Tourism News from Israel

THE FIRST TEMPLE PERIOD OPHEL CITY WALLS SITE IN THE WALLS AROUND JERUSALEM OPENS TO THE PUBLIC

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Wednesday, July 6th, 2011

The Ophel City Wall site in the Walls Around Jerusalem National Park – a complex of buildings uncovered along the route of the fortifications from the First Temple period (tenth-sixth centuries BCE) – is now open to the public, together with the display of the earliest written document ever uncovered in Jerusalem, on view in the Davidson Center.

 With the completion of the excavation and conservation work at the Ophel City Wall site, visitors will now be able to touch the stones and walls whose construction tells the history of Jerusalem throughout the ages.  It is now possible to walk comfortably through the built remains, in places that were previously closed to the public, to sense their splendor and learn about the history of the region by the signage and the different means of presentation and illustration.

 At the beginning of 2010, archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar completed exposing the Ophel fortification complex in Jerusalem. Immediately thereafter, conservation work commenced and the site was made accessible to the public. The conservation work was implemented by the Israel Antiquities Authority Conservation Department and lasted about six months.

The architecture at the site that was recently exposed includes an impressive building thought to be a gate house, a royal edifice, a section of a tower and the city wall itself. Dr. Mazar suggests identifying the buildings as part of the complex of fortifications that King Solomon constructed in Jerusalem: “…until he had made an end of building his own house, and the house of the Lord, and the wall of Jerusalem round about” (1 Kings 3:1). In addition to the fortifications of the First Temple period, sections of the Byzantine city wall and two of its towers were exposed. This wall was built at the initiative of the Byzantine empress Eudocia in the fifth century CE. In addition to the complex of fortifications, the excavation of two rooms from the Second Temple period (first century CE) was completed, which were preserved to a height of two stories.  

The highlight of the excavations is the complete exposure of the gate house. The plan of this impressive building includes four rooms of identical size, arranged on both sides of a broad corridor paved with crushed limestone. The plan of the gate house is characteristic of the First Temple period and is similar to contemporaneous gates that were revealed at Megiddo, Beersheba and Ashdod. The excavator, Eilat Mazar, suggests identifying the gate house here with the ‘water gate’ mentioned in the Bible: “…and the temple servants living on Ophel repaired to a point opposite the Water Gate on the east and the projecting tower” (Nehemiah 3:26). The ground floor of a large building that was destroyed in a fierce conflagration can be seen east of the gate. Mazar suggests that this structure was destroyed by the Babylonian conquest of the city in 586 BCE. Twelve very large, clay store jars (pithoi), which probably contained wine or oil, were discovered on the floor of the building. Engraved on the shoulder of one of these pithoi is the Hebrew inscription “לשר האו…”. The inscription indicates that this pithos belonged to one of the kingdom’s ministers, perhaps the overseer of the bakers. 

During the course of the excavation the earliest written document to be exposed to date in Jerusalem was discovered. This unique find, which is of extraordinary importance to the history of the city, will now be on permanent display to the public in the Davidson Center.  This is a very small fragment of a clay tablet engraved in Akkadian cuneiform script, which was the lingua franca of the time. Among the very skillfully written words that can be read are the words: “you were”, “later”, “to do” and “they”.   The tablet and the writing are typical of the tablets that were used in antiquity throughout Mesopotamia for international correspondence.  

Analyses of the writing and the clay used to produce the tablet show that the document originated in the Jerusalem region. It seems that it is a copy of a letter that the king of Jerusalem at the time, Abdi-Heba, sent to the king of Egypt. It was customary that a copy of this correspondence would be kept in the archives of the city Salem, which was Jerusalem in that period. The fragment of the tablet constitutes credible evidence of the status of Jerusalem as an important royal city in Canaan, which was administered as a city-state under the auspices of the pharaonic Egypt kingdom.