By: Daniel Pioske
In a letter sent to Charlemagne sometime just prior to 800 CE, Alcuin of York praised his “David,” as Charlemagne wished to be called later in life, for the benevolence with which he “ruled and governed” over Jerusalem.
In truth, Charlemagne’s influence in Jerusalem was restricted to sponsorship of a few religious houses and orders permitted by the actual ruler of the city, the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid. But Alcuin’s pointed association between Charlemagne’s dominion and that of David’s capital attests to just how profoundly the idea of Jerusalem has shaped the worldviews and aspirations of communities, past and present, who are informed by the biblical portrayal of David’s ruling center.
We may deride the many historical inaccuracies strewn throughout famous representations of David and Jerusalem, such as Frans Francken II’s celebrated portrait of David’s entry into his royal city. But such depictions serve as an important reminder that the desire to claim David’s Jerusalem as one’s own did not end with Charlemagne’s reign. Jerusalem is an idea as much as a place.
Archaeological evidence from ancient Jerusalem, however, provides the means to confront cultural and historical assumptions about David’s capital from another vantage point. To be sure, this perspective can be overshadowed by scholarly disputes; there are few moments of consensus when it comes to interpreting Jerusalem’s early Iron Age remains. But there is wide agreement about three features of Jerusalem’s settlement during the early tenth century BCE, the period associated with the biblical figure of David.
The first is that this Jerusalem was an inhabited site whose material culture corresponded to other highland settlements of the late Iron I/early Iron IIA era. Pointing out that Jerusalem was occupied during this period may appear to be a trivial consideration, but it is of historical consequence that material remains connected to the early tenth century BCE have been recovered from the site. Amid rancorous debates surrounding the historicity of biblical concepts of David or Solomon or the United Monarchy it is necessary to affirm that early tenth century BCE Jerusalem is not a figment of the imagination. Material evidence from this Jerusalem demonstrates that the location was a dynamic site of human life and culture.
Second, the archaeological remains of ancient Jerusalem indicate that this late Iron I/early Iron IIA community occupied a location that had been inhabited since at least the Early Bronze Age. Indeed, seven centuries before a David would have lived, Jerusalem stood as an imposing Middle Bronze Age Canaanite center surrounded by massive fortifications that both enclosed the site and extended down to the Gihon Spring. And though archaeological evidence is sparse for the Late Bronze Age settlement that followed, a series of Amarna letters sent from the ruler of Jerusalem Abdi-Heba to the Egyptian king Amenhotep III (El-Amarna 285–290) illustrate that Jerusalem was an important center. It had a local ruler with a court, and a garrison force to facilitate Egyptian interests in the region.
The purpose of highlighting these features of Jerusalem’s earlier, pre-Davidic past is that understanding the authority exercised by David’s Jerusalem requires awareness of Jerusalem’s long history of local influence in the central highlands before the turn of the first millennium BCE. Whatever power, in other words, was claimed by those who ruled from Jerusalem during the early tenth century BCE, the influence they exerted would have been predicated in part on Jerusalem’s previous heritage in the highlands and the elite networks and cultural institutions it commanded.
A long-term view of Jerusalem’s history and cultural significance helps make sense then of why an ambitious highland warrior may have chosen to relocate his center from Hebron to this particular location (2 Samuel 5:6–10/1 Chronicles 11:4–9) at a time when former empires in the Near East were incapable of projecting power.
The third point of consensus surrounding David’s Jerusalem is that the late Iron I/early Iron IIA location was of a modest size and stature. The difficult circumstances surrounding the excavation of Jerusalem’s most ancient settlements—from natural erosion, to later Roman engineering practices, to the inability to dig within important areas of the city—cautions against exaggerated interpretations that emphasize the paucity of material remains. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
But after a century of intense archaeological research in Jerusalem our best evidence suggests that David’s center would have been approximately 4–5 hectares in size (ca. 10 acres), its limits defined by the Kidron and Tyropoeon Valleys that flanked the narrow spur of the City of David south of the current Temple Mount. In contrast to the large, opulent urban centers in contemporary Egypt and Mesopotamia, David’s Jerusalem was instead a bucolic highland settlement comprised mostly of farmers and pastoralists engaged in day-to-day agrarian tasks along Jerusalem’s terraces and in the fertile valley beds that surrounded the site.
By virtue of Jerusalem’s dimensions there is a persistent temptation to dismiss its ability to serve as a royal center during the early tenth century BCE. Automatically correlating size, demography, or affluence and a site’s political authority however is a poor determinant of its capacity to rule. Instead, this Jerusalem must be contextualized within the highland society of its time. Doing so it becomes apparent, for example, that Jerusalem’s size at the turn of the first millennium BCE was quite comparable to other important late Iron I/early Iron IIA settlements in the central highlands, including Beth-Shemesh, Bethel, Mizpah (Tel en Nasbeh), and Tirzah (Tell el-Fâr’ah North).
In addition, Jerusalem benefited from its central position on transit routes between important highland tribal centers, and would have also been valued for its natural defensive features, such as the water resources of the Gihon Spring and rugged topography. If biblical references to a stronghold fortress at this Jerusalem reflect genuine historical fragments (2 Samuel 5:7), or if features of the “Large Stone Structure” currently being excavated atop the City of David prove to be late Iron I/early Iron IIA in origin, early tenth century BCE Jerusalem would suddenly take on even greater significance within a region comprised of mostly small, unwalled villages and a limited population.
Invoking biblical memories of David’s Jerusalem or alluding to contested archaeological remains from the City of David draws us toward controversies which demand far greater space and time to examine than is possible here. But the heated discussions surrounding David’s Jerusalem remind us of the provisional character of any historical reconstruction and of the need to remain open as new evidence and theoretical perspectives come to light. These arguments also demonstrate how David’s Jerusalem continues to captivate our collective historical conscious, much as it has done since the first stories about it were written by Hebrew scribes in antiquity.
Daniel Pioske is Post-Doctoral Fellow and Instructor in Biblical Languages at Union Theological Seminary. His book, David’s Jerusalem: Between Memory and History, will be published later this year by Routledge.
[i] Alcuin, Ad Carolum regem, MGH Epist. 4:327
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