City of David or City of Gmaryahu ben Shafan?

By Yonatan Mizrachi

In the more than 140 years of excavations at the "City of David" archaeological site in the Palestinian village of Silwan in Jerusalem, dozens of fragments have been unearthed bearing inscriptions in ancient Hebrew. Most date from the beginning of the eighth to the sixth century B.C.E , and many of them carry the names of high officials from the days of the Judean kingdom. Several names found on ancient seals are mentioned in the Bible as royal ministers. Prominent among them is Gmaryahu ben Shafan, who is mentioned in the Book of Jeremiah, and whose name appears on a seal discovered in excavations led by Professor Yigal Shila.

However, of all the inscriptions that have been discovered, including the "Shiloah Tunnel" inscription that describes the quarrying of the tunnel, not one mentions the name of a king. Figures such as King David, King Solomon, and even King Hezekiah, whose names are so closely associated with biblical Jerusalem, are not to be found among the dozens of inscriptions that continue to be discovered at the site.

For many, the purpose of archaeology is to explain and to prove what is contained in the Bible. The ability to match the names of biblical figures with the artifacts found at the site proves the truthfulness of the Bible. However, this business of authenticating biblical stories, and the intense and often excessive urge to look for proof that this or that king once ruled in ancient Jerusalem, interferes with our ability to learn what archaeology has to teach us, which is how people actually lived. What we can we learn about their culture? What can we learn, for example, from the fact that we have found the names of fifty different people in various roles in the royal government, but not the name of a single king?

The fact that such extensive excavations throughout the entire City of David/Silwan site have turned up the names of so many high officials attests to their dominance in the system of government. Indeed, this may be the most important conclusion to be drawn from these inscriptions. What they teach us, it seems, is that the ancient kingdom of Judea was governed by a class of high officials, of which the king may have been one, but that he was not omnipotent, and his power was not absolute.

While it is true that most of these high officials are not mentioned in the Bible or in any history, what is far more interesting, and what we did not know prior to the archaeological excavations, is that some of them held high positions in the government, and perhaps even took part in historic decisions.

Further archaeological evidence of the lives of these high officials are the family tombs discovered at the foot of the eastern slopes of the Kidron Valley, near the Ras al-Amud neighborhood. The accepted view is that these tombs were used by multiple generations of the families of Jerusalem's high officials. Here again, no royal tomb has been found, despite well-publicized efforts in the early part of the twentieth century to locate the family tomb of King David.

In recent years a large structure was unearthed, initially thought to be a palace, and which some even claimed was the palace of King David himself. However, further investigation showed that King David was not associated with this structure, and that it was not even a palace. There is no dispute, on the other hand, that many of the structures on the site were once the dwellings of high officials.

The dominance of officials and ministers in ancient Jerusalem is an example of an historical insight revealed by the archaeological record. It is on the basis of such scientific findings that we must relate to our archaeological heritage, and not on the basis of ancient stories and histories which certain national and religious groups long to see proven. It is a journey into the past, but without the need to prove a connection with the Jewish people, or any other people. A visitor who seeks to know the archaeological record opens the door onto a rich past, a continuity of place and culture of which he is a part, but which belongs first and foremost to the place where it exists. This broad and encompassing past does not belong to a single religion or nationality, but invites members of all religions and nationalities to be a part of it.

The site now called "The City of David" has in recent years turned into an object of reverence for ideological groups, settlers, and even researchers who seek to prove the connection between the name of the site and the archaeological findings. The never-ending search for the mystical link to King David distracts us from the real point, which is understanding the past. In these days where the past is used as a political football in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, archaeology remains open to all of us. Its purpose is not to prove or disprove the Bible, nor is it for science alone, but rather to ensure a better future for the people of Silwan, Jerusalem, and the entire region.

*Yonatan Mizrachi, archaeologist and member of the organization "Emek Shaveh"- , which deals with the place of archaeology in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.