First Temple dig reinforces status of Jerusalem as the true Jewish capital
By Nathan Jeffay, June 30, 2011
Another brick in the wall: the site of the First Temple excavations
Claiming one in the eye for the Palestinian trend of "Temple denial", Israeli archaeologists are preparing, for the first time, to open buildings from the First Temple era to the public.
In recent years Palestinians, including leaders of the Western-backed Palestinian Authority, have claimed in growing numbers that there was never a Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.
The new finds mean that not only can Israel cite archaeological evidence of the Second Temple but that it can also boast a major a complex of excavations from the First Temple, built some five centuries earlier.
The new excavations, which will open to the public later this month, give visitors the chance to see, and walk inside, a construction that is thought to have been commissioned by the king who built the First Temple - Solomon.
An etching of King Solomon by 19th-century engraver Gustave Doré
"This demonstrates the way it all happened and the biblical description is shown very nicely in archaeology," said Eilat Mazar, the Hebrew University archaeologist who uncovered the finds for the Israel Antiquities Authority.
Jerusalem is packed with important historical sights, but until now, if you wanted to explore the city's Jewish history through archaeological excavations, a whole era was missing.
You could walk though the history of Israelite arrival in Jerusalem at City of David, and explore numerous Second Temple sites. But there has been hardly anything on display from the time of Solomon.
At the moment, the Ophel City Walls Site, next to the Old City, has the feel of a secret garden, accessed only by workers who are making the place safe and the odd special visitor.
Reaching Ophel is exhilarating. Its finds bring to life the biblical accounts of Solomon's reign. The First Book of Kings recounts how Solomon had been focused on "building his own house, and the house of the Lord, and the wall of Jerusalem round about". Fifteen minutes on foot from the centre of modern Jerusalem, you are staring at more than 70 metres of what archaeologists believe to be this original city wall - dated to the10th century BCE - and walking around a large structure thought to have been a royal dwelling.
The finds further animate the Bible with an impressive four-roomed gatehouse, which was found complete with clay storage jars, one of them with a Hebrew inscription. Ms Mazar believes that this was a gatehouse mentioned in the biblical book of Nehemiah, which states that "the temple servants living on Ophel repaired to a point opposite the Water Gate on the east and the projecting tower".
Everybody knows that Solomon was important because - metaphorically speaking - he laid the foundations for the future development of Jerusalem. But these excavations show how he literally laid foundations for subsequent generations of Jerusalemites - you can observe how their builders used Solomon's construction.
There is part of a tower built in the Byzantine era, around the fifth century CE - and then, as your eyes follow the excavations down, you can see that it has been placed on foundations from Solomon's era. The joy of the excavations is that you do not need signs to see that there are different layers of history - you can see for yourself from the change in the kind of stone used.
The excavations at Ophel took more than two decades on and off, and Ms Mazar admits that she did not expect to ever see them completed - until American philanthropists stepped in with the necessary cash two years ago.
"It took 20 years but I am happy that this dream finally came true - I had personally given up on it," she said.
On the Israeli right, the opening of the excavations - which are located in East Jerusalem - is welcomed not only for rebuffing "Temple denial", but also for strengthening the argument against ceding East Jerusalem to the Palestinians. "Our future lies in the fact that we can reconstruct our past," said the city's mayor, Nir Barkat, a strong opponent of dividing Jerusalem, at the unveiling of the site last week.
One left-wing group, the Emek Sheveh archaeologists' alliance, has gone so far as to say that because of the political significance of the excavations, they should not be opened to the public.
The group's leader, freelance archaeologist Yonatan Mizrachi, released a statement casting doubt on Ms Mazar's confidence that her finds are from the biblical era, and arguing that opening the site to visitors constitutes "the exploitation of archaeological finds to reinforce Israeli sovereignty in the area".