What did ancient Jerusalem look like? Picture an outcrop of rock dropping away steeply on three sides. Sitting on top is a citadel, perched like a hawk above a walled keep and a lookout tower.
A rocky outcrop with the remnants of an ancient city – probably similar to the site of Jebus, the city that became Jerusalem
This was ancient Jerusalem, or as it was called then, ‘Jebus’. The picture at right is not, of course, a photograph of Jebus or the ridge that was attacked by David. But it shows the sort of rock formation on which the fortress of Jebus stood – a small spur of land jutting out from a flat rock plateau to its north, seemingly inaccessible.
There had been people living there for many centuries – perhaps as early as 3,500 BC. These ancient men and women used
the fortress for protection
the surrounding land for growing crops
and the great rock slab for threshing.
Massive gates on its northern side blocked the path of an enemy.With its fortified position and a permanent water supply, it was virtually impregnable.
To its north was a great flat slab of rock. This was the threshing floor where people from surrounding villages brought their grain at harvest time.
An ancient threshing floor
See an example of a threshing floor at right, with the solid rock base on which grain was processed. Farmers beat the grain and thumped it until each grain was separated from the husk.
When the threshing was finished, the people held a riotous harvest festival to give thanks to Nature. Jebus/Jerusalem was a place of hard work – peasants mostly, living their lives as best they could.
Jerusalem: Bible fortress
The drawing below shows the layout of ancient Jebus, with the larger enclosure contained the threshing floor and the fortress of Jebus – see the small enclosure in the bottom right of the plan showing the fortress David would attack.
Map of the ancient city of Jebus at the time of David’s conquest
It was an ideal site, with
the high cliffs offering security for its inhabitants
the hard flat rock (on which the Temple later stood) used for threshing grain
cavities in the hollowed-out rock that were ideal for storing grain.
1937 photograph of a Threshing Sledge
Before David came there, the people of Jebus worshipped the fertility gods. They probably continued to do so for many years, even though this was officially frowned on in later centuries. Ordinary farming people reasoned that the forces of Nature had made the land blossom, and that it would be ungrateful – and foolish – to neglect them.
The biblical writers do not mention this – hardly surprising, since it would draw attention to the fact that their Temple was built on what had once been the scene of riotous harvest festivals celebrating the fertility of the land. Overbuilding like this, one sacred site built over the ruins of another, was common in the ancient world.
Later on, when the village of Jebus grew into a town and then into the city of Jerusalem, the rock floor provided a solid foundation for monumental buildings like the Temple.
What was an ancient fortress like?
Fortresses at this period in history usually had the following tactical features:
their position was easily defended, often on a steep hill or hill top
they had a reliable water supply
they were in a flanking, rather than blocking, position, which meant they could leave the fortress, skirt the enemy and attack from behind
they had fortifications that an enemy would find difficult to undermine without exposing his own soldiers to attack from above
Jebus had all these features. The fortress looked impregnable, and technically it was. According to the Bible, the townspeople taunted David and his soldiers with the fact that even the blind and lame could hold the fortress against him. They were right – if the blind and lame had tried to scale the cliffs.
What about water in ancient Jerusalem?
But David used his wits. He looked for its weak spot – in this case, the underground water shaft that led from the walled town down to its water supply (see the reconstruction below).
Note: One of the greatest problems faced by ancient cities was supplying water during a siege. Fortresses had to be built high up on hills, for defense. But water was usually in the valley below. An enemy could easily cut off the water supply and let the people within the citadel die of thirst.
The most common solution was to create a covered passage from the city to the spring, usually through an underground tunnel.This was the set-up at Jerusalem.
David knew this, and managed to penetrate the tunnel. He was then able to scale the water shaft and attack Jebus from the shaft of the well. He was, as we know, successful.
The spring at Jebus (shown in blue) ran underneath the rock spur. Shafts (orange) were cut down into the rock so water could be drawn from the spring during a siege.
Why did David choose Jerusalem?
Why did David choose Jerusalem? In about 1,000 BC, things changed. The fortress caught the attention of a young upstart king called David. He had grand plans, and his capital in Hebron did not fit with them. Hebron was too far south, and weighed down with history and tradition. David turned his eyes towards Jebus/Jerusalem. It was better placed, more central, on the border between Judah and the northern tribes.
Despite the fact that he himself had captured it, King David knew the city’s position atop steep cliffs made it difficult to take by force. Archaeological excavations at the Stepped Stone Structure show just how dangerous it would have been to scramble up those cliffs.
The Stepped Stone Structure, part of Jerusalem’s ancient defences unearthed in recent excavations
The great slab of rock north of the fortress was in its favor. The patriarch Abraham had built an altar to sacrifice his son Isaac there, so it was a holy place.
David moves to Jerusalem/Jebus
David decided to move his court there, making it his capital. With him went the Ark of the Covenant. He installed it outside the city limits for three months, then moved it inside. By doing this, he joined Israel’s religious center to himself and the monarchy.
This gave him valuable leverage with the Israelite tribes. It also turned the city of Jerusalem into a symbol of unity. At this stage, Jerusalem was divided into three areas:
the fortress/palace, relatively modest in David’s day
the sacred area
houses for officials, courtiers and staff.
It was still a simple city – in fact, the word ‘city’ could hardly be applied to it. But it had potential, as David well knew.