Sat, Aug 06, 2005 - Page 16 News List

Digging up biblical dynamite

The supposed palace of King David has been uncovered in Jerusalem, but other scholars are saying the find is being used as a political tool

By Steven Erlanger  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , JERUSALEM

An Israeli archaeologist says she has uncovered in East Jerusalem what may be the fabled palace of the biblical King David. Her work has been sponsored by a conservative Israeli research institute and financed by an American Jewish investment banker who would like to prove that Jerusalem was indeed the capital of the Jewish kingdom described in the Bible.

Other scholars are skeptical that the foundation walls discovered by the archaeologist, Eilat Mazar, are David's palace. But they acknowledge that what she has uncovered is rare and important: a major public building from around the 10th century BC, with pottery shards that date to the time of David and Solomon and a government seal of an official mentioned in the book of Jeremiah. The discovery is likely to be a new salvo in a major dispute in biblical archaeology: whether the kingdom of David and Samuel was of some historical magnitude, or whether the men were more like small tribal chieftains, reigning over another dusty hilltop.

The find will also be used in the broad political battle over Jerusalem -- whether the Jews have their origins here and thus have some special hold on the place, or whether, as many Palestinians have said, including the late Yasser Arafat, the idea of a Jewish origin in Jerusalem is a myth used to justify conquest and occupation. Hani Nur el-Din, a Palestinian professor of archaeology at Al Quds University, said he and his colleagues considered biblical archaeology an effort by Israelis "to fit historical evidence into a biblical context."

He added, "The link between the historical evidence and the biblical narration, written much later, is largely missing. There's a kind of fiction about the 10th century. They try to link whatever they find to the biblical narration. They have a button, and they want to make a suit out of it."

Even Israeli archaeologists are not so sure that Mazar has found the palace -- the house that Hiram, king of Tyre, built for the victorious king, at least as Samuel 2:5 describes it. It may also be the Fortress of Zion that David conquered from the Jebusites, who ruled Jerusalem before him, or some other structure about which the Bible is silent. Either way, they are impressed by its likely importance.

"This is a very significant discovery, given that Jerusalem as the capital of the united kingdom is very much unknown," said Gabriel Barkay, an archaeologist from Bar-Ilan University.

"This is one of the first greetings we have from the Jerusalem of David and Solomon, a period which has played a kind of hide-and-seek with archaeologists for the last century."

Based on the Bible and a century of archaeology in this spot, Mazar, 48, speculated that a famous stepped-stone structure excavated previously was part of the fortress David conquered, and that his palace would have been built just outside the original walls of the cramped city, on the way to what his son, Solomon, built as the Temple Mount.

"When the Philistines came to fight, the Bible said that David went down from his house to the fortress," she said, her eyes bright. "I wondered, down from where? Presumably from where he lived, his palace."

"So I said, maybe there's something here," she added, referring to East Jerusalem. David's palace was the topic of a last conversation Mazar had with her grandfather, Benjamin Mazar, a famous archaeologist who helped to train her and who died 10 years ago. Five months ago, with money and permission from the Ir David Foundation, which controls the site (and supports Jews moving into East Jerusalem), she finally began to dig. Amihai Mazar, a professor of archaeology at Hebrew University, calls the find "something of a miracle."

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