From the road on the east side of the Old City, I look out the bus window down into the Kidron Valley. Three impressive tombs stand close to the valley floor. Even at this distance, I can see that they were not built using stones from quarries elsewhere. Rather, they are carved into the bedrock of the Mount of Olives. Like many ancient tombs in Israel, their current names—Zachariah’s Tomb, Avshalom’s Tomb, Tomb of Pharaoh’s Daughter– bear no relationship to the occupants.
The tombs fascinate me. Their pale beige limestone color almost camouflages them against the pale beige mountain behind them. Although their design is similar to other, larger, structures in Jerusalem, they are different from almost anything else.
I finally had a chance to visit the tombs last week. As part of the annual archeology conference, Ir David offered many short tours of nearby points of interest. Taking advantage of the opportunity, I signed up for the tour of the Kidron Valley Monuments.
The Kidron Valley, as our guide Re’ut reminded us, is one of the three valleys that define Jerusalem. Ancient peoples had two requirements when looking for a site to build a city: fresh water and defensibility. The Gihon Spring, near where the Kidron and Hinnom valleys meet , provides water. The steepness of the valleys protect the city from attack from the east and the west. The Old City of Jerusalem has been conquered more than thirty times in its history. Almost every time the attack has come from the north, where Jerusalem’s hill has a gentle slope. Only two attacks from the east were successful. In 900 BCE, King David’s forces entered the city from the east, and in 1967 CE the IDF did.
The nature of the valley’s protection isn’t readily apparent from a bus window. The hill looks steep, but until walking down into it I had not realized just how steep it is. Just to get to the paved path down the hill, we first had to descend two flights of stairs. The paved path to the base of the valley slants across the side of the hill to gentle the sharp drop.
Later, coming up from the valley floor, we would walk up a steep hill to the conference’s outdoor proceedings. Leaving the conference site, we climbed about 200 more steps (yes, I counted!) to get up to the street. The street was another steep hill up to the Old City wall, to the bus stop. To run up that hill, carrying weapons, while under assault from the city defenders would have been a nearly impossible task. No wonder the Babylonians, the Romans, the Crusaders, the Mamluks, the Ottomans, and all the other conquerors of Jerusalem preferred to attack from the north.
The Mount of Olives, opposite the city, has always been a natural necropolis. The hill contains many caves, which were turned into depositories for the dead thousands of years ago. Today, the Mount of Olives is one of the oldest known Jewish graveyards. Of course, now the dead are put in holes dug to hold one person each.
The size of the monuments down in the valley, as seen from the bus window, is not one of massiveness. They look big, but on the scale of familiar things, not all that extraordinary. But as I stood on the overlook of the Kidron Valley just below the road, I revised my opinion. This was the first time I saw people walking around the bases of the monuments. I was surprised at how small the people looked in comparison to the height of Avshalom’s tomb. It was obviously much taller than it appears from the distance.
The book of II Samuel (18:18) says that King David’s son Avshalom built a monument for himself in the Valley of the Kings. Because the Kidron is also known as the Valley of Kings, it has been thought that Avshalom’s monument is here, but no one knows its location. That hasn’t stopped generations of people from calling the tomb with the strange conical top “Avshalom’s Tomb” and “Yad Avshalom,” Avshalom’s Monument.
He may indeed have been buried somewhere near here. But the structure itself dates only from the first century CE, about a thousand years after Avshalom’s death. The columns carved into the front of the structure have Ionic style capitals, showing a Greek influence. Above them is an architrave with an Egyptian cornice.
The cone shaped cap was topped with a six-petaled lotus flower, which is no longer present. Unlike the rest of the structure, the top is not carved from the bedrock, but was built of ashlars, large stones hewn specifically for building. With the spread of Hellenism starting in about the second century BCE, a belief spread that the body and the soul were separate. For several centuries thereafter, the bodies of the deceased were interred in tombs. Acknowledgment of the person’s soul was made by constructing a special monument on top of the tomb or next to it. This special resting place for the soul was called the nefesh, from the Hebrew word for soul.
We walked to the back of the monument in the narrow space carved out around it. Behind it, we saw a burial cave, dug into the rock for the interment of family members. But whose family was it? We don’t know that either. At the time this family lived, and died, names were not routinely posted on graves or tombs. This practice, of not labeling grave sites, speaks to the stability of society. People lived where their grandparents had lived. They expected their own grandchildren to live there too. Everyone knew who was buried where, and who would be buried alongside them. There was no point in putting up markers.
No one in those days expected their society to come crashing down. The destruction of the Temple by the Romans destroyed traditional Jewish life. Less than seventy years later, after the Bar Kochba rebellion, Hadrian banished the remaining Jews from Jerusalem. Amidst all the upheavals, the informal chain of information was lost. Today, we can only determine how old the tombs are. The names of those buried inside have been lost, forever.
But some traditions continued, and somehow Avshalom’s name was attached to this tomb. Avshalom, the favored son, the rebellious one. The book of Samuel describes Avshalom’s revolt against his father, King David. His revolt ended when his beautiful long hair became entangled in the branches of a tree. He couldn’t escape and was killed. He became the iconic rebellious son.
The Torah describes the “wayward and rebellious” son as a “drunkard and a glutton” who “does not listen to the voice of his father and the voice of his mother” (Deuteronomy 21: 18-21). His punishment is death by stoning. Although there is no record of this punishment ever being carried out, the law remains on the books as a threat. A custom arose to bring disobedient children to the tomb and remind them of what happened to Avshalom. The parents would then throw
small stones at the structure, showing their own rebellious sons what could conceivably happen to them.
Photographs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries show the tomb surrounded by small stones. The heaped up stones extend about a quarter of the way up its base. The Jordanians removed the stones during the 1950s, when they “renovated” the Mount of Olives. So today visitors can see the structure in its totality and appreciate its architecture. I am sure there are times when parents today wish they could still take their children to the Valley of Kidron and symbolically stone them.