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Jerusalem Deconstructed: "What are the Facts?"

Practically speaking, Jerusalem was a terrible idea.

It's a city of steep hills built in the middle of nowhere. It sits on no strategic trade routes, has no accessible port or river system and can boast of no valuable natural resources or abundant fresh water supply. But, like Tokyo, Bonn and Washington, D.C., the establishment of Jerusalem as a capital city was a political decision. David supposedly chose it BECAUSE of its insignificance and "made a capital out of nothing," so said Prof. Oded Lipschits, director of Tel Aviv University's Institute of Archaeology.

He was the opening speaker at IWC Archaeology's Tuesday morning lecture series at Tel Aviv University. The theme for the Fall 2017 semester is "The Archaeology of Jerusalem" and will feature 13 distinguished scholars representing the full spectrum of academic thought on the chronology and history of the Holy City.

But where exactly was this city? Was it originally located inside the City of David, the ridge south of the Temple Mount and west of the Kidron Valley (i.e., the southeastern hill), as depicted in conventional reconstructions? Prof. Lipschits doesn't think so and uses a combination of recent archaeological finds and an admittedly healthy dose of hypothetical reasoning to come to a radically different conclusion. His lecture drew heavily and reinforced the views originally expressed in his 2011 article "The Mound on the Mount" co-authored by acclaimed Tel Aviv University archaeologists Israel Finkelstein and Ido Koch.

Why Should Jerusalem be Different?

The conventional representation of biblical Jerusalem places the temple and palace structures squarely on top of the acropolis, with the Ophel just south of the temple further down the slope and the residential core in the City of David still further south near the base of the ridge. Lipschits argues that this construction flies in the face of logic. No other ancient city is built this way. From Lachish in the surrounding hill country to Hattusa, the capital of the Hittites in Anatolia, excavated Middle and Late Bronze Age cities reveal a consistent pattern of urban planning: an imposing palace, an adjacent small temple and a residential area all well fortified on the summit of an elevated area.

Why would Jerusalem be any different? Who builds a city below the summit where it cannot be fortified and protected? It just doesn't make sense and the archaeological evidence doesn't support it. If, indeed, he and others are correct in proposing that the first fortifications of the City of David were constructed only in the late 8th century BCE, well after the time of David's supposed reign, why wasn't this theoretical urban site protected before, just as other important towns in the neighboring hill country were, like Lachish, Tel Beer-sheba and Mizpah? The older Bronze Age walls that were discovered below the mound were likely erected to protect the Gihon Spring, Jerusalem's only stable source of fresh water, not a residential area.

Based on Lipschits' 2011 article and recent lecture, the residential city of Jerusalem should be reconstructed not in the City of David below, but on the ridge's summit, along with the temple and the palace structure. That is why the many remains discovered in the City of David have revealed only small finds from the Middle Bronze, Late Bronze, Early Iron and Persian periods - the city simply wasn't there during those times.

City of David as Part of Jerusalem's Later Expansion

According to Lipschits, the residential area only expanded to the City of David during two relatively short periods - at the end of the first temple period (about mid-8th century to 586 BCE) and at the end of the second temple period (second half of the second century BCE). These expansions spread from the original site on the Temple Mount down to the City of David and across the southern hill where the Jewish and Armenian quarters are located.

The city's growth beyond the mound's summit is the reason for the late 8th century BCE fortifications of this whole area. At no time was the City of David exclusively fortified. In fact, aside from the two noted periods of expansion, Lipschits imagines the City of David as an open area outside of the city, only sporadically used for agriculture and other activities, mainly near the spring.

Herod the Great: an Archaeologist's Nightmare

Finally, all fingers point to Herod the Great as the source of this "Problem with Jerusalem" with his colossal construction projects and ambitious temple reconstruction. It was he who leveled and boxed-in the city's entire ancient summit and created a massive temple complex - something that had never been done before and was in stark contrast to the traditionally small (approx. 80 meter) temples in previous periods. Herod simply trapped inside all of the ancient remains from the first and second temple city. That is why remains from the Middle Bronze, Late Bronze, Early Iron and Persian periods are so conspicuously scarce south of the Temple Mount. Only the remnants that were washed down to the Ophel excavation area can be found.

Lipschits is determined to look at the city free from the preconceptions of the past. Ongoing research, more advanced excavation methods and critical analysis with his Tel Aviv University students and academics in the field, may very well succeed in deconstructing the prevailing assumptions of this perennially confounding city.

As Lipschits ended his lecture, "Always think: 'Nice reconstruction, what are the facts?'"

Acknowledgment: The above are my own perceptions and interpretations of the ideas presented in the lecture.

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