Jerusalem in the 10th / 9th centuries BC

What has been found from the 10th (or 9th) century BC... are remains of public buildings and fortifications only. Jerusalem was only a small town then, maybe 12 hectares large, and it harbored certainly no more than 2000 inhabitants. Maybe the Queen of Sheba would still have enjoyed her visit to Jerusalem, but I doubt that she would have been greatly impressed. Or, anonother possility, the the town of Jerusalem was founded in the beginning of the 9th century BC, and Solomon and David had nothing to do with it.

By Margreet Steiner
August 2004

City of the Kings

In the year 598 BC, the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar marched against Jerusalem. In his chronicles, he proudly states: "In the seventh year, the month of Kislev, the King of Akkad [Nebuchadnezzar] mustered his troops, marched to Hatti-land [Syria] and encamped against the city of Judah, and on the second day of the month of Adar, he seized the city and captured the king."1 The Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and carried the elite off to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar appointed a vassal king, loyal to his house. When after eleven years Zedekiah rebelled, Nebuchadnezzar marched again, and this time he completely destroyed Jerusalem.

In those years, Jerusalem was a thriving city. Its 5-7 meters wide city walls encompassed an area of 40-50 hectares. It was by far the largest city of the region. The second most important city in Israel, Ekron, was 20 hectares large, while most other towns were only 6 hectares in size. Jerusalem boasted beautiful palaces and large mansions for the king and his court, while the rich traders and artisans lived in well laid-out city quarters. On the highest hill stood the magnificent temple dedicated to the God of Israel. An extensive system of tunnels and channels provided drinking water to the population of about 10,000 souls. The city grew rich from the trade in grain and olive oil, while all kinds of luxury goods were imported: wooden furniture from Syria, ivory from Mesopotamia, and wine from Greece.2

Much is known about this city and the social and economic position of its inhabitants, precisely because of the destruction King Nebuchadnezzar wrought. Archaeologists, always fond of destruction layers, have been able to date the construction of the city walls, most houses and some water systems to the 8th century BC. This was the time the city expanded and reached the size and importance which made Nebuchadnezzar call it the city of Judah. But when was this city founded? How did it develop into this economic metropolis? That is much more difficult to ascertain.


The Earlier Remains

Underneath the buildings destroyed by the Babylonians were older remains. These buildings represent the first phase of the town and date roughly to the beginning of the Iron II period, the 10th and 9th centuries

city of david
City of David 
Courtesy of
(click photo to enlarge)

BC. A more precise dating is difficult to give. There are some serious problems with the dating of the pottery from this period, which will be described below.

From this first phase of the town several large buildings and  fortifications have been excavated, all on the eastern slope of the southeastern hill. This hill is also called the City of David or Ophel.

1) Most conspicuous is what is commonly called the "stepped stone structure." Elements of it were already discovered by the British archaeologists R.A.S. Macalister, who called it the Jebusite

Stepped Stone Structure
Stepped Stone Structure
Courtesy of
(click photo to enlarge)

Ramp.3 Other parts have been excavated by Kathleen Kenyon4 and Yigal Shiloh.5 It consists of a mantel of stones and some adjoining terraces which were laid out over the pre-existing buildings and the debris on the slope of the hill.  Originally the structure must have been at least 27 m. high and 40 m. wide at the top, which makes it by far the largest and most impressive structure of this kind. It must have had a defensive function

Some scholars maintain that this stepped stone structure dates from the Iron Age I period (1200-1000 BC), and that it already had gone out of use in the 10th/9th century.6 However, their opinion is based on only the small probe Yigal Shiloh excavated in the structure. Kathleen Kenyon excavated a much larger part of the stepped stone structure and could thus gain a better insight in its extension, construction method and date. She found that the stepped stone structure could definitively be dated to the beginning of the Iron II period. It went out of use somewhere in the 8th century when a five meters wide city wall was built lower down the slope of the hill. This wall overtook the defensive function of the stepped stone structure. A residential area was then constructed over the stepped stone structure in the 7th century BC.

2) A small part of a casemate wall was discovered on top of the hill. It links with the stepped stone structure. The wall was five meters wide and ran in northern direction. It may have been part of a small fortified building located on top of the hill. Or it may have been a town wall, connecting this part of the town with the citadel excavated at the foot of the temple mount – see below.

3) Just south of the temple mount an imposing citadel was found. Mazar & Mazar published a four-chambered entrance gate (building B), whose dimensions were almost identical to those of palace gate 1567 in Megiddo.7 Adjacent to this gate, a building "of royal character" (building D) was excavated. The first phase of both buildings was dated to the 9th centuries BC, although admittedly the dating evidence was very scant. Sadly enough only a small part of this citadel could be excavated, as it was partly hidden under the later Herodian terrace wall. The combination of ashlar wall (see below), four-chambered gate, and royal building indicate the presence of an important complex there.

4) Building elements normally used for public buildings were found as well. Near the above mentioned citadel a fragment of a wall built of large ashlars was excavated by Kenyon and published by Mazar & Mazar as wall 4.8 And near the base of the stepped stone structure ashlars were found in a tumble, coming from a building that had once crowned this structure.9 Here too the largest proto-aeolic capital of ancient Israel was found, dated by Shiloh to the 9th century BC.10

Dating the earlier remains

Buildings are generally dated on the basis of the pottery fragments found directly on their floors or in the debris on the floors. Sometimes the architecture of the building can be compared to similar buildings elsewhere. Inscriptions or well-dated small finds can be of help too. In the case of the 10th and 9th centuries BC, the situation is very complicated. In the past, buildings or architectural phases were assigned to the 10th century BC because they were assumed to have been built by King Solomon. A case in point is the 6-chambered gate. These gates were found at Megiddo, Hazor, and Gezer. Based on biblical texts Yigal Yadin proposed a dating for these gates in the 2nd half of the 10th century BC. These gates then became a hallmark of that period. Thus, if a 6-chambered gate was discovered at another site, this gate and the other buildings associated with it were dated to the 10th century BC as well. The (supposedly) 10th century pottery found at Megiddo became a dating tool for other sites.

Many scholars in the past have criticized this way of dating, as it is based on an uncritical reading of the Bible and a mixing of archaeological and biblical sources. However, it is difficult to find a better way of dating. There are no fixed points in this period. Hardly any inscriptions have been found in ancient Israel from the 10th and the 1st half of the 9th centuries BC.11 Egyptian and Mesopotamian sources are silent too, no easily recognizable imports were found and C14-dates are too broad to distinguish between the 10th and the 9th centuries. Lately, the dating of pottery and buildings to the 10th century BC has become the focus of a serious controversy among archaeologist. Some propose to down date the whole complex to the 9th century BC (the "low chronology"), others maintain that the 10th century is right, at least for certain parts of the complex.12

The buildings and associated pottery found in Jerusalem do not shed any light on this problem. First of all, little pottery has been found on the floors of the buildings; most pottery (little as it is) comes from mixed contexts. This makes it hard to establish a pottery chronology for this period. Secondly, the Jerusalem pottery differs from the pottery of Megiddo. It is possible that it is older or younger than the Megiddo pottery. More likely, it belongs to a (slightly) different technical tradition.13 All this makes it difficult to date this pottery very precisely. Therefore, I have assigned this phase very generally to the 10th/9th century BC.

A walk through the town

Above I have described the buildings recovered from the earliest phase of the Iron Age town of Jerusalem. But how did this town look? Maybe we should take a walk through ancient Jerusalem, through the town built by the kings of Judah somewhere in the 10th or 9th century BC.

Envision a group of travelers, coming from the east, hungry and thirsty after a long journey through the Judean desert. Their first glimpse of Jerusalem would impress them greatly. Before their eyes rises the 27 m high stepped stone structure, its steps invisible under a layer of earth and chalk. This formidable fortification, guarding the entrance to the spring Gihon, would give them a first idea of the strength of the town. On top of the hill, casemate walls measuring five meters wide surround a small town. There probably was a gate nearby through which the travelers entered the town. Once inside they feasted their eyes on the fine buildings, constructed of ashlars and proto-aeolic capitals. Going south they would find markets and inns to eat and rest. If the next day they walked to the north side of the town, they would pass more markets and caravanserais. Then they would come to a halt before the "royal" quarter, seat of the king or governor of the region. A large gate led to a complex of halls and palaces. Of course they were not allowed to enter. If the famous temple had already been built, they would certainly visit it, paying respect to the God that resided there. Finally they walked the street sidling the town walls. This would not take them long, as the total length of the walls would not exceed 2 km. A very nice town, they would conclude, and very much like Megiddo and Hazor, which they had visited before.

The City of David?

A very nice town, our imaginary visitors concluded. But who had built it, and when and why?

The Bible describes how the small fortress of Zion, where the Jebusites resided, was captured by King David. He transformed it into the capital of his state, a position it kept during the United Monarchy, roughly the 10th century BC. His successor King Solomon built several palaces and a grandiose temple. Jerusalem is described as a beautiful city, capital of a large and wealthy empire. When the Queen of Sheba saw the affluence of Solomon, it left her breathless.14

None of the buildings described in the Bible have been traced by archaeological research. No temple, no palaces, and no "millo house" (even though archeologists sometimes assume they have found traces of the buildings). That doesn't mean the town was not there; maybe everything has been eroded away. But neither does it mean that it was there. Maybe we don't find the grandiose town of the 10th century BC simply because it was never there.

Or maybe it was a much more modest town than the Bible describes. What has been found from the 10th (or 9th) century BC, as described above, are remains of public buildings and fortifications only. Jerusalem was only a small town then, maybe 12 hectares large, and it harbored certainly no more than 2000 inhabitants. Maybe the Queen of Sheba would still have enjoyed her visit to Jerusalem, but I doubt that she would have been greatly impressed.

Or – another possibility – the town of Jerusalem was founded in the beginning of the 9th century BC, and Solomon and David had nothing to do with it. If the advocates of the "low chronology" are right, then most Iron Age towns in ancient Israel have been built in the 9th rather than in the 10th century. The 9th century would be the period when state formation started, kings established themselves, the states of Israel and Judah were formed, and administrative towns such as Hazor, Beersheba, and Jerusalem were built. (In that case, the Queen of Sheba would have been bitterly disappointed when she visited Jerusalem in the 10th century).


A new town

Whatever its dating, a very important aspect of this town is the fact that it was a new settlement. The above-described town was not a rebuilding or an extension of an earlier town. Before the 10th century BC no town existed in Jerusalem (except for the Middle Bronze Age, some 800 years earlier). During the Early Iron Age (1200-1000 BC), the hill, which is now called the City of David, was mostly barren. Only a small fortress was located there, near the spring Gihon, the only available water source then. This isolated fortress defended the spring and controlled the area.

When the new town was built on the same hill, no parts of this fortress were used at all. The stepped stone structure covered all earlier remains. Probably the fortress had been out of use for some time. Anyhow, a new town was built on a spot where only ruins of earlier occupation were visible.

This new town was not a small market town. It did not develop slowly from a small village into a larger settlement and eventually into a walled town. Already in its earliest phase Jerusalem shows defensive walls, fortifications, large gates and public buildings made of ashlars and decorated with proto-aeolic capitals. The town shows all the characteristics of an administrative center, built by ruler who wanted to control a large area.

In the ancient Near East, the building of new administrative centers was a political action. When a new ruler, or a new dynasty, established itself, a new capital was built. Also, when new land was incorporated into an existing kingdom, new administrative centers were built. So we can view the building of this new town in Jerusalem as the material expression of a new political situation. Some ruler built an administrative center there. Not a large residential city, but a modest, heavily fortified town with a palace complex at the northern side. From here he (always a he) ruled the region, either as king in his own kingdom, or as governor representing a mightier king.


Capital of the United Monarchy?

We may thus conclude that somewhere in the 10th or the beginning of the 9th century BC a small state was founded of which Jerusalem was the administrative center. Whether Jerusalem was the capital of a large state is impossible to say. It certainly was the capital of Judah later in the Iron II period, so maybe it was the most important town of the state of Judah from the beginning onwards. But it is doubtful that it was by far the largest, richest, most important town of the region as the Bible suggests. Megiddo, Hazor, Lachish and Beth Shemesh all display the same characteristics: mainly public buildings, ashlar masonry, proto-aeolic capitals, fortifications and not much room for residential areas. They were as rich or richer than Jerusalem. There is no archaeological or literary- historical evidence for the United Monarchy.

But neither was Jerusalem an unimportant, backward settlement in that period, as some archaeologists maintain. The buildings described above are neither small nor unimpressive. They make a statement, a clear statement, that says: this is the central town of a new political entity that came into existence in the 10th or 9th century BC.



A new town was founded in a place where no town existed before.

  • No more precise dating of this town is possible at the moment than the 10th or 9th century BC, even though I would be inclined to favor a date in the 9th century BC.

  • Several large public buildings have been found, confirming that this was an administrative center.

  • This town was very similar to such towns as Megiddo, Hazor, or Lachish in lay-out and architecture. These towns all date to the 10th or 9th century BC. Jerusalem was neither more spectacular than these settlements, nor was it more backwards.

  • The archaeological remains show that a new political entity had established itself in the Highlands of Judah and had constructed an administrative center there from which to rule the region.

  • It is impossible to ascertain how large this new entity was. Maybe it consisted only of a small region around Jerusalem, or maybe Jerusalem was part of a larger regional state. This state may have included such towns as Lachish, Beersheba, and Beth Shemesh.

  • The archaeological remains do not confirm the idea that Jerusalem was the main capital of a large state, not that it was larger and more beautiful than other towns.

  • It is impossible to ascertain which ruler built and decorated Jerusalem.


(back)1 A.D. Barnett, 1977, Illustrations of Old Testament History (2nd. ed.; London: British Museum Publications Limited), p. 80. 

(back)2 M.L. Steiner, 2001, Excavations in Jerusalem by K. M. Kenyon 1961-67, Vol. III: The Settlement in the Bronze and Iron Ages.  (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press).

(back)3 R.A.S. Macalister, and J. Garrow Duncan, 1926, Excavations on the Hill of Ophel, Jerusalem, 1923-1925 (PEFA 4, London).

(back)4 K.M. Kenyon, 1974, Digging Up Jerusalem (London: Ernest Benn Ltd.). 

(back)5 Y. Shiloh, 1984, Excavations at the City of David I, 1987-1982: Interim Report of the First Five Seasons (Qedem 19, Jerusalem).

(back)6J. Cahill, Jerusalem at the Time of the United Moanrchy: The Archaeological Evidence. In: A.G. Vaughn and A.E. Killebrew (eds.), Jerusalem in Bible and Archaeology: The First Temple Period. 2003 (Society of Biblical Literature symposium series, no. 18). 

(back)7E. Mazar and B. Mazar, 1989, Excavations in the South of the Temple Mount - the Ophel of biblical Jerusalem (Qedem 29; Jerusalem: The Institute of Archaeology, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem).

(back)8 Mazar & Mazar 1989 (note 7): 9-10.

(back)9Steiner 2001 (note 2): figs. 5.9 and 5.10.

(back)10Y. Shiloh, 1979, The Proto-Aeolic Capital and Israelite Ashlar Masonry (Qedem 11, Jerusalem: The Institute of Archaeology, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem).

(back)11Except for a fragment of the Shishonq stele, found at Megiddo.

(back)12A strong advocate of the "low chronology" is Israel Finkelstein. His first article on the subject was The Date of the Settlement of the Philistines in Canaan, Tel Aviv 22, 1995, 213-239.

(back)13H.J, Franken, 2005, A History of Pottery and Potters in Ancient Jerusalem; Excavations by K.M. Kenyon in Jerusalem 1961-1967. (Equinox, London, 2005).

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