The biblical books Nehemiah 2 and 3 relay the story of Nehemiah’s trip around the destroyed town of Jerusalem and of the rebuilding of its fortifications. Despite the detailed description of walls and gates, scholars debate the actual size of the settlement in Persian times and even question whether the walls were really reconstructed. This paper investigates the facts `on the ground’. Was any town wall of the Persian period ever excavated? How large was Nehemiah’s Jerusalem and how did it function within the Persian empire? Was it a walled town with a central temple, the seat of the governor, a centre of administration, religion and economy? Or was it a small undefended settlement in which only the local temple had any significance? Spoiler alert: there are as many opinions as there are scholars, and the archaeological evidence is meagre.
By Margreet L. Steiner
Nehemiah 2:11-15 recounts how the prophet arrives in Jerusalem and immediately sets out in the night with some of his men to inspect the town walls. He leaves the settlement through the Valley Gate and then rides on his donkey in the direction of the Jackal Well and Dung Gate. The trip continues to the Fountain Gate and the King's Pool. Eventually he returns through the Valley Gate. What he encounters is terrifying. The walls are demolished, the gates reduced to ashes. In some places it is impossible to continue because of the amount of debris on the slope. Nehemiah decides that the fortifications have to be rebuilt.
Nehemiah 3 is even more specific. Families and professional groups take on the responsibility for repairing stretches of the wall, while gates are provided with attics, doors, bolts and bars, and towers are rebuilt. The high priest Eliashib, for example, rebuilds the Sheep Gate together with his fellow priests, while the sons of Hassenaah tackle the Fish Gate.
No other biblical text is as explicit about the walls of Jerusalem as Nehemiah 3. Not only nine gates are mentioned, but also other characteristic parts of the town such as the Tower of the Hundred and the Tower of Hanael, the Broad Wall, the Pool of Siloam, the King’s Garden, the steps going down from the City of David, the tombs of David, the artificial pool, the House of the Heroes and many more.
What a wealth of information on the lay-out of Jerusalem in Persian times! Since the project involved the reparation of older constructions, this text gives information about the town at the end of the Iron Age, just before its destruction by the Babylonians in 586 BC, as well.
Many biblical scholars have been allured by these texts to sketch a map of the city based on the descriptions therein - see for instance https://medium.com/@chrisvonada/the-courage-and-calling-of-nehemiah-1b64df490373. In this map the walls surround the southeastern hill and the Temple Mount only; it is assumed that other parts of the Late Iron Age city were not reconstructed.
Unfortunately, the Bible texts remain vague on the exact location of these structures. That the order of the buildings in the text is the same as the order `on the ground' is likely but not certain. Another problem: if this list includes only the walls around the southeastern hill and the Temple Mount, then nine city gates seem to be an extravaganza for such a small area. Perhaps it rather encompasses all the destroyed city gates of Jerusalem, including those around the western hill. But is it plausible that these were repaired too by the small group of people who lived in the city after the Exile? These texts have clearly been written for people who lived in Jerusalem and knew exactly where the constructions mentioned were located, not for later generations not acquainted with the town. These ambiguities renders the reconstructions uncertain, and with it our view of Jerusalem in the Persian period.
Archaeologist have not been silent either. A whole series of publications on Jerusalem in the Persian period has seen the light of day. Recent ones include Finkelstein 2008, Lipschits 2009, Ristau 2016, and Ussishkin 2006. However, it is not easy to find out what exactly has been excavated and how biblical texts and archaeological finds relate to each other. Very little material has been unearthed from Persian times, and what has been found is difficult to date with precision. Due to this dearth of material, interpretations are becoming increasingly important. And those interpretations can be quite diverse.
The oldest settlement of Jerusalem was not located in what is now called the Old City, but on the hill southeast of it. This hill is now commonly referred to as the City of David, but that is a fairly recent name (Steiner 2019).
Plan of Jerusalem in the Iron Age. (Courtesy Ancient Jerusalem Project).
Only since the end of the 19th century do we know that the town from the Bronze and Iron Ages, roughly the period from 3200 - 600 BC, was built near the only natural spring in the area, the Gichon spring at the foot of the eastern slope of the southeastern hill (Steiner 2014). At the top of that hill and on its eastern and western slopes the remains of biblical Jerusalem have been found. It was only late in the Iron Age that the settlement expanded over the western hill. This town was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC, and many of its inhabitants were sent into exile. After this destruction the wider area was largely, but not entirely, abandoned. Villages still supplied grain and other products, governors were appointed, residing first in Mizpa and later in Jerusalem, and for many people life will have taken its traditional course.
The biblical sources are largely silent on what happened in Judah and Jerusalem after the Babylonian destruction. The emphasis is on the exiles and on the return to the old land after the Persians had conquered Babylon in 539 BC and included Judah into their empire. The Persian kings allowed exiles from many countries to return to their lands, and some made use of that, others did not; many Judeans continued to live in Babylonia. Whether the biblical stories faithfully represent this return is a problem we will pass over here. Suffice to say there is hardly any archaeological evidence of a large population growth as a result of immigration.
Archaeology and the walls of Jerusalem
Jerusalem was desolate after the destruction. Its walls were destroyed, houses had collapsed, the famous temple was robbed and set on fire, and a large part of the administrative elite and craftsmen were taken into exile. In this respect, the description in Nehemiah 3 is correct. Whoever wandered around the old city walls had to climb over a mass of stone and sometimes could not continue at all; large piles of rubble blocked the way. It seems obvious that Nehemiah wanted to restore the walls to make the city habitable again. But did he do it? Did Jerusalem become a walled settlement in Persian times, or is that an unlikely notion? Did archaeologists actually find the Persian city walls?
The first one to announce that she had found part of the Persian city wall was the English archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon. She carried out excavations in Jerusalem from 1960 - 1967. Above the Gichon spring she dug a long trench from top to bottom in order to analyse all layers of habitation of the ancient city. At the bottom of the slope she found the city walls from the Middle Bronze Age (18th century BC) and the Late Iron Age (around 700 BC). At the top of the slope there was a large tower and a stretch of city wall from the Late Hellenistic period, built by the Maccabees in the 2nd century BC. The Late Iron Age and the Maccabean period were two prosperous periods in the history of the town, in which solid city walls were erected around the southeastern hill.
Further north on the hill Kenyon found a smaller tower with part of a wall that according to her originated from the Persian era. An accurate analysis of the finds I made shows, however, that the tower and the wall date from the Late Hellenistic period and are part of the fortifications described above (for an extensive analysis see Steiner 2011).
The excavations of Kathleen Kenyon. In the foreground the wall that she dated to the Persian period with behind it the small tower. (Courtesy Ancient Jerusalem Project).
Although I came to the conclusion that Kenyon was wrong and that the wall and the tower did not date to the Persian period, it is quite possible that a Persian wall was once built there, now hidden under the later Maccabean constructions. At the foot of the tower and wall was a thick layer of stony debris containing Babylonian and Persian pottery. My interpretation (and that of others) was that there had been a building on top of the hill in those periods, of which the remains, together with the pottery, had been swept down the slope when a fortification was built on that spot. If the original wall would have been built in the Late Hellenistic period, one would expect pottery from the Babylonian, Early and Late Persian and Early Hellenistic periods in that rubble. However, the debris only contained pottery from the Babylonian and Early Persian periods. This suggests that the rubble was swept down before the Late Persian period began, and that a city wall may have been built there at that time. In the Late Hellenistic period that construction then was rebuilt or restored and the older wall was not visible anymore. I am aware that this is only indirect evidence.
Recently, the Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazar conducted excavations on the top of the hill, where she found the so-called `Palace of David' (Mazar 2009; see for a refutation of that interpretation Steiner 2009). The small tower that Kenyon had uncovered appeared to be on the verge of collapse and was demolished and rebuilt by her team. That provided an opportunity to look underneath and behind the tower. The pottery she found there originated in the Persian period, which, according to her, proved that the tower itself was Persian in date and therefore part of the fortifications mentioned in Nehemiah 3.
This, however, is a methodological error. If Persian pottery was found underneath the tower, this means that the tower itself was built later. That could be two years later, a hundred years later or a thousand years later. The Persian pottery underneath the tower only gives a terminus post quem, a date after which something could have happened. The tower may thus have been built in the Persian period or (much) later. The finds do not disprove my dating of the tower in the Maccabean era.
All in all, archaeological research has not found any actual Persian fortifications but at most indirect evidence for their construction. This does not immediately make the story in Nehemiah 3 untrue, but it cannot be substantiated either.
Jerusalem in the Persian period
Another point is the size and function of Jerusalem during the Persian period. Was it a walled town with a central temple, the seat of the governor, the centre of government, religion and economy? Or was it an unimportant, undefended settlement, in which only the local temple still had any meaning?
In 586 BC the Babylonians left behind a town largely destroyed. They appointed a governor over Judah, who sat in Mizpa, not Jerusalem. Judah and her capital were mostly in ruins, its population decimated, the economy destroyed. A book about Judah in the Babylonian era is aptly subtitled The Archaeology of Desolation (Faust 2012).
How desolate Jerusalem really was, is a matter of interpretation. Many paint a dark situation, with only some 'people of the land' living in the collapsed houses and making sacrifices in the ruins of the temple. Later - in Persian times - the temple would have been provisionally restored and Jerusalem would have been a non-walled, largely empty settlement where some priests lived who maintained the temple services.
Israel Finkelstein (2008), for example, sees Jerusalem of Persian and Early Hellenistic times as a small village without walls, with at most a few hundred inhabitants. He points out that Persian material was found only on the southeastern hill, the City of David, and not in other parts of the site that were inhabited in the Late Iron Age. Fortifying the town would certainly not have been tolerated by the Persian authorities, and the story as told in the biblical book of Nehemiah would be a much later construction.
According to Oded Lipschits (2009) Jerusalem was a temple city. The temple was restored, and the temple gave the town its raison d'être. But that did not make Jerusalem a large or prosperous town. The seat of the Persian province of Yehud would therefore not be in Jerusalem but in Ramat Rachel, where a palace from the Persian era has been excavated (Lipschits et al. 2011).
An accurate analysis of the material found during excavations shows, in my opinion, a more nuanced picture. Around the city several tombs carved into the rock have been found that show a continuity from the Late Iron Age onwards. The most famous cemetery is that of Ketef Hinnom, in the southwest part of the present-day city, where a number of tombs have been excavated, most of them robbed except one which was full of luxury material from the Late Iron Age, the Babylonian and the Persian periods (Barkay 1994). One of the burial chambers contained, for instance, a silver Greek coin from the end of the 6th century BC, the Early Persian period.
Reconstruction of one of the Ketef Hinnom tombs. (Photo Chamberi / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0))
Another burial ground was located in the Mamilla area, west of the current Jaffa Gate (Reich 1994). Several tombs have been found here with finds from the Iron Age unto the Hellenistic period. The Persian material included a bronze mirror, silver rings, an Egyptian jar made of faience and an Attic jug - all luxury items, probably imported. Such tombs belonged to wealthy families, who buried their dead there for centuries. This would indicate that rich families still lived in or around Jerusalem in the Persian period.
An analysis of the pottery from the Persian period found during excavations in Jerusalem shows that there were several potteries that supplied the inhabitants with vessels, including Greek-style vases and thin-walled bowls, both luxury materials (Steiner 2011). People didn't just eat what the land nearby yielded; fish bones were found from sea bream and mullet from the Mediterranean Sea and catfish from the river Jordan or Lake Tiberias (Lernau 2015). Seal impressions bearing the name Yehud - the Persian province of Judah - show that the site was part of an economic network. Wine and olive oil were brought to the town in sealed jars (Lipschits 2009). Jerusalem was, certainly in the later Persian period, more than a sparsely inhabited settlement or just a temple city without any economic or administrative significance.
Diana Edelman, who made an in-depth study of Jerusalem in Persian times based on biblical texts, archaeological finds and information on the Persian empire, sees Jerusalem as a birah, a small fortress used by the Persians (Edelman 2005). It was King Artaxerxes I who would have moved the capital of the province from Mitzpa to Jerusalem because the later site was more strategically located and had a better water supply. This fortress housed the governor of Yehud together with a garrison of soldiers and their families, as well as local service personnel and merchants. This would imply the construction of supply and service buildings, a palace for the governor and houses for the inhabitants. It also included the reconstruction of the temple and the restoration of the walls. New migrants were sent from the Persian Empire to Yehud to expand the agricultural production necessary for the army, and a governor was appointed with ancestral ties to the area (Nehemiah). These new settlers would consist of descendants of the original exiles, but also of non-Judeans, such as retired Persian soldiers.
Charles Carter (1999) also sees no problem for the Persian authorities in allowing Jerusalem to restore its fortifications. He places this project in the context of strengthening the interests of the Persian empire vis a vis the growing threat from Greece and Egypt. This made it necessary to reinforce western Palestine, especially the provinces of Yehud and Samaria and the coastal areas (Carter 1999, 293).
The conclusion must be that no Persian city walls have actually been found. Some scholars, however, do not allow themselves to be discouraged by this and draw with confidence a map of Jerusalem based on the biblical texts. Others conclude from the archaeological finds (or rather, the dearth thereof) that Jerusalem in Persian times was a very small settlement, not including the western hill, impoverished, unwalled, insignificant. The stories as recorded in Nehemiah 3 can therefore not be correct and must date from a later period.
I take an intermediate position. Although the Persian town walls have not been found, there are indications that they may be hidden under the later Maccabean fortifications. But irrespective of whether those walls did or did not exist, in my opinion Jerusalem was not as desolate as is sometimes assumed, both before and after the arrival of Nehemiah. Although little has been found of the town itself, some finds suggest the presence of wealthy inhabitants, such as the rich elite graves that have been uncovered. The pottery shows that several potteries provided the inhabitants not only with coarse utilitarian earthenware but also with vessels in Greek style and refined bowls. The many Yehud stamp impressions indicate inclusion in an economic network, the exact nature of which still eludes us. The fish bones analysed come from fish from the Mediterranean Sea and Lake Tiberias.
Whether Jerusalem was a birah, a Persian fortress, or a provincial capital possibly fortified by or with the permission of the Persian authorities to safeguard their interests cannot be determined on the basis of current evidence. But perhaps there is more factuality in the picture the book of Nehemiah sketches than is sometimes suggested.
G. Barkay, Excavations at Ketef Hinnom in Jerusalem, in: In: H. Geva, (ed.), Ancient Jerusalem Revealed, Jerusalem 1994, 85-106.
C. E. Carter, The Emergence of Yehud in the Persian Period –A Social and Demographic Study (JSOT Supplement Series 294), Sheffield 1999.
D. Edelman, The Origins of the Second Temple: Persian Imperial Policy and the Rebuilding of Jerusalem, London 2005.
A. Faust, Judah in the Neo-Babylonian Period: The Archaeology of Desolation, Atlanta, Ga 2012.
I. Finkelstein, `Jerusalem in the Persian (and Early Hellenistic) Period and the Wall of Nehemiah’, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 32 (2008), 501-520.
H. Lernau, `Fish Bones’, in E. Mazar (ed.), The Summit of the City Of David Excavations 2005–2008; Final Reports Volume I, Area G, Jerusalem 2015, 525-538.
O. Lipschits, `Persian Period Finds from Jerusalem: Facts and Interpretations.’ The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 9 (2009), 2-30.
O. Lipschits, Y. Gadot et al., `Palace and Village, Paradise and Oblivion: Unraveling the Riddles of Ramat Raḥel’, Near Eastern Archaeology 74 (2011), 1-49.
E. Mazar, The Palace of King David. Excavations at the Summit of the City of David. Preliminary Report of Seasons 2005-2007, Jerusalem and New York 2009.
R. Reich, `The Ancient Burial Ground in the Mamilla Neighborhood, Jerusalem’, in H. Geva (ed.), Ancient Jerusalem Revealed, Jerusalem 1994, 111-118.
K. A. Ristau, Reconstructing Jerusalem: Persian Period Prophetic Perspectives, University Park, Pa, 2016.
M. L. Steiner, `The “Palace of David” Reconsidered in the Light of Earlier Excavations’, op http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/palace_2468.shtml (2009).
M. L. Steiner, `The Persian Period City Wall of Jerusalem’, in I. Finkelstein, I and N. Na`aman (eds.), The Fire Signals of Lachish; Studies in the Archaeology and History of Israel in the Late Bronze Age, Iron Age and Persian Period in Honor of David Ussishkin, Winona Lake, Ind. 2011, 307-17.
M. L. Steiner, `One Hundred and Fifty Years of Excavating Jerusalem’, in B. Wagemakers (ed.), Archaeology in the Land of `Tells and Ruins’. A History of Excavations in the Holy Land Inspired by the Photographs and Accounts of Leo Boer. Oxford 2014, 24-37.
M. L. Steiner, `The City of David as a Palimpsest’, in L. Niesiołowski-Spanò and E. Pfoh (eds.), Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity: Essays In Honour of Thomas L. Thompson, London 2019, 3-10.
D. Ussishkin,. 2006. `The Borders and de Facto Size of Jerusalem in the Persian Period’, in O. Lipschits and M. Oeming (eds.), Judah and Judeans in the Persian Period, Winona Lake 2006, 147–166.