Digging the Bible

The Palace of King David (Or Not)
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Jan. 15 2008 7:44 AM

Digging the Bible

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I am squinting through a metal grate at the outline of a stone wall a dozen feet below me. This wall is the remains of what definitely is or possibly might be or is laughably unlikely to be the palace of King David.

David Plotz David Plotz
David Plotz, the deputy editor of Slate, is working on a book based on his "Blogging the Bible" series.

Don't shout this in the pews on Sunday, but when it comes to the fun parts of the Bible—from the Garden of Eden to the Battle of Jericho—the "facts on the ground," to use a favorite Israeli expression, are scarce. Archaeologists have discovered no significant evidence for Noah's flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob. They don't believe Jews were enslaved in Egypt, wandered in the desert, or conquered the Promised Land. Plenty of evidence has survived about later parts of the Hebrew Bible—the cut-rate monarchs and latecomer generals in the books of Kings—but the great Bible heroes remain stuck in the world of myth.

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Which is why it was so astonishing when Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazar announced in 2005 that she had discovered what she believes to be the palace of King David, in an Arab settlement just south of Jerusalem's Old City walls. Mazar claimed that the massive walls I'm looking at and the pottery shards found alongside them indicate that a monumental building was erected here around the 10th century B.C., the time of David. This was Israel's most controversial and exciting biblical discovery in many years. To find the house of David, one of the Bible's most vivid heroes, a man who talked to God, killed giants, and unified Israel—that was like winning the Bible lottery. And David's palace has its own spectacular little cameo in the Bible: David is strolling on the roof of his palace when he spies beautiful Bathsheba taking a bath.

Assuming it is the palace of David, which many archaeologists doubt. My companion for the day, David Ilan, stares through the grate with a skeptical look on his face. "I see walls," says Ilan, who directs the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. "But the evidence is ambiguous. I look and I see shards and something that seems like a building that may be from the ninth or 10th century, but that is as much as I can tell you. Eilat found what she was looking for. You have a biblical text and an archaeologist who wants to find David's palace, and bang, there it is." Ilan cites evidence that the palace dates from a century after David's death and emphasizes that Mazar did not find written inscriptions or intact pottery vessels that would connect the building to the king.

"Probably 20 percent of archaeologists would say, yes, it is the palace of David. And 10 percent would say, no, it definitely isn't. And 70 percent of us would say we don't know."

The raging conflict over the palace of David is just the latest battle in the centuries-long war over the Bible, politics, and authenticity. Religious explorers have long found what they wanted to find in the Holy Land. In 1883, for example, Gen. Charles "Chinese" Gordon, stood on the walls of Jerusalem and "discovered" the site of Jesus' burial. The Garden Tomb is visited by millions of Christian tourists today, despite no actual evidence that Jesus was laid to rest there. Another famous Christian site in Jerusalem, the Via Dolorosa, is equally problematic: Jesus could not have walked it, since the road didn't exist until a century after his death.

Today, the battles over Biblical archaeology have enormous political implications, none more so than the disagreement over the palace of David. The palace of David is located in an archaeological park called the "City of David," which occupies a hill just below the Old City. The City of David is where the original town of Jerusalem was situated 4,000 years ago. But today, the City of David archaeological park sits right in the middle of Silwan, an Arab settlement captured by Israel from Jordan in 1967. Israel considers Silwan part of Israel; the international community generally says it isn't.

So it's impossible to separate archaeology and politics at the City of David. The park and its excavations are funded by a right-wing, pro-settlement group that aims to take back the City of David for Jews and has already helped move Jewish settlers into Silwan. This disturbs Ilan, who views it as a politicization of biblical archaeology, putting it in service of Israeli nationalism.

But enough politics—back to the sightseeing. Whether or not the palace of David is the palace of David, the City of David is a wonderland of biblical archaeology. Ilan and I tour through the archaeological park, walking amid, beneath, and around the Palestinian homes alongside the dig. Here's an ancient house perched on the hillside beneath the (possible) palace. Ilan points to the right of the house. There, clear as a Jiffy John, is an ancient outhouse. Some archaeologists excavated the sump beneath it and learned which parasites and lice were feasting on Jerusalemites 2,500 years ago. We walk through a recent discovery, the enormous fortification protecting the town spring from invaders. Its towers were built 600 years before David would have conquered the city.

Putative Bible, possible Bible, and actual Bible—they're all here. We peer down a stone shaft above the spring. Some early archaeologists, says Ilan, speculated that this hole—"Warren's Shaft"—is the site of one of the most daring battles of the Bible. According to 2 Samuel, Chapter 5, David conquered Jerusalem by infiltrating a commando team into the city via a water shaft. Was this where David's Delta Force penetrated the city? Almost certainly not, says Ilan, but it's a fun story.

Then he shows me a tunnel with a more solid biblical provenance. Second Kings, Chapter 20 describes how King Hezekiah of Judah dug a water tunnel, perhaps helping Jerusalem withstand an Assyrian siege in 701 B.C. And there it is, a tunnel that bores almost 2,000 feet through solid rock, channeling water from the spring to a protected pool on the far side of the town.

Ilan and I take a back way out of the City of David, putting us in the heart of Arab Silwan. He wants me to see the modern conflict up close. Ilan points up at a hillside that's right in the heart of the City of David. At the bottom of the slope stands a row of Palestinian houses. Above those houses is an old stone wall. Above the wall are several new houses, built by Israeli settlers. The stone barrier, Ilan says, may well be part of Nehemiah's famous wall, as rebuilt by the Byzantines. The building of Nehemiah's wall is practically the last event in the Hebrew Bible. In the middle of the fifth century B.C., the Persian emperor dispatched Nehemiah to restore Jerusalem and rebuild its walls. That is the moment when Jews returned from exile to take back their city, Jerusalem, and build it stronger than ever. Not surprisingly, this episode has been powerfully symbolic for Israelis, particularly at the founding of the state in 1947 and the recapture of Jerusalem in 1967. (Just a few days after I visit, Eilat Mazar announces that she has indeed discovered the remains of Nehemiah's wall in the City of David.)

While I'm staring up at the wall, I remember something else from the Nehemiah story. As Nehemiah rebuilds the walls, he is jeered and attacked by an Arab rival. In fact, this is the only Arab identified as an Arab in the whole Bible. When Geshem the Arab catcalls him, Nehemiah responds, "You have no share or claim or historic right in Jerusalem."

It is grim almost to the point of comedy that here we are 2,500 years later, and there is the wall, Arabs on one side, Jews on the other, still fighting the same fight.