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In a palace at Qeifaya, David savored his victory over Goliath

The young monarch built a city in the Elah Valley that reflected his need to show strength and to ensure protection

  • Aerial photo of Qeifaya (photo credit: Hebrew University and the Israel Antiquities Authority.)
    Aerial photo of Qeifaya (photo credit: Hebrew University and the Israel Antiquities Authority.)
  • The palace at Qeifaya (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The palace at Qeifaya (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The Elah Valley, as seen from Qeifaya (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The Elah Valley, as seen from Qeifaya (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The southern gate at Qeifaya (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The southern gate at Qeifaya (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The western gate at Qeifaya (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The western gate at Qeifaya (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The donkey trough at Qeifaya (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The donkey trough at Qeifaya (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Remains of houses at Qeifaya (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Remains of houses at Qeifaya (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

‘Now the Philistines gathered their forces for war and assembled at Sokoh in Judah. They pitched camp between Sokoh and Azekah. Saul and the Israelites camped in the Valley of Elah. . . The Philistines occupied one hill and the Israelites another, with the valley between them.” (1 Samuel 17:1-3).

Imagine this, if you will:

Mighty King David, accompanied by his sons Shimea, Shobab, Nathan, and Solomon, journeys from Jerusalem to a city located above a valley. Turning it into a fun boys-only hike, they walk the entire distance and reach their goal in less than a day.

As the sun sets, David and his progeny stand on the balcony of a large and impressive palace. David points to the southeast, towards Sokhoh, then shows them Azeka further west. Finally, they all gaze down, into the Elah Valley. With just the right amount of pride and pathos in his voice, King David tells his sons how he saved the day for the Jews by vanquishing the giant Goliath with just a sling and a stone.

Pretty far-fetched, you say? Yet in 2007, two archaeologists from the Hebrew University and Israel Antiquities Authority discovered ruins from an ancient city overlooking the Elah Valley. Excavations continued for seven seasons, and when completed the Hebrew University’s Prof. Yossi Garfinkel and archaeologist Saar Ganor of the IAA made their unique findings public: They had uncovered a typical Judean city and major administrative center on the Philistine border. And it dated back to the time of David.

The Elah Valley, as seen from Qeifaya (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
The Elah Valley, as seen from Qeifaya (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

According to Ganor, who was our guide when we visited the site, Qeiyafa is almost certainly the biblical Sha’arayim – which means, in Hebrew, “two gates.” The Bible tells us that after David’s victory, the Philistines fled the scene with the Israelites in hot pursuit. Philistines were slain on the “road to Sha’arayim” (1 Samuel 17:52), and from Ganor we learned that Sha’arayim is mentioned several times in the Scriptures.

Whoever wrote the text in later books of the Bible knew the geography very well, he noted, adding that this is the only city in Israel or Judah from this period to boast two different gates. Besides, this one is right on the border between areas under Philistine control (commonly known as Pileshet) and Judah.

The southern gate at Qeifaya (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
The southern gate at Qeifaya (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Two ancient roads reached the city’s gates. The byway to the coastal plains led to and from the western gate, while travelers coming from the direction of Jerusalem and Hebron entered and exited through the southern gate. Although both gates are impressive, archaeologists consider the southern gate to have been the most important. It was built of enormous stones, some as heavy as eight tons, while its sister gate utilized much smaller stones in its construction.

David was a new monarch when he built the city, deep in the process of creating his kingdom. Aware that the Israelites’ major enemies were the Philistines, he needed both a show of strength – like a massively built gate – and a fortified border.

The western gate at Qeifaya (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
The western gate at Qeifaya (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Garfinkel has compared Qeiyafa to the first-ever cooperative village (moshav shitufi) in Israel: Nahalal. Both were circular and beautifully planned down to the last detail. Ganor told us that later that while Judean cities followed the same plan, towns in ancient Israel, north of Judah, did not.

The city walls were 700 meters in circumference, of a special double type known as casement walls. This means that houses were constructed directly onto the walls, and their back rooms were probably used for storage. The small opening in the inner wall, giving residents access to this room, could be easily blocked up in the event of an imminent attack.

Both gates are called Four Chambers (taim in Hebrew) Gates because there are four open rooms just inside each one. These would have held the guards that were on duty during the day, when the gate was open. The entrances were nearly four meters wide, probably because at the time, that was the standard width for doors that fit into gates.

Just past the four chambers, two open areas still boasting their original floors served as the city’s piazzas. All kinds of exciting events would have taken place in the piazza. Farmers whose fields were outside the city would have sold their produce here; prophets undoubtedly shouted from the piazza, judges hung out in the piazza, and areas like this were a favorite for elders of the city.

Remains of houses at Qeifaya (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Remains of houses at Qeifaya (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Obviously, Hebrew was spoken here. For in one of the houses archaeologists uncovered an amazing pottery shard, or ostracon, containing five lines with 70 letters. Its first words begin with “al ta’ase” – or “don’t do.” The root of the word “ta’ase” appears only in Hebrew and the text includes the words for “judge.”

Adjacent to the left-hand piazza, archaeologists discovered a room that was used for worship – one of three such chambers found in the city’s homes. Other rooms in all of the houses contained articles like kitchen utensils and tools. But the worship (cultic) rooms were bare of everyday items. Instead, they featured paraphernalia for anointment along with basalt altars. Benches lined the walls, and in this particular worship room archeologists found two decorative temple models – one of clay and a unique piece carved in stone.

What they did not find were idols. Not even a single figurine, not here and not in any of the 60 rooms that were excavated. The lack strengthened the archaeologists’ belief that this was a Judean city — for figurines were found in excavations all over other parts of Israel and, of course, at Canaanite and Philistine sites.

The donkey trough at Qeifaya (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
The donkey trough at Qeifaya (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

One small room contains a column and a trough. This was actually a stable – or so thought the archaeologists, who brought in a donkey to test their theory. To their delight, as soon as the donkey was ushered into the room it went straight for the trough.

Despite fortifications, the city was unable to resist a serious attack. Only two cisterns were prepared inside the city, because there was plenty of water in the valley’s springs outside the walls. And the presence of two gates, impressive as they must have been, seriously weakened the city’s defenses.

Dozens of clay dishes and utensils were found in each house, shattered to pieces. It turns out that about 40 years after the city was built, an enemy – probably the Philistines – attacked and conquered Qeiyafa. Everything that seemed valuable was carried away, and the rest destroyed.

Ruins from a massive structure were found right in the center of the city, on the peak of the hill. In King David’s time this edifice would have been big and elaborate enough to have served as a palace where he could reside during his visits to this major administrative center. Decorated with alabaster imported from Egypt, it also offered a fantastic view of both gates, Philistine Ashdod and the Mediterranean Sea on one side, and the valley on the other. From here David could also see torches transmitting messages from hilltop to hilltop – the manner in which people got their information, long ago.

Aerial photo of Qeifaya (photo credit: Hebrew University and the Israel Antiquities Authority.)
Aerial photo of Qeifaya (photo credit: Hebrew University and the Israel Antiquities Authority.)

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For details on how best to visit Qeiyafa, contact Aviva and Shmuel, at israeltravels@gmail.com.

Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.

Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.

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