Spreading the chart out on the table, we were able to retrace many of the trips and explorations we made when living in Jerusalem. At the time, some of these had required poring over Ordnance Survey maps and reading archaeological reports before we could identify the sites involved. Now, with the acquisition of this map, we can easily find the location of these sites, as well as, and most importantly, the latest sites to have been discovered.
Twenty-three years ago, the publication of the New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, a a joint venture by the Israel Exploration Society, Carta, and Simon and Schuster’s Academic Reference Division, was a landmark in the quest to provide a comprehensive work that would summarize the results of archaeological work in the Land of Israel for the English reader. It had a 102-page long section on Jerusalem. Ephraim Stern wrote in the Editor’s Foreword to the Supplementary Volume, published in 2008:
“Since the publication in 1993 of the four volumes of the New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land (NEAEH) archaeological excavations have continued at a staggering pace. Many of the entries of those four volumes quickly became outdated and the need arose for this volume, which updates the NEAEH to the year 2005. It is a joint venture of the Israel Exploration Society and the Biblical Archaeology Society.”
So, while we await the next update, a mammoth undertaking, this handily portable map will play a vital role in guiding the visitor around the archaeological sites of Jerusalem,
The front part of this large map (63×94 cm, or 25×37 inches) shows the Old City and its surroundings, while the reverse side is dedicated to the Old City in much greater detail. The map was made in collaboration with the IAA (Israel Antiquities Authority, or Reshut Atiqot in Hebrew), with the text and scientific advice provided by Dr. Yuval Baruch. The archaeological sites are described in small text boxes with an arrow pointing to the exact location of each.
Most of the sites on the front part are familiar to us, but by no means all of them are. It is good to see the site of Lifta on the northwest of the city included. This has been identified as the site of the Waters of Nephtoah of Joshua 15.9 and 18.15, defining here the border between Benjamin and Judah. We remember exploring the village and its spring in the 1970’s, but then it seemed very much off the beaten track, being hidden away on two steep slopes in the last valley of the ascent into Jerusalem.
There are other sites we are not so familiar with such as Khirbet Adaseh North and Khirbet Adaseh, 2 miles to the southeast. Adasa, was, of course, the place where the Maccabees were victorious in their battle against the Seleucid general Nicanor, who lost his life there.
The Old City map is also informative with sections dedicated to the Kidron and Hinnom Valleys, Mount Zion, the City of David and the Aqueducts of Jerusalem. We are pleased that the Tomb of Annas the High Priest, a site we were able to identify in the early 1990’s, is included among the sites in the Hinnom Valley.
A glaring omission on this side of the map is any detail on the vast platform of the Temple Mount. However, giving the impression that the site is a terra incognita is part of the political reality in this area. Only some of the gates are mentioned, with the Double and Triple Gates unfortunately still called the Huldah Gates. The original Huldah Gates were in fact located in the southern wall of the pre-Herodian Temple Mount some 72 m (240 ft) north of the present Southern Wall.
No reference is made to the Step, which is the remains of the Western Wall of King Hezekiah’s Square Temple Mount or of The Rock, identified by many as the site of the Holy of Holies of Solomon’s Temple. The many well-heads visible on the platform indicate the location of the many underground cisterns, of which two, Cisterns 6 and 36, may have been mikva’ot. These would also have added interest to this part of the map.
Information on the Temple Mount platform is, however, available in our guide bookJerusalem, the Temple Mount in which we have produced a map showing 19 points of archaeological and historical interest:
Despite these shortcomings, however, we foresee copies of this map being given as presents for those who love exploring the Old City of Jerusalem and its environs. And if you have friends visiting who have been to Jerusalem, framed reproductions are bound to stimulate some lively conversation.
I have been asked by a few readers to clarify my position on the location of the Akra, that hated symbol of alien Hellenistic rule whose occupiers became in the words of the writer of the First Book of Maccabees: “a great trouble … an ambush for the sanctuary, an evil adversary for Israel at all times” (1. 35 – 38). This was because they attacked the Jewish worshippers that went up from the city to the Temple.
Let me say, first of all, that the finds in the Givati Parking Lot (announced on November 3rd) and identified as part of the Akra, are very significant. According to the excavators, a 4m wide and 20m long defensive wall dating to the Hellenistic period was found with a glacis, made up of soft layers of rubble, descending to the bottom of the Tyropoeon Valley. This therefore indicates that this wall was part of the western fortifications of Hellenistic Jerusalem. The difficulty is to establish what part of the Hellenistic city this wall belongs to. Now that the media pundits have regurgitated the news announcement, it is time to reflect on this latest identification of the Seleucid Akra.
The most important information about the Akra comes from two historical sources, namely the works of Josephus and the above mentioned First Book of Maccabees. The problem with these sources is that they are not easy to harmonise. However, we must not shy away from them, but try to interpret them in the light of these and other archaeological findings. First to quote from the previous verse from the Book of Maccabees to the one above.
“And they built the city of David with a great and strong wall, and with strong towers, and made it a fortress [Greek: Acra] for them: And they placed there a sinful nation, wicked men, and they fortified themselves therein.”
This quote shows us that the City of David, which is the southern part of what Josephus calls the Lower City (see map), was fortified all around to turn it into a fortress.
This does not mean that the City of David was the Akra Fortress, but that it was as strongly fortified as a stronghold. The wall in the Givati Parking Lot belongs to the western fortifications. Interestingly, it is in direct line with the Valley Gate that was excavated a little further south by J.W. Crowfoot in 1927. This excavator was of the opinion that this wall section with its gate belonged to an early period and was restored probably during the time of Nehemiah and certainly in the Maccabean period*.
On the eastern side, a similarly strong wall with a glacis was excavated by Yigal Shiloh in the excavations he carried out in the City of David from 1978 – 82.
These excavated wall sections, both in the west and in the east, were all part of the fortifications of the City of David in the Hellenistic period (c. 300 B.C. – 141 B.C.). These walls would have continued further north and were connected with the Temple Mount.
The Temple Mount at that time still had the 500 cubit square shape that was given it in the First Temple period, probably by King Hezekiah. The square mount was rebuilt by Nehemiah and continued to exist in this form until the Hasmonean period (141 B.C. – 37 B.C.).
The other main source on the Akra, Josephus, tells us that, apart from fortifying the City of David, a separate fortress or citadel was also built by the Seleucids next to the Temple Mount:
“…and when he had overthrown the city walls, he built a citadel [Greek: Acra] in the lower part of the city, for the place was high, and overlooked the temple; on which account he fortified it with high walls and towers, and put into it a garrison of Macedonians”, Antiquities of the Jews12:252–253
This quote from Josephus speaks of a citadel that was built in the highest place of the Lower City. What did the term “Lower City” mean in the time of Josephus? In describing the City of Jerusalem, Josephus (War 5.136-141) describes two hills, the upper city which had a straight ridge and was higher than the Lower City. The Upper City was located on the Western Hill of Jerusalem (where the Jewish and Armenian Quarters are today). The Lower City, which bore the name of Akra and was shaped like a hog’s back, was located on the Eastern Hill south of the Temple Mount. The valley in between the Western and Eastern Hills is called the Central or Tyropoeon Valley.
It is important to make a distinction between the Lower City that was built like a fortress (akra) and the separate citadel or fortress itself that was called the Akra. The two, the city and the citadel, are not the same in the historical sources. This is made abundantly clear in the Book of Maccabees, where it is recorded that Jonathan “decided … to erect a high barrier (wall) between the Akra and the city, to separate it from the city and isolate it” (1 Macc 12:36). The Akra citadel therefore clearly stood in between the city and the Temple.
Let us now concentrate on the citadel named the Akra. What do we know about it?
Antiochus IV Epiphanes built the Akra in 168 B.C., a fortress for his Macedonian garrison from which the Jewish population could be controlled. Josephus records that it “commanded or overlooked the Temple”. Josephus writes in Antiquities 12.252 that Antiochus:
“… built the Akra in the Lower City; for it was high enough to overlook the Temple, and it was for this reason that he fortified it with high walls and towers, and stationed a Macedonian garrison therein. Nonetheless there remained in the Akra those of the (Jewish) people who were impious and of bad character, and at their hands the citizens were destined to suffer many terrible things.”
This is later confirmed by Josephus (Ant.12.362):
At this time the garrison in the Akra of Jerusalem and the Jewish renegades did much harm to the Jews; for when they went up to the Temple with the intention of sacrificing, the garrison would sally out and kill them—for the Akra commanded the Temple.
The Akra fortress therefore must have stood close to the Temple and overlooked it. The Temple Mount of that time was smaller than the present-day Temple Mount. In the Hellenistic period the Temple Mount still had a square shape, as it had in the time of Nehemiah. The distance between the Givati excavations and the southern wall of the square Temple Mount is 720 feet (220m) and the excavations are lower by some 150 feet (50m). It is impossible for the Akra fortress to have been situated in that location as it is too far from the Temple Mount and too low. The Seleucids would have had to construct a skyscraper of more than 150 feet (50m) in height, the approximate height of an 18 storey high modern building or the Temple in the time of Herod the Great. In the quote above of War 5, Josephus continues to inform us that the Hasmoneans:
“filled up the valley, with the object of uniting the city to the Temple, and also reduced the elevation of Acra by leveling its summit, in order that it might not block the view of the temple.”
In our previous quote we mentioned that Josephus also wrote that after Simon the Maccabee had razed the Akra, he “thought it would be an excellent thing and to his advantage to level also the hill on which the Akra stood, in order that the Temple might be higher than this” (Ant. 13.215).
It reasons therefore that the Akra was totally destroyed and dismantled and the ground on which it stood was leveled. As Josephus records that it took three years to raze the Akra and the promontory of the Lower City on which it stood, I believe therefore that it would be impossible to ever find any remains of this fortress.
Josephus further confirms (Ant. 12.406) that the Akra was built adjacent to the Temple Mount as he states that “Nicanor was coming down from the Akra to the Temple.”This clearly shows that the Akra must have been built very close to the Temple Mount, if not right up against it, see drawing below reproduced from my previous post.
The Akra was a formidable fortress with a garrison permanently stationed in it. It was therefore necessary to have a good water supply. Adjacent to the projected southern wall of the square Temple Mount is a curiously shaped cistern. Its plan is in the form of the letter E, which is unlike all the other, mainly irregularly shaped, cisterns of the Temple Mount. This Cistern 11 was explored by Warren and described by Conder as follows,
It is 61 feet 6 inches (18.75 m) deep and consists of three tanks, each about 26 feet (7.9 m) by 40 feet (12.2 m) connected by a passage running north and south and 14 feet (4.30 m) wide. The total contents are about 700,000 gallons (3,200 m3). The roof is of rock cut out into arches. Steps on the west ascend to the mouth of the tank and west of these are foundations of a massive wall on the rock. The passage from the Triple Gate is continued, so as to run over this tank.
This tank is located just south of the square Temple Mount, in an area that is totally flat and its position suggests that it was specially cut to provide the Macedonian garrison stationed in the Akra with a water supply ample enough to withstand a long siege. Stones quarried from this cistern may initially have provided building material for the Akra.
Interestingly, the tractate Erubin of the Mishnah calls one of the cisterns of the Temple Mount be’er haqqer. This name, which means “The Cistern of the Akra,” suggests that one of the cisterns of the Temple Mount was named after the fortress that lay on top of it. In addition, the presence of the foundations of a massive wall in this cistern, described by Warren, together with the cistern’s peculiar E-shape, suggest a design that would support a large building.
The literary evidence, combined with the unusually shaped Cistern 11, provides the first tangible evidence for the location of the Akra in the northern part of the area between the Double and Triple Gate passageways.
The finding of the Hellenistic city wall with its glacis in the Givati Parking lot has contributed much to our understanding of Jerusalem in the pre-Hasmonean period. This wall, however, belongs to the city walls of that time and has nothing to do with the infamous citadel of the Akra.
* J. Simons, Jerusalem in the Old Testament (Brill, 1952), 90.
Although visiting the Temple Mount is not always a pleasant experience these days, it is still worth the attempt. We have had good feedback from visitors who have used our guidebook to find things which otherwise they would have missed. One of the little known secrets described in our book (which can be purchased here) is a small window near the northwest corner of the Temple Mount. Despite its apparent insignificance, it has a large story to tell.
While walking on the Temple Mount platform, this opening, covered with a protective grille, can be found low down on the left-hand side, just before one reaches the northernmost gate in the Western Wall, the Bab el-Ghawanima Gate.
This window was already noticed by Charles Warren in the 1860s. On the inside is a little room where this opening, flanked by two pilasters, which appear to be late Herodian in style, can be seen. From here, in the Second Temple period, one could have entered the Rock-hewn Aqueduct, which can now be seen at the end of the Western Wall Tunnel.
This is what Charles Warren wrote about this discovery:
“Through the roof of the aqueduct Lieutenant Conder gained access into a small modern chamber, built against the Sanctuary wall, just north of the Bab es Serai; and here he found part of a wall of large drafted stones, with a plinth course and two pilasters, like those in the Haram Hebron. The space between the pilasters was occupied by a window, or opening into the Sanctuary, which seems to be ancient, as the lintel and jambs are of large ashlar – the former drafted.” Warren, Ch. and C. R. Conder (1884). Survey of Western Palestine: Jerusalem (London), p. 213.
In the halcyon days of the 1970’s, when archaeologists from the Temple Mount Excavations were allowed to explore the hidden recesses of the platform, I was able to visit this space which had been turned into a room and look for these pilasters and the window. (In contrast with Warren, I accessed the room via the Muslim Quarter.) Although the pilasters had been painted over by the residents, the window overlooking the Temple Mount was still visible.
According to Josephus, the Roman siege of the Antonia Fortress in 70 A.D. was protracted, because of the destruction of the Roman earthworks by the Jews, under leadership of John of Gischala, who had barricaded himself inside the Temple Mount. He used an underground passage to get into the water reservoir (the Strouthion Pool) and undermine and set the earthworks that were built in this pool on fire (War5.466-472). This underground passage could only have been reached through this window that has the appearance of being hacked through in order to gain access to the area below the Antonia Fortress (normally you don’t build windows between pilasters at such a low level). For this reason we have dubbed this window the “Window of John of Gischala”.
The drawing below is a reconstruction drawing of the northwest corner of the Temple Mount and the Antonia Fortress with the location of the “Window of John of Gischala” indicated:
It was because of such use of underground passageways by the Jews that Titus decided to build a siege wall around the city so that all communication with the country could be cut off and supplies interrupted. This resulted in a terrible famine and so the drama continued to its tragic end. This little window is one of those secret places on the Temple Mount where history echoes down the years.
The Virtual Bible, a new visual resource which offers three-dimensional reconstructions of the land of Israel, first-century Jerusalem, the Herodian Temple, and more. The visuals, which include still images and video fly-throughs, were developed by Dr. Daniel Warner of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and Dr. James Strange of the University of South Florida, in consultation with Leen Ritmeyer, an archaeological architect who is an expert on the Jerusalem Temple.
Here is a link to the introductory video. The purpose of this resource is to help students visualize more accurately the physical background of events mentioned in the Bible. Some of the original videos lacked explanatory notes and therefore Accordance “added narration and music to these videos to improve their teaching value for those of us who might need a tour guide. We also added detailed text descriptions for each still image and video.” Two samples can be viewed on their blog post.
Jerusalem in Rome – Searching for the Dedicatory Inscription in the Colosseum
Last week, on a visit to Rome, we went in search of the Dedicatory Inscription in the Colosseum that I had blogged about in 2008. Walking down the Via dei Fori Imperiali, the wide avenue built by Mussolini flanking the Forum and leading to the amphitheatre was a pleasure, as the Colosseum is no longer a crazy traffic circle. Cars are banned, with buses and taxis still allowed, but with strict speed restrictions. The scene that greets you at the piazza surrounding the Colosseum still resembles a funfair, with costumed “centurions” (some smoking cigarettes) and demanding exhorbitant prices from visitors to have their photo taken with them, hawkers selling everything from souvenirs to selfie sticks and horses waiting patiently beside their carriage for their next passengers. Meanwhile scaffolding snakes its way around the Colosseum in a $35 million renovation project due to be completed in 2016.
From what we had read in an excellent article on the inscription by Prof. Louis Feldman in BAR (July/August 2001), we expected to find it lying on the ground on the right-hand side of the main entrance passageway. We described the inscription to a guard and were directed to the medieval painting of Jerusalem high up in one of the arches. This is based on a well-known depiction of the city by the Dutch theologian Christiaan van Adrichem.
After a fruitless search around the corridors, we tried asking at the office of the archaeological superintendent of the site, where the lady at the desk said that she didn’t have a clue as to the whereabouts of the inscription. Put on to the phone to her boss, we were told that she thought it was on the second level. Climbing the steep travertine steps, we had views over the interior of the amphitheatre, including the dark corridors of the hypogeum or underground area, from where caged animals and gladiators would be brought up for the entertainment of the Romans from every social class.
Approaching the area of the lift, one of the innovations designed to bring visitor facilities into the twenty-first century, but which was very difficult to find on the ground floor where it was needed, we saw two large groups of visitors who looked spellbound. One of the groups was gathered round an exhibit showing recently discovered graffiti depicting a gladiator fight. Other graffiti showed gladiators fighting wild beasts.
An even larger crowd was gathered round two astonishingly vivid reconstruction drawings that depicted spectators sitting in the amphitheatre.
The top drawing showed fans of the gladiators drawing on the steps the very graffiti we had just seen in the exhibition. It also showed spectators brawling and grilling meat over a portable grill, upper class ladies having their hair done and children doing what children have always done, getting into things. The bottom drawing showed in glorious detail all the activities underground.
Then I spotted the large marble block, standing against the back wall, with its pattern of holes hinting at the original dedication on the stone.
The phantom letters on the fifth century Latin inscription which mentioned that the building had been repaired by one Lampadius were deciphered by Professor Géza Aföldy of the University of Heidelberg. During our visit to the Colosseum, nobody seemed interested in the inscription which had an explanatory plaque with a long description of the work done by Lampadius. Only a few lines of the explanation were devoted to the fact that the early inscription (originally made of metal letters fastened to small holes which allowed specialists to retrace them after they had been erased), attributed the construction of the Colosseum to Titus and explained that it was funded ex manubis (with the proceeds of spoils of war). We only need to look a couple of hundred metres along the Via Sacra to the Arch of Titus which portrays the spoils of the Jerusalem Temple being carried off.
In the centuries that followed, observant Jews refused to walk under the Arch of Titus. This was their protest against this insult to Jewish independence. It must have been a very moving experience in 1948, when, as a symbolic gesture, Roman Jews deliberately walked under the arch in the opposite direction to that of the conquering Roman army.
So, we had found the Dedicatory Inscription, with no help from either of our guidebooks, the official guides or the official Colosseum website and it was missing the section that had been restored as shown in Louis Feldman’s original BAR article. Today (2nd June), the Colosseum was draped with banners in the colours of the Italian flag as the country celebrated its Republic Day. During our visit, work was going on day and night to erect the grandstands on the Via dei Fori Imperiali, from which dignitaries would watch the grand military parade that commemorates the 1946 referendum in which Italians voted for their country to become a republic. In the Colosseum, near the Imperial Box used by the Emperor, is a cross set up to commemorate Christians who were believed to have been martyred here. Today however, few of the parade’s spectators will stop to think of where the money came from to build this, the most celebrated building in the Roman Empire. And who will spare a thought for the thousands of Hebrew slaves who labored in its construction, with the pre-cut travertine blocks hauled from Tibur (today Tivoli, about 20 km from Rome). ‘To the victor belong the spoils.”
Yesterday we received the first copies of our guide book to the Temple Mount. It has 160 pages and 184 illustrations and weighs only 350 grams (12 ounces). It measures 20.8 x 14.3 x 1 cm (8.1 x 5.6 x 0.4 inches), which is a handy size to carry around with you and would fit easily in a large pocket or small bag. It is now possible to order our guide book directly from our website. The cost is US$25.00 or UK£17.00 plus postage.
We hope and feel sure that our book will enhance your visit to the Temple Mount and deepen your understanding of the fascinating history of this important site!
Continuing our series on the historical development of Mount Moriah, we have now reached the Early Muslim period. The end of the Byzantine period in Jerusalem was heralded by the Persian invasion of 614 AD and completed by the Muslim conquest twenty-four years later. Muhammad’s successor, Caliph Omar, accepted Jerusalem’s surrender in 638 AD. Muslims regarded Jerusalem as a holy city and Jews were again granted the right to live there and pray on the Temple Mount. Some sources record that Omar ordered the site of the Temple Mount to be cleared of rubbish, thus exposing the Foundation Stone of the Jewish Temple.
Caliph Abd al-Malik (685-705 AD) built a magnificent center for Muslim pilgrimage on the Temple Mount, called the Dome of the Rock.
Completed in 691 AD, the Dome of the Rock was neither a mosque nor a place of prayer, but a shrine to the Foundation Stone of the Temple. Modelled after Byzantine centrally designed commemorative churches, the Muslims transferred to the Temple Mount the story of the Night Journey of Muhammad from Mecca to the “farthest shrine” (al-Aqsa). From here they believed he ascended into Heaven. Now one of the world’s most iconic buildings, known to virtually everyone on the planet, the golden dome that shimmers against the often cobalt blue sky and the blue tiled walls of the octagonal building are both contrasting and harmonious. Few visitors to the site today, however, realise how difficult it is to express its beauty in either geometrical designs or mathematical formulae, especially as we no longer have its original blueprint.
Writing this blog reminded me of the time I worked on the architectural reconstruction of a funeral monument called Gonbad-e-alawiyyan in Persia (Iran) for an Israeli colleague. From this I developed an analysis which is also valid for the plan and section of the Dome of the Rock, the crowning glory of early Islamic architecture. Too complex to describe fully here, it is based on three concentric circles which closely bind together all the different constructional elements into one magnificently proportioned building.
I later applied it successfully to other classical centrally designed buildings, such as the Round Temple at Baalbek, San Vitale at Ravenna, the Mausoleum of Diocletian at Spalato, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and many others. It is intriguing to think that here we may have a certain school of ancient architecture, which was in use for a long period, but whose traditions were eventually lost.
On completion of the Dome of the Rock, Caliph al-Walid (705-715 AD) built a mosque called al-Aqsa above the Southern Wall of the Temple Mount, on the former site of the Herodian Royal Stoa. The Temple Mount was and still is known to the Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif (The Noble Sanctuary). The Virtual Walking Tour of al-Haram al-Sharif produced by Saudi Aramco World led by Oleg Grabar, the late Professor Emeritus of Islamic Art and Architecture at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, New Jersey, allows one to explore its jewels of Islamic architecture in a very informative way.
There are some unique locations in the Land of the Bible where you really get a sense of place. One of these is inside the Eastern Wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Here the record of Jesus’ visit to the Temple precincts in John 10.22-39 comes to vibrant life. We are told:
And it was the feast of the dedication at Jerusalem: it was winter; and Jesus was walking in the Temple in Solomon’s Porch (John 10:22,23).
Jesus had come to keep Hanukkah, the Feast of Lights. This feast commemorates the dedication of the Temple in 164 BC, after it had been defiled by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who, three years earlier, had ordered a pig to be sacrificed on the Temple altar.
But why does this place evoke the Gospel story so powerfully? It is surely because this side of the Temple Mount is closest to the original, with minimal additional construction. The Eastern Wall of the Temple Mount was the only one that was not moved by King Herod the Great when he carried out his monumental expansion of the Temple Mount in the first century.
At present there are no porticoes along the Eastern and Southern Walls of the Temple Mount. In the Herodian period, however, there were porticoes on all sides. The eastern stoa pre-dated the others and was already colonnaded in the Hasmonean period. This Porch, or stoa, stood directly over the wall of the earlier square Temple Mount and at the time of Herod the Great, was known as Solomon’s Porch.
This does not necessarily mean that this porch was built by this famous king, but certainly by Herod’s predecessors. Offering welcome shelter from sun, wind and rain, it was obviously used as a place of congregation. Josephus provides us with an evocative description:
The porticoes, all in double rows, were supported by columns five and twenty cubits high—each a single block of the purest white marble—and ceiled with panels of cedar. The natural magnificence of these columns, their excellent polish and fine adjustment presented a striking spectacle. (War 5.190–192)
It was here that Jesus was almost stoned one wintry day during the feast of Hanukkah (John 10.31). Acts 3.11 and 5.12 also provide us with images of the time when the disciples used to congregate and teach here after the death of their master.
Postscript: During this feast, a Hanukkiah is lit, but what is the difference between a Hanukkiah and a Menorah (Lampstand)?
People have asked me where I think Jesus was born. I reply that Scripture and archaeology show that the place was not a randomly chosen cave in Bethlehem, but a location that was prepared centuries earlier for this purpose.
According to Luke 2.1-5, Mary and Joseph had to travel to their own city. It must have been an uncomfortable journey when Mary was almost 9 months pregnant and had to travel, probably on the back of a donkey, from Nazareth to Bethlehem – a 100 mile long journey through the Jordan Valley! On arriving in Bethlehem, they couldn’t find a place to stay. The only available place for the Son of God to be born was a dirty stable, which had to be shared with animals. It wasn’t a romantic Christmas postcard stable with smiling camels and donkeys, probably drawn by artists who don’t know how bad camels can smell and how loud the braying of donkeys can be!
What actually did a stable look like in the time of Christ? From archaeology we know that stables looked like rooms with a fenestrated wall, i.e. an interior or exterior wall with several low windows. Animals were placed behind this wall and fodder was put in wooden boxes or baskets and placed in the windows. Sacks of provender were stored in the other half of the room. It was probably in this part of the stable that Mary and Joseph were allowed to stay and where Jesus was born. Fenestrated walls that were part of stables have been found in many places, such as Capernaum and Chorazin that are illustrated here.
But, what is the importance of Bethlehem and which inn was chosen by God as the place for His son to be born in?
When Joshua conquered Jericho, he cursed the city, so that it became a city of death. Rahab was the only person, with her family, that was saved. She married Salmon and their son was called Boaz, who must have settled in Bethlehem when Judah captured its inheritance. Boaz married Ruth in Bethlehem and she became the great-grandmother of David (Ruth 4.10). Gentile Ruth was, of course, one of these amazing few women mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew Ch. 1. King David was born in Bethlehem and anointed king there by Samuel the Prophet.
Near the end of his life, David had to flee from his son Absalom, when he rebelled against him. He stayed with the aged Barzilai the Gileadite, whose son Chimham returned with David to Jerusalem (2 Sam. 19.37-40). To provide him with a source of income, it appears that David may have given him part of his own inheritance in Bethlehem to build an inn (mentioned in the early Jewish source, Targum Yerushalmi, Jer. 41.17a), and called “Geruth Chimham” “Habitation of Chimham” (Jer. 41.17). As small towns like Bethlehem usually had only one inn, it is reasonable to suggest that Jesus may have been born in this inn. Through the generosity of David to Barzilai and his son Chimham, a birthplace for Jesus was prepared.
The fact that Jesus could be born in his own inheritance as the true Son of David is another one of the wonderful topographic coincidences that run through the whole plan of the Bible.
The Byzantine period is the next period we look at in this Temple Mount series. Up until recently, it was thought that the Temple Mount lay desolate during this time and was used as the city’s garbage dump. However, this may not be altogether accurate.
In 324 AD, the Emperor Constantine the First made Christianity the official religion of the Empire and together with his mother, Queen Helena, consecrated sites in the Holy Land associated with the life of Jesus. In Jerusalem, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built on the site assumed to have been the burial place of Christ. It was the first and only time during Jerusalem’s long history that the focus of the city was shifted away from the Temple Mount to this newly built church, effectively denying any Jewish connection with the city.
However, the reported finding of part of a Byzantine mosaic floor under the al-Aqsa Mosque in excavations carried out here in the 1930s (the only time that such activity was allowed on the Mount), points to the possible existence of houses at the southern part of the Mount during the Byzantine period.
Regrettably, the limited finds make it impossible to draw any firm conclusions as to the extent of the built-up area.
There are, however, other signs that the southern part of the Temple Mount was used at that time. A large monastery, the so-called Monastery of the Virgin, was excavated near the Triple Gate. In its courtyard, a three-seater toilet was found that was flushed with the water of one of the Temple Mount cisterns, namely Cistern 10.
The water from this cistern was led to the monastery through a tunnel that had been carved specially for this purpose.
Finally, on the inside of the southeast corner of the Temple Mount that has been preserved to a great height, is the chapel of the so-called Cradle of Jesus (Arabic: Sidna Issa). There is a small shrine inside this room. The photo below shows the small Muslim dome that was built over a Byzantine altar that has four marble pillars and a reliquary underneath. This may have been the shrine where the nuns of the Monastery of the Virgin came to commemorate the birth of Jesus.