Until about seven years ago, the best place to park close to the Western Wall of the Temple Mount was the Givati Parking Lot. It was across the street and just slightly downhill from the Dung Gate, one of the seven gates in the Old City walls.
But the city has condemned the parking lot to build a museum and archeological center. In this country, before you build up, you have to dig down, to uncover the history of the area. The digging is done by archaeologists under the supervision of the Department of Antiquities. And at the Givati Parking Lot the digging has hit pay dirt.
For over a hundred years, historians and archaeologists believed that the City of David (Ir David), extended west only as far as Ma’aleh Ir David street. This street, south of the current old city walls, was believed to follow the route of the Tyropean Valley. The Tyropean, or Central, Valley, was one of the original three deep valleys of Jerusalem. It was the western edge of ancient Jebus, which became the City of David. The valley was filled in as the city grew, and by the time of Solomon’s Temple it was only a shallow depression. Today, its exact location is unknown.
Our guide to the Givati excavations, Aviv Benedix, used to work at the dig. He was able to point out some of the fine details and explain the archaeological process to us as we stood on the wooden walkway above the edge of the excavation. Aviv explained that this dig is a salvage excavation. It was undertaken to see what can be salvaged before it is all irretrievably covered up by a building. Because of its location, archaeologists did not expect to find very much. The dig, however, has led to one surprise after another. The excavation, which at 3500 sq. meters is the largest active dig in Jerusalem, was expected to last little more than a year. It has now been ongoing for seven years.
But they can’t keep digging here much longer. The archaeologists are working under a deadline and must complete their work soon. Whatever is still undiscovered at that time will remain undiscovered. The funders of the museum want to see it built. And digging is slow painstaking work. The goal is to excavate 15 to 20 cm. daily (about 6 to 8 inches).
One discovery was that Ma’aleh Ir David street, which divides the Givati lot from Ir David, is not built over the Tryopean Valley. Now it seems that the valley ran a little further west. If this is correct, then ancient Jerusalem was much larger in the periods of King David and Solomon than was thought. Some scholars suspect that they will uncover King David’s administrative center here.
But to get to Davidic remnants, they first have to work slowly and painstakingly through the remnants of later periods that lie on top of them. Archaeology is a process of discovering history from the surface down. It views history backwards as newer artifacts are found before older ones.
First they removed the modern Israeli parking lot and dug out several centuries of dust, debris, and trash. The most recent remains found were oil lamps and jugs from the Abbasid Muslim period (661 – 1099 CE). The archaeologists believe there may have been a market on this site. There are four Muslim Palaces from the earlier Umayyad Muslim period close by. Because no Umayyad remains have been found, they think the Givati lot was a garden area of the Umayyad city.
Almost nothing has been found from the Byzantine period. The majority of the excavated houses date from the earlier Roman period. In the 3rd century CE, a massive Roman villa was here. It had two courtyards with columns, similar to a Roman villa found in Aleppo. The Romans built the villa over a Hasmonean building. That building had been built by the Seleucids, who ruled the area from around 200 BCE until the Hasmonean revolt in 165 BCE. At the moment, the mosaic floor of the Roman villa is visible. Once the archaeologists are sure they have found all the Roman remains, they will remove the mosaic to a museum. They will then excavate further to learn what, and who, were there before the Romans. Most of the rest of the Roman villa, however stands directly on bedrock, and will remain where it is.
An earlier Roman era building was found in another corner of the dig. The archaeologists think the large building is one of the three palaces of Queen Helene of Adiabene. After her husband, King Monbaz, died she and her sons, King Izatas and Monobazus (or Monbaz), converted to Judaism. They supported many Jewish institutions in Jerusalem, providing food during a first century famine and a menorah for the Temple. Queen Helene spent her last years in Jerusalem, and is buried here. A wide wall from her palace demonstrates that this area immediately south of the Temple was a neighborhood for the rich.
Other Roman structures uncovered during the dig include a Herodian mikveh, partially covered by a Roman bath, and a Roman cistern. First century cooking pots were found in the cistern. These pots are evidence that Jews hid in the water system during the great revolt of 66 to 70 CE.
Among the important finds in the area were roof tiles imprinted with the seal of the Roman Tenth Legion. When the legions were not fighting, the soldiers had to be kept busy. One of the things they did was manufacture roof tiles. Remains of a Roman roof tile factory were found during the salvage dig prior to building the International Convention Center almost 2 km from Ir David. A portion of the floor in the entrance to the ICC is plexiglas; below it some Tenth Legion roof tiles and tools used to make them are visible.
In monetary terms, one of the most valuable finds was a gold earring, set with pearls and emeralds. Although it was in a Byzantine structure, it was probably made about 300 years earlier. It would have been handed down as a family heirloom. (The Ir David Gift Shop sells 24 carat gold, pearl, and agate copies of the original, to wear as a necklace, for $1054. It also sells gold-plated brass earrings with pearls and agate for $95).
Another valuable finding was a hoard of 264 gold coins found in a Byzantine structure. The coins, dating from around 613 CE, were in excellent condition. Perhaps the owner of the coins hid them when the city was about to be captured by the Persians. But the Persians destroyed Jerusalem after conquering it; the owner never returned to retrieve his treasure.
Even more interesting than findings from the Roman period is a Hasmonean building. Josephus and older sources wrote that the Hasmoneans erected many buildings in the city in the second century BCE. But until 2013 there were no archaeological findings to confirm if. Now we can see remains of a 64 square meter house (almost 800 sq. feet) with 4 meter (about 13 feet) high walls. The walls are hewn limestone and very thick—about a meter. The builders used the header and stretcher construction distinctive to the Hasmonean period.
Aviv mentioned that even more remarkable findings have been uncovered. He hinted that artifacts from the First Temple period may have been found. But archaeology is like any other science. No one makes their findings public until a third party verifies it and it is published in a peer reviewed journal. So all we know is that fairly soon remarkable discoveries will be announced. Aviv is very excited about them. Now that we know to watch for it, we are too.