New Theory for Khirbet Qeiyafa: Not King David’s City but a Vast Cultic Compound

No consensus was ever reached about the fortified hilltop site of Qeiyafa in central Israel, but now we have a whole new theory for everybody to argue about

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The western gate at Khirbet Qeiyafa.
The western gate at Khirbet Qeiyafa.Credit: Yaels
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

A 3,000-year-old walled hilltop city in central Israel is the archaeological gift that keeps on giving. Is that a palace archaeologists found there and, if so, was it King David’s? Was this an Iron Age stronghold manned by bristling warriors – and if it was, whose warriors? Judahite, Israelite, Canaanite, Philistine, perchance? And why did its story end after a mere 20 or 30 years?

This article will bring you no answers, but does present a startling new theory. Prof. Emeritus David Ussishkin of Tel Aviv University, publishing in the Israel Exploration Journal, postulates that Iron Age Qeiyafa was not a walled city. It was a vast walled cultic compound.

Qeiyafa overlooks the Valley of Elah in the Judean foothills, an area identified with the legendary clash between David and Goliath. Ussishkin did not participate in its excavation but has visited the site multiple times and bases his innovative interpretation on reported finds. He says straight out that his controversial new theory does not solve any of the site’s mysteries, such as who built it and why, who destroyed it and why. The site’s excavators stand by their own theories.

The site’s excavation began in 2007, and in 2013 the archaeologists – Prof. Yosef Garfinkel of Hebrew University, Saar Ganor of the Israel Antiquities Authority and the team – reported finding a monumental structure. Some suggested it to be a palace built by, for or in the time of the legendary King David; or a governor’s manse.

Archaeologist Yosef Garfinkel showing a shard of pottery found at Khirbet Qeiyafa, overlooking the Valley of Elah.Credit: REUTERS

Critics howled. It was also posited that Qeiyafa might be biblical Sha’arayim (a name meaning “two gates,” and indeed Qeiyafa has two gates). Prof. Yigal Levin of Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, suggested that maybe it was King Saul’s stronghold where young David left his pack (1 Samuel 17:20). Now Ussishkin has entered the fray.

Keeping out undesirables

As befits a site with a view not of the sea but of the enemy, Qeiyafa was occupied multiple times. Archaeologists have identified four main occupational phases: the Middle Bronze Age, the late Iron Age, the late Persian period and the Hellenistic period.

The excavation site of Khirbet Qeiyafa, near the city of Beit Shemesh, south of Jerusalem.Credit: AP/Bernat Armangue

Ussishkin’s theory is about the Iron Age settlement, which apparently survived for perhaps 20 or 30 years (one generation, Garfinkel says) before being abandoned. Opinions differ on exactly when in the Iron Age this brief existence came to pass: late Iron Age I, early Iron Age II. For the purposes of this article we can say: about 3,000 years ago.

The ruins lie a mere 25 kilometers (15 miles) from Jerusalem as the crow flies, or an hour by car. Befitting the bafflement over what this site had been, there are not one but two videos on YouTube telling you how to pronounce Khirbet Qeiyafa. One is wrong. This is how you pronounce it:

Ussishkin’s point of origin is the two gates, where one would have done; cultic finds; and dwellings being detected on the hilltop and along the walls, but not on the slopes, based on which he estimates the population was about 200. Garfinkel thinks the population was more likely around 500. In either case, this was no megalopolis.

“Why should such a small place have two gates?” asks Ussishkin, explaining his thinking. Major cities of the time like Lachish, Megiddo and Beit Shemesh had one gate. Be’er Sheva had one gate. Only huge cities like Jerusalem or Samaria had more.

Also, one of Qeiyafa’s gates has an invested outer façade: approaching visitors would be impressed. The second is not impressive on the outside, he says. Also, it seems that the impressive one had doors while the other one had none at all, based on its threshold stone showing no evidence of depressions where the door’s post would be attached. If the second gate had no doors, it was always open, Ussishkin suggests.

Why the devil would worshippers, or anybody, make the enormous investment of building a monumental defensive wall, quarrying and hauling stone blocks each weighing tons, use them to construct not one but two gates – only to leave one permanently open? One would think that a city wall would be built to repel and deter foul enemies. But if a gate was open, they could just walk in swords a-swinging.

A basalt altar from Khirbet Qeiyafa.Credit: C. Amit

Ussishkin points out that the pyramids in Egypt (and elsewhere) attest that ancient peoples were perfectly prepared to make inordinate efforts for causes other than thwarting the enemy. Note also the Baalbek temple in Lebanon, which confounds everybody on the planet: how did the ancients move and lift stone blocks up to 1,650 tons in size? Frankly, the Qeiyafa wall pales in comparison. Whether the town had 200 or 500 people, building the wall was a massive investment – which Ussishkin feels was likely spiritually driven, i.e., symbolic.

Why would a cultic compound need a wall like that? Because. Who needs a pyramid? Religion trumps rationality, he says.

He suggests pilgrims would enter through the invested gate and leave through the other one, i.e., the postulated cultic compound had a controlled entrance – not just anybody was allowed access – and an exit, which he drily notes didn’t need to be controlled. Anybody could leave. Happy trails.

The double-gated structure is not unique to Qeiyafa, he adds: one precedent is the Chalcolithic temple at Ein Gedi, by the Dead Sea, which dates to about 5,500 years ago. Ussishkin excavated it with Benjamin Mazar (1906-1995) and concluded that it was a sacred site plied by pilgrims, since no dwellings from the time were identified. “Nobody has found a Chalcolithic settlement in the area of Ein Gedi yet,” he says – but there was a cultic site with two entrances, which he believes were for access and egress.

His theory is based on a theory by archaeologist Rami Arav, who posited in 2014: “Retracing tracks would signify dissatisfaction, discontent, regret and shame.” Come in through one gate, go out the other.

Garfinkel agrees that Ein Gedi had been a standalone cultic site, and there are others such as Qitmit (in the Negev) and in the Greek world. But he doesn’t think Qeiyafa is that. It has homes chock-full of evidence of day-to-day living.

Out of 60 chambers the team excavated, only three had cultic artifacts and the rest had things like bowls, ovens. To be sure, some of the cultic objects found were remarkable, including mini-shrines. But “cultic objects comprised maybe half a percent out of thousands of artifacts,” Garfinkel says.

A 3,000-year-old ceramic jar that was discovered at Khirbet Qeiyafa in the Valley of Elah.Credit: AFP

The case of the chambers

The stone wall surrounding Qeiyafa, which is 23,000 square meters (nearly 250,000 square feet) in area, features sections with casemates, i.e., sections where the wall is built double, with rooms between the two walls. Ussishkin proposes that the wall, casemates and all, had been built to demarcate the cultic compound, not to protect the city from evil, and don’t support any particular interpretation, belligerent or spiritual. They just strengthen the suspicion that the builders invested great effort, Ussishkin says.

Both gates were four-chamber type. Meaning the gate is a passageway through the wall with two chambers on the left and two on the right. Four-chambered city gates were common from the Bronze Age to the end of the Iron Age throughout the region.

Since we don’t know what purpose the four chambers served, though there are theses (storage, for instance, or inspection and taxation), we can’t say they necessarily support any particular thesis about Qeiyafa.

One wonders why a gate exclusively devoted to egress would have any chambers at all. Ussishkin is diligent about writing in his paper that he is merely suggesting a new theory, not solving all problems and mysteries relating to Qeiyafa.

A limestone portable shrine unearthed at Khirbet Qeiyafa.Credit: G. Laron

A view of the neighbors

If this was a cultic site, who worshipped what there? We don’t know. “Tragically,” as Ussishkin puts it, there are no written records like in ancient Mesopotamia or Anatolia. There is the Qeiyafa ostracon, a pottery fragment with five lines of writing about which there is no agreement – what alphabet, what language, nothing except that a god is mentioned (the El one) and he should be adored. In Judahic and Israelite sites, we don’t have anything like King Whoever built this temple to god this or that, Ussishkin mourns. As do we all.

Why are there no texts from Iron Age sites in Israel? “One possible explanation is that they wrote on papyrii that went the way of all flesh except at the Dead Sea, because of the extraordinary conditions there,” he says (the Dead Sea texts are later, anyway). “Another is that monumental texts [such as on stelae] were destroyed.” Maybe by the dudes coming through the nonexistent door.

Garfinkel thinks the giant walled cultic compound theory unlikely because nothing similar has been found in the contexts of Canaan, Philistia, Judah or Israel. And if there had been one at Qeiyafa (and maybe there was), a kingdom had to have supported it and its priests. At Qeiyafa’s time, the late prophets period, David had yet to build a kingdom, let alone beget Solomon the temple builder. Early Jews worshipped at home, he contends. Supporting that, he points out that when Hannah brings her son Samuel to God, where is he put to sleep? “In the room with the ark of the covenant – which means, worship in a domestic house even at Shiloh,” he says.

“And Samuel was laid down to sleep in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was, that the LORD called Samuel; and he said: ‘Here am I’ (1 Samuel 3:3-4)

A portable shrine from Khirbet Qeiyafa.Credit: G. Laron

Ussishkin’s final point is the discovery of many cultic objects at Qeiyafa, but here we have a factual dispute. “We do not have much cultic paraphernalia in the site, but rather daily life activities: cooking pots, storage jars and the like,” he says. “Basically, the site is a town with regular dwellings. We found three cultic rooms out of 60.”

Prof. Emeritus Israel Finkelstein does not find Ussishkin’s theory a game-changer either. “I think the best way to describe Qeiyafa is as a sort of large – and, frankly, quite unique – fort. I do not see a specific reason to interpret Qeiyafa as a cult site,” he says.

Ussishkin also posits that at the very top of the hill at the center of the cultic complex, there had been a sacred tree, a terebinth, or a massebah (standing stone) – though no evidence of either remains. Trees definitely have a distinguished past in regional religion, but Garfinkel notes that hilltop worship sites were typically small; Qeiyafa was a whole city.

Standing stones at Khirbet Qeiyafa.Credit: Y. Garfinkel
A twin cup discovered at Khirbet Qeiyafa.Credit: C. Amit
A male clay head unearthed at Khirbet Qeiyafa.Credit: C. Amit

Whatever it was, after a single generation the Iron Age Qeiyafa site was no more. It was not burned down like Hazor or Megiddo or Jerusalem, but it was trashed. The homes are littered with pottery, objects of bronze and iron, and figurines, Garfinkel says.

His theory? Philistine marauders, who didn’t come to conquer and move in but to steal its precious wood, and the townspeople grabbed their kids and fled. Timber was precious in the ancient world. Egyptian and Assyrian invaders would burn down your city because they would hardly lug wood long distances, but close neighbors would not cavil at robbing each other blind.

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