I would like to take a somewhat radical, maximalist view of the size of Jerusalem when the Israelites (or, more precisely, the Judahites) returned from the Babylonian Exile and restored the city walls, as described in the Book of Nehemiah.
There is no doubt that the walls of the city were partly (but not completely) destroyed when the Babylonians conquered the city in 586 B.C.E. (see, for example, Nehemiah 1-3; 2-3, 17). They also destroyed Solomon’s Temple along with much of the rest of the city and deported its citizens to Babylonia. In Jerusalem, “Only the poorest people in the land were left” (2 Kings 24-14).
In less than half a century, Babylonian (or, more precisely, neo-Babylonian) hegemony would be succeeded by the ruler of the world’s new superpower, the Persians. Judah, including Jerusalem, became the province of Yehud. And a more benign ruler, Cyrus the Great, allowed the Jews to return to their homeland and its capital (see box).
For many of the exiles, life had become quite cushy in Babylon, and they elected to stay put. Others, however, returned.
Those exiles who did return were neither wealthy nor particularly skilled. But in the latter part of the sixth century B.C.E., under the leadership of Zerubbabel, they built what must surely have been a modest temple (that is, the Second Temple, which was later rebuilt by Herod the Great on a much grander scale more than 400 years later.) The returning exiles also restored the city walls, as described at considerable length in Nehemiah 3. The rebuilding of the wall was apparently completed in only 52 days (Nehemiah 6-15).
Archaeological evidence has led most scholars to conclude that this wall enclosed a small, impoverished community confined to the Temple Mount (on which the Second Temple was built) and the small ridge that extends south of the Temple Mount known as the City of David (see plan). This ridge still bears that designation today.
As its name implies, this is the area comprising the city when it was supposedly conquered by King David in about 1000 B.C.E. and renamed by him as his own city (2 Samuel 5-9).
This area has been intensely excavated for nearly a century, and the wall systems are clear. The earliest fortification wall enclosing the city dates from about 1800 B.C.E., the era scholars refer to as the Middle Bronze Age or MB for short (MBII to be precise). Another strong wall was built in the eighth century B.C.E. (the Iron Age), possibly by King Hezekiah, when Jerusalem grew in size and became the largest and most prosperous city in the kingdom of Judah. At this time the famous tunnel under the city, known today as Hezekiah’s Tunnel, was built to carry the water of the Gihon Spring to the southern end of the city.
Whether the MB wall was in use for a millennium (from about 1800 B.C.E. to c. 720 B.C.E.) is a matter of scholarly dispute. I definitely believe it was not. Jane Cahill, writing in these pages,a says that it was and that it served as a fortification wall during King Solomon’s time. We need not resolve that dispute here.
But almost everyone agrees that the poor community of returning exiles abandoned the mid-slope walls on the eastern side of the city (the Kidron Valley side) and built a new wall higher up the slope. They didn’t need the extra space, so the argument goes.
On the western side of the city, it is presumed that the wall built by the returning exiles followed the western edge of the ridge known as the City of David.
It is these two suggestions that I contest.
The second is more important than the first. The first point involves only a small area, but the second involves a very large additional area that I believe was within the walls that the returning exiles restored—not only the southeastern ridge below the present Old City (the City of David), but also the southwestern ridge (including Mount Zion).
To understand this argument we must understand the two wall systems that once previously surrounded Jerusalem—the Middle Bronze wall dating to about 1800 B.C.E. and the Iron Age wall built 1,000 years later. In a course on Second Temple period Judaism taught by the late Professor Joseph Klausner of the Hebrew University, it was said that he lectured only on the First Temple period. When the students complained, the professor explained that one cannot teach the Second Temple period without a proper introduction to the First Temple period. But once he had reached the end of the introduction, the semester as well had come to an end. That is somewhat the case here. One cannot understand the walls of Jerusalem in the Persian period, when the exiles restored them, without understanding the walls as they stood in the Middle Bronze and in the Iron Age periods. But I hope I will not conclude without explaining the walls restored by the returning exiles.
The Middle Bronze (MB) wall, it is correctly assumed, surrounded only the 10 acres or so of the southeastern ridge called the City of David. Sections of this wall were uncovered on the eastern slope of the ridge facing the Kidron Valley by British excavator Kathleen Kenyon in the 1960s, by Yigal Shiloh in the 1970s and by Ronny Reich and Eli Shukron in the 1990s.
On the western side of the City of David, however, almost no archaeological work has been done. The MB wall has never been found on the western side. We assume, however, that certainly the city was fortified on all sides and that therefore the wall must have followed the topographical line on the western ridge. At the southern point of the ridge, the wall simply curved around and proceeded up the western side. On the northern side, the boundary of the settlement was somewhat arbitrarily fixed by Kathleen Kenyon. Possibly the line should be a little to the north, but I believe it is essentially accurate.
The eighth century B.C.E. wall system, possibly built by the Judahite king Hezekiah, enclosed a much larger area, as archaeology has conclusively demonstrated. While excavators in the City of David found segments of the eighth century B.C.E. wall on the same slope where the MB builders constructed their wall, this does not demonstrate that the city greatly expanded in the First Temple period. That the city expanded was shown most dramatically, however, by the excavations led by Nahman Avigad in the present Jewish Quarter of the Old City and by various excavations in different parts of the southwestern ridge. It is clear from this and other excavations that during the latter part of the First Temple period, the city encompassed the southwestern ridge, including Mount Zion.
The unavoidable conclusion from all this is that a city wall was not built along the western slope of the City of David during the First Temple period,1 although the city wall of the Middle Bronze Age II settlement must have extended there, as it surrounded the settlement of the time. The large city of the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E. was protected by a city wall that included not only the City of David but also the Temple Mount, and most importantly, the southwestern hill. There was no need, however, to build a separate wall around the City of David.
We may now turn to the city wall of the Persian period restored by the returning exiles. As we have seen, the minimalists (including such eminent archaeologists and scholars as the late Michael Avi-Yonah, Yoram Tsafrir of Hebrew University, Hugh Williamson of Oxford University, Hanan Eshel of Bar-Ilan University and Ephraim Stern of Hebrew University) limit the wall of Persian period Jerusalem to the City of David.
There was no First Temple period wall on the western side of the City of David for the exiles to restore, however. The theoretical possibility that Nehemiah restored the Middle Bronze wall that had extended along the western side of the City of David and had gone into disuse one thousand years earlier does not make sense. As suggested by the maximalists (including Pere Hugues Vincent, Jan Simons and recently Meir Ben-Dov), I believe the returning exiles restored the walls of the First Temple period city that enclosed the large area of King Hezekiah’s Jerusalem.
Another reason why I believe the Persian period city was not confined to the City of David relates to the city’s gates.2 At least seven gates are mentioned in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. In walled cities, the city gate forms the weakest point in the defense line. Hence, smaller cities like Megiddo and Lachish had only a single city gate. Larger cities, such as Bronze Age Hazor and Ebla, had several city gates located along various parts of the city wall. Jerusalem of the First Temple period, which spread across several hills, must have had city gates situated in different parts of the city wall at a fair distance from one another. It would be very unlikely, however, that a city of 10 or 12 acres—the size of the city of David—would have more than one, or possibly two gates. Surely it would not have had seven. Such a large number of city gates would much better fit a larger city, as the gates would then be located at a considerable distance from one another.
The major argument against this position is that very few remains of the Persian period have been found in excavations carried out in different parts of the area enclosed in the First Temple period walls.3 This, it is argued, would indicate that the southwestern hill, which includes Mount Zion, was not included in the settled area during the Persian period.
The answer to this argument is that not all of the area within the Persian period walls was inhabited by the few returning exiles. Large areas of the city remained unpopulated. Most of the returning exiles lived in the City of David and the area near the Temple Mount.
The exiles’ return to Jerusalem was first and foremost a symbolic, national and political act.4
The scenario I am painting, moreover, is consistent with the Biblical account- “The city was large and spacious; there were few people in it and no houses had yet been built” (Nehemiah 7-14). That living in Jerusalem at this time was a symbolic act is indicated by the fact that few of the returning exiles wanted to reside here—and those that did were blessed. As the Bible describes the situation- “The leaders of the people settled in Jerusalem; and the rest of the people cast lots to bring one in every ten to live in Jerusalem, the holy city, while the remaining nine lived in other towns. And the people gave their blessing to all those who volunteered to live in Jerusalem” (Nehemiah 11-1–2).
Jerusalem in the Persian period is not the only case in which a large city includes many unsettled areas surrounded by a strong city wall. A similar situation existed, for example, in Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, in the period just before its conquest by the Ottoman Turks in ‘3 C.E. Steven Runciman vividly describes the situation in Constantinople at that time- “The city itself, within its fourteen miles of encircling walls, had even in its greatest days been full of parks and gardens, dividing the various quarters. But now many quarters had disappeared, and fields and orchards separated those that remained. [To one observer in the first years of the 15th century,] it was astounding that so huge a city should be so full of ruins.”5
Persian period Jerusalem was much the same- A magnificent metropolis, heavily fortified, which, due to tragic historical circumstances, was emptied of the majority of its population, while the walls encircled an area as large as it had been before.
This leaves me with one small point concerning the location of the Persian period wall on the eastern slope of the City of David, where large portions of the MB wall have been found, as well as portions of the eighth-century B.C.E. wall (in places a double wall). Kenyon uncovered a structure further up the slope that she identified as the new wall built in the Persian period. According to the minimalists, the exiles constructed here a new wall rather than restoring the old one further down the slope. In my view, here, too, Nehemiah restored the line of the previously existing First Temple wall- Even on the difficult lower slope, it would be easier to restore the wall than to build an entirely new one upslope.
1. The little archaeological work that has been done on the western slope of the City of David tends to substantiate this view. In 1927, J.W. Crowfoot excavated a wide trench, oriented from east to west, across the Tyropoeon Valley that separates the City of David from Mount Zion on the west. He uncovered a massive structure at the lower edge of the western slope of the City of David, which he identified as a gatehouse constructed in the Bronze Age and used until the Roman period. In my view, however, analysis of the data indicates, that this is probably a massive substructure of a large edifice that was not preserved, rather than a city gate. The construction of such a substructure was necessary in view of the steep slope and narrowness of the ravine at this spot. In any event, it appears that the structure postdates the Persian period. I will be publishing my detailed analysis of the data in a scholarly journal in the future. While it may be difficult to determine the precise function of the structure this substructure was built to support, it is clear that it was not a gatehouse as suggested by Crowfoot. In short, Crowfoot found no evidence for a First Temple wall on the western slope of the City of David.
2. Recently Meir Ben-Dov independently reached similar conclusions.
3. I refer to excavations on the southwestern hill, Mount Zion, the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, the Armenian Quarter and the Ottoman Citadel.
4. I am indebted to Axel Knauf for this suggestion.
5. Steven Runciman, The Fall of Constantinople 1453 (Cambridge- Cambridge Univ. Press, 1965), pp. 9–10.