Ophel Walls - A First Temple Period Site in Jerusalem

June 27, 2011

We are delighted to tell you that on Tuesday, June 21, the Ophel Walls Archaeological Site, a dramatic complex of buildings uncovered along the route of the fortifications from the First Temple period, was officially opened during a festive ceremony in the Jerusalem Archaeological Park. In addition, an exciting and important exhibition of the earliest written document ever uncovered in Jerusalem, dating to the 14 Century BCE, was opened at the Davidson Center in the Jerusalem Archaeological Park.

The Ophel Walls site and the exhibition are made possible by an exemplary, generous gift from Daniel Mintz and Meredith Berkman, great supporters and long time friends of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The Ophel Walls

The Ophel Walls site, located south of the Southern Wall of the Temple Mount enclosure, was excavated by Dr. Eilat Mazar of the Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University and brilliantly conserved and made accessible to the public by the experienced conservators of the IAA. This is the first time since the establishment of the Jerusalem Archaeological Park by the Israel Antiquities Authority, the largest and most important archaeological site in the country, that hundreds of thousands of visitors per year are able to see, touch and understand the grand remains from the First Temple period, and it joins sites in the Park dating to the Second Temple period, Byzantine period, and the Umayyad and Crusader periods. 

The architecture at the Ophel Walls site includes an impressive building thought to be a gate house, a royal edifice, a section of a tower and the city wall itself. Dr. Mazar suggests identifying the buildings as part of the complex of fortifications that King Solomon constructed in Jerusalem: “…until he had made an end of building his own house, and the house of the Lord, and the wall of Jerusalem round about” (1 Kings 3:1).In addition to the fortifications from the First Temple period, sections of the Byzantine city wall including two of its towers were also exposed. The Byzantine wall was built at the initiative of the Empress Eudociain the Fifth century CE. In addition to the complex of fortifications, two rooms dating to the Second Temple period (First century CE) preserved to a height of two stories were also exposed during the excavations. 

The highlight of the excavations is the complete exposure of the gate house. The plan of this impressive building includes four rooms of identical size, arranged on both sides of a broad corridor paved with crushed limestone. The plan is characteristic of the First Temple period (Tenth-Sixth centuries BCE) and is similar to contemporaneous gates that were revealed at Megiddo, Be‘er Sheva’ and Ashdod. Eilat Mazar suggests identifying the gate house with the ‘water gate’ mentioned in the Bible: “…and the temple servants living on Ophel repaired to a point opposite the Water Gate on the east and the projecting tower” (Nehemiah 3:26). The ground floor of a large building that was destroyed in a fierce conflagration can be seen located east of the gate. Dr. Mazar suggests that this structure was destroyed by the Babylonian conquest of the city in 586 BCE. Twelve very large, clay store jars (pithoi), which probably contained wine or oil, were discovered on the floor of the building. Engraved on the shoulder of one of these pithoi is the Hebrew inscription “לשר האו...”. The inscription indicates that this pithos belonged to one of the kingdom’s ministers, perhaps the overseer of the bakers.

The Earliest Written Document

During the course of the excavation of the Ophel Walls, the oldest written document ever found in Jerusalem was discovered and is now on exhibit at the Davidson Center in the Jerusalem Archaeological Park. This rare find is of extraordinary importance to the history of the city as it “closes a small blank patch on the map of knowledge of Jerusalem,” Professor Ronny Reich, Chairman of the Archaeological Council, said at a festive luncheon hosted by Daniel and Meredith. 

The tiny rectangular clay fragment, measuring 2.0 X 2.8 cm with a thickness of 1 cm,is engraved in Akkadian cuneiform script, which was the lingua franca of the time. Among the very skillfully written words that can be read are the words: “you”, “you were”, “after/later”, “to do”, and “them”.  The tablet and the writing are characteristic of tablets used in ancient times for international correspondence.  They are particularly similar to letters found in the archive of Amenhotep IV (1364-1346 BCE) uncovered at el-Amarna in Egypt, which includes letters sent by the king of Jerusalem, Abdi-Heba.

Analysis of the writing and the clay used to produce the tablet show that the document originated in the Jerusalem region. It seems that it is a copy of a letter that the king of Jerusalem, Abdi-Heba, sent to the king of Egypt. It was customary that a copy of such correspondence would be kept in the archives of the city Salem, Jerusalem’s name in that period. The fragment of the tablet constitutes credible evidence of the status of Jerusalem as an important royal city in Canaan, which was administered as a city-state under the auspices of the Pharaonic Egyptian kingdom.

We invite you to visit the Jerusalem Archaeological Park and the new Ophel Walls site and see the special exhibit at the Davidson Center when you are next in Israel. 

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