The Broad Wall of Jerusalem That Fended Off the Assyrians

The massive wall unearthed by archaeologists in the 1970s is identified with defenses built by King Hezekiah of Judah.

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The year is 701 BCE. The Assyrian king Sennacherib is rampaging through the countryside on a punitive campaign against his rebellious vassal, King Hezekiah of Judah. Egged on by the prophet Isaiah, Hezekiah frantically prepares his capital city for the impending onslaught. In Jerusalem’s lower city, the so-called City of David, the Israelites cut a long water tunnel through solid rock, to divert water from the Gihon Spring to a new inner-city reservoir (or, as it says in Chronicles, “Why should the Assyrian[s] come and find water in abundance?”).

Meanwhile, in the upper city – today’s Jewish Quarter – “Hezekiah set to work resolutely and built up the entire wall that was broken down, and raised towers on it, and outside it he built another wall.” The massive foundation wall in this area, unearthed by Israeli archaeologists in the 1970s, is identified with that defensive project. Its remarkable thickness of 7.5 meters, or 23 feet, also suggests that it might be the “Broad Wall” referred to by Nehemiah two and a half centuries later. Today it lies exposed as an open-air centerpiece of the quarter.

The find was something of a sensation at the time, as it put to rest a long-running scholarly debate about the size of biblical (Old Testament) Jerusalem. The minimalist view of the city as not much more than it had been in King Solomon’s day (the City of David and Temple Mount) was discredited by the discovery of the Broad Wall so much further to the west. It is thought that refugees from the northern Kingdom of Israel, which had been destroyed by the Assyrians twenty years earlier, may have settled on the high ground of today’s Jewish Quarter, Armenian Quarter and Mount Zion, an area that apparently remained unfortified until Hezekiah built the wall.

A defensive wall would ordinarily bulge outward, the easier to fend off an enemy attack. The Broad Wall, however, bulges inward, curving around the top of a shallow gully. There is an intriguing scholarly interpretation of the verse relating that Hezekiah “built another wall” outside the first one. If the enemy viewed the gully as a weak point in the city’s defenses, they might expend effort in breaking through the outer wall, only to find themselves trapped in a low "killing ground," at the mercy of the defenders’ arrows from the walls on either side.

The Broad Wall holds one more surprise. Within its cusp – i.e., its outward-facing side – are the foundations of a house. The dwelling was there first, and the city wall, in an ancient example of “eminent domain,” was forced to slice through it to achieve the best topographical advantage. Here’s how Isaiah described the practice: “You counted the houses of Jerusalem, and you broke down the houses to fortify the wall.”

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From Jewish Quarter Rd. (Rehov Hayehudim), the Broad Wall is a few steps east, past the public restrooms. (Open site, no fee, no closing times.)