A Dig Into Jerusalem's Past Fuels Present-Day Debates

Archaeologist Eilat Mazar, guided by the Bible, believes she has uncovered the palace of King David on this site outside Jerusalem's Old City. Others disagree.
Archaeologist Eilat Mazar, guided by the Bible, believes she has uncovered the palace of King David on this site outside Jerusalem's Old City. Others disagree. (By Hosatte Jean-marie -- Gamma Via Newscom)
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 2, 2005

JERUSALEM -- Down the slope from the Old City's Dung Gate, rows of thick stone walls, shards of pottery and other remains of an expansive ancient building are being exhumed from a dusty pit.

The site is on a narrow terrace at the edge of the Kidron Valley, which sheers away from the Old City walls, in a cliffside area the Bible describes as the seat of the kings of ancient Israel.

What is taking shape in the rocky earth, marked by centuries of conquest and development, is as contested as the neighborhood of Arabs and Jews encircling the excavation. But the Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazar believes the evidence she has uncovered during months of excavation and biblical comparison points to an extraordinary discovery.

She believes she has found the palace of King David, the poet-warrior who the Bible says consolidated the ancient Jewish kingdom around the 10th century B.C. and expanded its borders to encompass the Land of Israel. Others are doubtful.

"There is sometimes a reality, a very precise reality, though maybe not all true, described in the Bible," Mazar said. "This is giving the Bible's version a chance."

Mazar's find is emerging at the nexus of history, religion and politics, volatile forces that have guided building, biblical scholarship and war in this city for millennia. Even before the findings have been assembled in a scientific paper, the discovery is prompting new thinking about when Jerusalem rose to prominence, the nature of the early Jewish kingdom, and whether the Bible can be used as a reliable map to archaeological discovery.

Only a small fraction of the structure has been exposed. But it is yielding rare clues to the early development of Jerusalem, long debated within Israel's university archaeology departments.

Some archaeologists believe Jerusalem was no more than a tiny hilltop village when it served as David's capital. The discovery of a palace or other large public building from David's time would strengthen the opposing view that he and his son, Solomon, presided over a civilization grander than the collection of rural clans some historians say made up the Jewish kingdom.

Whether David was a tribal chieftain or visionary monarch matters deeply to the Jewish historical narrative -- the story of a single people, once ruled by kings, and later dispossessed of its homeland until the modern state of Israel was created nearly 2,000 years later following the horrors of the Holocaust.

Palestinian leaders, who also claim Jerusalem as their capital, dismiss the ancient story as politically useful fiction. But given the palace's location on land Israel seized in the 1967 Middle East war, its discovery could be used to bolster the Israeli claim to the East Jerusalem neighborhood and increase Jewish settlement in the area.

The excavation, on land owned by a private organization that has been moving Jewish settlers into the Arab neighborhood, is being funded by a Jerusalem research institute that promotes policy to strengthen Israel's Jewish character and by a wealthy American Jewish investor.

Prof. Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University's Institute of Archaeology said Mazar's interpretation should be understood as the latest in a series of "messianic eruptions" designed to bolster the image of David as a ruler of an important civilization, an idea that has lost currency in recent years in part because of Finkelstein's writing against it.

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