In July 2017 Israeli archaeologists excavated a rockslide on the eastern slopes of the ancient city of Jerusalem. Digging into centuries of sediment, they discovered a trove of priceless artefacts – and incredibly, they appear to confirm the Biblical account of the city’s destruction.
The discovery was made by the Israel Antiquities Authority, supported by the City of David Foundation – Elad. Established in 1986, Elad is a non-profit organization committed to the conservation of the “City of David” – an archaeological site believed to have encompassed ancient Jerusalem before its destruction.
Objects recovered from the dig include pottery, fish remains and bones, seeds and burnt wood as well as several ornamental artefacts. The craftsmanship of these pieces suggests that the former Judean capital was a sophisticated place at the time of its fall, with cultural ties to various distant civilizations.
For example, the artefacts included a small but exceptionally rare ivory statue of a naked woman with an Egyptian hairstyle. “The quality of its carving is high,” the Israel Antiquities Authority noted, describing the piece. “And it attests to the high caliber of the artefacts’ artistic level and the skill par excellence of the artists during this era.”
Dozens of receptacles were also recovered from the site, including jugs once used to hold liquids or grains. Significantly, one of them was marked with the symbol of a rosette, placing it within a specific timeframe – the so-called “First Temple Period,” which ran from the 10th century to 586 B.C.E.
According to Dr. Joe Uziel and Ortal Chalaf, excavation directors from the Israel Antiquities Authority, “These seals are characteristic of the end of the First Temple Period and were used for the administrative system that developed towards the end of the Judean dynasty. Classifying objects facilitated controlling, overseeing, collecting, marketing and storing crop yields. The rosette, in essence, replaced the ‘For the King’ seal used by the previous administrative system.”
Meanwhile, the excavations also exposed several structures that were previously hidden under the collapsed stone, indicating that the ancient city may have been much larger than was previously thought. In fact, the area beyond the city walls was believed to have been uninhabited until this recent discovery.
“The excavation’s findings unequivocally show that Jerusalem had spread outside of the city walls before its destruction,” said Chalaf and Dr. Uziel. “A row of structures currently under excavation appears beyond the city wall that constituted the eastern border of the city during this period.”
“Throughout the Iron Age, Jerusalem underwent constant growth, expressed both in the construction of the city wall and the fact that the city later spread beyond it,” they added. “In the current excavation, we may suggest that following the westward expansion of the city, structures were built outside of the wall’s border on the east as well.”
Meanwhile, numerous charcoal deposits have been identified in the excavated layers of the site, suggesting that Jerusalem was destroyed in a great fire. In fact, ancient Jerusalem suffered two major destructions, with the artefacts recovered from the site relating to its first ruination in 586 B.C.E.
At that time, King Zedekiah ruled over Judea under the Neo-Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. King Zedekiah, however, rebelled and made a pact with Egypt. Babylon then subsequently laid siege to Jerusalem in 589 B.C.E. and reportedly set it ablaze. In fact, an account of the event exists in the Bible’s Book of Jeremiah.
“[Nebuchadnezzar] marched out against Jerusalem,” begins the account. “All his armies went with him. It was in the ninth year of the rule of Zedekiah. It was on the tenth day of the tenth month. The armies set up camp outside the city. They set up ladders and built ramps and towers all around it.”
According to the Bible, the siege lasted for months, continuing until there was no more food left in the city. King Zedekiah apparently then fled Jerusalem under cover of darkness. Ultimately, though, he was confronted by Babylonian soldiers near Jericho. He was thereby captured and was said to have spent the rest of his days as a prisoner of Nebuchadnezzar.
Meanwhile, Babylonian forces under the command of Nebuzaradan apparently broke into Jerusalem and proceeded to sack the city. “Nebuzaradan set the Lord’s temple on fire,” states the Bible. “He also set fire to the royal palace and all the houses in Jerusalem. He burned down every important building.”
The account then goes on to describe the looting of Solomon’s temple. According to Jeremiah, the Babylonians broke up its massive bronze pillars – said to be 27 feet high and 18 feet in circumference – and carried them off. They also plundered 12 bronze bulls and a number of other gold and silver religious artefacts.
Royal advisers, temple guards and high priests were among those taken prisoner by the Babylonians. These people were transported to Babylon and were apparently put to death. Meanwhile, Jerusalem itself was left in ashes, although it was eventually rebuilt and repopulated, marking the start of the so-called “Second Temple” period.
Jerusalem’s second and perhaps more famous destruction came at the hands of the Romans in 70 C.E. The second temple, like the first, was destroyed; and it was eventually replaced by a Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter Capitolinus. Then, in the late 7th century, the Muslim Dome of the Rock would be constructed on the Temple Mount.
Meanwhile, the layer of ash and charcoal that was identified by the Israel Antiquities Authority confirms that Jerusalem was burned down – as well as offering one additional insight. The layer appears to vary in thickness from a meter to practically nothing. This suggests that Jerusalem burned unevenly.
“We think the Babylonians didn’t burn each and every building,” Dr. Uziel told Haaretz. “The process may have been to destroy certain points – they didn’t have to destroy every single building in order to destroy Jerusalem.”
Indeed, whether or not the Babylonians set every building ablaze, the first destruction of Jerusalem put an end to Zedekiah’s rebellion. And today, thanks to the hard work of the Israel Antiquities Authority, we are gaining rich new insights into that catastrophic episode in Jerusalem’s history.