Jerusalem, Bible city

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Ornate decoration of a palace

Ancient Palaces

Harem women look out a palace window

Solomon's palace

Reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, 1st century AD

Jerusalem buildings

Dome of the Rock, Islamic buildings

Islamic buildings


















Jerusalem, ancient city

Jerusalem lies on the southern spur of a plateau in the Judean Mountains, surrounded by valleys and dry riverbeds - one of the oldest continuing cities in the world, occupied for at least six thousand years. It was, of course, the sacred city of the Bible and focus of  the Jewish people for thousands of years,

  • a religious center for the passionately devoted Jewish people

  • the goal of pilgrims ready to walk hundreds of miled to pray there

  • the capital city of the ruler of the Jewish people, and  

  • a busy seat of administration and law.

Though there were people living on the site as early as the 4th millennium BC, the fortress/city only became prominent in biblical history after David captured it and made it his capital. 

David and JerusalemGround plan of Jebus, the original fortress captured by David, and the rock area on which the Temple would later be built

David's first capital had been in the city of Hebron, but Jerusalem had certain advantages.  It was in a better geographical position, lying on the border between Judah and the northern tribes, and despite the fact that he himself had taken the citadel, its position atop steep cliffs made it difficult to overrun. The diagram at right shows the walled area, Jebus, which was the original fortress captured by David. 

At David's death, the city was still quite small. David had been too busy with court intrigue and hard-fought battles to think about renovations. 


Solomon and Jerusalem

His son was more ambitious. Solomon used Phoenician craftsmen and enforced labor to carry out the great construction program that resulted in the building of the First Temple and the palace in Jerusalem (1 Kings 7.52, 5.27). 

For both Temple and palace, Solomon would have nothing but the best. He imported wood (cedar) from Lebanon, and the Temple was embellished and decorated with the over-the-top style then fashionable. Less was definitely not more. In fact, both palace and Temple were political statements: look at how wealthy we are, what resouces we can muster, how clever and creative we are.

Photograph of the Temple of Dendur, Egypt, taken in the 19th century before transportation to the Metropolitan Museum in New York

There have been many fanciful reconstructions of the Temple of Solomon, but it was probably modelled on Phoenician or Egyptian temple designs similar to the Temple of Dendur, above

Winged figure, stone, in the 7th century BC Temple at Eshmun in ancient Phoenicia

The 7th century BC Temple at Eshmun  in ancient Phoenicia has a winged guardian figure 
at each side of a stone throne; this may be similar to the cherubim in the Bible - see above and below

Ancient ivory plaque showing a winged guardian figure, from the excavations at Megiddo

Winged guardian figure, ivory plaque excavated at the ancient city of Megiddo

Solomon's Palace

The royal palace probably stood north of the city. There are no traces of it now, since Herod demolished everything that was there to extend the astonishing Temple he built. 

But according to 1 Kings 7:1-12, the palace was built of Lebanese cedar, with a vestibule hall of columns, a throne room, residential quarters and a luxurious palace for the women of the harem - Solomon's 'thousand wives'. 

The rooms would have opened onto extensive courtyards. The palace itself was quite independent of the city, with a high wall surrounding it. You had to pass through a guard-house to enter it.

A reconstructed ground plan of the palace at Persepolis

A reconstructed ground plan of the palace at Persepolis. Solomon's palace would have been much smaller and more modest, but it may have followed the same design of audience hall with living and service quarters behind.

Middle Eastern building with lattice windows

The living quarters of Solomon's palace probably had latticed windows like these, 
to cool the building and provide privacy


Solomon's Temple

According to 1 Kings 6:2-3, the First Temple was a long-room temple with a vestibule hall and a separate room for the Holy of Holies (see the ground plan of Solomon's Temple below). There were two columns in the vestibule hall, and sGround plan of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalemplendid furnishings and fittings. The walls were covered with wooden panels embellished with gold-leaf overlay. 

The houses of the citizens of Jerusalem were far simpler, situated on terraces, with the ancient Israelite type of building retained. Of course, this meant that people were crammed together closely, and as time passed the more affluent citizens began to build houses just  outside the city walls.

All these buildings are long gone - destroyed in war or demolished to make way for later buildings. The only part left from David and Solomon's reigns may be the stones illustrated at left, which are possibly ramparts from the city wall. Excavations have revealed a stepped stone structure, possibly foundations, dating from the 10th century BC.

Excavation of the Stepped Stone Structure

Long distance photograph of the Stepped Stone Structure, showing its position in Jerusalem

19th century photograph of Jerusalem taken from the air, showing the Kidron Valley, the Temple Mount and the position of excavations of the Stepped Stone Structure

1. Excavation of the Stepped Stone Structure.  2. The Structure in its surroundings.  
3. A 19th century photograph of Jerusalem, showing the area (middle right) before excavations began


Bible Archaeology: Jerusalem: ground plan of city in period from Solomon to HezekiahWhen Solomon died, the ten northern tribes broke away from the federation, setting up their own kingdom in the north. Solomon's son Rehoboam was left with sovereignty over only two tribes. But he still had Jerusalem. 

In 922BC the Egyptian pharaoh Sheshonk I led a raid into Judah, and sacked the city, stealing the treasure of the Temple (and probably the royal women's jewelry as well). 

He was followed in the next century by the Philistines and Arabs, and then in 786BC Joash of Israel invaded Judah and tore down part of the wall surrounding Jerusalem.

Hezekiah's Jerusalem

After Hezekiah became king of Judah, he built new fortifications and an underground tunnel (see illustration below), which brought water from the Gihon Spring to the Pool of Siloam inside the city. This was an extraordinary engineering achievement, done with what are primitive tools by modern standards. Photograph of the entrance to Hezekiah's Tunnel

In 1880 an inscription was discovered. It had been cut into the tunnel wall, and describes the meeting of the two groups of stone-cutters who were digging from opposite ends of the tunnel:

'And this was the way in which it was cut through:  While [...] (were) still [...] axe(s), each man toward his fellow, and while there were still three cubits to be cut through, [there was heard] the voice of a man calling to his fellows, for there was an overlap in the rock on the right [and on the left].  And when the tunnel was driven through, the quarrymen hewed (the rock), each man toward his fellow, axe against axe; and the water flowed from the spring toward the reservoir for 1200 cubits.'


Drawing of the ancient water system in Jerusalem, including the entrance to Hezekiah's Tunnel

Water system including Hezekiah's tunnel


The Assyrians destroy Jerusalem

Despite his best efforts, Hezekiah was no match for the Assyrians, and in 701BC Sennacherib of Assyria 'came down like a wolf on the fold', extracting a heavy tribute from Jerusalem. Eight years later Jerusalem was laid waste and its king deported to Babylon. In 586BC the city and Temple were completely destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, and the long exile in Babylon began.

Panel from the Lachish relief in the British Museum showing captives being led away from 

This panel from the Lachish relief in the British Museum shows captives being led away from 
the city of Lachish - but the scene at Jerusalem must have been similar

Eventually, in 538BC, the people were allowed to return to Jerusalem. The once magnificent city was a sorry sight. Nothing  seemed to remain, just a few small buildings and a demoralized peasantry living in huts, where once there had been the Temple, palaces, houses and commercial buildings. 

Plan of the much diminished Jerusalem as it was in Nehemiah's time -  5th century BC, after the return from Exile

Plan of the city as it was in Nehemiah's time -  5th century BC

Bit by bit the people, led by Zerubbabel of the house of David, began to rebuild Jerusalem. They were determined to re-establish their sacred city. The Temple was restored by 515BC, and Jerusalem once more became the center of the new state. Its position was strengthened when Nehemiah restored the fortifications surrounding the city.

With the coming of Alexander the Great, Jerusalem entered the world of Western power politics. After Alexander's death, Palestine was taken over by his marshal, Ptolemy I, who had occupied Egypt and made Alexandria his capital. In 198BC Jerusalem was taken over by the dynasty descended from Seleucus I, another of Alexander's marshal. 

This was significant in cultural terms, since the new rulers promoted Greek culture and religious ideas, and tried to suppress Jewish practices. In 167BC Antiochus IV desecrated the Temple, and a revolt against the Seleucid rulers broke out.  This revolt was led by the Maccabees, who were able to expel the Seleucids. Jerusalem regained its position as the capital of an independent state ruled by the priestly Hasmonean family.

Herod the Great and Jerusalem

Then came the Romans. They had for some time been expanding into the eastern Mediterranean world, and in 63BC Pompey captured Jerusalem. The way for peaceful co-existence was smoothed by the machinations of the Herod family, and in 40BC Herod, who had distinguished himself as governor of Galilee, was appointed a 'client king' of Judaea by the Roman Senate. He was the friend of Mark Antony, and when Mark Antony was defeated at the Battle of Actium and committed suicide, the wily Herod was able to persuade Octavian, later Augustus, that he should remain as king of Judaea.

Ground plan of Jerusalem in the time of King Herod the Great

The city of Jerusalem in the Herodian period

Bible Archaeology: Jerusalem: Western or Wailing Wall, Jerusalem

The West Wall - all that is left of Herod's magnificent Temple

Herod was king for the next thirty-six years, and in this period Jerusalem enjoyed its greatest period of glory. The Temple Mount esplanade was artificially enlarged with supporting walls (including the Western Wall, now called the Wailing Wall), to provide a platform for Herod's greatest achievement, the new Temple, which took more than a generation to build. 

The new royal palace was strengthened by immense towers that were built into the older walls, and the Temple was defended by a new citadel. Jerusalem also acquired a Hellenistic amphitheatre.

Ancient coin struck during the Bar Kochba Revolt, showing the facade of the Temple in Jerusalem as it had been before destruction

Reconstructions of the Temple built by Herod the Great rely heavily on this ancient coin,
 showing the facade of the Temple; it was struck during the Bar Kochba Revolt 132-135AD

Reconstruction of the central Temple area in Jerusalem, 1st century

Reconstruction from an aerial perspective of the central area of the Temple of Jerusalem

(Above) Two reconstructions of the Temple of Herod the Great

Jerusalem was now the religious center, the goal of obligatory pilgrimages, the capital of the ruler, and the seat of the autonomous court of the Sanhedrin or Jewish Council of Elders.

Nothing lasts forever. In 66AD the Jewish people rebelled against Rome and in 70AD the city was besieged and almost completely destroyed by the Roman forces under Titus. The Temple, Herod's most splendid building, was reduced to rubble.


And another thing...

'Beginning with the assumption that the biblical narratives were reliable historical sources, the researchers identified these ruins as features mentioned in the Bible. And they used the hypothetical identifications as archaeological "proof" that the biblical descriptions were true.
A prime example is the so-called "Stepped Stone Structure," first uncovered in the 1920's. It is an imposing rampart of fifty-eight courses of limestone boulders, extending for more than fifty feet, like a protective sheath or reinforcement over the upper end of the eastern slope of the City of David. Later excavations by Kenyon and by Shiloh discovered a network of stone terraces beneath it, probably constructed in order to stabilize and expand the narrow flat surface on the spine of the ridge, and perhaps to support a large structure built there. The early excavators suggested that the Stepped Stone Structure was part of the fortification of the Jebusite city that David conquered.....
Yet the pottery retrieved from within the courses of the Stepped Stone Structure included types of the Early Iron Age to the ninth or even early eighth centuries BC. It seems therefore that this monument was constructed at least a century later than the days of David and Solomon. Who used it, when exactly, and for what purpose still remains - archaeologically, at least - a mystery.'

Quoted from 'David and Solomon: In Search of the Bible's Sacred Kings', Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman, p269-70

'Herod did not begin the real transformation of Jerusalem until about 23BC, when he had just won a good deal of respect in Palestine by his efficiency in providing food and grain for the people during the famine of 25-24BC. Many Jerusalemites had been ruined and were able to find employment as builders once work had begun in the city. Herod began by building a palace for himself in the Upper City on the Western Hill; it was fortified by three towers, which he named after his brother Phasael, his beloved wife Mariamme the Hasmonean, and his friend Hippicus. ..... 
The palace itself consisted of two large buildings, one of which was called Caesareum in honor of Octavian, which were joined by enchanting water gardens, where the deep canals and cisterns were lined with bronze statues and fountains. Herod seems to have also redesigned the streets of the Upper City into a gridded system, which made traffic and town planning easier. In addition, the Upper City had a theater and a hippodrome, though we do not know the exact location of these buildings. Every five years, games were held in honor of Augustus, which drew crowds of distinguished athletes to Jerusalem.'

Quoted from 'Jerusalem, One City, Three Faiths', Karen Armstrong, p128


Ground plans, excavations, information: BIBLE ARCHITECTURE: JERUSALEM

King Solomon's Temple, King Herod's Temple: BIBLE BUILDINGS

Solomon's Palace in Jerusalem: BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY: PALACES

For  information on Jerusalem in later centuries, see ISLAMIC ARCHITECTUREJerusalem

See other fascinating links between 
Archaeology and the Bible



  Jerusalem  - Archaeology of The Bible - Bible  Study Resource: Jerusalem, city of King David and the Jewish People in Old and New Testament times


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