12.07.2011

Jerusalem: Before the Hebrews

If you're looking for Christmas (or Hanukkah) presents, then I highly recommend Simon Sebag Montefiore's Jerusalem: The Biography. As a quick disclaimer, I should admit that I am one of the hundreds of people he thanks for help with the book (I think I told him about Julian's attempt to re-build the Third Temple and the remains of the crucified man found at Givat ha-Mivtar).

I tend to avoid reviewing books, so I thought instead I'd do a few posts expanding on the archaeological evidence behind Sebag's history of the city of Jerusalem.

The first mentions of the city of Jerusalem, as Sebag notes, come from ancient Egypt, in a series of Execration texts, or magical spells against the enemies of Egypt. The earliest of the three series of Execration texts was found at Mirgissa in Nubia (modern Sudan) and is now in Berlin; the curses were written on pot sherds circa 1900 BC. The third series comes from Saqqara, dates to circa 1800 BC, and is now in Brussels. In this series some of the curses are written on clay figures, such as the one to the left (photo) which mentions the city of Ursalim (or Roshlamen), a version of Salem the early name of Jerusalem (for more, see here). The figures had curses on enemies written n them, and then they were smashed and buried.

Jerusalem at the time was a Canaanite city, and neither Hebrew nor Israelite. It is unclear whether the Egyptians ruled over Canaan at time, or whether they were still attempting to conquer the region.

We know that by the 14th century Jerusalem was ruled by a vassal of Egypt, as letter he wrote asking or military support against his enemies were excavated at Amarna the capital of Akhenaten (photo). The clay tablet to the left is one of these letters, written in Akkadian, from Abdi-Heba the Canaanite king of Jerusalem. The letters make it clear that Abdi-Heba rules thanks to the grace of the Egyptians, as their vassal, over the city of Beit Shulmani or House of Well-Being, an early name for Jerusalem.

Sebag's book is a survey of the four-thousand year history of Jerusalem, so he cannot go into every detail and thus omits the Ebla documents excavated in the 1970s (photo). This large archive from the city of Ebla in modern Syria is made up of clay tablets from circa 2500 BC to the destruction of the city around 2250 BC. These tablets mention a god Yah - who may or may not be an early form of Yahweh - and trade with various Canaanite cites. Again, whether the cities of Ur and Jerusalem are mentioned or not is the subject of much scholarly debate, and one has to be careful of the politics involved. For more on Ebla and the tablets see here.




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