JERUSALEM An Israeli archaeologist says she has uncovered in East Jerusalem what she believes may be the fabled palace of the biblical King David.
Her work has been sponsored by the Shalem Center, a neoconservative think tank in Jerusalem, and funded by an American Jewish investment banker who would like to help provide scientific support for the Bible as a reflection of Jewish history.
Other scholars who have toured the site are skeptical that the foundation walls Eilat Mazar has discovered are David’s palace. But they acknowledge that what she has uncovered is rare and important – a major public building from around the 10th century B.C. with pottery shards that date from the time of David and Solomon and a government seal of an official mentioned in the Book of Jeremiah.
For nearly 10 years, Mazar thought she knew where the fabled palace built for King David, as described in the Bible, might be – just outside the walls of the ancient city of Jerusalem. Now she thinks she has found it, and if she has right, her discovery will be a new salvo in a major dispute in biblical archaeology – whether or not the kingdom of David was of historical importance.
For that theory, the Bible is a relatively accurate guide, but some question whether David was more like a small tribal chieftain, reigning over another dusty hilltop.
Her discovery is also bound to be used in the other major battle over Jerusalem. That is the disagreement about whether the Jews have their deepest origins there and thus have some special hold on the place, or whether, as many Palestinians believe, the notion of a Jewish origin in Jerusalem is a religious myth used to justify occupation and colonialism. Among those who subscribed to the latter view was the late Yasser Arafat.
Hani Nur el-Din, a professor of archaeology at Al Quds University, says that Palestinian archaeologists consider biblical archaeology as an effort by Israeli archaeologists "to fit historical evidence into a biblical context," he said. "The link between the historical evidence and the biblical narration, written much later, is largely missing," he said. "There’s a kind of fiction about the 10th century. They try to link whatever they find to the biblical narration. They have a button and they want to make a suit out of it."
Other Israeli archaeologists are not so sure that Mazar has found the palace – the house that Hiram, king of Tyre, built for the victorious king, at least as Samuel II, Chapter 5, describes it. It may also be the Fortress of Zion that David conquered from the Jebusites, who ruled Jerusalem before him, or some other structure about which the Bible is silent.
But Mazar’s colleagues know that she has found something extraordinary – the partial foundations of a sizable public building, constructed in the Phoenician style, dating from the 10th to 9th centuries B.C., the time of the united kingdom of David and Solomon.
"This is a very significant discovery, given that Jerusalem as the capital of the united kingdom is very much unknown," said Gabriel Barkay, a renowned archaeologist of Jerusalem from Bar-Ilan University. "Very carefully we can say that this is one of the first greetings we have from the Jerusalem of David and Solomon, a period which has played a kind of hide-and-seek with archaeologists for the last century."
Mazar, 48, is the granddaughter of Benjamin Mazar, a famous archaeologist with whom she trained. She got her doctorate from Hebrew University, is the widow of an archaeologist and has worked on and supervised dozens of digs on her own.
"Archaeology is technical, but you dig with a mind open to historical sources, and anything can help," she said, as she clambered over massive stones at bedrock. "I work with the Bible in one hand and the tools of excavation in the other, and I try to consider everything."
Based on the chapter from Samuel II, but also on the work of a century of archaeology in this spot, Mazar speculated that the famous stepped-stone structure excavated previously was part of the fortress David conquered, and that his palace would have been built just outside the original walls of the cramped city, to the north, on the way to what his son, Solomon, built as the Temple Mount.
"When the Philistines came to fight, the Bible said that David went down from his house to the fortress," she said, her eyes bright. "Maybe it meant something, maybe not. But I wondered, down from where? Presumably from where he lived, his palace. So I said, maybe there’s something here," and in 1997 wrote a paper proposing a new excavation in the spot, which is in East Jerusalem.
Mazar is building on the archaeologists who went before her, especially Robert Macalister in the 1920s, Kathleen Kenyon in the 1960s and Yigal Shilo in the 1970s and 1980s. Kenyon had found evidence of well-worked stones and protoaeolic capitals, which decorated the tops of columns, evidence of a large, decorative building.
David’s palace was the topic of a last conversation she had with her famous grandfather, who died 10 years ago, she said. "He said, ‘Kenyon found the protoaeolic capitals, so go and find where she found them, and start there."’ Five months ago, with special funding and permissions from the Ir David Foundation, which controls the site (and also supports Jews moving into East Jerusalem), and academic sponsorship from Hebrew University, she finally began to dig – finding evidence of this monumental public building dating from the time of David and Solomon.
Amihai Mazar, a renowned professor of archaeology at Hebrew University, calls the find "something of a miracle." He believes the building may be the Fortress of Zion that David is said to have conquered, and where he lived for a time, and which he renamed the City of David. "The interpretation will be debated," he said. "But the achievement is great. What she found is fascinating whatever it is."
Mazar is Eilat Mazar’s second cousin – his father was her grandfather’s brother. But he has his own reputation to protect, beyond any family loyalty.
There is a debate among archaeologists "to what extent Jerusalem was an important city or even a city in the time of David and Samuel," he said. "Some believe it was tiny and the kingdom unimportant."
The site of ancient Jerusalem, stuck between two valleys, on a ridge south of the Temple Mount – is very small, less than 10 acres. Israel Finkelstein, a renowned archaeologist, has suggested that without significant evidence of a 10th-century occupation, Jerusalem in this period was "perhaps not more than a typical hill country village."
In his book, "The Bible Unearthed," he writes with Neil Silberman, "not only was any sign of monumental architecture missing, but so were even simple pottery shards."
Eilat Mazar believes she has found a riposte: a large public building of that period, with at least some pottery of the time, and a bulla, or governmental seal, of an official – Jehucal, son of Shelemiah, son of Shevi – mentioned at least twice in the book of Jeremiah.