The Mists of Antiquity 2000-1000 BC, Teddy Kollek and Moshe Pearlman, Jerusalem: Sacred City of Mankind, Steimatzky Ltd., Jerusalem, 1991.
Jerusalem, with a recorded history of some four thousand years, has been more familiar to more people for a longer period than any other place on earth. It is a city of enchantment, perched high amid the Judean hills, some forty miles inland from the Mediterranean coast. It stands in the centre of Israel, roughly midway between the country’s southern tip, Eilat, gateway to the Red Sea, and Metullah, in the north, on the Lebanese border.
This is the city of David, who in the tenth century BC unified the country and proclaimed Jerusalem the capital. This is the city of Solomon’s Temple. This is the city where the giant prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah uttered thoughts which influenced the moral and religious attitudes of half the human race. This was the scene of Jesus’ last ministry, and here that he was crucified. Moslems, too, consider Jerusalem holy, believing it to be the site from which Mohammed ascended to heaven.
The history of Jerusalem from earliest times is the history of man, a history of war and peace, of greatness and misery, of splendor and squalor, of lofty wisdom and of blood flowing in the gutters. But the golden thread, the consistent theme running through that history, is the unshakeable association of the Jewish people with the city.
The story of this association is repeatedly interrupted by a succession of conquerors—Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Seleucids, Romans, Moslem Arabs, Seljuks, Crusaders, Saracens, Mamelukes, and Ottomans. Yet throughout the three thousand years since David made it the seat of Israel’s authority, the spiritual attachment of the Jews to Jerusalem has remained unbroken. It is a unique attachment.
Throughout the centuries of their dispersion, in whatever far corner of the earth they found themselves, the Jews prayed for the return to Zion, the biblical synonym for Jerusalem. Their synagogues, wherever in the world they were built, were oriented towards Jerusalem (and the practice is followed to this day). When a Jew built a house, part of a wall would be left unfinished to symbolize the temporary nature of the dwelling—until the owner could return to Jerusalem. History has no parallel to this mystic bond. Without it, there would be no State of Israel today.
Archaeologists and historians have long wondered why Jerusalem should have been established where it was, and why it should have become great. It enjoys none of the physical features which favored the advancement and prosperity of other important cities in the world. It stands at the head of no great river. It overlooks no great harbour. It commands no great highway and no cross-roads. It is not close to abundant sources of water, often the major reason for the establishment of a settlement, though one main natural spring offered a modest supply. It possesses no mineral riches. It was off the main trade routes. It held no strategic key to the conquest of vast areas prized by the ancient warring empires. Indeed, it was blessed with neither special economic nor topographic virtues which might explain why it should ever have become more than a small, anonymous mountain village with a fate any different from that of most contemporary villages which have long since vanished.
It had, and still retains, certain qualities not given to all settlements. It is a city of beauty, its hilly landscape wild and rugged. It is suffused with color, the soft hues of autumn and spring, the sharp pigments of a cloudless summer. It enjoys a most equable climate. Even on the hottest day, the heat is dry. The nights are always cool. The air is fresh. There is a luminous quality to the light. Strangers from other climes feel as though a film were suddenly removed from their eyes. Often throughout the year, with the going down of the sun, a halo of radiance briefly crowns the hilltops before darkness closes in. Perhaps this awed the ancients and moved them to religious wonder.
These features are a boon to inhabitants and visitors. Allied to the height of the location, which gave it a degree of natural defense, and the presence of some water, they explain perhaps why Jerusalem should have been a feasible and attractive site of early settlement—but not why it should have become important.
The importance of Jerusalem sprang from the cultural geniuses of old, the Jewish philosopher-kings and biblical prophets, who made Jerusalem their centre. From Jerusalem they gave forth their wisdom to the world—and changed it. As Isaiah proclaimed- “For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” Monotheism, the concept of good and evil, brotherly love, and the rule of law, these were the challenging precepts of the ancient Hebrews. Jerusalem was the platform from which they were launched.
The origins of the city are lost in the mists of antiquity, but from the style and make of pottery discovered on and around the site, and by additional scientific reasoning, archaeologists have concluded that the first settlement was established at the beginning of the third millennium BC. Its first appearance in the written records occurred a thousand years late, at the beginning of the second millennium BC, as a city of the Canaanites.
At that time, the land of Canaan was not a unified country but an agglomeration of semi-nomadic tribal confederacies and a few cities, each ruled by a “king” who was usually a vassal of one of the two great empires vying for hegemony of the Middle East. One was the Egyptian, in the south, the other was the Assyrian in the north. Canaan lay in between, and was thus a frequent battleground. Whichever empire was dominant at a particular period controlled Canaan. The vassals paid tribute to it, and were expected to be politically loyal to their overlords. They rarely were—particularly when they sensed that power was shifting, that the scales of strength were swinging to the other side, and that in the next conflict, the rival empire might win. This was always a cause of anxiety to the imperial monarchs.
One of the devices which Egypt used to keep her vassals in line was what has come to be known as the Execration Texts. Two sets have been discovered, and the Egyptian hieroglyphs deciphered. The first, belonging to the nineteenth century BC, are inscriptions on bowls. The second, written in the eighteenth century BC, are inscribed on clay figurines representing bound captives. These texts consisted of lists of names of distant cities and bound captives. These texts consisted of lists of names of distant cities and nomadic clans and their chiefs who were subordinated to Egypt. They are thus of considerable scholarly importance, since the existence of many of these cities at so early a period of history would not otherwise have been known.
Through these texts, the Egyptians sought to exercise political witchcraft, an early form of psychological warfare, against their actual or potential enemies. Smashing the bowl or figurine was held to smash the power of the enemy whose name was inscribed on the pottery. No doubt the threat to do so was considered to be sufficient. The mood of the times was hardly one of skepticism towards witchcraft. The knowledge by a provincial “king” contemplating disaffection that it was in the power of the pharaoh to do him harm by violent execration might well have prompted him to think twice and possibly influence him to remain friendly to Egypt.
The name of Jerusalem appears in the nineteenth-century BC group of Execration Texts- “…the Ruler of Jerusalem, Yaqar-‘ Ammu, and all the retainers who are with him; the Ruler of Jerusalem, Setj-‘ Anu, and all the retainers who are with him;…” (In Egyptian hieroglyphs, Jerusalem appears as Urushamem. In the Akkadian tongue it was Urusalim). It has long been believed that Jerusalem means “City of Peace,” the Hebrew name, Yerushalayim, as it appears in the Bible, stemming from the two Hebrew words Ir, which means city, and Shalom, which means peace. Modern historians, however, consider that the derivation is probably yara, which means founded, and Salem, which was the name of the local god, so that the meaning would be “Founded by the god Salem.”
The city seems to have had strong religious associations even for its earliest settlers, and there are clues to this in the Bible. The Patriarch Abraham appears on the scene in the eighteenth century BC and he meets “Melchi-zedek king of Salem,” as recorded in Genesis XIV, 18. The Bible adds that Melchi-zedek was “the priest of the most high God,” which suggest a central place of the city in the religion of the time.
Zedek is the Hebrew word for righteousness. It appears to have been a standard component in the name of the priestly rulers of Jerusalem and supports the thesis of the city’s religious importance even in the pre-Judaic times. In the period of Joshua, the name of the king is given in the Bible as “Adoni-zedek” (Joshua X, 1). Here, incidentally, he is referred to as “king of Jerusalem;” no longer is Salem used.
The eighteenth century BC saw the decline of Egyptian power, due primarily to internal political dissension and weakness. The provinces were quick to take advantage of enfeebled imperial control. In Canaan, moreover, the semi-nomadic chieftains had begun to settle down, establish townlets and emerge as petty kings. Jerusalem in the previous century had been on of the few cities in the land–as is evident from the first group of Execration Texts. In that lists, there is identifiable mention of only Jerusalem and Ashkelon as towns in Canaan; the rest are names of nomadic clans. In the eighteenth-century texts, however, the list of cities is longer.
With Egyptian weakness, the kings of these towns felt increasingly independent, and pharaonic control, loose at best, virtually ceased. Jerusalem, too, at this time, took advantage of the lax central authority.
But not for long. Soon, the city was to become subservient once again—to a new master who came from the north. Disintegration in Egypt had been felt not only by the petty vassals in Canaan but, more important, by a powerful northern people called the Hyksos, whose origins are somewhat obscure. Their empire however is believed to have extended as far north as the river Euphrates. They were evidently well organized, and archaeological evidence shows that they had fashioned new military techniques by the use of revolutionary new weapons—the hose-drawn chariot and the composite bow. The chariot, used for the first time as an efficient tactical weapon, gave them a new mobility, and the new bow gave them heavier “fire-power” and greater range. No one at the time had anything to match these weapons, and the Hyksos were thus able to thunder down south through Canaan and Egypt, and subjugate them. The Hyksos’ mastery of the region was to last some hundred and fifty years.
In the middle of the sixteenth century BC, a revived Egypt began a series of campaigns against the northern empire and defeated the Hysksos. We know that towards the end of the fifteenth can beginning of the fourteenth centuries, pharaoh Amenhotep III, who ruled Egypt at the zenith of her civilization, was recognised by his only possible norhtner rivals, the kings of Mesopotamia and Babylonia, as sovereign of Syria, and drew the obedience of his Asian vassals. These included the vassals of Canaan. With the Hyksos’ departure, Egypt had re-established control over the country.
It is in the period of Amenhotep III and his son Amenhotep IV, otherwise known as Ikhnaton, who reigned from 1379 to 1362 BC, that Jerusalem appears in the written records as more than just the name of a city. From them we learn something of its political life. The records are the Tel el-Amarna letters, clay tablets inscribed in the cuneiform script consisting of the correspondence between the two pharaohs and the vassal princes of the Egyptian empire. (Amarna is the site where the royal archives were found. It was excavated in 1891-2.)
Eight of the letters are from the local ruler of Jerusalem, and are typical, with duplicity, intrigue, and cunning apparent beneath the fulsome veneer of sycophancy. Each vassal was suspicious of his neighbor, often with justice, and would write to the pharaoh affirming his own loyalty, charging the other vassals with treachery and vehemently denying any such practice on his own part. The ruler of Jerusalem at the time and signatory to the letters is Abdu-Heba, and he opens his first letter with the usual terms of self-prostration and adulation of the pharaoh, continues with a defense against the accusations of a neighbouring chief that he has been rebellious, and ends with a plea for help if his lands are to be saved-
“To the king, my lord- Thus Abdu-Heba, thy servant. At the two feet of my lord, the king, seven times and seven times I fall… They blame me before the king, my lord, saying- “Abdu-Heba has rebelled…” Behold…the arm of the mighty king brought me into the house of my father! Why should I commit transgression against the king, my lord? … Let the king take care of his land… The lands of the king have all rebelled; Ilimilku [the ruler of Gezer, west of Jerusalem] is causing the loss of all the king’s land… let the king, my lord, send out troops of archers…if there are archers here in this year, the lands of the king, my lord, will remain intact; but if there are no archers here, the lands of the king, my lord, will be lost.”
In his other letters, Abdu-Heba continues to repudiate the slanders against him, warns of continued threats to Jerusalem and repeats his pleas for military aid. Several of them, however, contain references to incidents which offer enlightening clues to the political, military and economic circumstances of Jerusalem and to the powers of its local ruler. One speaks of the revolt of the Egyptian garrison. Another complains that Egyptian mercenaries have plundered the ruler’s own house and almost murdered him. There is a reference to the tribute paid by Jerusalem- “I have sent gifts to the king, my lord, …captives, five thousand silver shekels and eight porters for the caravans of the king,” That Abdu-Heba could send a caravan to Egypt suggests a certain importance to his own status and that of Jerusalem. That it was sometimes hazardous, reflecting an absence of order in the country, is indicated by the cry in one of his letters that a caravan was “captured in the plain of Ajalon. Let the king, my lord, know that I cannot send a caravan to the king, my lord. For thy information.”
These are the last documentary records which mention Jerusalem until we reach the biblical account of the Joshua conquest in the middle of the thirteenth century BC. Jerusalem was not taken by the Israelites at that time. It was held by the Jebusites, a people whose origins have been the subject of considerable scholarly speculation but still remain unclear.
It is true that the first chapter of the Book of Judges says that “the children of Judah had fought against Jerusalem, and had taken it, and smitten it with the edge of the sword;” but biblical scholars explain away this apparent contradiction by suggesting an inaccuracy in the brief summary of previous events contained in the first sentences of this chapter. They are agreed that for the two hundred and fifty years between Joshua and David, Jerusalem remained in Jebusite hands.
Just about the time when Joshua was engaged in the conquest of the hill country of Canaan, another people were entrenching themselves in the coastal region. These were the Philistines, a “sea people” who are believed to have come from Crete and Asia Minor. They enjoyed a comparatively high standard of material culture, and were the first in the region to use iron weapons, which gave them the advantage over their adversaries. Palestine, derived from Philisitina, was on of the names by which the country was known thereafter.
Establishing themselves along the coast, they soon began to push inland in an obvious campaign to take the entire country. In so doing they came up against the tribes of Israel, and, indeed, the Book of Judges is full of accounts of conflict and battle between the two nations. The period of Israelite settlement following the Joshua conquest would have been slow and difficult even if conditions had been ideal. What was required was a complete change in the Israelite pattern of living, adaptation to an independent and settled life of agriculture after generations of slavery, years of wandering in the wilderness and fighting on the move. But conditions were far from ideal. And what made matters worse were the inter-tribal quarrels and dissensions. It was inevitable that the Philistines should have registered significant successes in attacks on the territories of individual tribes; and there were periods when the Philistines had the upper hand in the country.
These were not circumstances which favored an Israelite venture against the Jebusites of Jerusalem, and Jerusalem remained a hostile enclave within the Israelite settlement.
Eventually, however, the sharpening common danger from the Philistines led to closer cooperation between the Israelite tribes, and culminated in the general acceptance of a king, Saul, to reign over them. Monarchy was against the Israelite tradition, but it seemed the only means to secure the central authority necessary to meet the Philistine threat.
The early part of Saul’s reign, in the latter half of the eleventh century BC, was marked by a series of spectacular successes against the Philistines and some of the other hostile neighbors. But, from the biblical account, it seems that Saul was more soldier than statesman, a gifted leader on the battlefield but with little skill in fashioning a cohesive nation. With the immediate danger over, inter-tribal quarrels began to re-emerge, a feature which the Philistines, when they had recovered, were quick to exploit. Saul finally went down to defeat in the disastrous battle on Mount Gilboa.