Two or three rows of stones stretching across 30 meters. That is what remains of what is believed to be King David's palace, or at least the palace of a senior district governor that served the king some 3,000 years ago, according to scholars from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Israel Antiquities Authority.
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These vestiges have been excavated in recent weeks at Khirbet Qeiyafa on the Judean foothills, not far from Beit Shemesh, and they are expected to rekindle the stormy debate about the existence of the Kingdom of David. In the meantime, some archaeologists are fighting to prevent a new neighborhood from being built on this hill, which they claim constitutes proof of the biblical account.
This is not the first time that the excavators at Khirbet Qeiyafa, Prof. Yosef Garfinkel of the Hebrew University and Saar Ganor of the Antiquities Authority, make waves in the Israeli archaeological community. In recent years the two claimed that their findings from the biblical site poke holes the minimalist approach to Israeli archaeology. This approach, which is identified with several leading scholars from Tel Aviv University, asserts that archaeological research disproves what is written in the Bible, and that the Bible cannot be used as a reliable historical source.
The debate centers mainly on the question of the existence and the power of the United Monarchy – the joint kingdom of David and Solomon in the 10th century BCE. The minimalists claim that there was no such kingdom, and if it did exist it was limited to Jerusalem. Jerusalem itself, they claim, was no bigger than an average village. The opposing camp, comprised of archaeologists who propone the maximalists or the biblical approach, claims that the Bible faithfully reflects the situation in the region during that period, with emphasis on the existence of a strong and significant kingdom with Jerusalem as its capital.
This debate, which has occupied Israeli archaeologists for decades, occasionally finds itself another arena for the battle. In the past, the scholars have argued over the city gates at Hatzor, Megiddo and Gezer, and later the findings in the City of David in Jerusalem. In recent years, Khirbet Qeiyafa, a fairly low hill south of Ramat Beit Shemesh, has become the focus of the debate.
On Thursday, Garfinkel and Ganor completed the excavation at Qeiyafa after seven years. Their findings attest to the fact that this was an important district capital that was subordinate to Jerusalem and ruled its surroundings, and that the culture was Judahite-Israelite rather than Canaanite or Philistine. They suggest that Qeifaya be identified with the city of Sha'arayim that is mentioned in the Bible. "And the wounded of the Philistines fell along the road to Sha'arayim," relates the book of 1 Samuel, describing the pursuit of the Philistine army immediately after David's glorious victory over Goliath. According to Garfinkel and Ganor, Qeiyafa discredits the minimalist approach and proves the existence of the United Monarchy.
Garfinkel and Ganor raise several arguments. First pertains to Qeiyafa's location, opposite Philistia, on a hill that controls its surrounding and the major road that crosses the Elah Valley. Garfinkel believes that the Kingdom of David was a medium-sized principality rather than a regional power, but also far from the insulting minimalist description as a village. He believes that this kingdom had three centers: Jerusalem, Hebron and Qeiyafa, each a day's walk from the other. A few years ago he and Ganor walked from the City of David in Jerusalem to Qeiyafa in order to prove this claim.
Second, they point to the fact that no pig bones or statuettes of goddesses were found at the site. "It's clear than neither the diet nor the ritual here were Canaanite. The entire material culture here is Judahite," says Garfinkel. An ancient inscription found at the site is written in proto-Canaanite script, one of the predecessors of Hebrew script, and therefore strengthens their claim that the ethnic identity of the site was Judahite. The power of the kingdom is indicated by ceramic artifacts originating in Cyprus and Egypt, which are evidence of international commerce. All that has led the archaeologists to conclude that Qeiyafa was a district capital in the Kingdom of David.
The newest discovery, which was excavated in recent weeks, consists of remnants of the low wall at the top of the hill. It is 30 meters in length, and is unusually thick and strong. The two men estimate that this is the last vestige of a luxurious public building that was about 1,000 square meters in size, far larger than the private homes. Judging by the thickness of the wall, the palace was at least two stories high, if not more, the archaeologists say.
"There is no question that the ruler of the city sat here, and when King David came to visit the hills he slept here," says Garfinkel. They also excavated the remains of another structure that they identify as a storage building, which they say is evidence of regional tax collection.
Unfortunately, most of the palace was destroyed 1,400 years after it was built, and replaced by a large Byzantine building.
The meager traces leave fertile ground for a continued debate among the archaeologists. Garfinkel's minimalist opponents raise questions about the dating of the palace and its importance, as well as about its links to the kingdom in Jerusalem and to King David.
First, claim the critics, the ethnic identity of the inhabitants of the site has not been proven. Some, like Prof. Shlomo Bonimovitz and Dr. Zvi Lederman of Tel Aviv University, claim that these are the remnants of a small Canaanite kingdom that existed in the Judean foothills between the Kingdom of Judah and the Philistines. Even if it is Jewish, it is possible that this was a settlement that was actually connected to an Israelite kingdom that was located father north, in the Ramallah region, and predated the Kingdom of David. The critics also want to see evidence of the dating of the large stone wall, since only few vestiges of it remain.
But the main argument against many of the biblical archaeologists is that they are biased by the biblical text – a text that was written hundreds of years after the events, and by a writer with a clear political and religious agenda.
"I haven't been at the site during the past season," says Finkelstein, "so I can't judge the nature and date of the structure. There's no question that this is an interesting and important site. The excavators attribute it to Judah. Alexander Fantalkin and I suggested that it should be seen as a border fortress of an Israelite unit whose center was on a mountain north of Jerusalem. In any case, I would be careful about uncritical links to biblical traditions that were written down hundreds of years after the site was abandoned."
Prof. Aren Maeir of Bar Ilan University is digging not far from Qeiyafa on Tel Zafit, which during that period was the Philistine city of Gath – a city far richer and larger than Qeiyafa. He agrees that it is a Judahite site, "that's the simplest and most logical explanation. But does that mean that we can raise arguments about the kingdom of David and Solomon? That seems to me a grandiose upgrade," says Meir. He believes that this is an attempt by "an ancient Judahite entity" to draw a border for itself vis-a-vis the Philistine city of Gath. "The destruction of the site demonstrates that this experiment didn't last for long, and how does that accord with the biblical explanation of the victory of the United Monarchy?"