What Lies Beneath

From the top of the stairs, I peer into a cross-section of Jerusalem’s history.

“Who built Jerusalem?” asks Eyyal. He quickly follows this question with another. “Who didn’t build Jerusalem?”

The British, like the Ottomans before them, used the stone structure remembered as the Kishle as a military barracks and prison house. Rusted stubs tattoo the ceiling in geometric patterns. The bars were removed in the past decade, as were the floors. The archaeologists documented what they saw, preserved what they could, and then went vertical—straight down.

Image of the jail from here. Accessed 17 March 2015.

One can only imagine the engineering challenges of digging through and beneath a stacked stone structure that is nine meters wide, fifty meters long, and almost 200 years old. The integrity of the barracks had to be insured, and the lives of the excavators had to be protected. Concrete piers accomplished both tasks. They rise in pairs down the length of the building; they are the arms of Atlas supporting Ottoman groin vaults.

Note the old bars on the window (left). Poured concrete piers and the occasional I-beams stabilize the Kishle’s shell.

We step off the platform and descend the freshly painted stairway. With each tread, we walk back in time. Eyyal describes the continued challenges facing the excavators. After stabilizing the perimeter walls and roof of the Kishle overhead, a stratigraphic puzzle awaited them. Engineers of antiquity frequently reused, buried, and disturbed the remains of their predecessors. Pits, walls, vats, fills, and tunnels become tangled in a matrix of soil deposits. Following these relationships can frustrate the brightest of minds. I peer over the rail and muse: while this site may be special due to its location, it is not unique. Archaeology is dirty business. Archaeological interpretation may be even dirtier.

I write furiously, attempting to capture Eyyal’s narrative as he reels it off in a mix of Hebrew and English.

My own high-tech tools.

In the Crusader period, an existing fortification line was given height and girth. Arches on the eastern face of the excavations offer testimony to this work. As this area straddles the scarp of Jerusalem’s western hill, it is precisely where one would expect to find such walls. Contemporary with these Crusader-era fortifications are a series of square vats, suggesting some sort of local industry. As one possible explanation, Eyyal references the travel notes of one Benjamin of Tudela who passed through Jerusalem in AD 1170. The brave traveler describes a group of about 200 Jews who “dwell under the shadow of the Tower of David” and exercised a local monopoly on fabric dyeing (Find a translation of these comments here). I don’t ask Eyyal, but it would seem to me that trace analysis of the (plastered?) vat liners could easily determine dye compositions and even hues. The curious among us want to know what “season” of the “color me beautiful” palette the Crusaders preferred!

What lies beneath? Crusader-era arches are visible at left. Herodian/Hasmonean walls run out straight ahead.

Beneath the medieval remains are still earlier walls. Some aspects are Herodian (“of the family of Herods”). Others appear to be Hasmonean (“of the family of the sons of Hasmon”). Both might be termed “intertestamental” and were likely erected in the decades leading up to the time of Christ. I listen, but struggle to separate these phases in the offered interpretation. It is a ready reminder that stone walls themselves are always difficult to date. Only by locating diagnostic artifacts in association with such walls can temporal schemes be mustered.

Fortunately, remains from the deepest level of the Kishle are clearly datable. Here the face of a Iron Age wall emerges, one that is linked to the 8th century BC. This early work may be that of Hezekiah’s administration. If this conclusion holds, the wall would correspond with constructions thrown up elsewhere by this famous Judaite king (e.g., the “Broad Wall” or “Hezekiah’s Tunnel”). This furious building effort hints at local panic in the face of the rising Assyrian tide.

A jogging Iron Age wall (colored a fine hue of pink by me), likely built in the time of Hezekiah.

Eyyal’s description shifts away from the stones in front of us. He opens Josephus, a Jewish historian and contemporary of the Apostle Paul.

As the words of Josephus echo through the stones of the chamber I try to conjure up a vision: not of what is, but of what was. It is a vision of Herod’s palace from the time of Jesus.

“The king had a palace inwardly thereto adjoined, which exceeds all my ability to describe it; for it was so very curious as to want no cost nor skill in its construction, but was entirely walled about to the height of thirty cubits, and was adorned with towers at equal distances, and with large bed-chambers, that would contain beds for a hundred guests a-piece, in which the variety of the stones is not to be expressed; for a large quantity of those that were rare of that kind was collected together. Their roofs were also wonderful, both for the length of the beams, and the splendor of their ornaments” (War 5.4).