Ancient sites offer enthralling glimpses of people who have gone before us, and what they made of the human situation. For a few months long ago, I thought I would become an archaeologist, and I have usually tried to keep up with major digs. In Israel that’s a popular pastime.
When Professor Benjamin Mazur was at work in the 1990s outside and under the walls of Jerusalem, he took me round the dig. Now his daughter Elath Mazur is at work a short distance away, at the top of the Valley of Kidron looking towards the village of Silwan. She has uncovered many layers, walls, stonework, ritual baths, pottery, artifacts, and coins. Most extraordinary are four seals with Hebrew names on them, every one of them an official named in the Bible.
A controversy arises. Is this site, 3,000 years old, the palace of King David? There is possible biblical concordance for this interpretation, to do with David’s war against the Jebusites. Or was it an administrative center? Surely four seals that have biblical counterparts is too many for a coincidence? The fine stonework buttressing the sloping side of the valley suggests a palace. A car park adjoins the excavation, and it is due to be dug up. Below it, a team is already at work, passing buckets hand to hand.
Silwan has houses crowded together on the valley’s far slope. It’s an Arab village, but at the top a couple of houses fly Israeli flags. As I understand it, Israelis have bought these houses legally, but the local Arabs see it as the thin edge of the wedge and throw stones at cars identifiably Israeli. My cab driver therefore takes a long way round. Three thousand years from now, will this dispute have left traces lasting as long as David’s conquest of the Jebusites?