Dr. Eilat Mazar, Doyenne of Ancient Jerusalem Archaeology, Dies

Some contest Eilat Mazar’s claim to have found King David’s palace. She was confident: ‘I lay out the facts. The interpretations can come later’

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Dr. Eilat Mazar, holding King Hezekiah's seal, which is also shown behind her
Dr. Eilat Mazar, holding King Hezekiah's seal, which is also shown behind herCredit: Emil Salman
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Dr. Eilat Mazar, the third generation of Jerusalem archaeologists in her family, passed away on Tuesday at age 65 after an illness.

Mazar was a leading figure in Israeli biblical archaeology and maintained that discoveries made in Jerusalem supported the biblical narrative. One of her discoveries was the edifice dubbed the “Large Stone Structure” in the so-called City of David, an excavation by the Old City of Jerusalem, which she suggested may could have been King David’s palace. She also identified a wall that was uncovered in the Ophel area as having been built by King Solomon.

Mazar was the grand-daughter of Professor Benjamin Lazar, who was president of the Hebrew University and one of the founders of Israeli archaeology. She wrote her dissertation at the Hebrew University’s Institute of Archaeology, about Phoenician culture, following excavations she conducted at Achziv.

But most of her archaeological career focused on Jerusalem. She carried out excavations in the City of David, the name for the site discovered under the Givati parking lot; and the Ophel, the area between the City of David and the Temple Mount. Among her finest discoveries were a clay seal impression marked “Hezekiah” and plausibly belonging to Hezekiah ben Ahaz, King of Judah; hundreds of other clay seals, including one possibly associated with the prophet Isaiah; some inscribed with names mentioned in the bible; and inscriptions in Canaanite.

In 2013, while digging at the Ophel, she unearthed a gold treasure trove dating from the Persian conquest 1,400 years ago. The hoard contained 50 gold coins and a large gold medallion bearing the symbol of the menorah from the Temple.

Huge gold pendant found in the City of DavidCredit: Emil Salman

Mazar was active in the archaeological debate that emerged in Israel in the 1990s regarding the historicity of the biblical descriptions. She belonged to the conservative camp, which argued that the archaeological findings categorically supported the biblical narrative, and do not contradict it. But her interpretation of the findings in the City of David, including what she asserted was David’s palace and Solomon’s walls, were critiqued by peers contending there was not enough evidence to link the findings to the biblical figures.

“I lay out the facts. The interpretations can come later. But it all fits, sometimes incredibly so,” she told Haaretz four years ago. “Sometimes it’s hard... you encounter obtuseness and can’t budge people even though you are confident of your truth.”

Of all the great archaeologists of Jerusalem: Kathleen Kenyon, Benjamin Nazar, Nahman Avigad, Yigal Shiloh, and all the newer ones, the only one who managed to publish a significant portion of their excavation results was Eilat Mazar. “She published three tremendous books on the City of David and Ophel excavations and five books on Benjamin Mazar’s excavations,” says Professor Yosef Garfinkel, head of the Hebrew University Archaeology Department.

Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Aryeh King said in memory of Mazar: “Jerusalem is shedding a tear tonight. May your memory be a blessing, my friend, daughter of Jerusalem who fought for our right to live, build, develop, dig and uncover Jerusalem.”

“Eilat was perhaps the most right-wing figure in the archaeology community. About as far as can be from my own political views,” says archaeologist Yoni Mizrahi of Emek Shaveh, which is identified with the left in Israeli archaeology. “But politics aside, Eilat Mazar was one of the bravest and most decent people I ever knew. I expect that a lot will be written about her archaeological excavations and the discovery of King David’s palace and so on. And the scholarly debate will be written about too, about whether she really did find the remnants of the palace and other controversial discoveries she made. I will remember Eilat the person. The very special woman. I will remember her for the opportunities she gave me and my friends to work in the field when we had only just completed our studies. I will remember how she pushed us to publish articles, right after the B.A., when people in the field looked down on us. I will remember how she helped me find work. I will always remember her uncompromising battle to defend a classmate of mine who was sexually assaulted by someone who worked in the archaeology institute. I will never forget how she didn’t give up even when people told her that her fight for justice was costing her personally. She would not give in, because she simply could not look away from the injustice.”

Mazar was also active in the Committee for the Prevention of Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount and fought against the Waqf’s excavations on the Temple Mount. She published more than 10 books on archaeology.

She is survived by a daughter and three sons. The funeral will take place at 5:00 P.M. on Wednesday at Moshav Nir Etzion.