A palatial building dating to the era of King Solomon 3000 years ago has been discovered in the royal city of Gezer, though there is no evidence which of the Israelite kings lived there, if any.
The monumental building dates to the 10th century BCE, the era associated with King Solomon, who is famed for bringing wealth and stability to the newly-united kingdom of Israel and Judah. The American archaeological team also found a layer featuring Philistine pottery, lending credence to the biblical account of them living in the city until being vanquished by King David.
The complex features a large central courtyard, like contemporary palace-like buildings found throughout the southern Levant, including at Hatzor and Megiddo. Though there’s no telling who ruled from there, if anybody did, the edifice is significantly larger than the size of ordinary houses of the time, excavation co-director Prof. Steve Ortiz, representing the Tandy Museum of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary of Fort Worth, Texas, told Haaretz. Among the features not found in usual domestic structures is ashlar masonry – large rectangular-shaped monolithic hewn stones-in the corners of rooms, Ortiz said.
Violent 6000-year history
Gezer, located in the Shephela (foothills) region of Israel overlooking the coastal plain, at the junction of a pass leading up to Jerusalem, goes back way before King Solomon. The site was occupied as far back as the Chalcolithic period (4th millennium BCE), and 3400 years ago, its Canaanite population was closely tied with far-off Egypt, as we know from cylinder seals and a large cartouche of Pharaoh Amenhotep III uncovered there in previous seasons.
Excavations have proven that the city did suffer violent destruction at the hands of the Egyptians, who mention Gezer time and again in their records. Thutmose III recorded its capture on the walls of the temple at Karnak; The city later played a prominent role in the Amarna Tablets, mentioned by name at least nine times. Pharaoh Merneptah boasted on his stele that he “seized Gezer.” Later an Egyptian pharaoh turned on Gezer, for reasons we no longer know, burning down the city and slaughtering its Canaanite population.
Illustration: Karnak Temple in Luxor, Egypt.AP
According to the Old Testament, the city was also associated with the Philistines in David’s time: the king broke their power “from Geba to as far as Gezer” (2 Samuel 5:25; 1 Chronicles 14:16). This excavation season has proved the Philistine link too, when the archaeologists revealed a layer with Philistine bichrome pottery. The archaeologists also found a tell-tale fragment of a so-called “Ashdod figurine,” long-necked, bird-faced female figures that many believe depict an Aegean goddess. Such figurines have been found associated with Philistine remains in other excavations, such as in Ashdod, Timna, Ekron and Ashkelon.
Ortiz puts these discoveries into proportion: Archaeologists still believe Gezer was mainly a Canaanite city, but during their era from about 1200 to 600 BCE, Philistines either lived in it alongside the Canaanites, or the two peoples had trading relations. “Gezer sits at an important crossroads. By location, it was an important border city,” Ortiz says.
Some pieces of typically Philistine-style bichromatic and multicolored pottery found at ancient Gezer.Sam Wolff
Dowry to Solomon’s wife
The newly discovered palace is west of the so-called Solomonic Gate, a six chambered inner gate, although it is doubtful that a Jerusalemite king actually spent time at Gezer. The excavation team calls the building “Solomon’s Palace” because of the biblical tradition of Solomon building grand projects at Hatzor, Megiddo, and Gezer (1 Kings 9:15: “And this is the reason of the levy which king Solomon raised; for to build the house of the Lord, and his own house, and Millo, and the wall of Jerusalem, and Hazor, and Megiddo, and Gezer”).
The bible says that Egypt’s powerful monarch gave Gezer as a dowry to Solomon’s wife (or one of them – legend says his harem consisted of 700 wives and 300 concubines) and that Solomon rebuilt the city: “Pharaoh king of Egypt had come up and captured Gezer and had burned it with fire, and he had also killed the Canaanites dwelling in the city. So he gave it as a parting gift to his daughter the wife of Solomon. Solomon built up Gezer” – (1 Kings 9: 16-17). The excavations have uncovered tantalizing evidence that this biblical passage was based on actual events.
The city was destroyed in the late Iron Age I (around 1200-1000) BCE. On the ruins, a new city with fortifications, the famous gate complex, and a palace were constructed, dating to the second half of the 10th century BCE – Solomon’s era. The sheer scale and craftsmanship of the palace shows that only a ruler with vast resources and a highly organized and skilled labor forces could afford, let alone organize, the construction of this palace complex.
A building dated to 10th century Gezer, the era of King Solomon.Tel Gezer Excavation Project, Steven M. Ortiz
The main feature is two parallel long rooms, or courtyards, surrounded on all sides by various rooms, numbering at least 15. The palace has two entrances from the east and west. The entrance from the west also connects this building to the monumental six-chambered gate associated by most scholars with Solomon. This entrance is more robustly built than the rest of the building: The walls are constructed with two to three rows of stones wide, built of roughly dressed field stones somewhat smaller in size than those used in the rest of the building.
Egypt invades Israel and Judah
Several of the rooms and the courtyards, which had once been thickly plastered, suffered destruction, judging by roughly meter-thick layer of building stones and rubble on the floors. This destruction is tentatively associated with the Shishak invasion in 925 BCE: the pharaoh (also known as Sheshonk I in the Egyptian records) is famous for his invasion of Israel and Judah, as recorded in the Old Testament (2 Chronicles 12:1-12).
When Solomon died, his kingdom descended into chaos. With a mighty force of chariots and horsemen, Shishak attacked ancient Israel, seeking control of trade routes with Egypt and to extend his power and influence in the region. Ample evidence of his assault remains in Israel and Judah. A fragment of a stele found at Megiddo mentions Sheshonk (Shishak), possibly indicating that the stele was erected there to commemorate his victory. Also, a relief on a temple wall at Karnak (in the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes) lists numerous local cities or villages that Shishak conquered.
Archaeologists had assumed that once they cleared the massive stones left behind from the destruction, they would find storerooms filled with artifacts. To their dismay, most of the rooms were empty. “It appears that everything was cleaned out before the destruction. Perhaps they knew of the impending attack and removed most of the objects,” Ortiz says.
Figurine of female deity that would have been attached to a cultic stand, found in the Shishak destruction dating to around the 10th century BCE destruction of the Solomonic-era palace.Tel Gezer Excavation Project, Steven M. Ortiz
Several finds indicate the relative wealth of the inhabitants. One is a lid from an ivory gamebox, consisting of 20 squares with elaborate rosette carvings. The diggers found faience amulets and a Canaanite-type female fertility figurine that was missing its head. That figurine was either a leftover from earlier occupants or an indication of continuity from the Canaanite tradition into the 10th century BCE.
The researchers also found three ovens in the courtyard, but no complete vessels associated with them. One room had a complete cooking pot and a baby rattle.
Dr. Sam Wolff, an archaeologist employed by the Israel Antiquities Authority and co-director of the excavation along with Ortiz, urges caution in connecting the finds from the excavation with biblical texts.
Regarding attribution of the palace to the time of King Solomon, Wolff tells Haaretz, “Our 10th century date is tentative, pending further study of the ceramic assemblage and the results of carbon 14 analyses. Others may claim that the pottery we are calling 10th century is in fact 9th century.
“In this regard, I would point out that we have found a significant stratum between what we are calling the 10th century and the 8th century strata, and we date this stratum to the 9th century,” Wolff says. “For the earliest stratum to be 9th century as well is certainly possible, but it would then squeeze two significant strata into one century. For the time being we prefer to date this earlier stratum, along with the six-chamber gate and the fortification wall connecting the two, to the 10th century; that is, to the time of Solomon.”