Arabic inscription found under Tower of David rewrites ancient citadel’s past
A newly found inscription has forced archaeologists to rethink their dating of a fortification wall, and high-tech analysis is building a clearer picture than ever of the site
History is being rewritten at Jerusalem’s Tower of David Museum. The recent discovery of an inscription dated to the 13th century CE has wound the clock forward for the construction of at least one portion of the Old City citadel’s outer walls.
Standing in the shadow of the looming Crusader fortress near the Jaffa Gate on a sunny November day, excavation director Amit Re’em described to The Times of Israel the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to delve into the mysteries buried in and under the fortress.
As part of the massive physical reboot, the entrance of the museum is moving from its traditional spot to a new location outside the citadel that is closer to the Old City walls. Re’em, the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Jerusalem district head, watched as workers took high-tech laser measurements to remove an Ottoman-era cannon platform that was constructed on top of a filled-in Crusader-era moat. “It’s like a spaceship,” he joked.
This unusual nexus of when history meets futuristic gadgets is exactly what had brought us there that day.
With the fortress’s iconic round tower jutting into the sky behind us, Re’em recounted a thrilling discovery of a dated inscription located in secondary use, meaning it had been recycled from some earlier use, in the foundations of an outer western wall.
(The inscription has yet to be scientifically published and The Times of Israel was not permitted to publish a photo.)
“We all thought that this was from the time of the Crusaders, the 12th century. It appears in the books! But now, when we conducted this excavation, we have a large question mark. Because right here we uncovered an Arabic inscription in secondary use that belonged to one of the great Ayyubid rulers of Jerusalem, his name is El-Melek El-Muatem Isa,” said Re’em.
Jerusalem was conquered by the Crusaders in 1099 and retaken by a Muslim dynasty, the Ayyubids, in 1187. By 1212, the city was ruled by the nephew of Saladin, El-Melek El-Muatem Isa, also commonly known in English as Al-Mu’azzam Isa.
According to Re’em, Al-Mu’azzam Isa erected the fortifications of Jerusalem in approximately 1212, “and on every tower he put a large sign in Arabic, ‘I’m the great ruler El-Melek El-Muatem Isa.'” Alongside his name on this stone was the year, 1212.
Rarely do archaeologists hit the jackpot of a securely dated inscription. This one, explained Re’em, also sheds light on the mindset of the Muslim ruler as he faced down encroaching Crusader forces, who moved toward the city in 1217.
Re’em said that as the Crusaders made their way to the Holy Land, the sultan did not have a standing army available in Jerusalem, so he decided to tear down the city’s fortifications, thinking it would be easier to retake that way after the Crusaders presumably entered the city.
“So he demolished all his walls and those inscriptions,” said Re’em, “but the Crusaders never came to Jerusalem.”
Eventually, the walls were rebuilt, and the stone with his name and date was used in the foundation of the walls of the western fortification of the citadel. There it would sit for centuries until being found by Re’em and his team, helping rewrite what we know about the citadel.
“So if we have a date on the inscription — 1212 — and we find it in the foundation of the fortification it means that the fortification is from the 13th century, and not from the 12th century. So we are changing history,” said Re’em.
Cutting-edge tech to dig up citadel dirt
The inscription find is but one of the anecdotes that lend vibrant color to the grey stone structure that has for the past 30 years served as a museum dedicated to the thousands of years of Jerusalem history — a project envisioned by long-time Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek.
The $40 million renewal project will allow the museum, located on a 2.5 acre archaeological site, to update its facilities. Working in cooperation with conservators and archaeologists, two elevators will be installed, making the multi-storied fortress accessible to all visitors for the first time. Prior to the coronavirus crisis, the museum welcomed over 500,000 visitors annually from around the world. With the renovation, it expects to double that number.
During the wide-scale archaeological excavations currently conducted as part of a massive renovation of the citadel, archaeologists are using old fashioned digging as well as cutting-edge methodology to uncover new evidence for dating each of its walls — a historical patchwork spanning from the reign of King Hezekiah in the 8th century BCE to the Ottoman period.
While what is most visible to the naked eye are the later medieval additions to the fort — by both the Crusader and the Muslim armies — the site’s layers go all the way back to the biblical era, passing through every important epoch of Jerusalem life along the way. In the inner courtyard, an untouched pile of round stone ballistics point to the presence of Hasmoneans. Remnants of the palace of the ancient world’s great builder King Herod will be preserved in a new Herodian Wing, housed with the excavated “Kishle” archaeological site.
The site was largely razed after the Byzantine period’s monks vacated their cells and rebuilt during the early Muslim period as a fortress. The Crusaders added several features to that fort — including a dry moat, one side of which is now being excavated — and then the Mamelukes added their own hiding passages and fortifications. The Ottomans, who ruled Jerusalem from the 16th century until the British Mandate period with Lord Allenby’s arrival at the citadel gates in 1917, continued construction on the citadel — including filling in the moat that is now being uncovered.
Re’em is taking full advantage of the opportunity to test new high-tech archaeological methods to solve looming riddles, including the intensive documentation of the citadel through photogrammetry. After the archaeologists perform a series of measurements and photographs, photogrammetry allows for precise topographical maps — and perfect 3-D renderings of objects and architecture.
The dating of various parts of the structure is also being solved by another new technique: carbon-dating the plaster fill between the massive building blocks. The cutting-edge method was recently used to date the construction of Wilson’s Arch, but never has it been used in such a widespread manner, said Re’em.
Re’em aims to eventually analyze all the walls of the citadel through the carbon dating of mortar.
“We are only in the beginning of working together with the distinguished Weizmann Institute,” he said
“We are using the accurate science,” he said. “Every mortar has its own ID, a certain identification. Every period of time has a different ID.”
Through analyzing the carbon inside the mortar and matching them with their own ID, “we are creating new technology for archaeologists for dating,” he said. “It was never done on the medieval building in Jerusalem… Here in the citadel we have an opportunity and this is a groundbreaking project.”
In lengthy discussions with The Times of Israel, Re’em, whose expertise is the medieval archaeology of Jerusalem, has the air of a man whose “baby” is finally getting recognition.
In the past, biblical archaeology was more of an allure, he said. Only in the last decade have the Israel Antiquities Authority and other archaeologists in Jerusalem started to look deeply into the medieval history of Jerusalem.
“In a way, the medieval period of Jerusalem was neglected,” he said. “But no more. And the exploring of the citadel is going to be the peak of exploring medieval Jerusalem — with advanced technological tools.”
Do you rely on The Times of Israel for accurate and insightful news on Israel and the Jewish world? If so, please join The Times of Israel Community. For as little as $6/month, you will:
- Support our independent journalism;
- Enjoy an ad-free experience on the ToI site, apps and emails; and
- Gain access to exclusive content shared only with the ToI Community, including weekly letters from founding editor David Horovitz.
We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.
That’s why we started the Times of Israel ten years ago - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.
So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.
David Horovitz, Founding Editor of The Times of Israel