Persia Enabled Jerusalem to Rise Anew and Now Archaeologists Have Found Clues

Two ancient seals, one of which may show a Babylonian god, and fish bones may show Jerusalem struggling to its feet after the destruction by a peeved Nebuchadnezzar

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Yiftach Shalev with the two artifacts indicating the restoration of status to Jerusalem after the Babylonian destruction
Yiftach Shalev with the two artifacts indicating the restoration of status to Jerusalem after the Babylonian destructionCredit: Shai Halevy, Israel Antiquities Authority
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

An unusually large seal and an equally outsized impression of a seal are the first solid evidence of Jerusalem’s reconstruction after it was razed by Babylonian forces about 2,600 years ago. Since both artifacts were found in a burned-down house to which people had returned after the city’s destruction, they may indicate the restoration of administration in the shattered city, archaeologists say.

Jerusalem had survived as the capital of the Kingdom of Judah for around 400 years, even weathering the onslaught of Assyrian forces in the 8th century B.C.E., apparently because Judah’s King Hezekiah bribed the Assyrian monarch Sennecherib to spare the city. With the subsequent ascendancy of Babylon, Jerusalem was captured again in about 597 B.C.E., and the Babylonians placed a vassal king, Zedekiah, on the throne.

But Zedekiah waxed arrogant and rebelled – and the Babylonian retaliation was brutal. After reconquering the city and reportedly punishing the insubordinate Zedekiah by slaughtering his descendants and putting out his eyes, the Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar took the Judahite elites captive and burned Jerusalem and its temple to the ground in about 586 B.C.E. The turmoil did not cease there and, probably in terror of more demonstrations of Babylonian wrath, the remaining residents fled.

But then the Persians arose and swept over the region, and at some point the Great King Cyrus let the Jews go home and rebuild their temple. So goes the story.

Latter-day archaeologists have found evidence of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem including charred residences beyond its ancient walls, which among other things indicated that sixth-century B.C.E. Jerusalem had extended beyond the fortifications. But even though Jerusalem has been under intense archaeological investigation for about 150 years, precious little evidence of the “Return to Zion” and the city’s fabled reconstruction in the Persian era has ever been found.

Now two small artifacts – one a Babylonian-type bulla (seal impression) and one a locally made seal – are believed to be exactly that: evidence of the city rising anew from its ruins in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, whose biblical books describe Cyrus’ favor and the return to Israel.

The City of David archaeological site found underneath the Givati parking lot, Jerusalem
The City of David archaeological site found underneath the Givati parking lot, JerusalemCredit: Israel Antiquities Authority

The patron gods of Babylon in Jerusalem

“Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, The Lord God of heaven hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth; and he hath charged me to build him an house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Any of his people among you may go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord” – Ezra 1:2-3.

The two artifacts were found in situ, undisturbed for some 2,600 years, within the char-marked ruins of a building from the time of the Babylonian destruction, located in the City of David site formerly known as the Givati parking lot, south of the Temple Mount. The probability that they date to the Persian period is high, the archaeologists say.

Seals were used for thousands of years to mark and literally seal documents or containers, from letters to pottery vessels containing wine or agricultural produce collected as tax, for instance. Their purpose was to show the recipient that the document or jar had remained sealed en route to their destination.

Actually both the seal and the bulla now reported were rather unusual from other perspectives as well, beyond their chronological time of origin.

The seal impression was discovered on a clay fragment measuring about 4.5 centimeters in length, not a document but likely a jar. Most bullas are about a centimeter long, the archaeologists say. The imprint shows a seated person with one or possibly two columns in front of him.

Seal impression showing seated figure, possibly a king, and what may be divine steles
Seal impression showing seated figure, possibly a king, and what may be divine stelesCredit: Eliyahu Yanai, City of David Archives

Yiftach Shalev of the Israel Antiquities Authority points out that thousands of years after the event, the image is somewhat hard to make out. In any case the design looks Babylonian and the character, the archaeologists postulate, is probably a king. The columns may symbolize steles of the patron gods of Babylon, Nabu and Marduk. What specific areas these gods were lords of has been lost in time and theories differ.

Not many seals or seal impressions originating with the Babylonian overlords (either brought by the warriors, Babylonian administrators or by returning Jews) in the Iron Age have been found anywhere in Israel – perhaps about 10, according to the archaeologists.

As for the seal, it was unusual in being a repurposed bit of clay. Shalev acknowledges that he isn’t aware of other examples of such secondary use of broken pottery. This seal has a circular frame engraved on its outer side, and is divided into two sections containing several linear inscriptions; it is not even clear whether it bears writing, however. This one is also a monster, eight centimeters in diameter; it’s possible it was used to mark large vessels.

It bears adding that quite a number of seals and seal impressions have been found in Jerusalem and the City of David since the 1970s, not least ones possibly belonging to King Hezekiah himself and the prophet Isaiah. Another bulla found in the context of residences from the First Temple period bore the name of Gemaryahu Ben Shafan, an aide to King Yehoyakim in the time of Jeremiah.

Apropos the Prophet Jeremiah, two other seal impressions also found in the City of David over a decade ago prove the existence, if not the mind-set, of two ministers to King Zedekiah: Yehukual ben Shelemyahu (Jehucal) and Gedalyahu ben Pashur. The Book of Jeremiah claims they wanted the prophet dead for supporting the sinful city’s surrender to foreign armies – the sin being, yet again, adoring strange and “useless” gods. The ministers’ seal impressions were the usual roughly one-centimeter size, by the way.

Seal of repurposed pottery fragment from the Persian period
Seal of repurposed pottery fragment from the Persian periodCredit: Shai Halevy, Israel Antiquities Authority

How significant are the new discoveries, given the remarkable nature of previous seal finds, with their support for at least certain biblical narratives?

“The remarkable thing is the context of their discovery,” Shalev explains. “The Persian period remains mysterious, a black hole in the archaeological record. Excavations in the eastern City of David found a lot of small things – pottery, seals, coins [from the First Temple period] but nothing connected with the reconstruction of Jerusalem during the Persian period aside from two small walls found by Prof. Yigal Shilo.”

The Givati diggers had previously, as said, uncovered a building from the Babylonian destruction, Shalev continues. “Now we find that come the Persian period, people had returned and were living among the ruins including in that building. The seal and bulla attest to the restoration of administration: They are the first testimony that Jerusalem was getting back to its feet.”

Driving home the point, Shalev stresses that the two artifacts weren’t found in the trash meticulously explored by archaeologists in other excavations.

Other finds in the City of David area from this Iron Age period include a figurine of the Egyptian god Bes – a unique find, dating to about 2,500 years ago. Another find, Shalev adds, is a number of fish bones. Since Jerusalem is inland and has no immediate source of fish, that means trading had resumed. The fact that people were dining on fish also indicates that as Jerusalem struggled to rebuild, it may have started small and weak, but administration was happening and it was regaining its status as a city.