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Jerusalem Tombs from the Days of the First Temple, Gabriel Barkay and Amos Kloner, BAR 12:02, Mar-Apr 1986.

A few hundred yards from Damascus Gate and over the wall from the Garden Tomb, magnificent burial cave lies beneath a Dominican monastery.

Ancient Cemetery, JerusalemDamascus Gate, the most important entrance to Jerusalem’s Old City, fairly bustles with activity inside and out. Arab men in their robes and keffiyehs; Arab women in long embroidered dresses; priests from a dozen different Christian denominations, Eastern and Western, each with his distinctive gown or collar or hat; Orthodox Jews with long beards and black garb walking to the Western Wall of the Temple Mount to pray; young Israelis; and tourists from everywhere—all mingle and brush shoulders. As a dozen languages blend together, honking taxis and braying mules create a cacophony. Odors typical of Near Eastern bazaars—sweet Turkish coffee, roasted nuts, spices and sheepskin—float through the air.

As its name implies, Damascus Gate opens onto the road to Damascus, 140 miles away. In Hebrew, the gate is called Sha-ar Shechem, Shechem Gate, because the road also leads to Shechem, modern Nablus, on the way to Damascus.

Within a block of the gate, on the right going north, is a large, walled compound—the monastery of the Dominican fathers. Within its walls is not only the Monastery of St. Étienne (St. Stephen), but also the famous École Biblique et Archéologique Française, or the French School, as it is sometimes called.

Walking through the small opening in the massive monastery wall is like passing from one world into another. Noise and bustle are left behind and serenity and calm take their place. In the spacious gardens of the monastery, shaded by tall old pines, one hears only the sound of birds or the turning of an ancient folio page in the school’s world-renowned library. White-robed priests move silently amid columned porticos. The atmosphere is holy.

Although one is hardly aware of it as one enters the Monastery of St. Étienne today, the monastery compound sits on the slope of a hill. This hill is separated from the walled Old City to the south by Nablus (Shechem) Road, which runs along the outside of the wall. Toward the end of the last century, this hill was identified by the famous English general Charles George Gordon as Golgotha, the site of Jesus’ crucifixion. Today, the southern face of the hill is obscured by the East Jerusalem bus station. A Moslem cemetery occupies the summit. North of the bus station is the so-called Garden Tomb where, some have proposed, Jesus was buried. Still further north, the Monastery of St. Étienne adjoins the Garden Tomb.

In one of St. Étienne’s gardens a flight of stairs leads down to the monastery’s underground burial chapel. Here are buried some of the legendary figures in the history of Biblical scholarship, ancient geography and Jerusalem archaeology—Roland Guerin de Vaux, Louis Hugues Vincent, Felix M. Abel, Raphael Savignac, Charles Coüasnon—all Dominican priests. Their names reverberate in the hushed burial chapel as scant sunlight reveals the inscribed plaques on the wall behind which their mortal remains lie.

The burial chapel is, in fact, directly in front of another burial cave complex, a very ancient one. In 1885, shortly after the monastery was established here because it was the traditional site of the martyrdom of St. Stephen, this burial cave complex was excavated by the Dominican fathers. They found another burial cave complex near a church they were building in memory of St. Stephen. The cave complex behind the fathers’ burial chapel is called Cave Complex 1; the other, Cave Complex 2.

The results of these 19th century excavations were published by Roland de Vaux (1885), Marie Joseph Lagrange (1894) and Louis-Hugues Vincent (1926), who dated the burial caves to the Second Temple period (first century B.C. to first century A.D.) or the Roman period (first to third centuries A.D.). No special importance was attributed to the caves.

However, during the last 100 years, and especially recently, we have learned an enormous amount about burial caves and customs in different Biblical periods. On the basis of this scholarship, even a cursory examination of the tomb complexes at St. Étienne cast grave doubt on Lagrange and Vincent’s dating. It therefore seemed appropriate to undertake a thorough reinvestigation of these burial caves. In 1973, the authors, with the kind permission of Père Pierre Benoit, then head of the École Biblique, initiated a detailed survey of these caves (see the sidebar “How We Happened to Re-Explore the Caves at St. Étienne”).

The entrance to Cave Complex 1 is behind the altar of the modern burial chapel. The first room of the ancient burial cave is the entrance chamber. This entrance chamber measures about 14 feet by 17 feet. The ceiling is about ten feet high. These measurements are significant, and we will return to them later (see the sidebar “Measurements in the Bible—Evidence at St. Étienne for the Length of the Cubit and the Reed”).

Inside the doorway to the entrance chamber is a step that forms an additional threshold. In this rock-hewn step there are carved two three-quarter-circle sockets; these sockets originally held the hinges of a double door that controlled access to the burial cave. Steps like this one, with similar sockets, are known from various Iron Age II (eighth to seventh century B.C.) structures. They are usually found at palace throne room entrances—for example, at Arslan-Tash, at Zincirli (ancient Samal) and Tell Halaf in northern Syria; at Nimrud (Biblical Calah) (Genesis 10-11–12), and Nineveh in Assyria, and at Megiddo and Gezer in Israel. The implication, as we shall see again and again, is that this impressive cave complex dates to the First Temple period (eighth or seventh century B.C.), rather than to the Second Temple period (first century B.C. to first century A.D.).

A careful examination of the walls of the entrance chamber reveals that they are decorated with shallow sunken panels, rectangular in shape, that were hewn into the rock faces of the walls. These rectangular panels are probably stone copies of wooden panels that typically covered the walls of Judean palaces during the Israelite period. Until this discovery, archaeologists had not seen any Israelite or Judean palace (or other building) of this period with a preserved superstructure of walls. At best, they had found only wall stubs. The walls of this St. Étienne burial cave can therefore teach us a great deal about how palace walls were decorated in Iron Age II. Such decoration was probably used on the walls of Solomon’s Temple. In 1 Kings 6-9, we read that after Solomon finished building the Temple, he covered the walls with “beams and planks of cedar.” This is how the New Jewish Publication Society translation renders the passage, but a note to the verse tells us that the “meaning of the Hebrew [is] uncertain.” The Hebrew word translated as “beams” is gebim; for “planks” the word is sderot. Gebim probably refers to the sunken panels, and sderot to the raised strips between the panels. Who would have thought that an examination of the stone walls of a burial chamber would elucidate a hitherto obscure Biblical passage and would tell us how the walls in Solomon’s Temple might have been decorated.

Incidentally, this method of wall decoration continued to be used to the end of the Divided Monarchy (586 B.C.). Jeremiah prophesies against Jehoikim, king of Judah (italics added)-

“Ha! he who builds his house with unfairness

And his upper chambers with injustice,

Who makes his fellowman work without pay

And does not give him his wages,

Who thinks- I will build me a vast palace

With spacious upper chambers,

Provided with windows,

Paneled in cedar,

Painted with vermilion!

Do you think you are more a king

Because you compete in cedar?”

(Jeremiah 22-13–15).

It seems that the same wall decoration was being used in Jeremiah’s time.
Another point of interest in the entrance chamber is the cornice that decorates the top of the walls where they meet the ceiling. The cornice is carved from the rock, as is everything else in the burial cave. It consists of two strips running horizontally, the upper of which protrudes more than the lower. Cornices like this one have been found in other Iron Age burial caves. One such burial cave, known as the Tomb of the Royal Steward, was hewn for one of the highest ranking officials in the kingdom of Judah in the late eighth or seventh century B.C. Located in Silwan Village, the tomb lies across the valley from that part of Jerusalem called the City of David. An inscription deciphered by Professor Nahman Avigad identifies the Tomb of the Royal Stewarda and allows it to be securely dated to the period of the Judean monarchy. Other tombs with this same type of cornice were excavated at the site called the “Shoulder of Hinnom” overlooking the Hinnom Valley, next to St. Andrew’s church in the western necropolis of Biblical Jerusalem.

Another tomb with a similar cornice was found south west of Jerusalem in Khirbet Beit Lei, near Amatziah. An ancient Hebrew inscription in this tomb, published by its excavator Joseph Naveh, allows us to date the tomb with confidence to the Iron Age. Thus the St. Étienne cornice helps establish this cave complex as a First Temple burial tomb.

The entrance chamber of the St. Étienne burial cave, like its other rooms, has been carved with exceptional skill and care. This tomb complex was obviously the final resting place of an important and wealthy family. The walls are dressed so smoothly that we could not see any evidence of tooling. In Second Temple period tombs, by contrast, archaeologists easily recognize the work of metal-toothed chisels, or “claws,” which were used to finish the walls. The finely finished walls provide one more indication that the St. Étienne tombs must be dated to the First Temple period, rather than to the Second Temple period. Indeed, carefully dressed, smooth surfaces, especially on ashlar masonry, are typical of royal architecture in both the kingdom of Israel and the kingdom of Judah during the Iron Age.

The original 1885 excavation report includes a curious item. The excavators state that they found a metal box in a pit in the rear part of the entrance chamber. It was decorated with garlands and human figures in relief. Unfortunately, we could not examine this box—it has disappeared from the archaeological collection of the Dominican fathers. According to the excavation report, the box contained animal and bird bones. It is too bad this box and its contents have been lost because from it we might have learned a great deal about burial customs, as well as about art of the period. The box may even have contained a foundation deposit buried in the entrance chamber when it was originally hewn.

Leading off the entrance chamber are six additional rooms or chambers, two off of each wall except the entrance wall. This plan—a central entrance chamber with burial chambers around it—is found in several First Temple period burial caves in the kingdom of Judah. The Amatziah burial cave already mentioned was hewn on this plan. So was a burial cave at Khirbet el Kôm, west of Hebron, where Hebrew inscriptions scratched on the wall enabled the excavator, William G. Dever, to date it unequivocally.

Much to our surprise, in the course of our research we found that this same plan, and the same style of cornice we previously described, appears in the royal burial caves of the kingdom of Urartu (Biblical Ararat) at Van in Turkish Armenia. Both the burial halls and the cornice are much larger in the Urartu caves, but the plan of the halls and the design of the cornice are the same.

The rectangular entrances to the six chambers leading off the entrance chamber are decorated with a shallow frame carved from the rock. Each entrance is nearly six feet high, and with two exceptions, all the burial chambers are arranged in the same way. On the two side walls and on the wall opposite the entrance, burial benches have been hewn from the rock. The three burial benches form a kind of upside down Π (a Greek letter pi or the Hebrew letter het). During the First Temple period, bodies were placed on these burial benches.

Each burial bench has a low parapet about two inches high around its outer edge, carved from the rock, presumably to prevent the body and burial gifts from rolling off the bench. Headrests at the ends of the burial benches, also carved from the rock, indicate how the bodies were placed. The headrests are shaped like horseshoes. The two ends of each horseshoe are rounded and the central part is lower and flatter than the ends. The head of the deceased rested in the horseshoe, and the neck came through the opening.

There are four headrests carved on the three burial benches in each burial chamber—two headrests at either end of the burial bench opposite the entrance and one on each of the side burial benches. Thus, four bodies could be accommodated on the three burial benches—two on the back bench and one on each side. The headrests on the side benches were placed on ends closest to the entrance and opened toward the back of the chamber.

The headrests in the other burial cave complex at St. Étienne, Cave Complex 2, are slightly different. They are heavier and higher, with a curve at the two ends, reminding us of the wig typically worn by the Egyptian goddess Hathor.

Interestingly enough, Hathor appears on the famous eighth-century B.C. carved ivories from the palace at Samaria, capital of the northern kingdom of Israel.

Headrests similar to those found at St. Étienne are also known from the necropolis of the nobles in Silwan Village and in the western cemetery of Jerusalem in the Hinhom Valley as well as at the burial caves of Khirbet el Kóm, and at Sovah, west of Jerusalem.b All date to the First Temple period. No doubt the Jerusalem tombs were the prototype; the country folk at places like Khirbet el Kóm were trying to emulate the elaborate, elegant, beautifully carved burial caves that characterized sophisticated artistic development in the royal center of Jerusalem.

As our readers will no doubt have guessed by this time, burial benches arranged around the sides of the room are typical of First Temple period tombs. Second Temple burials, on the other hand, are entirely different. In the later period, burial niches (called kokhim; singular, kokh) rather than benches, were carved perpendicularly into the rock. In addition, the Second Temple period burial caves sometimes had shelves carved into the walls with ceilings shaped like arches; these are called arcosolia (singular, arcosolium).

First Temple period or Iron Age rock-hewn tomb chambers with burial benches on three sides are very widely distributed in Judah. They have been found at Beth Shemesh, Lachish, Mitzpah, Motza and elsewhere. There can thus be no doubt that the burial complex at St. Étienne dates to the First Temple period.

In each of the burial chambers at St. Étienne, a rectangular opening was cut into the side of the right-hand burial bench. This opening leads to an irregular, hollowed out area under the burial bench. This hollowed out area extends into the next room, under the left-hand burial bench of that room, so that the space under both side benches is utilized.

These hollowed out areas are repositories. When the burial benches were needed for the next generation, the bones and burial gifts of the earlier generation were simply scooped up from the burial benches and placed in the repository under the bench. These repositories explain the Biblical phrases in which the deceased are “gathered unto their fathers” (e.g., Judges 2-10; 2 Kings 22-20) or “buried with his fathers” (e.g., 2 Kings 8-24) or “slept with his fathers” (e.g., 2 Kings 13-13). The bones of each generation were literally collected and added to the pile of bones of the forefathers. Bones have even been found in the repositories at St. Étienne, although we cannot tell whether they are from the original burials or from later burials, since the caves were reused in the Byzantine period (fifth and sixth centuries A.D.), more than a thousand years after their original use.

One room in Cave Complex 1 at St. Étienne is special. It is the right-hand room on the wall opposite the entrance to the entrance chamber. There are only two burial benches in it, one on either side of the room. These burial benches are larger than usual, and each has two headrests, one on either end, as if each burial bench was intended for a couple. The ceiling of this chamber is higher than the other rooms and certain decorative elements recall the elegance of the entrance chamber- a double cornice was carved at the top of the wall, and sunken panels were carved into the wall leading from this chamber to another behind it.

Between the two burial benches of this special room, a flight of steps leads up to the innermost chamber of the entire burial complex. This innermost chamber has no burial benches, but three roughly hewn sarcophagi are cut from the rock in the same arrangement as the burial benches in the other burial chambers. The same sunken panels used on the walls of the entrance chamber appear on the outer faces of the sarcophagi. Narrow shelves protruding from the walls just above the sarcophagi were intended as supports for stone slabs that once covered the sarcophagi. In this innermost chamber, there is no repository for bones. The bodies of the honored dead placed in these sarcophagi were buried here for the first and the last time. Their bones were not “collected” in later generations. Like the other “special” chambers of the complex, this innermost chamber also has a double cornice at the top of the walls.

If we look at the plan of the burial cave complex, we can easily see that the entire complex was organized so that people would walk directly into the innermost chamber, which was no doubt the most important room of the burial cave. We assume that the sarcophagi in this room held the bodies of the fathers or founders of the family. The rest of the immediate family members were buried in the adjacent rooms.

Another special room in this cave complex was the first room on the right after entering the entrance chamber. While it is larger and more elaborate than the other rooms, it does not include any burial installations—neither benches, sarcophagi, nor repositories. We assume that this room was used either for some kind of ceremony or as a room in which bodies were prepared for burial. In 2 Chronicles 16-14 we are told that when King Asa of Judah died, his body was laid in a resting place filled with expertly blended spices and perfumes. Perhaps this was the purpose for which this empty room at St. Étienne was used. It is interesting that in Cave Complex 2, a similar room was also found to the right of the doorway to the entrance chamber.

We now know that the two cave complexes at St. Étienne were part of a much larger necropolis north of Jerusalem in the First Temple period. Just south of the St. Étienne tombs is the Garden Tomb, which can now also be dated to the First Temple period (see “The Garden Tomb- Was Jesus Buried Here?” in this issue). South of the Garden Tomb there were two other burial caves published by Amihai Mazar dating to the First Temple period.

What accounts for the location of this necropolis north of the city? In 1970, Professor Nahman Avigad uncovered part of the massive, 23-foot-thick, wall that bounded Jerusalem on the north in the late eighth century B.C. Today this wall can be seen in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, far south of the northern necropolis we have been discussing. The Christian Quarter and the Moslem Quarter of the Old City lie north of this ancient wall and south of the northern necropolis. What was in this area in the eighth century B.C.? The words of the prophet Jeremiah suggest the answer; in the future, he says, a rebuilt city would include the extramural suburbs like Gareb Hill and Goah (Jeremiah 31-38–39). The prophet may well be describing the northern suburbs of Jerusalem, located outside the wall of the city before the Babylonian destruction in the early sixth century B.C.

During the eighth and seventh centuries, the population of Jerusalem expanded tremendously.c This is suggested by the Biblical text, and it has been confirmed archaeologically. The area north of the walled city was the proposed direction of expansion. With this increase in population, more burial grounds were needed. To the burial areas west of the city (such as the Shoulder of Hinnom)d and east of the City of David (in what is now the village of Silwan) we may now add the northern necropolis in the area north of the northern suburbs.

The two burial cave complexes at St. Étienne are the most elaborate and the most spacious First Temple period burial caves known to us in all Judah. Each covers approximately 10,000 square feet. We have no information whatever about the appearance of the tombs of the kings of the House of David. It may well be that the royal tombs closely resembled the burial cave complexes at St. Étienne, designed to hold the founder of the family and generations thereafter.

The burial caves at St. Étienne have enriched our knowledge of Jerusalem, provided us with an example of elegant, wealthy tomb complexes of the First Temple period, taught us about burial customs of the times, and even instructed us about the masonry and decoration of royal palaces, the use and length of cubits and reeds and something about the topography of Jerusalem. Surely this is adequate for the moment.

a. See “On the Shorter Inscription From the ‘Tomb of the Royal Steward,’” David Ussishkin, BASOR 196 (1969), p. 18.

b. Excavations and Surveys in Israel, Vol. 1, 1982 (Jerusalem Israel Ministry of Education and Culture, Department of Antiquities and Museums).

c. See Magen Broshi, “Estimating the Population of Ancient Jerusalem,” BAR 04-02.

d. See Gabriel Barkay, “The Divine Name Found in Jerusalem,” BAR 09-02.

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