Bible and Beyond
Lavish First Temple burial caves of Jerusalem’s elite became, in turn, Roman stone quarries, Byzantine hermit huts, Christian chapels and Muslim cellars

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As in Washington, so in Jerusalem- There are some sections you just don’t venture into. In Jerusalem one such section is the village of Silwan, on the eastern slope of the Kidron Valley opposite the City of David (the oldest inhabited part of Jerusalem). Silwan has a long reputation for filth and inhospitality. Since the early 19th century, travelers to Silwan (or Siloam, as it is also called) have written about this- Charles Wilson, the British explorer, noted, “The houses and the streets of Siloam, if such they may be called, are filthy in the extreme.” Wilson’s famous British colleague Charles Warren wrote, “The people of Siloam are a lawless set, credited with being the most unscrupulous ruffians in Palestine.” Even then this was an old story; one 19th-century account tells us that the villagers are “a vicious, quarrelsome and dishonest set of people, and noted for such propensities for centuries past.” J.L. Porter called them “lawless, fanatical vagabonds.”

In these circumstances, it is not surprising that few outsiders visited the village in times past. Yet these early explorers knew there were important ancient remains in Silwan, most notably a necropolis carved into the limestone cliffside beneath the dilapidated houses perched above. That the necropolis was not examined more carefully at an earlier date is certainly due in part to the inhospitable conditions that confronted explorers.

In 1899 the great French archaeologist Charles Clermont-Ganneau wrote that Silwan “deserves the archaeologist’s undivided attention. I am convinced that in it discoveries of the very first importance might be made by anyone who would take the trouble to explore it more thoroughly than has hitherto been done.” Regarding the cemetery, he went on, “I do not hesitate to express my own opinion, that this almost unknown necropolis is one of the most ancient, if not the most ancient of all those of Jerusalem. I earnestly beg future archaeologists to take it as the subject of their researches.”

In 1968, just a year after Silwan became accessible to Israeli archaeologists as a result of the Six-Day War, Tel Aviv University archaeologist David Ussishkin, assisted by his long-time colleague Gabriel Barkay, decided to take Clermont-Ganneau’s advice. Between 1968 and 1971, Ussishkin, working with Barkay, surveyed 50 rock-cut tombs in the necropolis, including the famous “Tomb of Pharaoh’s Daughter” and the “Tomb of the Royal Steward.” The Hebrew report of the survey was published in 1986. The English version has recently appeared, entitled The Village of Silwan, The Necropolis From the Period of the Judean Kingdom.a

The modern surveyors found working conditions not much different from the earlier explorers. According to Ussishkin, “Words cannot describe the filth we encountered. At that time there were no proper drains or sewers in the village and the sewage flowed in every direction, sometimes into the tombs and sometimes down the hill, often discoloring the tombs. The villagers were accustomed to relieving themselves outside their homes. Piles of refuse and junk were heaped up everywhere, especially in the tombs. Animals and insects, such as dung beetles and large spiders, could be seen in every corner. During the survey we worked hard to clean the open tombs outside the houses, but after a short time—sometimes only a few days—it was as if they had never been cleaned.”

Although the surveyors successfully maintained friendly relations with some of the villagers, others were extremely hostile, doing “everything in their power to hinder our work.” Ussishkin describes a woman into whose home three of the tombs were incorporated- “During more than two years, she would not let us into the house in order to measure the tombs. One of the tenants allowed Shmuel Moshkovitz to enter in order to draw the plan of the tombs, but very soon the owner appeared, and, screaming, threw him out together with his surveying equipment.”

In another case, when the surveyors uncovered a funerary inscription on one tomb, some villagers damaged it soon after its exposure.

Even when there was no hostility, working conditions were hardly ideal. Ussishkin concludes his description of his working conditions on a lighter note- “Vast numbers of children were naturally curious and clustered around us whenever we came to the village. The turmoil was unbelievable and the difficulty of investigating and measuring a burial cave with dozens of curious and noisy children and babies milling around, playing and screaming, can be easily imagined.”

The result was worth the effort. We now have, for the first time, a reliable, scientific description of these 50 tombs from the days when Israelite kings ruled in Jerusalem.

It is a major achievement, meticulously reported in a handsome book.

Except for the “Tomb of Pharaoh’s Daughter” and three poorly preserved monuments that are monolithic, above-ground tombs, all the tombs in the necropolis are caves carved into the limestone cliffside. The openings are generally rectangular and mostly square. The fancier ones are set off with a single or double frame cut into the rock. Originally the entrances were blocked with squared stones shaped to fit the entrance, like a plug, but these have long since disappeared. Once inside this opening, a short entranceway usually leads into the burial chamber—a smallish room with either a flat ceiling (the most common), a gabled ceiling (these have the finest stone work) or in one instance, a vaulted ceiling. In the more elaborate tombs, a cornice may be carved into the rock where the ceiling meets the side walls. Sometimes a second or third burial chamber is carved out of the rock behind or beside the first chamber. In a few cases there are even more chambers.

The entrance generally had a threshold from which to step down into the entranceway, as well as a lintel on which the ancient visitor could bump his or her head. At a later time, when the caves were occupied by Christian hermits, the thresholds and lintels were often cut away to make it easier to enter.

Inside, the burial chamber is often bare. In some cases, however, we find burial receptacles of various kinds carved into the rock—for example, a sarcophagus-shaped resting place carved out of the living rock, or a burial bench either sticking out from the wall or carved into the wall creating a kind of false window within the burial chamber. The burial benches may be on one side or on as many as three sides, creating a U within the burial chamber. In some cases the resting-places were meant to have a lid. Indeed, a fragment of one sarcophagus lid was found. In other cases, a burial trough was designed without a lid. Sometimes there are special omega-shaped head rests; the head of the deceased rested in the oblong part like a pillow, and the neck passed through the opening. In one case two such head-rests lay side by side, perhaps for a husband and wife.

The 50 tombs in the necropolis are situated roughly in two lines across the face of the cliff, one line above the other. This necropolis must have created a monumental impression when viewed, in ancient times, from across the valley in the City of David, at a time when there were no houses or debris to detract from the view.

Dating these tombs would appear to be a dubious venture at best. But Ussishkin has found enough clues to give us a confident date in the First Temple period, probably sometime in the eighth-seventh centuries B.C.E. He assumes that the entire necropolis belongs to a single cultural complex, so that clues from one part will apply to all. The clearest indication of this comes from four funerary inscriptions (all appear on the monolithic above-ground tombs). They are written in the ancient Hebrew script used during the First Temple period. One of these inscriptions—the “Royal Steward” inscription—may contain the title of a high-ranking official mentioned several times in the Bible; the script itself was not generally used after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E., which brought an end to the kingdom of Judah. This provides a reliable clue as to the date.
Other factors that help to date the tombs securely include stylistic features—the burial benches, the omega-shaped head rests, the contrast with stylistic features of Second Temple period tombs, the absence of combed chisel marks left by a toothed chisel, and other such data. One tomb (No. 28) was “remodeled” during the Second Temple period in the style of tombs from that later period (several loculi [kochim], long narrow niches for interment, were carved into the burial chamber); this “remodeling” provided a kind of “stratigraphy,” indicating that the original tomb was carved earlier than the Second Temple period.

The subsequent history of the necropolis was not a happy one. During the period of Aelia Capitolina (the name the Romans gave to the city they built in the second century C.E. on the ruins of Jewish Jerusalem, which they had destroyed several generations earlier), the Silwan necropolis was used extensively as a quarry. One might even say that Aelia Capitolina was built with limestone ashlars from the Silwan necropolis. The evidence of this quarrying is widespread. Many of the tombs were badly damaged. Some were almost completely destroyed.

Two other sites were also extensively quarried by the Romans at this time—one a Second Temple burial site known as Akeldama and the other the City of David, across the Kidron Valley from Silwan, where Jewish kings had ruled for 400 years. Ussishkin ruefully observes, “All three quarrying sites are located in places which have deep associations with the history of Jerusalem as a Jewish city.” In this quarrying operation is reflected “the profound political, cultural and religious changes which occurred in Jerusalem between the Second Temple period and that of Aelia Capitolina.”

In the Byzantine period (fourth through seventh centuries C.E.) and possibly in the Crusader period (12th century) as well, the tombs were inhabited by Christian hermits. An early 12th-century priest or bishop named John of Wurzburg who visited Jerusalem observes in his account that the “valley has many caverns in every part of it, in which religious persons live the life of hermits.”
By the 15th century the hermits were no longer there, having been replaced by homeless Muslims. In the late 15th century, Felix Fabri reported on his travels in the area-

“We … passed by many dwellings and cells cut out of the walls of rock on the side of the Mount of Olives, wherein once devout and religious Christian men dwelt; for the Mount of Olives is stony at its foot, and full of hollow caves in the rock, which caves were used by the ancients for sepulchres. In later times they were the dwellings of monks and saints, but now are abandoned alike by the living and the dead, save that in some of them dwell some most unhappy infidels, who for their infidelity can dwell nowhere else among men. We viewed these cells with wonder at the plain living of the saints of old, who out of their love for God and desire for Holy Land, shut themselves up among the tombs of the dead, and endured to dwell in tiny caves.”

The evidence of the Christian hermits’ habitation is extensive. As already noted, the hermits often cut down the threshold and raised the lintel to make the entrance more accessible. Sometimes they also widened the entry. The 20th-century surveyors frequently found sockets for door pivots in a newly created jamb, as well as sockets for bolts on the opposite jamb, with which the hermits secured the doors they fitted to their austere dwelling-places. Unfortunately, in enlarging the entrances, the hermits sometimes destroyed parts and perhaps all of First Temple period funerary inscriptions at the entryways. They also cut niches and shelves inside the tombs and even added rooms. In one cave a monk carved a puzzling installation that looks like nothing so much as a toilet.

On a higher spiritual plane, a number of caves were turned into chapels and fitted with apses for prayer. A number of crosses have been found carved in the rock, evidence not only of their devotion, but also of the Christian presence. In front of some of the burial caves, especially on the lower line of burial caves on a horizontal rock ledge at the bottom of the cliff, the hermits erected huts. In one case, the surveyors found a row of 11 holes that served as sockets for anchoring roof beams of a hermit’s hut. Other holes, although fewer in number, served the same purpose.

The most impressive, as well as the most conspicuous, of the tombs is known as “The Tomb of Pharaoh’s Daughter.” It is above ground and has the appearance of a rock-cut house. Not surprisingly, it was the first tomb in the necropolis to be studied. A drawing of it was published as early as 1804. A Frenchman F. de Saulcy studied it more thoroughly in 1851 and suggested its name- He thought it might be a small shrine built by King Solomon for Pharaoh’s daughter, whom the Pharaoh had given to Solomon in marriage (1 Kings 9-16). This is the only instance recorded in which a pharaoh gave a royal daughter in marriage to a non-Egyptian. In this case it was clearly a diplomatic liaison, reflecting Israel’s importance at the time.

In 1947 Nahman Avigad of Hebrew University proved that, as several scholars had previously suggested, the roof of the tomb had originally been ornamented with a pyramid. When he carefully examined the now-flat roof, removing the layers of earth that covered it, he found very small, but quite clear, remains of the base of the pyramid. The pyramid began about a foot from the edge and rose at an incline of 45 degrees. The pyramid was cut down as part of the Aelia Capitolina quarrying operation. The quarrying process is still easily traced- A block was first marked and then a groove was cut around it. The block was then forcibly extracted from the base. The grooves from the lowest course of stone blocks are still visible on the roof of the tomb.

A monolithic structure, the tomb itself was created and shaped by stone-cutting both inside and outside, the sides having been hewn out of the adjoining bedrock. It is bordered on the side and the back by natural rock. Without its pyramid, the tomb resembles a stone cube. Around the roof on the front and the sides is an Egyptian-style cornice, consisting of a broad band that projects at the top, beneath which is a cavettob followed by a torus.c The entire structure bears strong Egyptian influence.

When the hermits occupied this tomb, they, as usual, lowered the threshold and raised the lintel in order to make a more accessible entrance. In thus enlarging the entrance, they destroyed a sunken panel above the entrance that contained a funerary inscription. The panel was slightly wider than the entrance, however, so about two inches of the panel have survived on each side. There are no letters on the right edge, but on the left edge is a clear resh (R) and part of another letter from which the original inscription, probably about 20 letters, can be dated, thus lending added weight to the evidence for construction in the eighth to seventh century B.C.E.

The most famous inscription from the necropolis of course is, or was, on the “Tomb of the Royal Steward.” Actually, there are—were—two inscriptions on this tomb, both poorly preserved. The shorter one, to the right of the entrance as one faces the tomb, probably applied to the additional chamber carved beside the main chamber. The second half of the inscription is missing, and that part probably contained the name of the person buried there.

The longer inscription, carved over the entrance, is more interesting and apparently applied to the main chamber. It resisted decipherment for nearly 80 years until 1953, when it was finally read by Nahman Avigad of Hebrew University. The inscription was discovered by Clermont-Ganneau in 1870, who immediately recognized its importance. He realized that the only way to save the two inscriptions on this tomb was to cut them out of the rock. But he first had to make a deal with the owner of the house, no easy task in Silwan. (Ussishkin assures us that “the difficulties which the descendants of the owner caused us a century later were no less troublesome than those which the head of the family had caused Clermont-Ganneau.”) Clermont-Ganneau finally made the purchase with the help of the British Consul, so the inscriptions were cut out and transferred to the British Museum, which paid £31 in expenses for it. They are still on permanent display there.
Although Clermont-Ganneau could read only a single word in the inscription, bayit (house), nevertheless, as Ussishkin notes, “with the quick flash of perception so characteristic of this gifted scholar, he immediately suggested that possibly the reading should be asher ‘al habayit—the Royal Steward—and that this was the tomb of Shebna [King Hezekiah’s Royal Steward].” When Avigad finally deciphered the three-line inscription, he confirmed Clermont-Ganneau’s reading asher ‘al habayit, or “Royal Steward,” and adopted his suggestion that the tomb belonged to Shebna. Avigad’s decipherment is accepted today by almost all scholars-

bhzw .psk hp nya .tybh l[ rva why [ … trbq] taz

rva mdah rwra .hta htma tmx[w [wtmx[] ma [yk]

taz ta jtpy

1. This is [the sepulchre of … ]yahu who is over the house. There is no silver and no gold here

2. but [his bones] and the bones of his amah with him. Cursed be the man

3. who will open this!

He “who is over the house” is a title; this literal translation can thus be more accurately rendered as royal steward. With personal responsibility for the royal household, the royal steward was the most important official among the king’s functionaries both in Judah and in Israel.

The theophoric name of the person for whom the tomb was cut ends in -yahu, the common suffix in Judah that refers to Yahweh, the personal name of the Israelite God (in the northern kingdom of Israel the suffix was yahs). Clermont-Ganneau suggested that Shebna was the royal steward who was buried in this tomb based on a passage in Isaiah. There, a royal steward named Shebna (whose full name is, presumably, Shebnayahu) is criticized by the prophet for preparing a too-elegant tomb for himself in the cliff-

“Thus said my Lord God of Hosts- Go in to see that steward, that Shebna, in charge of the palace-
What have you here, and whom have you here,

That you have hewn out a tomb for yourself here?—

O you who have hewn your tomb on high;

O you who have hollowed out for yourself an abode in the cliff!

The Lord is about to shake you” (Isaiah 22-15–17).

The prophet was convinced that there was no place in Jerusalem for this kind of ostentation.
The word amah in the inscription is somewhat of a puzzle. It is obviously a woman with some relation to the royal steward who was close enough to him to be buried with him. Avigad suggested that she was a slave-wife. Although she was inferior to the legally married wife, the amah’s rights were nevertheless safeguarded by law. Avigad hypothesized that an amah who bore children to her master could achieve a higher status than a legal wife who did not. In this situation a man might arrange to be buried with his beloved amah.

Yigael Yadin made what might be a more likely suggestion. The name amah also appears on seals of the period where it parallels ‘ebed, which literally means servant (and often appears as ‘ebed hamelekh, servant of the king), but is in reality a high royal official. Presumably, the royal steward (Shebnayahu) was an ‘ebed of the king. An amah, suggested Yadin, was the wife of an ‘ebed, much as the title “Lady” is given to the wife of a “Lord” in England.

William F. Albright proposed that an amah was a female royal functionary in her own right; this, however, does not seem as likely as Yadin’s suggestion.

Ussishkin concludes, “Undoubtedly, the Silwan necropolis is the most important cemetery in Jerusalem from the time of the Judean Monarchy.” In reaching this conclusion, he considers a number of other First Temple cemeteries, including the tombs at the École Biblique, which he nevertheless recognizes are grander and individually larger, if less important.d

Ussishkin also mentions two tombs investigated by Raymond Weill in the City of David, structures that some have suggested might be the royal tombs of the House of David. Ussishkin rejects this suggestion. Because they are without parallel, he questions whether they are tombs at all, despite the fact that, in the case of the larger one, at the end of the approximately 35-foot chamber cut into the hillside is a rock-cut receptacle for a sarcophagus. (Significantly, Ussishkin makes no suggestion as to what they might be if not tombs.) Contrary to Ussishkin, I would suggest that the very fact that these tombs are unique—indeed without parallel—as well as uncommonly impressive, supports the view that they were intended for royalty, rather than the other way around. Ussishkin goes even further- If tombs, they are not tombs even of high-ranking functionaries or other dignitaries because, he says, such functionaries and dignitaries would have tombs with “finer and more impressive” workmanship. Admittedly, much of the workmanship on these tombs is, as Ussishkin says, “crude and careless”; yet their overall appearance is unusually impressive. It is difficult to identify any single First Temple tomb that is as impressive as the larger of the two so-called Royal Tombs. Added to this, they are in precisely the area of the City of David where royal tombs would be expected. (As Ussishkin admits, “The fact that the royal tombs [of the early kings of Israel] were within the city limits is stressed in the Old Testament.”) The case thus becomes quite powerful that they are the royal tombs of the early House of David, despite the crude and careless workmanship. Interestingly, scholars seem to have accepted the identification of Shebna’s tomb largely on the basis of the Bible’s statement that this royal steward’s tomb is in the general vicinity of the Silwan necropolis, and the proposed candidate is a royal steward’s tomb; they are more reluctant to accept the identification of the early kings of Israel, despite the Bible’s identification of the site just where these unusually impressive tombs were found. Unfortunately, we have little if any monumental architecture that can be confidently identified with King David or his reign. It may be that at that early period, the Israelites had not yet developed the refined stone-cutting skills they would later display.

Although Ussishkin considers other First Temple cemeteries in order to assess the significance of the Silwan necropolis, he inexplicably ignores the quite similar rock-cut tombs opposite the Silwan necropolis on the other side of the Kidron Valley, in the City of David near the so-called Royal Tombs. (Ussishkin’s failure to consider these tombs casts doubt on his statement that “up to the present, no similar tombs [to the Silwan necropolis] have been discovered elsewhere in Jerusalem” [page 328]). These tombs in the City of David not only offer the closest parallels to the tombs in the Silwan necropolis, but they might well throw additional light on the nature of the so-called Royal Tombs. Neither the so-called Royal Tombs nor these other tombs in the City of David have been carefully studied in modern times. This remains a challenge for some enterprising graduate student to make an immediate name for himself or herself. Unfortunately, until recently the intifada (the Palestinian uprising against Israel) made the project somewhat physically dangerous. Hopefully, that will soon change.

Another contender for royal tombs, although of the later kings of Judah, is the First Temple cemetery at the École Biblique, where the workmanship is clearly the most elegant and refined of any First Temple tombs in Jerusalem. Here Ussishkin makes an interesting and weighty argument against the contention that they are royal tombs, a contention that has previously been aired in this magazine.e The École Biblique tombs have characteristic rock-cut cavities under the burial benches for the collection of the bones of the deceased, which were placed in the depository to make room for subsequent family burials. In the Silwan necropolis there is not a single rock-cut pit or cavity for the collection of bones, leading to the conclusion that the Silwan tombs are of a special character. They are not ordinary family tombs. The converse conclusion regarding the École Biblique tombs is that, although they are of excellent workmanship (superior to the Silwan necropolis) and impressively grand, they are nevertheless family tombs. This only goes to show that the tombs of high government officials may not display the highest quality workmanship. In short, the government officials buried in Silwan did not have tombs as grand as some of the family tombs in École Biblique. Perhaps that’s also true of Israelite kings who were buried in the City of David.
Ussishkin expresses the hope that his book “will give prominence to the need for suitable conservation work in the [Silwan] necropolis.” May the political situation soon permit this.

a. (Jerusalem- Israel Exploration Society and Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi, 1993), 364 pp., 211 illustrations, $48.

b. A cavetto is a concave molding with a quarter-circle curve.

c. A torus is a large convex molding, often used at the base of a column.

d. See Gabriel Barkay and Amos Kloner, “Burial Tombs from the Days of the First Temple,” BAR 12-02, and Gabriel Barkay “The Garden Tomb—Was Jesus Buried Here?” BAR 12-02.

e. See “Have the Tombs of the Kings of Judah Been Found?” BAR 13-04.