First Temple-era walls, razed in biblical account, found unbreached in Jerusalem
Missing section of 8th-7th century BCE fortification puts in question narrative of 2 Kings in which conquering Babylonians ‘tore down Jerusalem’s walls on every side’
In a potential contradiction to the biblical account of the 586 BCE destruction of Jerusalem, continuing excavations in Jerusalem’s City of David National Park have revealed a previously unseen section of the First Temple-period fortification wall that was breached — but apparently not entirely razed — by the Babylonians.
According to 2 Kings 25:10, “The entire Chaldean [Babylonian] force that was with the chief of the guard tore down the walls of Jerusalem on every side” (The Jewish Publication Society Tanakh). But this newly found extant section of the eastern city wall, connected to two previously excavated and documented sections, means that potentially the entire length of the eastern border was not in fact torn down by the conquering Babylonians.
With this discovery, archaeologists are now able to reconstruct the run of the wall that encircled the ancient Kingdom of Judah capital on the eve of its destruction, which is commemorated by the Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av on Sunday.
The new eastern section connects with two other previously discovered adjacent wall sections found in the 1960s by British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon and in the 1970s by archaeologist Yigal Shiloh. By connecting the dots on the map, there is now an almost continuous 200-meter (656-foot) fortified wall on the eastern slope of the City of David facing the Kidron Valley. This new section was uncovered during excavations in 2020.
The fortification wall was constructed in the late 8th century or early 7th BCE, Israel Antiquities Authority excavation co-director Dr. Joe Uziel, who is also the head of the IAA’s Dead Sea Scrolls unit, told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.
Whether the fortifications were built before the earlier siege of the Assyrians in 701 BCE or later is still unclear. Pinpointing a more precise date is “a little too fine-tuned in terms of archaeological data we have,” said Uziel, who added that “hopefully in the future we’ll be able to narrow it down more.”
The new find puts to rest an ongoing debate among archaeologists over whether the previously known wall sections were indeed used for fortification or instead as support walls for construction on the steep 30-degree slope on the eastern side of the city. Part of the reason archaeologists traditionally argued that these existing sections could not have been used for fortification is the fact that the biblical narrative relates that the fortification walls had been shattered by conquering soldiers. Presumably, then, the argument went, sections of wall found to be still standing must have served a different purpose.
But now, “with the current exposure of the section that almost physically connects between the two [previously known sections], it is clear that there’s a wall that’s running for hundreds of meters,” said Uziel. This lengthy wall section on the eastern slope, put together with previously known sections of Jerusalem fortification in other parts of the city such as the Jewish Quarter’s Broad Wall (45 meters/148 feet long, 23 meters/75 feet thick) means that it “only makes sense” that it was a fortification surrounding the city, said Uziel.
The current section of the wall is circa 5 meters wide (16 feet) and up to 3 meters high (10 feet), according to Dr. Filip Vukosavović of the Ancient Jerusalem Research Center in a video released on Wednesday.
“We’ve put the discussion almost to an end — although archaeologists do love to argue,” laughed Uziel, “but it seems like we have the run of the First Temple fortification.”
According to the co-directors of the excavation, Vukosavović and the IAA’s Uziel and Ortal Chalaf, “the city wall protected Jerusalem from a number of attacks during the reign of the kings of Judah, until the arrival of the Babylonians who managed to break through it and conquer the city. The remains of the ruins can be seen in the archaeological excavations. However, not everything was destroyed, and parts of the walls, which stood and protected the city for decades and more, remain standing to this day.”
As described in the biblical Book of 2 Kings Chapter 25 and in Jeremiah Chapter 39, Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II’s army held ancient Jerusalem under a lengthy siege until “the famine was sore in the city.” The Babylonian army then breached the walls of the city, after which King Zedekiah and his warriors fled. Subsequently, according to 2 Kings 25:10, “The entire Chaldean [Babylonian] force that was with the chief of the guard tore down the walls of Jerusalem on every side.”
However, not all scholars believe that the text should be taken literally to mean all the walls, surrounding the entire city, came down. Joshua Berman, a professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University, told The Times of Israel in an email that the vast majority of English translations render the verse in the manner of the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), “All the army of the Chaldeans who were with the captain of the guard broke down the walls around Jerusalem.”
“The import of the verse is to tell us that the Babylonians did not merely penetrate the city’s walls. They wanted to put an end to Judah’s rebelliousness and thus broke down the walls around the city to ensure that they could not be easily rebuilt. The Babylonians had no need to take down the walls 360 degrees to achieve that goal,” said Berman.
Just as the revelation of the new wall section calls into question the totality of the walls’ destruction, recent excavations in other parts of the City of David have shown that the city was likely not entirely abandoned. Excavations have shown that the refugees of the Babylonian conquest used debris from the rampant destruction to create new, small homes in ancient Jerusalem’s outskirts.
Uziel’s team of archaeologists is now reconstructing the lives of the city’s residents prior to its fall.
Inside a building abutting the new wall section, remains of rows of smashed storage jars were discovered, bearing “rosette” stamped handles, indicative of the final years of the Kingdom of Judah. Also near the wall, a stone Babylonian stamp seal was found etched with a figure standing in front of symbols of the two Babylonian gods Marduk and Nabu.
Likewise, the team discovered a clay bulla (stamp seal impression) inscribed with the Judaean personal name “Tsafan.” It is one of dozens of seal impressions and seals from this era uncovered in Jerusalem.
According to Uziel, the name Tsafan has been found on other clay sealings throughout the Kingdom of Judah and especially in Jerusalem. He said the name is associated with officials running the kingdom’s bureaucratic administration — perhaps showing yet again that the only things certain in this world are death and taxes.
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