The Politics of Archeology in Israel

The meaning of archeological finds in Israel is up for interpretation.

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The City of David

At the center of this debate is the City of David (Ir David, in Hebrew), a small strip of land, which is located to the south of the Temple Mount, a plateau where both the first and second temples are thought to have stood. Digging underneath the Arab neighborhood of Silwan, which now sits above the ancient city, archeologists have discovered water tunnels and defense systems that date back to the Canaanites and the Jebusites (c.12th and 11th centuries BCE), from whom King David captured the city, according to the Bible. Archeologists also found 8th century additions to the tunnels, attributed to King Hezekiah's attempt to divert the city’s water source to protect it from the Assyrian enemy, as described in the Bible (II Chronicles ch. 32:2-4).

The Ir David Foundation, under the leadership of David Be'eri, says that they have discovered the place "where it all began." On a tour of the ever-growing archeological dig in the area, one can see many impressive finds: clay seals documenting the names of two ministers to King Zedekiah, mentioned in the Book of Jeremiah (c. 6th century BCE); a huge pool which may have served as a mikveh (ritual bath) for pilgrims during the Second Temple period and perhaps during the First Temple period; and a wide avenue of steps leading through the city toward the Temple. The archeological park also screens a reenactment film of David's capturing of the city.

silwan jerusalem

Neighborhood of Silwan.

Most recent and perhaps most controversial is the potential discovery of David's palace. For many years, traditional archeologists puzzled over the absence of a palace, within the fortified boundaries of the ancient city, befitting the royal King David. Archeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar went in search of a large residence impressive enough to match the palace described in the Bible.

She convinced the Ir David Foundation to dig under its own visitors' center north of the ancient Jebusite fortress, which served as the northern border of the city. "It must be above of the city," Mazar reasoned, because the Bible writes that David went down to the fortress when an enemy approached, suggesting that his palace was unfortified. While excavating in 2005, Mazar found the walls of a very large structure as well as a tower, on the high ground north of the fortress, which may suggest that the Bible was as accurate as a map and that David lived in regal luxury.

The naysayers, with Finkelstein at the helm, question the early dating of the find. Perhaps, the critique goes, the enthusiasm to prove King David's importance and validate the Bible led Mazar to misdate the findings. The dating of building foundations throughout Israel isn't extremely precise and is constantly being debated and revised. While archaeological finds of letters and stamps throughout Israel incontrovertibly prove the existence of a "house of David," whether or not this structure was a palace belonging to David--king of the united Israel--is open to interpretation.

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Alieza Salzberg

Alieza Salzberg is a graduate student at the Hebrew University where she studies Rabbinic Literature. She is a fellow at the Hartman Institute's Seder Nashim, Beit Midrash for Judaism and Gender. She lives, writes and studies in Jerusalem.