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Khirbet Qeiyafa

kayafa 9333 david palace

Now the Philistines gathered their forces for war and assembled at Sokoh in Judah. They pitched camp between Sokoh and Azekah. Saul and the Israelites camped in the Valley of Elah. . . The Philistines occupied one hill and the Israelites another, with the valley between them.” (1 Samuel 17:1-3).

Imagine this, if you will:

Mighty King David, accompanied by his sons Shimea, Shobab, Nathan, and Solomon, journeys from Jerusalem to a city located above a valley. Turning it into a fun boys-only hike, they walk the entire distance and reach their goal in less than a day.

As the sun sets, David and his progeny stand on the balcony of a large and impressive palace. David points to the southeast, towards Sokhoh, then shows them Azeka further west. Finally, they all gaze down, into the Elah Valley. With just the right amount of pride and pathos in his voice, King David tells his sons how he saved the day for the Jews by vanquished the giant Goliath with just a sling and a stone.

Pretty farfetched, you say? Yet in 2007, two archeologists from the Hebrew University and Israel Antiquities Authority discovered ruins from an ancient city overlooking the Elah Valley. Excavations continued for seven seasons, and when completed recently, the Hebrew University’s Prof. Yossi Garfinkel  and archeologist Saar Ganor of the IAA made their unique findings public: they had uncovered a typical Judean city and major administrative center on the Philistine border. And it dated back to the time of David!

Take a look for yourself, by visiting Khirbet (Ruins) Qeiyafa, a name whose origins are unknown. Nature lovers will enjoy the masses of flowers that bloom here in winter.

According to Ganor, who was our guide when we visited the site, Qeiyafa is almost certainly the biblical Sha’arayim – which means, in Hebrew, “two gates.”  It is located near Kibbutz Nativ HaLamed Heh, southwest of Jerusalem and off Highway 38.

If you are coming from the direction of Jerusalem, pass Azeka Junction and about 300 meters further on there is a dirt road on your left. You should see markers for the Israel Trail (brown, white and blue) as you drive.  The Nature Reserves and Parks Authority is hoping to take control of Qeiyafa, at which time there will be signs both leading to, and at, the site.

Follow the road as it winds up the hill. If you don’t have a jeep or high-bottomed car it is wise to park next to a huge pile of rocks near the end. Otherwise, continue to the top.

The Bible tells us that after David’s victory, the Philistines fled the scene with the Israelites in hot pursuit. Philistines were slain on the “road to Sha’arayim” (1 Samuel 17:52), and from Ganor we learned that Sha’arayim is mentioned several times in the Scriptures. Whoever wrote the text in later books of the Bible knew the geography very well, he noted.

He added that this is the only city in Israel or Judah from this period to boast two different gates, and that this one is right on the border between areas under Philistine control (commonly known as Pileshet) and Judah.

There are two excellent routes for touring Khirbet Qeiyafa: if you parked next to the pile of stones, begin at the western gate and exit through the southern gate; if you are at the top, you can start with the southern gate and leave through the western one. Then follow the dirt path that runs all the way around the well-fortified, strategically located ancient city.

Two ancient roads led to the city’s gates. The byway to the coastal plains led to and from the western gate, while travelers coming from the direction of Jerusalem and Hebron entered and exited through the southern gate.

Although both gates are impressive, Ganor and Garfinkle consider the southern gate to have been the most important.  It was built of enormous stones, some as heavy as eight tons, while its sister gate utilized much smaller stones in its construction.

David was a new monarch, deep in the process of creating a new kingdom.  Aware that the Israelites’ major enemies were the Philistines, he needed both a show of strength – like a massively built gate – and a fortified border.

Garfinkel has compared this city to the first-ever cooperative village (moshav shitufi) in Israel: Nahalal. Both were circular and beautifully planned down to the last detail. Ganor told us that later Judean cities follow the same plan. Towns in Israel, north of Judah, did not.

The city walls were 700 meters in circumference, of a special double type known as casement walls. This means that houses were constructed directly onto the walls, and their back rooms were probably used for storage. The small opening in the inner wall, giving residents access to this room, could be easily blocked up in the event of an imminent attack.

Both gates are called Four Chambers (taim in Hebrew) Gates because there are four open rooms just inside each one. These would have held the guards that were on duty during the day, when the gate was open. The entrances were nearly four meters wide, probably because the standard width for doors that fit gates built during that era was about four meters.

Before you enter the city, look for a drain pipe in the outer wall. Because gates are built on the lowest part of the city, rainwater that collects here has to drain out.

Just past the four chambers, two open areas still boasting their original floors served as the city’s piazzas. All kinds of exciting events  would have taken place in the piazza. Farmers whose fields were outside the city would have sold their produce here; prophets undoubtedly shouted from the piazza, judges hung out in the piazza, and areas like this were a favorite for elders of the city.

kayafa 9352 houses near western entrance

In the house adjacent to the left-hand piazza, archeologists discovered a room that was used for worship – one of three such rooms found in the city’s homes. Other rooms in all of the houses contained articles like kitchen utensils and tools. But the worship (cultic) rooms were bare of everyday items. Instead, they featured paraphernalia for anointment along with basalt altars. Benches lined the walls, and in this particular worship room archeologists decorative temple models – one of clay and one, unique piece carved in stone.

What they did not uncover in these worship rooms were idols . Not even a single figurine, not here and not in any of the 60 rooms that were excavated.  The lack provided even more evidence, say the archeologists who dug here, that this was a Judean city. Indeed, figurines were found in excavations all over Israel and, of course, at Canaanite and Philistine sites.

Qeiyafa was an archeologist’s dream, for as you can see, the city was built on bedrock. Thus there was no need to wade through layers after layer of history: what you saw was what you got!

It was easy to discover how the city was built, and you will see the quarry as you walk through the gate and up the hill. Laborers would have come from the farmers in the area, for kings demand taxes and money hadn’t yet been invented. So people paid their taxes in crops and in manpower.

The architect who designed Qeifaya used four groups of workers, starting them out from either side of the gates. Stones were quarried and carried down the hill to construct the city, including all 100 houses built into the walls.

Gaze into the houses as you follow the path. Note how small they were: After all, you only ate and slept at home while the rest of the time the whole family worked in the fields!

Despite the fortifications, the city was unable to resist a serious attack. Because there was plenty of water in the valley’s springs, outside the walls, only two cisterns were prepared inside the city. And the presence of two gates, impressive as they must have been, seriously weakened the city’s defenses.

Dozens of clay dishes and utensils were found in each house, shattered to pieces. It would seem that the city’s residents fled an enemy  who carried away everything that seemed valuable and destroyed the rest.

Among the other sights you will view along your route is the central storehouse, an extremely large room with pillars. Instead of an adjacent house, it features an opening on one side from which merchandise could have been loaded and unloaded.

Another much smaller room also contains a column and a trough. This was actually a stable – or so thought Ganor and Garfinkel, who brought in a donkey to test their theory. To their delight, as soon as the donkey was ushered into the room it went straight for the trough!

Ruins from a massive structure were found right in the center of the city, on the peak of the hill. Note the wall that runs through the middle and imagine the building without it. In King David’s time this edifice would have been big and elaborate enough to have served as a palace where he could reside during his visits to this, one of his major administrative centers. Decorated with alabaster imported from Egypt, it also offered a fantastic view of both gates, Philistine Ashdod and the Mediterranean Sea on one side, and the valley on the other.  From here David could also see torches transmitting messages from hilltop to hilltop – the manner in which people got their information, long ago.

During the Byzantine era a wealthy farmer built a villa here, cutting the palace in two and destroying almost everything he found on the site. So you have to imagine a courtyard in the middle, surrounded by rooms, in a building that spread out over an entire dunam.

About 800 years after the city was abandoned and destroyed the Greeks discovered Qeiyafa. Look for the storeroom and oil press they constructed on the piazza next to the western gate.

Try to find the second house on the northern side of the western gate. It is here that archeologists uncovered an amazing pottery shard, or ostracon, containing five lines with 70 letters whose first words begin with “al ta’ase” – or “don’t do.” The root of the word “ta’ase” appears only in Hebrew and the text includes the words for “judge.”

Just west of the southern gate, on top of the hill, there is a fantastic view of Azeka to the far right, Sokho across the wadi and to the left, and the Elah Valley below. This is a great place to tell the story of David and Goliath: right here where it all happened!

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