• Hillel Richman

The Tombs of the House of David, Part I

One of the Greatest Unsolved Archaeological Mysteries in Jerusalem


In the early 1930’s archeologist E. L. Sukenik had been conducting research for a book surrounding the topic of ancient ossuaries (an ossuary is a stone box used for burial in antiquity). Part of his research involved examining forgotten artifact collections scattered in and around Jerusalem. In 1931, Sukenik visited the Russian Convent of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives. He was interested in a collection of artifacts compiled by the Archimandrite Antonin Kapustin which was housed in the convent since the second half of the 19th century. While examining the collection, he came upon a remarkable discovery. It was a white limestone tablet bearing an Aramaic inscription. The Inscription was written with Hebrew characters in a style that was familiar to him from other inscriptions he had encountered on the many late Second Temple Period ossuaries he had examined. The inscription read as follows:


"Hither were brought the bones of Uzziah, king of Judah. Not to be opened"


The inscription which had been collecting dust in the convent for the better part of 40 years had completely escaped the attention of the Russian monks who could not read Hebrew. Amazed at his discovery, Sukenik published the finding in haste. In his article, written in the Hebrew journal Tarbiz, he was able to prove convincingly that the artifact was indeed authentic. However, the most important question remained unanswered. In the last paragraph of his article he writes: [1]


“Unfortunately we haven’t the slightest clue as to the origin of the artifact. It is indeed plausible that this unknown location holds within it additional tombs of prominent figures we will never know about”






The Uzziah Tablet


The enigmatic Uzziah Tablet found by Sukenik and now housed in the Israel Museum, highlights one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of Jerusalem, namely, the location of the Tombs of the House of David.


The ancient city of Jerusalem is surrounded by a necropolis including at least 130 known burial caves dating to the Iron Age II, the period of the Solomonic Temple and the Judean monarchy. [2] These tombs which are often well preserved, especially in comparison to the relatively poor state of preservation one encounters when excavating remnants of the same period in the ancient city itself, provide a glimpse into the magnificent architecture and burial customs of the First Temple Period.

However, from the advent of archeological research and exploration in Jerusalem, many have attempted to locate the site of the most significant burial compound of them all, the Tombs of the House of David, but to no avail. In fact, to this day, the final resting place of Kings David and Solomon as well as the Judahite kings who followed them remains a mystery.


The Kings of the House of David were buried in Two Separate Locations


The Davidic monarchy was comprised of 21 kings who ruled from Jerusalem. They are:


David, Solomon, Rehoboam, Abijah, Asa, Jehoshaphat, Jehoram, Ahaziah, Jehoash, Amaziah, Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, Hezekiah, Manasseh, Amon, Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin and Zedekiah.


As recorded in Scripture, these kings were buried in two separate locations. In 1 Kings 2:10 we read:


“Then David lay down with his fathers, and he was buried in the city of David”


Similarly, we are informed in the Book of Kings that the first 13 kings who followed David were likewise buried in the City of David.


The Book of 2 Chronicles further elaborates that the kings Jehoram, Jehoash and Ahaz were indeed buried in the City of David, however, in a location separate from the other kings. We also learn that due to his leprosy, King Uzziah was probably not buried in the same cave with the rest of the kings either, but in a nearby location:


“So Uzziah lay down with his fathers, and they buried him with his fathers in the field of the grave which belonged to the kings, for they said, “He had leprosy” (2 Chronicles 26:23).


Regarding King Hezekiah, we read:


“So Hezekiah lay down with his fathers, and they buried him in the upper section of the tombs of the sons of David” (2 Chronicles 32:33)


The wording of this verse indicates that by the time of King Hezekiah’s death, the primary burial complex of the Davidic Dynasty had been filled to its capacity and therefore King Hezekiah had to be buried in the “upper section” of the cave. This makes sense, when we learn that the kings who followed Hezekiah were indeed buried in a new location. This new location called “The Garden of Uzza” was the resting place of King Manasseh, the son of Hezekiah:


“And Manasseh lay down with his fathers and was buried in the garden of his own house, in the Garden of Uzza” (2 kings 21:18),


King Amon, son of Manasseh:


“He was buried in his grave in the Garden of Uzza” (2 Kings 21:26)


And likely King Josiah as well who was: “buried in the tombs of his fathers” (2 Chronicles 35:24).


Regarding the last four kings, Jehoahaz was buried in Egypt, Jehoiachin and Zedekiah were buried in Babylon, while Jehoiakim was buried disgracefully outside the gates of Jerusalem as foretold by the Prophet Jeremiah:


“Therefore this is what the L-rd says regarding Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah… He will be buried with a donkey’s burial, dragged off and thrown out beyond the gates of Jerusalem” (Jeremiah 22:18-19).


The Location of the Tombs was still known during the Late Second Temple Period


Several facts suggest that during the late Second Temple Period, the location of the Tombs of the House of David was still known.


We have a clear indication that during the 1st century the inhabitants of Jerusalem were familiar with the tomb of King Uzziah, who as we previously noted, was buried separately from the rest of the kings. It is reasonable to assume that as Jerusalem underwent development and expansion during the late Second Temple Period, King Uzziah’s bones were moved to a new location where the tablet discovered by Sukenik was placed as a testament to the event.


In addition, the historian Flavius Josephus recorded events in which the Tombs of the House of David were breached and looted by Second Temple Era monarchs, indicating that the location of the tombs was indeed known during the period. In the first event which occurred during the 2nd century BCE, Josephus describes how: [3]


“Hyrcanus the high priest, when he was besieged by Antiochus, that was called the Pious, the son of Demetrius, and was desirous of giving him money to get him to raise the siege and draw off his army, and having no other method of compassing the money, opened one room of David's sepulcher, and took out three thousand talents, and gave part of that sum to Antiochus; and by this means caused the siege to be raised”

Josephus similarly describes how during the 1st century BCE, King Herod: [4]


“Opened that sepulcher by night, and went into it, and endeavored that it should not be at all known in the city, but took only his most faithful friends with him. As for any money, he found none, as Hyrcanus had done, but that furniture of gold, and those precious goods that were laid up there; all which he took away. However, he had a great desire to make a more diligent search, and to go farther in, even as far as the very bodies of David and Solomon; where two of his guards were slain, by a flame that burst out upon those that went in, as the report was. So he was terribly affrighted, and went out, and built a propitiatory monument of that fright he had been in; and this of white stone, at the mouth of the sepulcher, and that at great expense also”

The City of David - The Primary Burial Location of the House of David


As early as the 10th century CE, a tradition emerged identifying the location of King David’s Tomb in the area known today as “Mount Zion.” Over the years this location was established by many as the authentic burial place of King David, and became a site frequented to this day. While there may be some historical truth to this, as we will see later, identifying Mount Zion as the burial location of King David himself is in sharp discordance with the Biblical tradition.


As previously mentioned, according to Scripture King David and the first 13 kings who followed him were all buried in the City of David located in the ancient core of the City of Jerusalem. Today it is well established that this ancient core, the original city of Jerusalem, is located on the narrow “South Eastern Ridge” which slopes down southward from the Temple Mount. [5] However, unlike the Temple Mount which never fell out of sight and continued to be known without interruption, the ancient core of Jerusalem located outside of the Old City’s wall was eventually abandoned and forgotten over the years, only to be rediscovered during the late 19th- early 20th century.


Today the entire area which formerly comprised the original, ancient core of Jerusalem is known as the City of David. However, upon a closer examination of Scripture, it becomes evident that the City of David is in fact a separate entity located within the ancient city of Jerusalem, and should not be confused with the entire city.[6]

When King David captures Jerusalem we read:


"Now the king and his men went to Jerusalem against the Jebusites… David captured the stronghold of Zion, that is, the city of David…So David lived in the stronghold, and called it the city of David” (2 Samuel 5: 6-9)


The Hebrew Bible clearly distinguishes between the city of Jerusalem mentioned 667 times and the City of David mentioned 43 times, and never do the verses imply that the entire city of Jerusalem was at any point known as the City of David. The question then arises: in what part of ancient Jerusalem was the City of David located? To answer this question we will examine several Biblical verses.


Shortly after King David captures Jerusalem, the Philistines advance towards the city in preparation for an attack:


“Now when the Philistines heard that they had anointed David king over Israel, all the Philistines went up to seek out David; and when David heard about it, he went down to the stronghold” (2 Samuel 5:17)


This verse provides us with a hint as to the location of the City of David, and accordingly, the location of the Tombs of the House of David. Upon hearing about the advancing Philistines, King David, located somewhere in the ancient city of Jerusalem goes “down to the stronghold.” As we have previously noted, this stronghold, “the Stronghold of Zion” is synonymous with the City of David. But what is the verse intimating by stating that David “went down?”


This term in fact can have a double meaning, both of which are relevant to locating the City of David within ancient Jerusalem.


The first and most obvious meaning is to descend, to pass from a high location to a lower location. The second meaning is to travel southwards. For instance in the book of Genesis we read that:


“There was a famine in the land; so Abram went down to Egypt” (Genesis 12:10)


That is to say that Abraham traveled from the Land of Canaan southward to the Land of Egypt.


So from this verse we can infer that the City of David was located somewhere in the southern and lower part of the ancient City of Jerusalem.


During the late 8th century BCE, King Hezekiah prepared Jerusalem for an impending confrontation with the Assyrian Empire. As part of this preparation, he embarked upon a remarkable engineering feat of digging a 1,750-foot tunnel deep into the rocky hillside and diverting the waters of the Gihon Spring into the city where they could not be accessed by the enemy:


“Hezekiah dammed up the source of the waters of the Upper Gihon and directed them down to the west side of the City of David” (2 Chronicles 32:30)


From this verse we can likewise infer that the City of David was located in a relatively low elevation within the city and that this location was situated to the east of the tunnel’s final destination. The renowned French archeologist and scholar of Jerusalem Charles Clermont-Ganneau suggested that the purpose of the wide westward bend in the southern course of Hezekiah’s Tunnel was to indeed circumvent the Tombs of the House of David which were located to the east of the bend. [7]



A map showing the course of Hezekiah’s Tunnel. Note the wide westward bend in the tunnel’s southern course. (Courtesy of Tamar Hayardeni).







The most detailed Biblical description regarding the location of the City of David is recorded in the Book of Nehemiah. When Nehemiah arrives in Jerusalem and observes the damaged state of its walls, he immediately embarks upon a mission to rebuild:


“You see the bad situation we are in, that Jerusalem is desolate and its gates have been burned by fire. Come, let’s rebuild the wall of Jerusalem so that we will no longer be a disgrace.” (Nehemiah 2:17)


The building of the wall was commenced in a joint effort and executed in haste, being completed in 52 days. The work was divided into sections, each built by a separate team. The verses relating this event describe in detail the different sections of the walls completed by each building team. The description follows the sections of the walls, beginning in the north-eastern corner of Jerusalem and continuing counter-clockwise. When the description reaches the southern part of the ancient city we read:


"Shallun son of Col-Hozeh, head of the district of Mizpah, worked on the Fountain Gate. He rebuilt it, put on its roof, and positioned its doors, its bolts, and its bars. In addition, he rebuilt the wall of the Pool of Siloam, by the royal garden, as far as the steps that go down from the City of David” (Nehemiah 3:15)


According to this verse, the section built by Shallun son of Col-Hozeh included “the wall of the Pool of Siloam.” The Pool of Siloam is identified near the south-western edge of ancient Jerusalem and hence acts as a reference point for pinpointing the south-eastern section of the wall built by Nehemiah son of Azbuk as described in the following verse:


“Nehemiah son of Azbuk, head of a half-district of Beth Zur, worked after him as far as the tombs of David and the artificial pool and the House of the Warriors” (Nehemiah 3:16)


So as apparent from these unassuming verses which are merely attempting to provide a coherent description of the various wall sections completed, we learn unequivocally that the Tombs of the House of David were located in the south-eastern area of ancient Jerusalem.






A map showing the wall of Jerusalem according to the Book of Nehemiah, the Tombs of the House of David are encircled in Yellow.












These Biblical passages indicating that the Tombs of the House of David were located near the south-eastern area of ancient Jerusalem find further credence in the Tosefta, a 2nd century Tanaetic source belonging to the Jewish Oral Tradition: [8]

“It is permitted to evacuate all tombs apart from a tomb belonging to a king or a prophet. Rabbi Akiva said that even a tomb belonging to a king or prophet is to be evacuated. They [the Sages] said to him [to Rabbi Akiva]: The Tombs of the House of David as well as the tomb of Huldah the Prophetess were located in Jerusalem and never disturbed by a human hand!? He [Rabbi Akiva] replied: That is not to be considered a valid argument [because] a tunnel existed which transported the impurity out [from the tombs] to the Kidron Valley”


This teaching pertains to the prohibition of burying the dead within the City of Jerusalem. According to Biblical law, contact with a corpse creates the most severe grade of impurity or defilement (tum'at met in Hebrew) and thus strict laws were in place to prevent the inhabitants of Jerusalem, many of which were priests who served in the Temple, from becoming impure. Part of this prohibition required the removal of tombs already existing within the City of Jerusalem,[9] or as needed for the expansion of residential areas within the city.

In this teaching, Rabbi Akiva describes a tunnel leading from the Tombs of the House of David out to the Kidron Valley. While the complex halachic issues involved in this teaching are beyond the scope of this current discussion, it nevertheless provides us with a clue regarding the location of the Tombs of the House of David. The Kidron Valley is located on the eastern side of ancient Jerusalem. If this tunnel indeed existed, the Tombs of the House of David had to be located closer to the eastern side of ancient Jerusalem, preferably in a lower area so that the tunnel could reach the valley. Since the ancient core of Jerusalem slopes downward from north to south, this location would have to be near the south-eastern area of the ancient city, the same exact area suggested in the Biblical verses we have previously examined.


Familiar with the sources noted above, Raymond Weil, a Jewish-French archaeologist came to Jerusalem in 1913 hoping to locate the Tombs of the House of David. Weil conducted excavations in the south-eastern area of ancient Jerusalem as suggested by the sources, and discovered eight rock-hewn caves.[10] In the years 1923-24 he returned to Jerusalem once more and discovered a ninth cave. Two of the caves still visible to this day have a unique elongated curved shape. One of them, the better preserved western cave is 54.1 feet long and 8.2 feet wide. Although the caves were severely damaged during the Late Roman Period when the area was used as a rock quarry, Weil was certain that he had indeed discovered the Tombs of the House of David. This view was initially accepted by many prominent scholars including Carl Watzinger, Nahman Avigad, Benjamin Mazar and Louis-Hugues Vincent. However, today, most scholars reject this identification for lack of substantial archaeological evidence, and due to the fact that the caves discovered by Weil do not resemble any of the well-known burial caves dating to the First Temple Period.[11]


While some scholars still accept Weil’s identification, the fact is that the caves discovered by him are empty. Perhaps some of them may have been disturbed in antiquity while the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem. This may be alluded to in a verse from the Book of Jeremiah:

“The L-rd says, “When that time comes, the bones of the kings of Judah and its leaders, the bones of the priests and prophets, and of all the other people who lived in Jerusalem will be dug up from their graves. They will be spread out and exposed to the sun, the moon, and the stars” (Jeremiah 8:1-2)


All in all, the knowledge concerning the location of the Tombs of the House of David is buried with the kings of Judah and to us remains a mystery.


TO BE CONTINUED IN PART II




Two of the caves discovered by Weil still visible today (photo: Daniel Ventura).



NOTES:


[1] E. L. Sukenik, “An Epitaph of Uzziahu King of Judah”, Tarbiẕ 2 (1931), p. 292 (Hebrew).


[2] Gabriel Barkai, “The Necropoli of Jerusalem in the First Temple Period”, in A. Ahituv and A. Mazar (eds.), The History of Jerusalem, The Biblical period, Ben-Zvi Institute, Jerusalem, 2000, pp. 233-270 (Hebrew).


[3] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, William Whiston trans. VII, 15, 3.


[4] Josephus, Antiquities, XVI, 7, 1.


[5] Ronny Reich, “The Topography and Archaeology of Jerusalem in the First Temple Period”, in A. Ahituv and A. Mazar (eds.), The History of Jerusalem, The Biblical period, Ben-Zvi Institute, Jerusalem, 2000, pp. 93-130 (Hebrew).

[6] Gabriel Barkay, “The City of David”, in Eyal Meiron ed. Studies of Ancient Jerusalem, the 9th Annual Conference, 2008, Jerusalem, pp. 44-59 (Hebrew).


[7] Ch. Clermont-Ganneau, Les tombeaux de David et des rois de Juda et le tunnelaqueduc de Siloe, CARI, 25, pp. 383-427.


[8] Tosefta Bava Batra 1:11, Lieberman edition (section trans. from Hebrew by author).


[9] Perhaps this explains the removal of King Uzziah’s bones as recorded on the Uzziah Tablet. As previously noted, due to his leprosy, King Uzziah was not buried with the rest of the kings but in a separate nearby location in the City of David.


[10] R. Weill, La cite’ de David, Paris, 1920.


[11] G. Barkay, “The Necropoli of Jerusalem in the First Temple Period”, in The History of Jerusalem, The Biblical Period, eds. S. Ahituv and A. Mazar, (Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi Press, Jerusalem, 2000), p. 238, (Hebrew).



133 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All