The original inhabitants of Jerusalem did not live on the site of today’s Old City, but on a narrow ridge descending from the present Temple Mount. On this area of only about 12 acres David established his capital and pitched a tent to house the Ark of the Covenant. The site possessed the natural defenses of the Hinnom valley to the south, the Kidron Valley to the east, and the Tyropoeon Valley to the west. It also boasted fresh water from the Gihon Spring.
Besides David and his son Solomon, this would have been the stomping ground of kings Hezekiah and Josiah and the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. Standing on the observation platform of the City of David archaeological park, it is easy to see how David could have looked down from the roof of his palace and spied the beautiful Bathsheba bathing (2 Samuel 11:2).
Today the area is marked with archaeological digs as intense efforts continue to uncover evidence of David’s city. While there are claims that parts of King David’s palace have been uncovered, archaeologists are generally unconvinced (and David’s tomb remains elusive). At the summit of the excavated area is a massive stepped-stone structure. Dating from before the 10th century BC, it is believed to have served as a retaining wall for David’s palace as well as the Canaanite fortress that preceded it.
Later, when Solomon had built the first Temple on Mount Moriah (now the Temple Mount), stately homes for Jerusalem’s elite and royal functionaries were built on the stepped-stone structure. Their opulent character is indicated by artifacts including cosmetics and remains of furniture made of wood imported from Syria.
One four-room building immediately below the stepped-stone structure, called the House of Ahi’el (because the owner’s name was found on a pottery fragment), had an external stone staircase leading to a second story. In one room a limestone toilet seat was embedded in the plaster floor, with a cesspit beneath it.
There was also an official archive in old Jerusalem. Its papyrus documents went up in flames with the rest of the royal quarter when the Babylonians destroyed the city in 586 BC, but dozens of clay seals survived. Some of these seals bear names known from the Bible, such as Gemariah son of Shaphan, a high-ranking official in the court of King Jehoiakim (Jeremiah 36: 9-12), and Azariah son of Hilkiah, a priest who served in the Temple at the time of the exile to Babylon (1 Chronicles 9:10). Another clay seal found in the City of David contains the name of Bethlehem — the first mention of this ancient city outside of the Bible.
At the base of the Temple Mount are the remains of a Byzantine monastery, with adjacent winery and hospice for pilgrims. This is probably the “monastery of virgins” described by the 6th-century pilgrim Theodosius.
The importance of water to Jerusalem’s early residents is evident from the elaborate tunnels and fortifications they established to access, manage and defend it. Crucial to the city’s survival was the Gihon Spring — shown on some old maps as the Virgin’s Spring, a name that may owe its origin to an earlier Jewish name, the Well of Miriam (the sister of Moses).
As far back as 1800 BC, the Jebusites fortified the Gihon Spring with massive guard towers. They cut a system of tunnels from within their city walls to a rock-cut pool, also fortified, that received water through a feeder channel from the spring. Visitors can traverse some of this water system, known as Warren’s Shaft (after the British engineer who discovered it in 1867).
They can also walk from the Gihon Spring through Hezekiah’s Tunnel. In preparation for an impending siege by the Assyrians, King Hezekiah’s had this tunnel dug during the the 7th century BC to bring water to the Pool of Siloam inside his city.
From the Pool of Siloam, visitors can walk on a section of the Herodian Street that hundreds of thousands of Jewish worshipers used three times a year to ascend to the Temple during pilgrim feasts. Jesus almost certainly walked this way. Beneath the level of this street is another tunnel — the drain that took storm-water and sewage from the Old City to the Kidron Valley in Roman times. Now cleaned out, this tunnel enables visitors to walk about 2,300 feet uphill, along the edge of the Tyropoeon Valley and under the Old City wall, to an exit near the Western Wall.
Among the items discovered in this tunnel were a rare gold bell, perhaps once sewn to a high priest’s garment, and an ancient silver shekel, customarily used to pay the half-shekel head tax to the Temple. A more sombre find was a Roman sword, with its leather sheath partly intact.