Mt Zion 2013: Let the Digging Begin!

Today we officially began our 2013 excavation season at the Mt Zion site just outside Zion Gate in Jerusalem. We arrived yesterday and began cleaning the site early this morning, jet-lagged but elated to be part of such a historic project. We have a record number of participants for our four week effort, averaging between 40-60 per week, with a contingent of 22 UNC Charlotte students and three faculty. Dr. Diane Zablotsky, director of the Levine Scholars program is co-directing our UNC Charlotte Education Abroad program with me and Prof. Geoff Love of the College of Art and Architecture is here the first week, thanks to Ken Lambla’s support, to do filming and photography of the site in order to produce 3-D and digital models for future planning.

Dr. Shimon Gibson addressing our group. Dr. Craig Evans listens on.

Cleaning the site Day 1 with the Mt of Olives in the background

Anciently our site was directly in front of the 11th century Ayyubid Gate on the southern side of the Old City of Jerusalem. In the Byzantine period, the area was situated at the southern end of the Cardo Maximus, which was a grand columned street. Just a few hundred yards to the north Justinian, in the mid 6th century, built the magnificent Nea Church to honor Mary, mother of Jesus. His intention was to provide a basilica on Mt Zion that could match the holiness of the Church of the Holy Sepurchre and the Hagia Sion (where the Dormition Abby is today). The crest of Mount Zion was a focus for the building of houses in the Early Islamic Period. The Crusaders and the Ayyubids built their fortifications across the crest of the hill, and in the early 13th century, the local Sultan destroyed the gate-tower, which was located in the area of our excavation. One can see the Nea Church clearly marked on the Byzantine Madaba map, here outlined in red, and one can see two major buildings just beyond the church, to the south, at the end of the Cardo, which would be on our site.

The present 16th century Turkish Walls, which largely trace the outline of the Old City from Crusader times, were severely truncated in size on the south due to the massive slaughter of Jews and Muslims by the Crusaders in the sack of Jerusalem in 1099.1

As I have explained in previous posts, this particular site, initially explored by Magen Broshi in the 1970s, was at the very center of Herodian Jerusalem. This Oxford map has the present day Old City walls that go back to Crusader/Ottoman times shaded in reddish brown with our dig site marked with a red X.  Notice the  vastly expanded southern wall of the city going fall into the Hinnom Valley with the Pool of Siloam and the traditional Gate of the Essenes marking the southwest and southeast corners respectively. Truly our dig site is “Center City” of ancient Jerusalem in the time of Hillel, Jesus, and the Herodian rulers.


In the year 2000 Shimon Gibson, to whom Broshi had turned over publication work for the whole of Mt Zion, asked me to join him in renewing the Mt Zion excavations in the Ayyubid Gate area under the academic sponsorship of UNC Charlotte. We were able to obtain a license from the IAA and complete an initial cleaning and survey that year. Unfortunately, due to the 1st Intafada, were were not able to return until 2005 but in 2006-2009 we were able to conduct full seasons.2 One of our most spectacular finds was a cryptically inscribed stone vessel that made major headlines in 2009, see here. In 2010-2011 we halted digging in order to catch up on the huge amount of materials that needed processing and studying for preliminary publication and to raise the funds needed to carry out such a dig in an urban area.3 I will be writing reports every few days on this blog for the next month letting readers known what we have found in our excavations. The site is incredibly complex with Islamic, Byzantine, and Roman/Herodian ruins, including the basement area of a 2nd Temple period “mansion” that we assume, from records of pilgrims regarding the location of the “House of Caiaphus,” and what we have found at the site, was part of a priestly residential area in the time of Jesus, overlooking the Temple Mount, but destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.

Area 1: Significantly preserved Islamic and Byzantine structures, mosaic floors


Area 2. Well preserved arched 2nd Temple period mikvah in basement of a residence with significant walls intact


Double circular ovens in lower level of residence with impressively preserved 2nd Temple walls


Area 3: Modern debris and fill from 1970s to be removed to reach archaeological layers

You can view more photos from today at my Facebook page here.


  1. “The capture of Jerusalem by the Crusaders in 1099 marked an abrupt end to four and a half centuries of Muslim rule. The city would be back in Muslim hands within a century, but in a short period of time, Christian rule would dramatically reshape the city. The first priority was to embellish existing churches and to rededicate Islamic buildings to other uses. The Augustinian monastic order converted the Dome of the Rock into a church and Baldwin I of Edessa (reg. 1101 – 1118), the first monarch of the short-lived Christian kingdom, turned al-Aqsa Mosque into his palace. Outside of the sacred precinct, the urban-planning mandate was to turn a provincial Muslim city into one of the grand capitals of Christendom.

    Regenerating the city required demographic as well as structural interventions. The genocidal sacking of the city in 1099 had purged the city of its Muslims and Jews, but also scared off local Christians, such that the city was entirely depopulated. Few Crusaders stayed in the city after the conquest, and financial contributions to the restoration effort were no longer forthcoming after the expensive First Crusade. To survive, the city invested heavily in the nascent “pilgrimage industry” and was successful in attracting Christian pilgrims from throughout Europe.

    Muslims retook Jerusalem in 1188, under the Kurdish general Saladin who founded the Ayubbid dynasty in 1174. Saladin (reg. 1174 – 1193) and Richard I of England (reg. 1189 – 1199) enjoyed a chivalrous mutual respect that led to a treaty whereby Jerusalem would remain a Muslim city in which Christian pilgrims would be welcome, but taxed. Saladin’s nephew Malik al-Mu’azzam was responsible for most urban improvements during the Ayubbid period. His principal contribution was the rebuilding of the city’s walls. But as the fifth Crusade was gathering strength in Egypt around 1219, al Mu’azzam destroyed the city’s fortifications so that if it again fell to the Europeans, as predicted, they would not be able to hold it for long.

    In the early thirteenth century, the city was indeed recaptured by the Crusaders. But after ten years, Turkish invaders put a final end to Christian rule of Jerusalem. The Mamluks, a powerful caste of Muslim soldiers, seized power for themselves and ruled Egypt and Syria, including Jerusalem, until the dawning of the Ottoman Empire. The Mamluk sultans left Jerusalem much of its architectural legacy: over sixty extant monuments and a dramatic restoration of the Haram, which included installing an arcaded portico in the interior of the west wall. The largest Mamluk architectural contribution to the urban fabric is the Suq al-Qattinin, a vast mixed-use complex with more than fifty shops, two bath houses and apartments on the upper stories.

    The city was again destroyed by the Mongols in 1244. Egyptian Mamluks managed to stave the Mongol invasion off in 1260, but the invaders razed the city once more later that same year. The sacking of Jerusalem in 1260 left fewer than 2000 inhabitants in the city. The city would remain lawless, receiving little urban investment until the Ottoman Empire absorbed the city in 1517.

    Jerusalem’s built environment benefited from Ottoman largesse, specifically that of Suleiman the Magnificent (reg. 1520 – 1566), who rebuilt the city’s walls – with a total of eleven gates – and the water system. Until 1887, each gate was closed before sunset and opened at sunrise. Growth in the city’s population and urban condition corresponded to the shifting fortunes of the Empire. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Jerusalem’s population numbered fewer than 10,000. Rapid expansion did occur when Ottomans regained Jerusalem after a brief period of Egyptian rule in 1841. The second era of Ottoman rule coincided with Tanzimat reforms throughout the Empire. The Porte in Istanbul made Jerusalem the capital of a sanjak (province) that extended from the Sinai peninsula to the Esdraelon Plain, the northern border of Ancient Samaria. Consulates and embassies opened. Roads were widened and infrastructure upgraded. Improved service delivery and governance encouraged migration to the new seat of provincial power. Significant neighborhoods began to appear outside the original city limits. But the First World War sapped the city’s – and the Empire’s – prosperity, and on December 9th, 1917, the city surrendered to the British.” 

  2. You can full descriptions of the finds from those years as well as a gallery of photos from each season at the the web site 

  3. If you would like to contribute please follow the “Give” link here and designate “Friends of Mt Zion” as your choice