Tag Archives: Kidron Valley

A Modern Grave in the Kidron Valley

The Tomb of the Sons of Hezir, as seen from the western side of the Kidron Valley
The Tomb of the Sons of Hezir, as seen from the western side of the Kidron Valley

The view of the Old City walls above us across the Kidron Valley was impressive. We could see the terraced steep hill we had recently walked down. The tan color of its retaining walls is punctuated by dark green bushes and small trees. The crenelated city wall stands on the top of the hill like a crown. The Old City is on one of the lower hills of the Mountains of Judea; from the top of the Mount of Olives you look down on it. The Tomb of the Sons of Hezir is located near the bottom of the Mount of Olives, in the Kidron Valley. From there, the city looks like the peak of the mountain range.

The Tomb of the Sons of Hezir is carved into the bedrock of the Mount of Olives. From the road just below the city walls, it looks like a large rectangular entryway, held open by two limestone pillars. But from the foot of the Mount of Olives I saw that appearance was deceptive. The columns are merely decoration, carved out of the same rock as the rest of the cave. The actual entrance is on the side. We clambered up some rocks, then ascended three short metal stairways to enter the tomb. From there,we climbed an interior stone stairway.

The central large room is well lit in the late afternoon, as the sun shines in through the pillars. From the inside, it is clear that they serve no structural purpose—they are part of the rock from which the cave was cut. But they do look nice, and the space between them offers a beautiful view of the Old City.

Several smaller caves branch off from this main interior central space. In the second century BCE, the Hasmonean period, when the tomb was built, the dead would have spent their first year in a side cave. Later their bones would have been gathered and placed in stone ossuaries, which remained in the burial cave.

This is one of the few ancient tombs whose identity is known. The names are carved in Hebrew in the architrave, the space above the columns. The inscription translates as: “This is the tomb and the nefesh of Elazar, Haniah, Yoezer, Yehuda, Shimon, Yohanon, the sons of Joseph son of Obed, Joseph and Elazar the sons of Haniah, priests from the sons of Hezir.”

The tomb, the man-made cave where we stood, is the place for the physical body to lie in eternity. It was built during the period when Greek influence on beliefs was prevalent. This included their belief in the separation of body and soul. Thus, a “nefesh,” a special structure to house the soul of the deceased (his nefesh), was constructed behind the tomb. Other tombs from that period, such as the Tomb of Avshalom, feature a nefesh on top.

Because of its layout, experts believe that this tomb was most likely constructed the first century BCE. But, the inscription is of a much later style from around 100 CE. Perhaps no official notice was needed when the descendants of Hezir were entombed. Everyone in town knew which tomb belonged to which family. But as the Jews began to scatter throughout the Roman empire, labeling burial sites became necessary. Thus the list of the names of the sons of Joseph the son of Obed was carved .

When we see tombs, it is natural to ask, “Who is buried here?” But the more important question, the one many people do not ask, is “Who deserves something so impressive?”

Our guide, Re’ut, explained that in the late Hasmonean and Herodian periods there were only a few families who could afford tombs this elaborate. The priestly family of Hezir was one of the older families in Judea and

Zachariah's Tomb isn't actually a tomb, but a Nefesh, a structure built to hold the soul of the deceased
Zachariah’s Tomb isn’t actually a tomb, but a Nefesh, a structure built to hold the soul of the deceased

apparently had more resources than most other families. The family of Hezir is listed in the book of Nehemiah. They were Cohanim who returned in the first wave of resettlement of the land in 539 BCE.

We exited the cave and filed into the space between the tomb of the Sons of Hezir and the next monument, that of the priest and prophet Zechariah. He had run afoul of the government of King Yehoash by attacking idolatry, when the first Temple still stood. On the order of the king, the people stoned him to death. The sages of the Talmud considered his death especially bad. In killing him the people had committed seven separate sins. They had killed a priest, a prophet, a judge, spilling innocent blood, which defiled the Temple. They had murdered him on Yom Kippur  which was on the Sabbath, thus desecrating two holy days.

Like many other recognized burial places in Israel, the tomb of Zechariah does not hold his bones. It’s solid rock, the nefesh of an unidentified tomb. Apparently, souls did not need empty space within which to dwell for eternity. The the Ionic columns and Egyptian acanthus leaf carvings, shows it was carved out of the bedrock during the time of Herod. That was more than five hundred years after the prophet’s death.

I found what was behind Zechariah’s “tomb” more interesting than the structure itself. The space is about ten feet wide, which would have been sufficient for all of us. However most of the area is taken up by two modern graves.

The graves are those of Rabbi Avraham Shlomo Zalman Tzoref 

The graves of Rabbi Avraham Shlomo Zalman Tzoref and his wife, in the Kidron Valley.
The graves of Rabbi Avraham Shlomo Zalman Tzoref and his wife, in the Kidron Valley.

and his wife. Rav Shlomo Zalman was a follower of the Gaon of Vilna (the GR”A), an influential rabbi in nineteenth century Lithuania. The GR”A encouraged his students to settle the land of Israel long before Theodore Herzl founded political Zionism.

The Tzoref family made their to the Holy Land, landing in Haifa in 1811. They first settled in Tsfat, but after the 1813 cholera epidemic, they moved to Jerusalem. Rav Zalman quickly became one of the leaders of the Ashkenazi community. In need of funds, the community sent Rav Zalman to Europe to raise money to support the community. On his way back to Jerusalem, he stopped in Egypt. There he received permission from Muhammed Ali, the ruler of the land of Israel, to rebuild the Hurva synagogue. The original Hurva had been destroyed more than 130 years earlier.

Unfortunately, he did not live to see the building whole and in use. He survived a first attempt on his life. The next attempt was more successful—an Arab hit him on the head with a sword. He lingered for three months before dying of his wounds. He was buried on the Mount of Olives, behind Zachariah’s Tomb. The original grave markers no longer exist. The current tombstones were put on the original burial site more than a hundred years later..

Rabbi Shlomo Zalmon’s influence in Jerusalem and Israel is felt to this day through his hundreds of descendents. His son Mordechai changed the family name from Tzoref (silversmith) to Salomon, in honor of Rav Zalman. One grandson, Moshe Yoel Salomon, founded the city of Petah Tikve. He was among the first people to move outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City. Following the 1863 cholera epidemic, he and six friends built the neighborhood of Nahalat Shiva (Homestead of the Seven). Today Nahalat Shiva is a mixed commercial and residential neighborhood in the heart of downtown Jerusalem. It is a vibrant area with two new boutique hotels, and restaurants, many of which feature outdoor seating. It’s a great place to go to buy gifts- shops sell jewelry, ceramics, clothing, and Judaica.

In the national cemetery on Har Herzl, there is a monument to victims of terror. Avraham Shlomo Zalman Tzoref’s name is listed there, the first victim of terror in modern Israel. As we walked back up the hill, I wondered what he would have thought of today’s city. It’s a far cry from the crowded walled city he knew. But I think he would have been proud to pray in newly rebuilt Hurva synagogue, the architectural highlight of the Jewish Quarter of the walled city.

Avshalom’s Tomb in the Kidron Valley

Avshalom's Tomb stands out, separate from the Mount of Olives bedrock in the Kidron Valley
Avshalom’s Tomb stands out, separate from the Mount of Olives bedrock in the Kidron Valley

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.

Corner of Jerusalem's Old City wall from the Kidron Valley floor
Corner of Jerusalem’s Old City wall from the Kidron Valley floor

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

Avshalom's Tomb in 1914. The piles of small stones thrown at misbehaving children can be clearly seen
Avshalom’s Tomb in 1914. The piles of small stones thrown at misbehaving children can be clearly seen

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.