after conquering Jerusalem from the Jebusites. The discovery has stirred up the old argument among archaeologists as to whether the events described in the Bible in fact occurred, and in this context, the importance and greatness of David himself.

In this case, the disagreement is more than an academic question: It touches on the roots of the connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel, and particularly Jerusalem, and could serve as ammunition in any argument over the future of the city. What's more, the excavation was conducted by the Shalem Center, with the academic auspices of Hebrew University, and in collaboration with Elad, the non-profit association that owns the land on which the City of David visitors' center is built.

The excavation took place in a rectangular strip 10 meters wide by 30 meters long, and the structure that has been unearthed occupies the entire site, even extending beyond its boundaries. It is constructed from immense stones that served as the foundation of a palace. The stones were placed on an earthen landfill in which hundreds of broken pieces of pottery were found, mainly of cooking pots. Mazar, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center and a researcher at Hebrew University, states that the pottery can be dated to the 12th and 11th centuries BCE, in other words, to the Jebusite period, which immediately predates David's reign.

The large structure might be a palace, temple or fortress, says Mazar. Analysis of the finds in her possession has led her to conclude that it is a palace. "For years, there have been those who contended there was no evidence of public construction in 10th century BCE Jerusalem," says Mazar. "Based on this, they claim that David and Solomon were not important rulers, as described in the Bible. Now there is evidence of such construction, and those who minimize the importance of David and Solomon have to deal with the facts. Because in an out-of-the-way and remote settlement you would not find a structure like this, the construction of which required abundant resources and a great capacity to plan and execute."

Professor Hani Nur el-Din, a Palestinian archaeologist at Al-Quds University, recently told the New York Times that he and his colleagues considered biblical archaeology to be an effort by Israelis "to fit historical evidence into a biblical context." "The link between the historical evidence and the biblical narration, written much later, is largely missing. There's a kind of fiction about the 10th century. They try to link whatever they find to the biblical narration. They have a button, and they want to make a suit out of it," he says.

Nor does Professor Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University's Department of Archaeology, a leader of the band of Israeli archaeologists who doubt David's greatness, share Mazar's exuberance, which he terms a messianic outburst. "Once every few years, they find something in Jerusalem that seems to confirm the biblical description of the magnitude of the kingdom in the time of David. After a while, it turns out that there is no real substance to the findings, and the excitement subsides, until the next outburst," he says.

A structure of such impressive dimensions, says Mazar, could be a fortress, palace or temple. The excavation site has not turned up evidence of ritual practices, and the well-known tradition attributes sanctity to nearby Mount Moriah, not here. Therefore the possibility that the structure was a temple seems faint. "According to the Bible [II Samuel, Chapter 5], David conquered a fortress and then built a palace outside the boundaries of the Jebusite city," says Mazar. In other words, the palace was not built atop the ruins of another structure, but was the first building erected on its site. "Throughout the entire excavation site, there is no sign of a wall built before the 10th century BCE," she says. "The construction that we found was a complicated and intricate engineering operation that required immense resources. This is the kind of step that one would expect of a new ruler who wants to turn the city he conquered into his permanent residence, and who has a exceptional vision of the future development of the city."

According to the Bible, David was assisted in constructing his palace by Hiram, King of Tyre, the contemporary Phoenician ruler. "The Phoenicians knew how to build," says Mazar. "In Jerusalem, too, they built the biggest buildings, such as Solomon's palace, the wall and the Temple. So it is very reasonable to believe that they are also responsible for the monumental construction we found."

The structure that has been unearthed is indeed monumental, concurs Dr. Gabi Barkai of Bar-Ilan University, a recipient of the Jerusalem Prize for Archaeology. It is built atop an 11th century BCE floor, and on top of it are destruction layers dated to the end of the First Temple period. Based on this data, it is very reasonable to assume that it is a structure from the 10th or 9th century BCE. "It is without doubt a public building. It matters little if it is a palace or a fortress. The fact is that a structure like this from this period has not been found in Jerusalem until now, so the findings are most certainly sensational," says Barkai.

Professor Seymour Gitin of the Albright Institute of Archaeology in Jerusalem has also been deeply impressed by the dimensions of the structure, but he has his doubts about the period in which it was built. "Based on the pottery, the structure was built after the 11th century BCE," says Gitin. "It may be that it was built in the 10th century, that is, in the period of David. But we have to approach this hypothesis with caution."

Dr. Mazar admits that based on the findings in her possession, it would be very difficult to determine when exactly the palace was built, in the 10th or the 9th century BCE, but regardless, the monumental construction significantly reinforces the view that Jerusalem of that time was the capital city of a kingdom, and not merely a small, unimportant settlement, as Finkelstein and his faction contend.

Professor Finkelstein has visited the City of David excavation, and says that he was impressed by two of the walls built of large stones, but that it is very difficult to date them precisely because of construction work in the area over the years. "One thing that can be said with certainty is that these walls were built before the Roman period [which begins in the late first century BCE]. Between that and the conclusion that these are the foundation walls of a palace from the period of King David is a pretty far stretch," adds Finkelstein.

Finkelstein says the latest of the many pottery shards found in the earthen fill on which the walls were built are circa the 9th century BCE or even later - and not the 12th or 11th centuries, as Mazar claims. He links the pottery to a structure that was discovered in Area G, not far from the site of Mazar's dig. This structure, which is called the Stepped Stone Structure, is a retaining wall that was built to prevent the collapse of the slope. Finkelstein says that pottery from the 9th century BCE, and maybe even from the 8th century BCE, was also found in the Stepped Stone Structure.

"Based on these findings, it may be possible to conclude that the walls in Mazar's excavation are from the 9th century or the early 8th century BCE," he says. "That is an important finding, because it describes an interim stage in the development of Jerusalem from a small and pretty meager village, as it was in the 10th century BCE, into an important, large and fortified provincial city. But it arrived at this status not in the 10th century BCE, but rather in the 8th century BCE, about 250 years after David's time."

Professor Amichai Mazar of the Hebrew University Institute of Archaeology is not convinced that the structure unearthed in the City of David is the king's palace, but he nevertheless feels that it can be linked to biblical descriptions. In his opinion, the Stepped Stone Structure is the retaining wall of a fortress that David conquered from the Jebusites. "If you view the Bible as the presentation of a certain reality, as I think, it seems reasonable to me that the structure that had now been found is the fortress David conquered."

Zedekiah's minister

Dr. Eilat Mazar's children made their own supper that evening. It was about two weeks before the end of the excavation season, and Mazar was heading home with a rare find that had been unearthed that day in one of the structure's rooms: a bulla, a round clay seal about one centimeter in diameter in which its owner's name was inscribed. "The light bulb next to my desk was not working, and I took a flashlight and began to work," she recalls. With the help of a needle and a magnifying glass, she cleaned the grains of dust from the bulla and gradually its inscription was revealed. Late that night she realized that the inscription - three lines in a Hebrew script characteristic of the late First Temple period - contained the name of Yehokal ben Shlamyahu ben Shavi, who is mentioned twice in the Book of Jeremiah.

When Mazar investigated further to see who the owner of the seal was, she let out a cry of surprise: Yehokal ben Shlamyahu was a senior minister in the government of Zedekiah. He is mentioned in Jeremiah 37:3 as one of two emissaries dispatched by King Zedekiah to Jeremiah, asking him to pray for the people during the siege of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon. Chapter 38 tells that Yehokal was one of four ministers who asked the king to kill Jeremiah, alleging that the prophet was sowing demoralization among the besieged people. (R.S.)