Israeli Archaeologists Find New Section of Jerusalem’s Ancient Defensive Wall

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Excavation directors Dr. Joe Uziel, Ortal Kalaf, and Dr. Filip Vukosavovic standing by the newly discovered section of Jerusalem's ancient defensive wall.
Excavation directors Dr. Joe Uziel, Ortal Kalaf, and Dr. Filip Vukosavovic standing by the newly discovered section of Jerusalem's ancient defensive wall. Credit: Koby Harati / City of David
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Archaeologists digging in the so-called City of David, next to the Temple Mount, have found what they believe is a section of Jerusalem’s outer city wall, built in the 8th century B.C.E., the Israel Antiquities Authority announced on Wednesday.

Jerusalem had been the capital of the Kingdom of Judah during the Iron Age (the Kingdom of Israel’s capital was Samaria). Parts of the defensive wall were found half a century ago, though the identification of the remains had been controversial. Now the excavations, under director Dr. Filip Vukosavovi of the Ancient Jerusalem Research Center and Dr. Joe Uziel and Ortal Chalaf on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, have apparently found another part of the great wall defending the city from the east, still standing after all these years.

Who exactly the wall was built to protect the city from originally remains debated.

The city wall protected Jerusalem nicely, for a time. But come 587 or 586 B.C.E., according to historical sources, the Babylonians managed to break through it and conquer the city.

“And in the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month, which is the nineteenth year of king Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, came Nebuzaradan, captain of the guard, a servant of the king of Babylon, unto Jerusalem. He burned down the house of the Lord, the royal palace, and all the houses of Jerusalem — every significant building” - 2 Kings 25:8-9.

Yet evidently in their destructive zeal, the Babylonians did not tear down the outer wall completely – indeed that would have involved immense gratuitous effort, despite the following verse:

"And all the army of the Chaldees, that were with the captain of the guard, brake down the walls of Jerusalem round about.” 2 Kings 25:10.

A jar handle with a rosette imprint found near the newly unearthed portion of wall. Credit: Koby Harati / City of David

Vukosavovi and the team have a theory why Nebuchadnezzar’s forces “spared” part of the eastern city wall: The hill slope there is very steep, with an angle of more than 30 degrees. It would, technically, have been difficult to tear down that part of the wall, which was five meters thick, the archaeologists say.

In any case the discovery supports the theory that previously found structures on the eastern slope of the City of David part of ancient Jerusalem were indeed sections of an ancient defensive wall, as opposed to something else entirely, excavation director Vukosavovi explains to Haaretz.

Impression of Jerusalem's defensive wall in the days of the First Temple.Credit: Illustration: Leonardo Gurevitz, City of David Archive

The mystery of the gap

Why was there dubiety about the nature of previously discovered parts of this wall? The story starts with the discovery of the first part of it, a 30-meter long section, by the British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon in 1968. Exactly ten years later the Israeli archaeologist Yigal Shiloh found a 90-meter long segment. Both sections were dated to the Iron Age, a.k.a. the First Temple period.

Kenyon’s section was in the northern part of the eastern slope of the City of David, while Shiloh’s was in the southern part of that eastern slope. The two sections of wall were markedly similar: both running along the same north-south axis, at more or less the same topographical elevation. Both were built in the same style: “dry” stone construction, without cement, plastering or any soil filling. The wall was built on a slope and if water from precipitation couldn’t pass through the bottom of the wall, it would have turned into a dam and burst, Vukosavovi points out.

The problem was that there was there was a roughly 70-meter gap between the two sections of wall, which is significant, Vukosavovi says. Previous archaeological efforts to find the missing wall produced other things but not that, leading some to surmise that the finds by Kenyon and Shiloh had been, perhaps, retaining walls or terrace walls.

And that is where things stood until, Vukosavovi says, “I found this section.” He and the team found two additional sections of the wall, one 40 meters long and one 3 meters long, he clarifies. Both the newly and previously found sections of the defensive wall ran above the Kidron Valley, along the eastern slope of the City of David, he adds.

“Now, after all these years, I can say categorically, without a shadow of doubt, that there was a wall at the end of Iron Age — the late First Temple Mount period — that surrounded the eastern slope of the City of David and that wall was the defensive line of Jerusalem at the time,” he tells Haaretz.

Destruction layer from the Babylonian attack on Jerusalem in 587 or 586 B.C.E.: Ash and shattered potteryCredit: Eliyahu Yanai / City of David Archive

At this point they can plausibly reconstruct the great defensive wall protecting the city from the east. While it varies from section to section, it was on average 3 to 4.5 meters high and about 5 meters thick. Western segments have not been found.

Asked for clarification about the wall in the area formerly known as the Givati parking lot and now known as the City of David, south of the Temple Mount and outside the Old City walls as we know them today, Vukosavovi explains that part of the City of David is outside the ancient city wall, some is inside and some (later bits) are even on top of it.

Nebuchadnezzar is peeved

And when the ancient Babylonians arrived, it is that eastern section of the wall that they saw before their angry eyes, Vukosavovi says. “I sat on a part of the wall that hasn’t changed in 2,600 years,” he tells Haaretz.

In previous excavations in the City of David, archaeologists found evidence of the Babylonian assault on the city, including a thick destruction layer featuring ash and shattered pottery. Thusly they found proof of destruction. He now has found proof of the wall that was supposed to protect the city, the archaeologist says.

The newly exposed section of Jerusalem's ancient defensive wall.Credit: Kobi Harati / City of David

When, actually, was this wall erected? At some point in the 8th century B.C.E, and it served up until the fall of Jerusalem and the kingdom of Judah in 587 or 586 B.C.E., he answers. In further evidence that the Babylonians did not completely level it, parts of the wall were used during the Hellenistic period. “The added a tower here or there, but the same wall was still used,” he says.

This begs the question of who built it, and to that, we have no answer. There were a lot of kings of Judah during that time.

One intriguing possibility is that the wall was built by King Hezekiah to prepare the city for an onslaught by the Assyrians. Why would he have anticipated that? Because Hezekiah rebelled, which didn’t mean that he sent troops to challenge that powerful entity, it means he stopped paying taxes in about 701 B.C.E.:

A stamp seal that bears the name “Tsafan" in ancient Hebrew script. Credit: Koby Harati / City of David

“Now in the fourteenth year of king Hezekiah did Sennacherib king of Assyria come up against all the fenced cities of Judah, and took them” – 2 Kings 18:13.

All the fortified cities of Judah – indeed. The truth is the wall could have been built by Hezekiah or somebody else against other enemies of Judah, such as the Israelite kingdom.

In general there is an argument in archaeological circles over whether kings of yore built fortification walls because they had to, in order to defend their polities against actual enemies, or if they were egomaniacs showing off their power. If it was indeed Hezekiah, and if he stopped paying taxes to the Assyrians, he was taking quite the risk; the ancient sources don’t describe any horrendous slaughters as such by the Babylonians, but the Assyrians were another matter altogether: They “reveled in butchery,” one archaeologist puts it.

A Babylonian stamp seal found at the excavation site, City of DavidCredit: Koby Harati / City of David

Wishful thinking in Jerusalem

It bears adding that six centuries after the Babylonians, in 70 C.E., the Romans also destroyed Jerusalem. But the destruction layer detected in the City of David excavations was dated to the Babylonian assault, as opposed to the Roman one. Storage jars with iconic rosettes stamped on their handles, marks typical of the sixth century B.C.E.,were found in a building right near the newly unearthed portion of wall.

A jar handle with concentric circle imprint. Credit: Koby Harati / City of David

Another previous find from the Babylonian destruction was an exquisite item of jewelry, made of gold and silver and seemingly torn from a larger earring or other artifact, during excavations on Mount Zion. It was damaged in a way that hinted it had been violently torn off and was found in the archaeological context of the Babylonian destruction of the city, archaeologists said.

Finally, the archaeologists point out, previous digging unearthed a Babylonian stamp seal made of stone, showing a person standing in front of symbols of the Babylonian gods Marduk – a.k.a. Bel, the god of thunder – and Nabu. The Judahites were clearly familiar with these alien deities:

“And I will punish Bel in Babylon, and I will bring forth out of his mouth that which he hath swallowed up: and the nations shall not flow together any more unto him: yea, the wall of Babylon shall fall.” – Jeremiah 51:44.

A Judahite jar handle from the Iron Age stamped with “For the King." Credit: Yaniv Berman / Israel Antiquities Authority

Oh well. Given that the walls that fell were Jerusalem’s, one wonders when the Book of Jeremiah was written.

“Clearly it was written during or after the life of Jeremiah, which would be dated to the last Judahite monarchs – the late 7th century B.C.E. and early 6th century B.C.E.,” Elon Gilad, an expert on biblical-era history, tells Haaretz.

The book of Jeremiah functionally consists of two parts: the actual prophesies from his mouth, and a narrative part, consisting of third-person descriptions of his actions, written by his amanuensis Baruch.

“Most people think Jeremiah did utter at least some of the prophecies attributed to him,” Gilad says, and it is possible that this book really was written in Jeremiah’s lifetime. However, later scribes added either whole prophecies to him or augmented them. There is no agreement which parts are original and which were later additions.

But the point is this. Jeremiah reportedly survived the Babylonian onslaught on Jerusalem and fled. So what exactly are we to understand from the verses about Babylon’s destruction?

“His prophecies against Babylon are also disputed and may be the work of later scribes,” Gilad explains. “The Judahites were presumably furious at the Babylonians and wished for its destruction. The verses may be wishful thinking – or, later ‘prophecy after the fact,’ because in 539 B.C.E., the political entity of Babylonia was destroyed by Xerxes the Great.”

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