In 1952, a unique 2,000-year-old copper scroll was discovered deep inside a cave near the Dead Sea. When British scholar John Marco Allegro translated the scroll a few years later, he was astonished to learn that over 100 tons of gold and silver treasures from the Second Temple had been hidden in dozens of different locations. One such location, he believed, was the area surrounding the alleged Tomb of the prophet Zechariah in the Kidron Valley beneath Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives.
A few years later, Allegro led an expedition to the Kidron Valley – at the time under Jordanian control – in an attempt to recover hidden treasure. Financing the expedition was no problem, for it was to take place under the auspices of Britain’s Daily Mail tabloid newspaper and Jordan provided workers and transportation. There was just one hitch: dozens of Jews were buried around the tomb. The problem was solved when the Kingdom of Jordan granted Allegro permission to clear away the graves.
While he didn’t uncover even a single treasure, Allegro did expose a cave beneath the monument to Zechariah. Steps leading to and from the cave led archaeologists Boaz Zissu and Avraham Tendler later to surmise that the cave was actually a crypt — apparently from a church that early Christians had constructed next to Zechariah’s Tomb.
Excited by the story of Allegro’s adventure, we decided to take an afternoon walk in the Kidron Valley. We were accompanied by tour guide Danny Herman (aka Danny the Digger), whose expertise as an archaeologist imparted an extra added dimension to our jaunt.
We began at an observation point just across the road from the Old City’s eastern wall. From here we had a wonderful view of the ancient tombs and the glittering Church of St. Mary Magdalene, towering above the valley.
Below us and to the right, at the end of a row of houses in the Silwan neighborhood, stood a cube-shaped one-story building that, at one time, was undoubtedly topped by a pyramid. Legend has it that this is the tomb of Pharaoh’s daughter, the only one of King Solomon’s many wives that rated a specific mention in the Bible. Maybe she received this special treatment because she brought the Canaanite city of Gezer with her as her dowry.
We then descended steps to Absalom’s Tomb, by far the most magnificent structure in the Kidron Valley. A lofty 22 meters in height whose bottom portion was hewn out of the rock, it is completely separate from the slope behind it. Semi columns and capitals decorate the massive lower part of the monument, which is distinguished by a round top ending in a long, thin point.
The Bible tells us that during his lifetime Absalom, King David’s third son, “had taken a pillar and erected it in the King’s Valley as a monument to himself… He named the pillar after himself, and it is called Absalom’s Monument to this day.” [2 Samuel 18:18]. Despite that fact that the shrine dates back to the end of the Second Temple period — nearly a millennia after Absalom rebelled against his father and was run through with a javelin by the King’s captain – tradition places that monument here, identifying the Kidron Valley with the King’s Valley.
In earlier centuries, passersby of all religions would throw stones at Absalom’s mammoth structure. Indeed Muslims, who revere King David, almost covered it with rocks. It is said that Jewish parents would bring disobedient offspring to the almost hidden monument, point out the stones, and warn them that “this is what happens to children who behave badly to their fathers.”
Iron bars block the entrance to a structure on one side of Absalom’s Tomb. Uncovered in 1924, and thought by some to be the tomb of 9th-century B.C.E. King Jehoshaphat, it contains several chambers and a splendidly ornamental lintel.
The prophet Zechariah’s Tomb on the other side of Absalom’s Tomb is the only pyramid-topped structure in the valley. Herman pointed out that unlike Absalom’s Tomb, all of Zechariah’s Tomb was carved out of the slope’s rock face and yet is completely detached from the mountainside.
Over 10 meters high, it dates, like Absalom’s Pillar, to the Second Temple period with a lovely façade covered by ionic pillars. Only the front is carefully chiseled: whoever erected this shrine didn’t find it worthwhile to go to the trouble of continuing the beautiful work on its back and sides.
Jews so revered Zechariah that over the centuries they asked to be buried as close as possible to his grave. At one time the Jews of Jerusalem offered eulogies here and would come to Zechariah’s Tomb to mourn the destruction of the Temple on the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av.
One year Jerusalem suffered from a terrible drought. Legend has it that the city’s Arabs prayed to Allah, but rain didn’t fall. They then sent a delegation to Jerusalem’s Jewish inhabitants, warning them that if they couldn’t make it rain, they would be in deep, deep trouble. According to this oft-repeated story, the Jews immediately declared a fast and on its third day made a pilgrimage to the tomb of Zechariah. Throwing themselves upon the ground next to the tomb they prayed, then walked around it seven times while singing psalms. By evening the sky was black. Heavy rain, accompanied by thunder and lightning, fell on the Holy City. The Jews were saved, the city’s cisterns filled with water, and the sanctity of Zechariah’s Tomb was reaffirmed.
Behind the shrine, graffiti was scratched on the walls by family members of Jews who were buried next to Zechariah’s Tomb but whose graves were lost when Allegro had them cleared away. But two tombstones were recently restored and lie there in state. They belong to Avraham Shlomo Zalman and his wife, grandparents to pioneer Moshe Yoel Solomon who founded the Nahalat Shiva neighborhood and great grandparents to Haim Solomon, co-founder of the flourishing Teva pharmaceutical company. Shlomo Zalman, who was prominently involved in the construction of the 19th-century Hurva Synagogue, was murdered in 1851 by an Arab. He is often called Israel’s first victim of Arab terror.
Only a few meters from Zechariah’s Tomb, a gate leads into a large burial complex featuring several interior chambers. A barely legible ancient Hebrew inscription, found on the exterior of the complex, relates that the six sons of the priestly Hezir family are buried within. And not just any priestly family, says Herman: one of the Dead Sea Scrolls mentions that the Hezirs operated the Temple on Yom Kippur.
A close look at the façade of the burial complex reveals a Greek design called “Distylos in antis”: two columns between two walls. Herman explained that it was such a popular architectural motif at the time, even the Jewish Temple Façade incorporated its motif.
Thanks to Danny Herman for a fascinating tour.
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.