Earliest Jerusalem


Nothing is known about the people who first settled in the hills and valleys where the city of Jerusalem would eventually be located. Finds of pottery vessels in tombs to the south of the present walls of the Old City indicate that the site was first settled around 3,500 BC. This era is called the Bronze Age which takes its name from the increasing use of bronze, an alloy of copper and tin. It was marked by growing urbanization, as people gathered into city-states consisting of towns or cities surrounded by villages and farms. It was around this time that towns like Megiddo, Ai, Lachish and Beth Shan began to appear in other parts of Canaan. This first settlement appeared on the top of a hill above the Gihon Spring, the city’s nearest natural source of fresh water.

Canaan, a narrow band of plains, valleys and mountains, is about the size of the state of Vermont. It stretched about 150 miles from north to south, and fifty miles from the east to west at it widest point, and was bounded on the west by the Mediterranean Sea and on the east by the hill country and desert. The western hills rise 2,500 feet above sea level; the eastern hills, on the other side of the Jordan River (Transjordan or "across the Jordan"), soar to nearly 3,000 feet. The Jordan valley itself drops from more than a thousand feet above sea-level at its sources at the base of Mount Herman to almost 700 feet below sea-level at the Sea of Galilee to 1,290 feet below sea-level in the Dead Sea area. Development in Canaan at this time was mostly confined to the coastal plain, the Jezreel Valley and the Negev. The economy was largely agricultural and its inhabitants exported wine, oil, grain, honey and bitumen. The area was also important strategically, providing a land bridge between Egypt, Syria, Phoenicia and Mesopotamia. But the site of the city that would eventually be revered by three monotheistic faiths was off the beaten path. Situated in the highlands running north-south through Canaan, it was difficult to settle. The future Holy City was little more than an insignificant hilltop fortress.

About 2000 BC, around the time a nomad named Abram (later Abraham) wandered into Canaan from Harran in southern Mesopotamia with his family and flocks, the site of Jerusalem was occupied by a Canaanite people who worshiped families of godsof fertility, sky, sea, storm, sun, moon and earth. Already this mountaintop location was looked upon as a "high place," a seat for a divine pantheon.

Earliest mention of Jerusalem in the Bible

The earliest biblical reference to the city describes the meeting between Abram and the mysterious "Melchizedek, king of Salem," and further indicates that it was a cult site for the worship of El Elyon,* translated in the Bible as "God Most High:"

"After Abram returned from defeating Kedorlaomer and the kings allied with him, the king of Sodom came out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King's Valley). Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying, 'Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand.' Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.'" (Genesis 14:17-20)

*El Elyon was one of the titles for the Canaanite god, Baal of Mount Zaphon (Zaphon being a city east of the Sea of Galilee on the east bank of the Jordan). Later, it was one of the titles for Yahweh, the God of Moses and Abraham. In the ancient world, deities were often merged with one another.

The second time that Abram may have come to Jerusalem is the incident recorded in Genesis 22:1-14, in which God commanded him to go to an unnamed mountain in the "region of Moriah" to sacrifice his son Isaac. In honor of this deliverence, Abram called that place "The Lord Will Provide" (Hebrew Jehovah-jireh). Neither the name or its context is clear, and apparently it was never commonly used for Jerusalem. However, over time, Abram's sacrificial mountain became Mount Moriah (meaning chosen by Jehovah), and history and legend have combined to place it squarely within Jerusalem. Jews, Muslims and Christians alike hold to the belief that Mount Moriah is the Temple Mount, the location of the temples of Solomon, Zerubbabel and Herod, and today's Dome of the Rock.

Earliest historical references outside the Bible

In the 20th and 19th centuries BC, the land of Canaan had no central government and the inhabitants lived in walled cities, each with its own king, who ruled the immediate surrounding land and spent much time fighting the other kings. These petty city-states acted as buffers between the two great ruling powers, Egypt to the south and Assyria to the north. They were vassals of one or another of these great powers depending on how the pendulum of conquest swung. They paid heavy tributes, but they were always ready to pass to the other side once they saw the winds of victory veering in another direction. In an attempt to tame them, Egyptian priests turned to sympathetic magic. They inscribed the names of their pharoah's subjects on bowls and figurines, then with incantations, smashed them as an omen of their destruction if they strayed. One of these "Execration (meaning "ruin") texts," in the form a kneeling prisoner (left) dating about 1850 BC, contains the names of two kings, Yaqar-' Ammu and Setj-' Anu, of a city-state called Rushalimum. The inscription on the shattered statuette (left) contains the earliest written reference to Jerusalem outside the Bible.

By the 14th century BC the pharaohs were able to command the loyalty of the princes of Canaan (Egyptian Retinu) without resorting to smashing clay "voodoo" dolls. The Egyptian armies, with their swift chariots and archers with powerful composite bows, managed to bring their rebellious provinces under control, but administering them was another matter. As revealed by diplomatic dispatches to Thebes (the ancient Epytian capital) and Akhenaten (now Tell al-Amarna; the capital under king Amenhotep IV — Nefertiti's husband — who took the name Akhanaten), the Canaanite city-states were far from secure under their Egyptian masters. Many Asian Semitesincluding descendants of the patriarchs who had migrated to Egypt during periods of faminewere by that time under bondage there, laboring in mines, tilling fields or hauling great stones for cities and temples. Other landless poor began wandering through Canaan seizing every opportunity in their path. The puppet rulers of the walled Canaanite towns barraged their masters, Amenhotep III (1417-1379 BC) and his son Akhenaten (c.1379-1362 BC), with frantic written appeals for help, complaining that these intruders were seizing the countryside and threatening their cities. One of those who complained the loudest was Abd-Heba, the hazannu (his title) or governor of a town called Urusalim. Charged by his Egyptian overlords with the integrity and safety of his territory, he sent six letters (example right) urgently requesting Egyptian troops to repel marauding bands of Habiru.* In one of them he wrote:

"Know that this [city] of Urusalim was given me neither by my father nor by my mother but by the mighty arm of the king. Behold the king has set his name upon the land of Urusalim forever; so he cannot abandon the lands of Urusalim." In another letter he wrote: "The Habiru plunder the lands of the pharaoh. If there are archers [here in Urusalim] this year, the lands of the pharaoh, my lord, will remain [intact], but if there are no archers [here], the lands of the pharaoh, my lord, will be lost."

*It was once believed that the "Habiru" were the Hebrews in the process of conquering Canaan, but this is now doubted. According to one source, the Habirua name related to the word Hebrewwere a sizable class of landless people within Cananite society, and they were regarded as social outcasts, outlaws and troublemakers. They had abandoned lives of virtual slavery and crushing taxes in the fortified city-states to roam the countryside in loosely organized bands, occasionally raiding villages for food. When the Israelite tribes led by Joshua crossed the Jordan into the "Promised Land," the Habiru designation was applied to them also, for they too were seen as outcasts in the region.

Abdu-Heba's letters are the second oldest known written references to Jerusalem, found in an archive of over 350 inscribed cuneiform tablets (right) unearthed at Tell el-Amarna** in Egypt, the so-called Amarna Letters, dating over 300 years before the time of David.

**Tell el-Amarna, on the east bank of the Nile about 190 miles south of Cairo, was the capital of Egypt under King Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV, c.1379-1362 BC), the "heretic king" who founded the city as the center of his monotheistic religion dedicated to the worship of the sun god Aten. Tell el-Amarna is a misnomer, combining the name of the village Et-Tell with that of a tribe, the Beni Amran, who settled nearby approximately two centuries ago. Its ancient name was Akhetaten, meaning "horizon of Aten." In 1878, some 350 cuneiform tablets were discovered at Tell el-Armarna. Dated to the 14th century BC, these letters were written by various kings and petty princes in Syria-Palestine and deposited in the palace archives, where they lay unanswered. Mostly they are appeals to their Pharaoh/overlords for military and economic assistance.

For hundreds of years Jerusalem resisted the onslaught of these Habiru intruders, remaining in the hands of the Canaanites. During the early decades of the Israelite occupation, the Joshua-led Israelites defeated a coalition of five Amorite rulers, including "Adoni-Zedek king of Jerusalem," in the strategic Aijalon Valley, some 16 miles to the west-northwest (modern Road 1 between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv/Jaffa passes close to the site). This was the famous incident when the "sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day" (Joshua 10:12-14) to secure the Israelite victory.

Although Adoni-Zedek died with his allies, it seems the Israelites were unable to conquer his city, because we next find it occupied by a people called Jebusites, who gave it the name Jebus. (The Amorites and Jebusites were part of the peoples collectively called "Canaanites" by the biblical authors.)

Soon after Joshua's death, the book of Judges (1:8) tells us that the tribe of Judah attacked Jerusalem (Jebus), "put the city to the sword and set it on fire." Apparently the Jebusites reoccupied the city, because a few verses later (1:21) we are told that the "Benjamites failed to dislodge the Jebusites, who were living in Jerusalem." For centuries afterward Israelite settlements continued to pop up around the small fortified city, yet it remained outside Israelite control...

Archaeological finds related to the earliest settlement of Jerusalem

Above, three pottery shards from the earliest settlement on the site of Jerusalem, dating to about 3500 BC.

Above, part of a house, dating to about 3000-2800 BC.

The site of earliest Jerusalem

Surprisingly, this historic area is now completely outside the present walls! From the air, the site of Jerusalem's Old City resembles a giant tooth with its two roots extending south, and is defined by three valleys which were once much deeper, having been filled with debris and sediment over the centuries. To the east is the Kidron Valley to the east; ton the west and south is the Hinnom Valley (or Gehenna); running north-south and dividing the city into two very unequal parts is the Central Valley (called the Tyropoeon Valley by 1st century AD Jewish historian Flavius Josephus). The earliest walled settlement lay on the southern-most part of the eastern ridge, and covered an area of only 8-9 acres, with an estimated population of about 2,000. Although the western ridge is higher, the eastern ridge was closer to the source of the Gihon Spring, the town's only permanent source of fresh water, which originates in a cave low on the eastern slope.

Long ago, it was suggested that the earliest city was situated on the eastern of the two ridges, bounded by the Kidron and Tyropoeon Valleys. It was not, however, until 1961-1967 excavations that its boundaries were defined. Initially it was thought the ancient wall ran along the eastern crest of the ridge, but excavators exposed a 100-foot-long section of the early wall some 164 feet down the east slope. Dated to the 18th century BC, it could not have been built farther down the slope to enclose the Gihon Spring, because the water source was so close to the valley floor that an enemy army could easily fire stones and arrows across the narrow valley from the steep hill on the opposite side. In peacetime, people could go out through the city gate, walk down a few steps to the water level, fill their water jars and come back inside. However, when the city was under siege, it would have been very dangerous. If the spring came under enemy control, the city would succumb to thirst, even if there were plenty of food stores. Therefore, the early inhabitants devised a better solution:

First, they cut a channel or conduit, between 1.5 and 3 feet wide and up to 15 feet deep in places, into the rock at ground level, running north-south through the Kidron Valley. The top of the channel was then sealed with huge boulders (right) weighing up to two tons, levered into it from above, completely cutting off access. It would have been virtually impossible to remove them, so it was well-protected. Below the boulders remained a 6- to12-foot-deep channel through which water flowed in total safety. This 1,312- foot-long conduit, called the Siloam Channel by excavators, redirected the water from the Gihon Spring along the eastern border of the city to a pool at the southern end of the city, today called Birket el-Hamra ("pool of clay soil").

Later in the same time period, huge rectangular towers were constructed to further secure the water supply. In 1999, archaeologists uncovered the foundations of two towers — one over the source of the Gihon Spring (designated the "Spring Tower"), and another, possibly one of a pair, adjacent to a pool (called the "Pool Tower").

Left, huge stones — measuring up to 6 by 3 by 3 feet — form the foundation of the 30-foot-high "Pool Tower" constructed between the 18th and 17th centuries BC, to protect the water supply of the city. Adjacent to the tower was a water storage pool, measuring 10 by 20 feet. Groves cut into its walls may have supported a wooden platform where several people could stand to draw water. We know that the tower was constructed after the aforementioned Siloam Channel because it sat over the beginning of the channel, which emptied into the pool. Presumably another tower was built on the other side of the pool, but it awaits discovery.

(Note: a thousand years later, king Hezekiah of Judah would incorporate these towers into a new wall to protect houses built lower down the eastern slope of the city.)

Right, the natural cave where the Gihon Spring gushes forth from the opening below steps coming down from the Kidron Valley. Early Jerusalem's only natural water source, it did not flow constantly. Gihon, in fact, means "gushing" or "bursting forth," and apparently the spring poured out a large quantity of water for a short time then almost dried up for several hours. Later, Arabs living in the area attributed it this action to a dragon living below the cave. The water no longer gushes and scientists explain the phenomenon as an underground siphon system that was apparently destroyed in later times (earthquake?). The dragon legend, however, seems to be an ancient one. When Nehemiah came to Jerusalem after the Babylonian Exile and made his secret night inspection tour of the city walls, he went "out by night by the gate of the valley, even before the dragon well." (Nehemiah 2:13; KJV) The "dragon* well" here possibly refers to the Gihon Spring.

*From the Hebrew tanniyn meaning "dragon," "serpent," "whale" or "sea monster." Translated as "Jackal Well" in the NIV.

Jerusalem history - part 2

Return to "Jerusalem" home page