In the Silwan neighborhood of Jerusalem’s Old City, there’s a problem: a sewer pipe has burst. And as the issue naturally needs to be sorted out as quickly as possible, workers ultimately come in to mend the faulty line. But the laborers are not alone. This ancient district is so steeped in history, you see, that a team of archaeologists decide to come along for the ride. Then, as they dig, the workers uncover a flight of steps. And it’s just as well that the archeologists are present, as the stunning find is hugely significant. In fact, it may just prove the truth of a story contained in the Bible.
Reportedly, the pipe that revealed the ancient stairway was set under a potato field in the Silwan district. But the importance of the discovery belies its humble location. And, in fact, the unearthing of these hidden steps has led to further – and highly compelling archeological – discoveries.
In order to understand just how valuable the artifact is, though, it’s crucial to know more about where it was found. Silwan was once a farming village that originated in the seventh century, although its first written mention came in 985. Then, from the 19th century, the expansion of the city of Jerusalem began to bring it ever closer to Silwan. Today, then, the neighborhood is effectively a suburb of Jerusalem itself.
However, during what’s called the Second Temple period – which lasted for around five centuries from 516 B.C. – Silwan had substantial religious significance. The Pool of Siloam was located in the village, for one, and Jewish pilgrims stopped there for ritual washing before they walked on to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. This practice was followed during the annual Jewish holy festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot.
Perhaps most momentously, though, the so-called City of David is situated in Silwan. And the site has a long and storied history. According to Biblical sources among others, the City of David was originally called Jebus and was inhabited by the Jebusites – a Canaanite tribe. In 1003 B.C., though, David, King of the Israelites, is said to have seized the location.
But the origins of the site of the City of David extends back much further than that, as the earliest known inhabitants of the land are thought to have been present there from the fourth millennium B.C. Ceramic shards and flints – probably belonging to nomadic herders – have been uncovered in the area, with these likely to date back 6,000 or even 7,000 years. The herders were perhaps attracted by the spring that flowed from a hill at the site.
Then, by 3000 B.C. or so, a village had sprung up, with the evidence for this community coming from the caves that the ancient peoples used to bury their dead. In addition, the city of Jerusalem itself was referred to in ancient Egyptian writings from the 19th and 18th centuries B.C. And arrowheads and ceramics from the late Bronze Age provide further proof of settlement at the location.
What’s more, historians were particularly excited by a find made in 2010. A piece of clay tablet inscribed with writing was unearthed during that year, you see, and it was a significant discovery to boot. Said to date from the 14th century B.C., the tablet hosts the oldest written text ever to be found in Jerusalem. Researchers subsequently deciphered the message as being in the form of a letter from a king of Jerusalem to one of the Egyptian pharaohs.
Archaeologists have argued over who precisely occupied the site of Jerusalem before the Israelites seized it, and when exactly that happened. A large stone structure perhaps dating from the 10th century B.C. could be part of Israelite Jerusalem’s walls, although that is disputed. But, as we’ve seen, according to the Biblical chronology, King David conquered the Jebusites around this time.
However, definitive evidence for early Israelite occupation of the site comes in the shape of a cemetery dating from the ninth to the seventh centuries B.C. This burial ground, known as the Silwan Necropolis, consists of tombs carved into the cliffs. Archaeologists believe that these skillfully crafted tombs would have been the last resting places of powerful and wealthy individuals.
So we have archaeological evidence of the Israelites who inhabited modern-day Silwan some 3,000 years ago. But what do we know about David, King of the Israelites, who was to give his name to the city? In fact, we have to turn to Biblical sources to learn what we can of the man. Historians mostly agree that he is a genuine figure from antiquity. But in the main we must look to the Old Testament to flesh out David’s life.
However, there is some, albeit scanty, corroborating evidence for what the Bible tells us. The Tel Dan Stele, a series of stone fragments carved with writing in the Aramaic language is the closest we have to concrete, independent evidence of David’s existence. Discovered in 1993 in the ancient Israelite city of Dan, it was made in the ninth century B.C.
The use of the Aramaic language in the text inscribed on the stele is significant since this tongue, closely related to Hebrew, was widely used by Jews in ancient times. One of the phrases on the stele reads “House of David.” And that’s it, the only evidence we have of David’s existence other than what the Bible tells us.
So let’s take a look at the biblical story. Two of the sections of the Old Testament, the Chronicles and Samuel assert that David was the son of Jesse the Bethlehemite and the last-born of eight brothers. He also had two sisters, Abigail and Zeruiah. The Talmud records that David’s’ mother was Nitzevet.
David married into royalty by taking the hand of King Saul’s daughter Michal. Saul was the first Israelite king, credited with transforming his people from a tribe into a nation. The Bible says that David paid a gruesome dowry: the foreskins of an enemy people: the Philistines. Centuries later, a Romano-Jewish historian, Titus Flavius Josephus, claimed that the dowry had in fact been 600 Philistine heads.
It seems that Saul turned against David and even tried to arrange his murder. But the young man escaped, although Saul then gave his wife Michal to one Palti. Eventually, it’s recorded, Michal and David were reunited, much to the regret of Palti. According to the Book of Chronicles, David fathered six sons with various women.
A turning point in David’s life came when King Saul enraged God by making a sacrifice, a practice against religious law. Saul further angered God by failing to carry out his order to massacre a rival people: the Amalekites. God punished the disobedient Saul by inflicting an evil spirit on him, which proceeded to make his life a misery.
Saul’s servants advised that music might soothe the troubled king, and David was a skilled player of the lyre, a sort of miniature harp. David duly played for Saul and thus became part of his retinue, taking the prestigious position of the King’s armor-bearer. And in this role, David now performed the deed that he is best remembered for.
The Israelites and the Philistines were again at war with each other. The Philistine giant, Goliath, challenged the Israelites to send out one man to fight him hand to hand to decide the battle. He issued this challenge two times each day for 40 days, with no takers. David then volunteered himself to Saul as the Israelite champion.
David, armed with nothing more than a staff and a slingshot, stepped on to the battlefield to face the formidable Goliath. David took his sling and fired off a stone, which struck Goliath on the forehead, killing him instantly. David then decapitated the giant. The Philistines fled, and victory was complete. Saul rewarded David by giving him command of his army.
David’s exploits have made him a hero to the Israelites, but Saul began to fear that his protégé might have designs on the throne. The king decided it was time to get rid of this potential rival, but Saul’s son Jonathan informed David of the plotting, and he escaped. Eventually, Saul and David buried the hatchet, and the king recognized David as heir to his throne.
After Saul and his two sons, Jonathan and Ish-Bosheth, are all killed in battle, David becomes king of the Israelites. And then, as we saw earlier, he seized Jerusalem from the Jebusites. The city became the Israelite’s capital and was now titled the City of David. From his new position of power, David vanquished various enemy peoples by force of arms. David, it’s recorded, ruled for 40 years until he died at the age of 70.
So the City of David, or Jerusalem, is imbued with great historic and religious significance, both for Christians and Jews. And of course it’s also a key pace of worship for Muslims, a fact that has caused much conflict over the centuries. Today, the city can be compared to something approaching an archaeological treasure chest.
Much of ancient Jerusalem was constructed in the period after David’s death, during the ninth and eighth centuries B.C., the time of the Iron Age. But there was also significant construction during the period of Roman occupation of Jerusalem and the land of the Israelites. That period started around a thousand years after David’s era, when the Romans first took Jerusalem.
That discovery in 2004 of a set of ancient steps by those workers repairing a burst sewer in the Jerusalem district of Silwan takes us back to the time of the Roman occupation of Jerusalem. And those steps formed no ordinary stairway. Once the archaeologists got to work, they realized that they had found stairs that led down to the Pool of Siloam, also known as Shiloah.
This was the pool where Jewish pilgrims would have stopped 2,000 years ago for ritual washing before they made their way to the Temple Mount. This was the second place of worship on the site, with the first built by King Solomon, David’s son. Tradition has it that this First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.
The Second Temple, built in 516 B.C., was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70 when they seized Jerusalem after a Jewish rebellion. And the Second Temple was where Jewish pilgrims were headed when they stopped for their ritual ablutions at the Pool of Siloam. Like the Second Temple, the sacred pool was destroyed by the Romans when they took Jerusalem.
So those archaeologists in Silwan found not only a lost set of steps, but also the Pool of Siloam, which had lain hidden for some 2,000 years. The researchers were from the Ir David Foundation, and they uncovered much more than the stairs and the pool. Over the years since 2004, they have also revealed an ancient roadway that led from the pool up to the Second Temple on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.
And according to new evidence discovered during the excavation of the road, the identity of the builder comes as a complete surprise. You have to remember that although the Romans besieged and destroyed Jerusalem in A.D. 70, they had in fact conquered the city earlier. It was in 64 B.C. that the Romans first took Jerusalem and subsequently imposed their own ruler: King Herod.
But the violent destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 came as the result of a Jewish rebellion against Roman rule. Some years before that rebellion, Pontius Pilate had been the Roman-appointed ruler. He, of course, was the man who sent Jesus Christ to his death according to the New Testament. Pilate ruled Jerusalem and the Israelites for some ten years from A.D. 26 or 27.
The archaeologists uncovered more than 100 coins during the excavation of the road from the Pool of Siloam to the Second Temple. The dates on those coins offer strong indications that it was built during Pilate’s rule. Speaking to National Geographic magazine in October 2019, Donald Ariel of the Israel Antiquities Authority explained the coin evidence.
Coins recovered from the roadway, Ariel said, came from around A.D. 31. But the most common coins in Jerusalem are from after A.D. 40. “So not having them [the post-A.D. 40 coins] beneath the street means the street was built before their appearance, in other words only in the time of Pilate,” Ariel added. And it seems Pilate was no more popular with his Jewish subjects than he was to become with Christians.
Pilate apparently alienated the Jews by allowing graven images, which were strictly taboo. He also, it was said, diverted funds that should have gone to the Temple, using them instead to build a new viaduct for the city’s water supply. Eventually, according to the historian we met earlier – Josephus, Pilate was recalled to Rome in disgrace by the Emperor Tiberius.
The discovery of the Pool of Siloam was sensational, but the uncovering of the Roman-built road leading up to the Temple Mount and the Second Temple was equally breathtaking. This route, which has come to be known as the Pilgrimage Road, leads right up the Temple Mount to the very steps at the entrance of the old Second Temple.
Again according to our Romano-Jewish historian Josephus, as many as 2.7 million people would travel to Jerusalem for pilgrimages at the times of the main Jewish holy festivals. And Doron Spielman of the Ir David Foundation asserts that most of this huge number of pilgrims would have entered the city via the old Roman road.
In its original form, the road ran for about a third of a mile. It measured 26 feet wide and covered in around 10,000 tons of limestone paving blocks. Joe Uziel of the Israel Antiquities Authority told National Geographic, “We think it was a single project built at one time.” And contemporary Israelis have gone to extraordinary lengths to excavate and restore this ancient Roman route.
In fact, the existence of the road has been known for some time. The first people to uncover it in the modern era were Professor Frederick J. Bliss and Archibald C. Dickey. Working with the Palestine Exploration Fund, they excavated sections of the road between 1894 and 1897. But their dig was covered over once they’d finished their research.
Other exploratory digs were carried out on the road in 1937 and then again between 1961 and 1967. But again those excavations were reburied after the archaeologists had finished examining them. However, the latest project to uncover the Pilgrimage Road is far more ambitious in its scope. The intention is to create a continuous restored section of the road that visitors will be able to walk along.
Because this Roman road was laid down 2,000 years ago, it has been covered by centuries of development so that it is now far below the surface of modern Jerusalem. So the archaeologists have actually tunneled beneath the city to reveal the Pilgrimage Road. By the summer of 2019, more than 800 feet of the road had been uncovered and restored.
There no doubting the importance of this historic road for many Jews. But there is also a pressing reason why Christian believers are fascinated by this ancient route of pilgrimage. For we can with a reasonable degree of certainty say that Jesus Christ himself must have walked over these limestone slabs.