Unearthing the mystery of the priestly city of Nob

From: http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/811030.html

Jan 10, 2007

The first biblical reference to the city of Nob is in Samuel I. During King Saul's reign, after the destruction of Shiloh, priests from the house of Eli resided in Nob, and the tabernacle was located there. After Saul discovered that one of the priests, Ahimelech ben Ahituv, gave David Goliath's sword, which was also kept in Nob, and that David had managed to escape, the king ordered all of Nob's inhabitants killed. "And Nob, the city of the priests, smote he with the edge of the sword, both men and women, children and sucklings, and oxen and asses and sheep, with the edge of the sword." (1 Samuel 22:19)

Despite Saul's vengeance, the city remained intact for hundreds of years. The prophet Isaiah mentions it in his description of a journey taken by King Ashur of Assyria in 701 BCE, when he attempted to conquer Jerusalem. Nob is referred to as the last city the Assyrian army passed through on its way to Jerusalem. "This very day shall he halt at Nob, shaking his hand at the mount of the daughter of Zion, the hill of Jerusalem." (Isaiah 10:32)

Nob is mentioned again, in Nehemiah's description of the return to Zion, as one of the settlements in the region of Benjamin, located north of Jerusalem between Anathoth, identified with the modern village of Anata, and Ananiah, identified with the modern village of Azzariyeh, according to accepted theories.

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During the last 100 years, however, none of these biblical references helped researchers locate remains of the ancient settlement. While the Old Testament clearly indicates that the city was located somewhere north of Jerusalem, no site was found that provided sufficient evidence to connect it with Nob. All that remains is speculation regarding the city's location.

Archaeologist Professor Hanan Eshel, a senior lecturer at the Martin Szusz Department of Land of Israel Studies at Bar-lan University, suggests that Nob may have been located in the center of the present-day village of Shoafat. His colleague in the Martin Szusz Department, Dr. Gabi Barkai, proposes Jerusalem's French Hill neighborhood as the location of Nob. Other geographic "candidates" competing for the title of the priestly city include the A-Tur neighborhood.

In a conference held at Bar-Ilan University last week, Dr. Boaz Zissu proposed a new location: He believes the city was situated at the top of the hill overlooking the Eli branch of the Kidron Valley, called Wadi al-Joz in Arabic. However, since he lacks unequivocal proof to connect the remains he found with any specific settlement, including Nob, Zissu asks that his theory be approached with caution. Despite that, corroborating data indicates there is a good chance he is right.

This data began to accumulate in June 2001, when Zissu started excavations near the Kidron Valley, to salvage a site about 50 meters north of what is known as Ramban's Cave. That dig, under the auspices of the Israel Antiquities Authority, began after work to lay a new sewage pipe revealed an ancient limestone quarry.

The boulders in this quarry are of the desirable melekeh variety local builders treasured. Excavation marks at the site indicate the boulders were hewn into blocks for building. Similar quarries operated during the Late Israelite (Iron) Period (586-1000 BCE), when Israeli and Judean kings reigned, and they remained active until modern times in the area surrounding Jerusalem.

Zissu concludes that the quarries in the Kidron Valley operated until the end of the Hasmonean era, during the first century BCE. This conclusion is based on his discovery of vessel shards, including cooking pots and a pitcher, which masons left in the niches of the quarry's walls. After operations ceased, the quarry area was covered in a thick layer of dust. The dust included building stone and shards from the final days of the Iron Age. These shards are remnants of pitchers, bowls, candleholders, and other ceramic vessels associated with the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E. The dust did not include shards from other periods.

Where did the ceramic vessels found in the dust come from? That question will apparently never be answered, but it is reasonable to conclude that they belonged to residents of a settlement near the quarry: Either in the present-day American Colony neighborhood, south of the quarry, or in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, north of the quarry. Both neighborhoods are situated north of the Temple Mount, on the main road to Nablus, and, in either neighborhood, it is possible to see a man "shaking his hand" (Isaiah 10:32) at the hill.

Remnants of the ancient settlement were not found, and that is one reason for Zissu's caution. He says it is possible that stones used to build in the settlement were dismantled to expand the quarry. An aqueduct, constructed in a style typically found in the area's springs, was unearthed at the Western end of the excavation site, at a depth of about 3.5 meters. The aqueduct predates activities in the quarry, since the quarries run across the aqueduct's trench. The discovery of an aqueduct of this type raises the possibility that a spring once flowed near the site.

Other evidence of an Iron Age settlement at the Kidron Valley is found in Ramban's Cave. Signs that boulders were hewn into blocks of stone were found in the cave as well, and a system of four troughs, cut in the rocks, was found next to the hewn boulders. Water entered these troughs by means of a canal that came from a nearby spring. Zissu assumes that the spring was discovered during quarrying activities at the site, and associates this find with a settlement that was once located here - quite possibly the mysterious, priestly city.