The 1% of Second Temple-era Jerusalem Were Buried as Extravagantly as They Lived

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Remains of a Jewish village from the Second Temple Period, found in Sharafat, Jerusalem, March 2019.
Remains of a Jewish village from the Second Temple Period, found in Sharafat, Jerusalem, March 2019.Credit: Israel Antiquities Authority
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

During the Second Temple period, a prosperous Jewish village sprang up, sprawling down the slope of a hill in Jerusalem something over 2,000 years ago. Perhaps comparable to today’s suburbs where the rich and famous deliberately distance themselves from the hoi polloi thronging the city centers, this village is what is now the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sharafat, 5 or 6 kilometers (3 to 4 miles) from Temple Mount as the ancient sacrificial dove would fly. 

The excavation of the site is still in its early stages, but the archaeologists have found categorical signs that the village was populated by Jews. They have found two ritual baths, one of which is enormous and the other typical of the time, and part of a stone vessel characteristic of early Jewish adherence to kashrut, Jewish dietary laws. The stone remnant looks rather like the lid of a sugar bowl, says Yaakov Billig, of the Israel Antiquities Authority, who is the director of the excavation.

According to Jewish dietary guidelines, if pottery is contaminated by non-kosher food, it cannot be cleaned and must be thrown away. Stone vessels, on the other hand, by definition, cannot be contaminated. “You could store anything in stone vessels: wine, oil, cornflakes, wheat, whatever,” Billig says. Such stone vessels have been found in huge numbers in ancient Jewish settlements, and are especially common in the vicinity of Temple Mount, he adds.

Remains of a Jewish village from the Second Temple Period, found in Sharafat, Jerusalem, March 2019.Credit: Israel Antiquities Authority

The archaeologists also found a burial complex at Sharafat that is carved out of the bedrock and which is also typical of ancient Jewish interment practice. It’s a relatively impressive structure that is also of impressive dimensions. The scientists can’t explore the tomb or others in the ancient village because of potential conflict with the ultra-Orthodox community, which opposes any possible desecration of Jewish dead. 

Today the village ruins are in a busy part of Jerusalem, lying between the Pat junction, Gilo and Beit Safafa. The excavation is a salvage dig that the antiquities authority is conducting in advance of the construction of a new elementary school in the area. 

Although it is still early in the dig, some things about the village’s character are clearly taking shape. It was affluent, for example. “We know that because of the impressive size of their facilities. They are much larger than in other comparable villages of the Hasmonean period,” Billig told Haaretz. Also, he adds, they clearly had at least two mikvehs, Jewish ritual baths.

The center of the village may have been on top of the hill. Only further exploration can tell. The section being explored now is on the north face of the slope, and Billig believes it was the northernmost edge of the settlement, based on a number of indicators. One is the giant columbarium, a Latin term that can mean dovecote, a nesting place for pigeons.

Have a pigeon 

No texts are known to exist about the daily routine of Hasmonian-period Jewish residents of villages around Jerusalem, Billig says. All of the prevailing assumptions have been inferred from the remains that have been found. In the case of the birds, archaeologists have found a huge dovecote. They haven’t counted the compartments that have survived, but it clearly could have housed at least hundreds of birds at a time, Billig says. “The rock it was carved out of crumbles very easily,” he adds. Much of the dovecote has already disintegrated.

Presumably to protect the delicate birds from predators, from the weather and possibly from Hasmonean-era thieves, the columbarium was built inside a vast cave. At some point, about three-quarters of the space inside the cave was converted into a water cistern with plastered walls. Perhaps the remaining space continued to serve the birds, but that isn’t clear. It may have been used for something else, Billig acknowledges over the phone.

Remains of a Jewish village from the Second Temple Period, found in Sharafat, Jerusalem, March 2019.Credit: Israel Antiquities Authority

As for what they did with their doves, we know that they were the Temple sacrifice of choice for women in labor, lepers, various sinners and the poor, Billig explains. “If they had money, they would bring a cow. If they had less money, they would bring a sheep or goat, and if they had even less money — they would bring a dove. But people didn’t raise pigeons just for sacrifice. It was their poultry,” he stresses.

Asked if they had chickens too, he says they did. But a few square meters of space could only accommodate a few chickens, while a multi-layered columbarium of birds could nest side by side and one floor above another. “They didn’t have industrial chicken coops like today. They had industrial dovecotes,” Billig says. 

Meeting one’s maker in style

And when the residents of this village died, they were buried in the typical fashion of the day, by the standards of the rich. One of the clearest signs of prosperity was the burial complex. The burial cave was one of the monumental structures the archaeologists have begun to uncover. “It was huge. Somebody invested in the quality of their next life. It was a dramatic improvement in the quality of life for the dead,” Billig quips.

It was probably a family burial estate used over several generations, for 100 years or even a little more. “Due to the sensitivities, we didn’t dig inside, and in any event, it had been robbed. What we did see was broken vessels, not whole burial boxes. Robbers took everything worth anything. Also, the ceiling had been broken from later quarrying, and loose rock had built up inside,” he says. 

However, the general plan of the burial estate can be made out, and it was very elaborate, which was very rare for the time even in the great city of Jerusalem. A sloping corridor with a roof leads to a large courtyard carved into the chalky bedrock. In the dirt of the courtyard, the archaeologists have found large building stones, some of which were shaped and decorated in the architectural fashion of the Second Temple period.

Remains of a Jewish village from the Second Temple Period, found in Sharafat, Jerusalem, March 2019.Credit: Israel Antiquities Authority

Benches were carved into the rock along at least some of the courtyard walls, where people could sit for the burial ceremonies or memorials, Billig explains. A vaulted hall leads from there to multiple chambers, each with oblong burial niches chiseled into the walls. “In fact this may have had multiple stories [floors],” Billig says. “It was very elaborate, reminiscent of the finest burial caves in Sanhedria,” He said. “This wasn’t for the burial of the top 10%, but the top 1%. They apparently had status, they had money and they invested.”

While still alive, the villagers are understood to have engaged in agriculture, and seemed to have done did very well by it. “I exposed the margins of the site, apparently not the section with houses,” he tells Haaretz. “In the margins, they would engage in occupations suitable for the margins. Burial would be outside the city center and so would their agricultural facilities.”

If you drop an item

Among the discoveries were a large wine press containing numerous fragments of ceramic storage jars and an olive press to make oil. (That’s a practice going back at least 8,000 years. Oil dating back that far back was found at another salvage dig, when a road was widened at Ein Zippori).

Olive oil and wine have been exported from the region for millennia.

“I surmise that the population based itself on agriculture, but did very well by that,” Billig sums it up. He points out that agricultural settlements today can also make do very nicely with techniques going back millennia.

It also makes sense that they would build their huge columbarium outside of town because, let’s face it, it smells and some people also find pigeons to be a nuisance, he explains.

Other signs of affluence are the quality and size of the architecture, including the Doric-style capital, or top, of a heart-shaped pillar. “It is a beautiful capital and has two directions, too, the only one like that ever found,” Billig exclaims. “It is a sign that there had been a very grand public structure or courtyard there.” The archaeologists also found colorful mosaic flooring, not the tiling of the poor masses. 

Remains of a Jewish village from the Second Temple Period, found in Sharafat, Jerusalem, March 2019.Credit: Israel Antiquities Authority

As for the mikveh, that too was quite monumental, four times the size of the average ritual bath of the period, he says. At a later period, it was used for some other purpose and was plastered, to serve as a pool or reservoir or perhaps something else.

A trough was placed in its middle, though one can’t say what purpose it served back then, providing water for animals, for doing laundry, to wash one’s face. No one knows.

The village had featured a second, smaller mikveh nearby, which is still in ruins, but it too had an interesting feature. It had two openings, but not for separating men and women, as can be seen at the access routes to the Western Wall today, says Billig. Probably it was to separate people coming to the mikveh from the purified people leaving it.

According to halakha, Jewish religious law, he explains, if an object is found on the steps of the mikveh, it’s not possible to know if it is pure or not unless one knows whether it was dropped before or after its owner used the ritual bath. Two entrances, or a divider, solves the problem with respect to people dropping things there. So maybe that is why the second mikveh in this Jewish village in Jerusalem had separate points for access and egress.

Remains of a Jewish village from the Second Temple Period, found in Sharafat, Jerusalem, March 2019.Credit: Israel Antiquities Authority

Billig was asked whether it might be likely that the village dated back earlier than the Hasmonean period, given that Jerusalem has been populated for at least some 9,000 years. They did find a few pottery shards that dated to the First Temple period. “But they were isolated bits. It doesn’t necessarily attest that anybody lived there. Maybe somebody dropped a jar,” Billig says.

The great preponderance of finds was from the Second Temple period. Non-Jews may have also lived there at the time, and the village would not have remained mainly Jewish indefinitely in any event. That phase apparently ended following the struggle with the Romans, possibly after the abortive Bar Kokhba revolt, which resulted in a ban on Jews in Jerusalem in 132 C.E.

Who lived in the village afterwards, if anybody, is not clear. “We have almost no later items in our dig — a Byzantine coin, some Byzantine pottery but we haven’t found signs of people living there,” Billig says, though it bears noting that the dig has a long way to go. Moreover, the stone bricks used to build this rich village had long since been torn out and “recycled.”

“It’s cheaper and easier to take existing bricks from ruined buildings,” Billig points out. Yet more damage was done by quarrying over the centuries before and after. That includes work carried out higher up the hill than the excavation, filling the ancient site with rocks and dirt, and then there were the antiquities robbers. But perhaps they missed some stuff after all, and as the exploration continues up the hill, finds from other periods may still be found.

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