Revered by Christians, Jews and Muslims alike, Jerusalem has long been considered the heart of the Holy Land. It’s a place of prophets, miracles and spirituality. But now archaeologists have uncovered remnants of a certain battlefield, and it may completely change our historical understanding of the city.
In 2016 the Israel Antiquities Authority started excavating the Russian Compound, one of Jerusalem’s oldest areas. Specifically, the excavation area is set between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Museum of the Underground Prisoners. In fact, the exact spot where the team were digging is the designated building site of a new arts academy campus.
However, city planners may now have to rethink. After all, the artifacts found at the site are not just historically important, but they look set to resolve a long-running scholarly debate. “My hair stands on end because the feeling of the battle is so very real,” said excavation director Dr Rina Avner in a video produced by the Israel Antiquities Authority.
The discovery includes more than 70 large projectiles. These probably would have been fired at the city using a ballista, a kind of ancient, giant catapult. Since the stones were found close together with only a few inches of elevation between them, Avner has deduced that they were indeed used in battle.
More importantly, the stones were recovered at the foot of what appears to be a large defensive wall, more than six feet wide. In fact, Anver believes it may be a section of Jerusalem’s old city wall, built in expectation of the Great Revolt. For decades, historians have argued about the whereabouts of the “Third Wall.” This, then, could be it.
Accompanying the wall are the remnants of a watch tower, perhaps destroyed in a bombardment. Elsewhere, pottery shards have dated the wall to the Roman era. All this has led Anver to hypothesize that the site may be the place where Roman forces broke into the city during the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD.
“This is a fascinating testimony of the intensive bombardment by the Roman army,” said Dr Anver in a press release published by the Israel Antiquities Authority. “The bombardment was intended to attack the sentries guarding the wall and provide cover for the Roman forces so they could approach the wall with battering rams and thereby breach the city’s defences.”
Construction of the Third Wall actually began under the rule of the Herod, king of Judea between 41 and 44 AD. However, in order to placate Emperor Claudius, he ordered the cessation of works. Some 20 years later, though, Jewish rebels picked up where Herod left off.
In fact, the Siege of Jerusalem signified a turning point in the so-called First Jewish-Roman War. Indeed, in 66 AD Jewish occupiers had successfully revolted against Roman rule and captured the city. Four years later, however, the city’s destruction signaled their defeat. By 73 AD, then, the last pockets of rebellion in Jerusalem had been stamped out entirely.
Staged by the future Roman emperor Titus, the Siege of Jerusalem began in the run-up to the Jewish festival of Passover. According to the historian Josephus, who witnessed the attack firsthand, the city was crowded with celebrants. And the site of the first Roman offensive was, in fact, at the Third Wall.
Describing the assault by Roman weaponry, Josephus wrote, “These engines… were admirably contrived… Those that threw darts, and those that threw stones were more forcible, and larger than the rest; by which they not only repelled the excursions of the Jews, but drove those away that were upon the walls also.”
The Third Wall, which according to Josephus had been built to protect a city quarter known as Beit Zeita, fell in May 70 AD. Soon afterward, the Romans breached the Second Wall and drove the remaining Jewish defenders into the upper and lower city. They were also pushed into the Second Temple, a revered Holy place of worship.
The siege continued for several weeks. And then, one fateful day at the end of August, a Roman soldier set the Second Temple on fire. Titus had not intended to destroy it, but the blaze in fact led to the final downfall of Jerusalem, its flames engulfing residential districts.
Josephus wrote, “As the legions charged in, neither persuasion nor threat could check their impetuosity: passion alone was in command… The partisans were no longer in a position to help; everywhere was slaughter and flight. Most of the victims were peaceful citizens, weak and unarmed, butchered wherever they were caught.”
“Caesar gave orders that they should now demolish the entire city and Temple,” continued Josephus. “This was the end which Jerusalem came to by the madness of those that were for innovations; a city otherwise of great magnificence, and of mighty fame among all mankind.”
The death toll, according to Josephus, was 1.1 million, with almost 100,000 caught and enslaved. Modern historians have disputed these figures, however, pointing out that only 500,000 Jews lived in Palestine at the time. More conservative estimates of the death toll run to around 40,000.
Meanwhile, claiming that he’d merely been an instrument of God’s anger, Titus declined a victory wreath. However, he did accept the construction of an elaborate triumphal arch, completed around 82 AD. Today, the Arch of Titus still stands on Rome’s Via Sacra.
Incredibly, the destruction of the Second Temple is still mourned on the Jewish fasting day of Tisha B’Av. The structure had been built to replace the First Temple, which was constructed, according to scripture, by King Solomon. Now, the site on Temple Mount is home to the Dome of the Rock, an important shrine.
Today, the fate of Jerusalem continues to be a point of tension. Israeli Jews, who took control of the city in 1967, consider it their administrative capital. However, along with Medina and Mecca, the city is also said to be one of the holiest in Islam. Palestinians, therefore, claim it as their capital, too.
Whatever the future holds for Jerusalem, there is clearly much more to learn about its past. After all, as one of the oldest cities in the world, it has witnessed millennia of turmoil and change. However, thanks to the efforts of the Israel Antiquities Authority, we now have a piece of cultural heritage to be enjoyed by all, whatever their religious roots.