Tel Ramat Rahel is located midway between Jerusalem and Bethlehem (2.5 miles [4 km] from each). Perched on one of the highest peaks in the area south of Jerusalem (2,683.7 ft [818 m] above sea level), it sits just above the biblical Rephaim Valley and “the Valley of the Kings”—historically one of the prosperous agricultural districts in the Jerusalem area. In ancient times, Ramat Rahel was visible all across the Jerusalem landscape and was in direct control of the two main roads in the hill country: the “King’s Highway,” which led from Jerusalem to Beersheba through Bethlehem and Hebron, and the road leading west in the direction of Beth-Shemesh. Interestingly, it could not be seen from the City of David and the Temple Mount since visual contact between the two centers was blocked by the ridge of the High Commissioner’s Residence, which controlled the City of David and the Temple Mount from the south.

The Ancient Name of the Site.

Ramat Rahel is the site’s modern name; the ancient name is unknown. The Arabic names Khirbet Abu Bureik (mentioned on British survey maps) and Khirbet Ṣāliḥ do not preserve the original name of the tell, nor do the names Marj el-Gharbi (the Western Plain) for the western part of the ridge, where the ancient site was located, and Marj ed-Deir (the Plain of the Monastery) and Marj esh-Sharqi (the Eastern Plain) for the eastern part of the same ridge have anything to do with the ancient site. At the foot of the mound, adjacent to Hebron Road, a human-made water cistern with the Arabic name Bir Kadismu was mentioned on nineteenth-century Palestine Exploration Fund maps, preserving the name of the Kathisma Byzantine Church, built at the foot of the tell, where, according to Christian tradition, Mary, mother of Jesus, rested before setting out on the final leg of her journey to Bethlehem.

Based on the site’s location, archaeological finds, and biblical information, it has been suggested that Ramat Rahel, which was a bare hill until the late eighth to early seventh centuries B.C.E., had previously been known by the name Baal-perazim (2 Sam 5:20, also called “Mount Perazim” in Isa 28:21), arguing that somewhere on the hill there may have been a cult place associated with the god Baʾal and that this might explain why the site remained vacant until late in the Iron Age II.

In the wake of an imperial decision to establish a Judahite administrative center close to Jerusalem, the tell and the valleys surrounding it were chosen for development as royal estates. Vineyards and orchards were planted around the hill, giving rise to the new name of the administrative center, Bêt-hakkerem (the House of the Vineyard), that was built on its crest. The new name, suggested by Yohanan Aharoni already in 1956, was a reversal of the previous one. No longer was this an undefended hill, open to the breaching winds. It was now a secured mound, magnificently built, unlike any other structure in Judah, surrounded by a splendid garden and with vineyards and orchards on its slopes.

History of Research.

The vicinity of Ramat Rahel has long been known for its rich archaeological remains. In the late nineteenth century, Konrad Schick investigated robbed burial caves while Charles Clermont-Ganneau, Frederick Jones Bliss, and Archibald Campbell Dickie surveyed the region and recorded dozens of sites, installations, and architectural remains. Theodor Fast was the first to survey some of the caves at the site (1923), and a few years later (1930–1931) Benjamin Maisler (Mazar) surveyed the site and its surroundings and located Greek, Roman, and Byzantine remains. Maisler and Moshe Stekelis conducted also a salvage excavation in a Jewish burial cave from the Second Temple period, some 656.2 ft (200 m) southeast of the hilltop, with 10 Herodian ossuaries and a great deal of pottery, coins, oil lamps, jewelry, and glass vessels. The most interesting find was a volute stone capital (“Proto-Aeolic” or “Proto-Ionic,” now at the Rockefeller Museum, Jerusalem), which was in secondary use.

Between August and November 1954, a salvage excavation was carried out on the summit of Tel Ramat Rahel, at a location designated for the newly founded Kibbutz Ramat Rahel’s water reservoir, under the auspices of the Department of Antiquities and the Israel Exploration Society. The excavation, headed by Aharoni, exposed a 114.8 ft (35 m) long segment of a casemate wall, oriented from east to west, with a central section composed of high-quality ashlars. An ornamental volute stone capital found close to the built section of the casemate wall and an additional capital, together with 69 jar handles with stamp impressions, dating from the late Iron Age to the Hellenistic period, facilitated Aharoni’s understanding of the grandeur and importance of the site as well as the significance of its administrative status. While Aharoni excavated at Ramat Rahel, the Israeli army fortified the summit of the tell above the kibbutz, which was located on the Israeli international border. As soldiers dug bunkers and a communications tunnel on the northeastern slope, they exposed part of a mosaic floor. As a result, Aharoni was able to expose the complete outline of a Byzantine church, together with a street and a row of buildings to the south of the church. Aharoni (1956) suggested identifying it as the Church of the Kathisma.

These findings led Aharoni to initiate organized excavations at Ramat Rahel, and he succeeded in setting up an archaeological expedition under the joint auspices of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Sapienza–Università di Roma. Four large-scale excavation seasons were conducted between 1959 and 1962. Aharoni identified five settlement levels, which he dated from the late Iron Age to the beginning of the Islamic period. The results were published near the end of the excavations (1962 and 1964) in two volumes, defined as preliminary reports. Aharoni planned to later publish a full and final report of the findings of the excavation but soon became involved in other projects, and the full report never materialized.

By early 1963 the archaeological site had fallen into neglect, and it became the backyard of the kibbutz. A brief excavation headed by Gabriel Barkay was carried out in 1984, but a report of this excavation was never published either. Small-scale salvage excavations were conducted in 2000, 2001, and 2002 at various locations on the tell as part of the creation of an archaeological park at the site.

The renewed expeditions began excavating at Ramat Raḥel in 2004 as a joint effort of the Institute of Archeology of Tel Aviv University and the Theological Seminary (Wissenschaftlich-Theologisches Seminar) and the Faculty for Jewish Studies (Hochschule für jüdische Studien) of Heidelberg University, headed by Oded Lipschits, Manfred Oeming, and Yuval Gadot. After a preliminary underground survey (2004), six extensive excavation seasons (2005–2010) were conducted. Aharoni’s areas C2, D3, D4, D5, and D6 were expanded and deepened, and eight new areas (A1, B1, B2, B3, C1, C4, D1, and D2) were opened. In addition, a comprehensive survey of underground spaces, a survey of agricultural installations in the immediate vicinity, and a comprehensive study of the agricultural terraces on the slopes of the mound were conducted. The chronological and stratigraphic picture exposed by the excavations of the renewed expeditions includes nine separate phases of construction and development and additional phases of destruction and desolation.

Ramat Rahel Construction Phases

Aharoni’s Date
Construction phase stratum Period From Until
Building phase 1: Royal administrative center under imperial hegemony Vb Iron Age II End of eighth or beginning of seventh century B.C.E. Second half of seventh century B.C.E.
Building phase 2: Royal administrative center under imperial hegemony, enclosed by a garden Va Iron Age II–Persian period Second half of the seventh century B.C.E. End of fourth century B.C.E.
Building phase 3: Expanding construction Persian period End of sixth or beginning of fifth century B.C.E.
Destruction and robbery of the walls
Building phase 4: Imperial administrative center? IVb Hellenistic period Second century B.C.E. Second century B.C.E.
Building phase 5: Village IVa Late Hellenistic–Herodian period End of second or beginning of first century C.E. First century C.E. (Great Revolt)
Destruction (?)
Building phase 6: Village III Roman period Middle of second century C.E. (?) Uninterrupted continuation to construction phase 8
Building phase 7: Village IIb Early Byzantine period Fifth century C.E.
Building phase 8: Village. Construction of the church IIa Late Byzantine–Ummayad period Sixth century C.E. Middle of ninth century C.E.
Building phase 9: Farm with agricultural installations I Abbasid period Ninth century C.E. Eleventh century C.E.
Agricultural zone with installations Fatimid–Othman period Twelfth century C.E. Nineteenth century C.E.
Military fortifications and communication trenches 1947/1948, 1954 1967

First Building Phase (Late Eighth–Seventh Centuries B.C.E.).

Prior to the late eighth century B.C.E., the tell was rocky and desolate, with no evidence of human habitation. The earliest building phase at Ramat Rahel began in the late eighth or early seventh century B.C.E. These structures were later either incorporated into structures of the following phase or dismantled to their foundations; hence, it is difficult to understand the architectural plan of this phase. The main structure that was identified is the “Western Tower,” which was constructed using building techniques common in Judah during the Iron Age. In its plan and building method, the tower belongs to the array of fortresses built on high hills around Jerusalem in the late Iron Age.

The other main architectural find from the early phase, probably part of a large building, is a long section of a wall that was excavated in the southeastern side of the site, buried beneath a thick, white floor from the second building phase. Unique architectural features from this early phase are the volute capitals (the so-called Proto-Aeolic capitals), relief in the line of small stone columns, a series of small carved stone columns with tiny palmette capitals that had been part of a window balustrade (similar to those that appear in the reliefs known as “the woman in the window”), and pyramid-shaped stones (crenellations). All these items probably belonged to the same architectural assemblage, and they continued into the second building phase. There is no other site in Judah with so many one-of-a-kind and high-quality architectural items.

The fill beneath the second-phase floors yielded 70 jar handles with LMLK and “private” stamp impressions; this is about one-third of the 200 LMLK jar handles unearthed at Ramat Rahel. These stamp impressions include representations of all the known varieties and therefore cover the entire chronological span of the administrative system of which they were part. Similar to the chronological horizon of the stamp impressions, the pottery vessels and other finds from the fills and pits beneath the second-phase floors should also be dated to the seventh century and only a few to the late eighth century B.C.E. The many stamp impressions, as well as the ceramic assemblage with its “palatial” characteristics, confirm that even in the early phase the site served as an administrative and governmental center.

Second Building Phase (Late Seventh–End of Fourth Century B.C.E.).

To implement the comprehensive planning concept of the second building phase, dated to the second half or even the last quarter of the seventh century B.C.E., significant logistical and operational groundwork was required. The large quantity of material extracted from the quarrying of the natural hill and the material removed in the creation of the garden sunk into the bedrock on the western side were intended for use as fill and taken and poured over the eastern slope. This fill created a large level base upon which the palace units and courtyards were constructed. As a result, the edifice was constructed in an east-to-west orientation despite its location on a hill that faced southeast–northwest. This indicates that this complex was built according to a predetermined architectural plan that intentionally disregarded the area’s topography.

The tower fortress of the first phase was integrated into the new, enlarged plan. At the time of the construction of the sunken garden, the fortress was isolated on three sides—south, west, and north—and stood upon a prominent rock cube projecting westward out of the palace complex.

The garden extended around the western tower on its northern, western, and southern sides, on a lowered, leveled surface covering 1.5 acres (0.6 ha, 6 dunams), possibly more. In creating the sunken garden the planners removed the nari rock from the natural surface and created a leveled and unified rock surface. This surface was covered by a 17.7 inch (45 cm) deep layer of amalgamated brown garden soil, free of stones and sherds, that was artificially placed upon the leveled limestone surface. Other features incorporated into the flattened area related to water: at least three and possibly four plastered pools with three rock-cut and roofed tunnels, two exceptionally well-built drains, channels, gutters, and a large underground water reservoir.

According to Aharoni, a rectangular complex (“the palace”) that was constructed at the top of the mound was surrounded by casemate walls on its northern, eastern, and southern sides and had a crushed limestone courtyard in the center. The renewed excavations demonstrated that the fortress was wider on the eastern and southern sides and uncovered remains of an approximately 4,843.8 ft2 (450 m2) eastern courtyard, built on a fill of ground chalk combined with a large quantity of pottery sherds. This was in addition to the 6,458.3 ft2 (600 m2) inner courtyard, already exposed by Aharoni, which was situated at the heart of the palace.

South of the central courtyard the remains of a large building were uncovered and what Aharoni described as the “southern casemate wall.” The construction south of the central courtyard should be considered as part of this building and not part of the fortification wall at the edge of the edifice. Aharoni correctly interpreted the remains of walls found both west and north of the courtyard as parts of official buildings of the palace that had stood between the courtyard and the northern casemate wall and between the courtyard and the western tower that sits on the summit. In the center of the eastern side of the central courtyard the entrance gate to the palace had stood; it was built from ashlar stones, with a floor made of ground chalk. This floor continued on to the eastern courtyard; it connected the inner and outer courtyards.

The time frame in which the palace and the garden of the second building phase existed, from its construction until it went out of use, can be determined from the pottery and other finds that were discovered beneath the floors of the rooms, especially within the fill beneath the courtyards. There is an abundance of pottery sherds, figurines, and jar handles with stamp impressions, most of them from assemblages common to the late eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E. However, the absence of rosette stamp impressions from below the floors of the rooms and in the fill under the courtyard is particularly obvious and significant. These stamp impressions came into circulation no earlier than the last third of the seventh century B.C.E. and were discovered only above the floor. This fact narrows the time frame for the second building phase and determines that construction began no later than the 630s B.C.E.

The excavators of the renewed excavations concluded that the palace of the second building phase was not destroyed in the late Iron Age and probably continued to function during the sixth century B.C.E. A pottery assemblage that was excavated in a discard pit that dates mostly to the sixth century B.C.E. can attest to the continued existence of the site. This huge pit yielded hundreds of broken pottery vessels; 10 jars were restored, some of them bearing stamp impressions of the early YHWD types and some with sixth-century B.C.E. “private” stamp impressions together with lion stamp impressions on body sherds. This assemblage stands as a clear marker for sixth-century B.C.E. pottery. Especially remarkable is the resemblance of the lion and early YHWD storage jars and their predecessors, rosette storage jars. The excavators argued that the local pottery assemblages dating to the end of the Iron Age and to the Persian period exhibit continuity and attest to the existence of an unbroken tradition of pottery production in Judah from the end of the seventh to the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E.

Third Building Phase: The Persian Period.

The profusion of artifacts found at Ramat Rahel shows a significant presence at the beginning of the Second Temple period. Of special importance are the 365 YHWD stamp impressions of the Persian and Hellenistic periods (out of a total of about 640 known to date). This is a clear indication that during the Persian and early Hellenistic periods the palace at Ramat Rahel was used in an administrative/governmental capacity for collecting wine and oil jars in Judah, probably as a levy.

The renewed excavations exposed the remains of a large, sturdy building, shedding new light on Persian-period Ramat Rahel. Located on the northwestern side of the second-phase palace complex, it was a rectangular structure that covered an area of about 6,458.3 ft2 (600 m2, about 65.6 by 98.4 ft [20 by 30 m]) and served as a northward expansion of the fortress tower extending west of the line of the palace. The brown soil of the garden was removed, and foundation trenches were dug into the flattened chalk rock. The trenches were sunk 8.2 to 9.8 ft (2.5–3 m) deep, and their average width was about 8.2 ft (2.5 m). Inside the foundation trenches, strong walls of the structure were built, first as supporting walls against the inner rock face of the foundation trench and then as a freestanding superstructure. These walls were built in a unique building technique that could be called “half-casting,” and a plastered water channel, 11.8 inches (30 cm) wide, reaching a maximum depth of 6.6 ft (2 m), was built against and surrounding the walls.

The building was dismantled to its foundations, and very little of it has survived. Only a section of the floor close to the northeast corner has been uncovered. This floor is distinctive in its construction; it is built on a thick coating of up to 5.9 inches (15 cm) of gray cement over an infrastructure of thick-cut nari slabs. Evidence of other construction with the same characteristics is found elsewhere at the site, but in most cases these are fragmented sections or remains of dismantled buildings. In one of these, in the southern part of the garden, a layer of destruction debris was exposed that had sealed a pottery assemblage well dated to the late Persian period (fourth century B.C.E.).

The garden that surrounded the palace continued to exist during the Persian period and went out of use in the third century B.C.E. Pollen research conducted at the site enabled a first attempt at answering the riddle of what flora had grown in the garden and the function it had served when two plaster phases from pool number 2, located in the garden, were sampled for pollen analysis. These plaster layers are part of the later phases of the pool and the garden, probably dated to the Persian period. The working hypothesis was that if the plaster on the walls of the pool had been renewed when the garden plants were in bloom, the wet plaster’s surface would have trapped pollen grains. Therefore, the outer part of each of the two plaster phases was analyzed. The results were that, besides the pollen of native Mediterranean maquis/forest taxa, the outer plaster phase also included the pollen of fruit trees and ornamentals, which had certainly been planted specifically for aesthetic and symbolic reasons. The most surprising fossil pollen find was the citron (etrog in Hebrew, a word with a Persian precursor). This tree apparently arrived in the area from India via Persia and is the earliest botanical evidence of its presence in the southern Levant. Also, the Persian walnut originated in northern Iran, northeastern Turkey, and the Caucasus; and its Hebrew name, égôz, is also a word with a Persian precursor. Other imported trees identified in the pollen assemblages of Ramat Rahel are cedar of Lebanon and birch. The pollen evidence of these exotic trees in the palatial garden suggests that they were brought by the ruling Persian authorities from remote parts of the empire as a royal extravagance.

The presence of local garden plants like myrtle, grapevine, and the common fig completes the picture of the garden. Willow and poplar, which were also identified, are common to riverbank vegetation and therefore probably required irrigation; and to these one can add the presence of pollen belonging to the water lily. All these flora species and their origin point to the fact that the garden was in bloom during the Persian period. Its imported trees from far-off lands, aromatic plants, and impressive fruit trees, together with its aesthetic architectural features, symbolized the power and affluence of the Persian-period rulers. It seems that with this combination of magnificent edifice and luxurious garden during the Persian period Ramat Rahel was not any more just an administrative center but served as the edifice of the imperial governor in the province, side by side with Jerusalem, which renewed its status as the lone cultic site, the location of the Temple, and the seat of the priests.

Ruin and Reconstruction during the Late Hellenistic and Early Roman Periods.

Following the end of the Persian period, Ramat Rahel lost its prominence and some of the walls of its complex were robbed. Its status during the early Hellenistic period is cloaked in obscurity, but it seems to have regained its standing as an administrative center at the beginning of the second century B.C.E. This is mainly evidenced by the distribution of yehud-stamped handles. Of 144 YHWD stamp impressions dated to the second century B.C.E., 33 were found at Ramat Rahel (23 percent). Of 95 YRŠLM stamp impressions dated to the middle of the second century B.C.E., 31 were found at Ramat Rahel (33 percent). Remains of the citadel from this period were located on the eastern edge of the site, and it was probably a fortifying wall that was built upon the eastern wall of the former complex. The plan and exact location of this citadel are, however, not clear.

A drastic change in the history of Ramat Rahel occurred during the late Hellenistic period, probably in the second half of the second century B.C.E., when the fortified edifice was completely obliterated. Its walls, especially those on the western side, were robbed and the stones removed from the foundation trenches that had been cut into the bedrock. The open trenches that remained were filled with earth mixed with stones of various sizes, including broken architectural items unique to the Iron Age, such as fragments of volute capitals and crenellations. The latest pottery sherds, coins, stamp impressions, and other artifacts from inside the fill date to the late Hellenistic period. The same situation with the same finds was also discovered to the north of the tower. Refuse and landfill were also found above the sunken garden south of the tower. The fill is approximately 6.6 ft (2 m) deep, and it leveled the hill anew, obliterating the entire area that had been artificially lowered. This yielded a profusion of sherds, architectural elements, coins, and stamp impressions on jar handles; and here, too, the latest items can be dated to no later than the late Hellenistic period.

In none of the places that were covered with this thick fill was there any evidence that could attest to construction work being carried out on the fill—clear evidence that these were not construction fills intended for use as base platforms but must have served a different function. The thoroughness with which the stones were excised from the foundation channels, the furnaces constructed next to the water pool in the southern section of the garden, and the entire area covered over with fill suggest that it was an intentional act of annihilation carried out in order to eradicate the ancient garden and the buildings at the western front of the site. Demolishing the royal complex in this way was probably meant to obliterate from the landscape, and consequently the social memory, any reminder of the base that had for centuries served as the administrative center of imperial rule in Judea.

The character of the settlement that developed in the area during the late Hellenistic and the early Roman periods (late second–first centuries B.C.E. and during the first century C.E. to the Great Revolt) can only be understood from its rock-cut installations since in most cases the walls of the buildings were dismantled or robbed for secondary use during the late Roman and Byzantine periods. Such installations include at least 13 ritual baths and two columbaria. The pottery vessels and the many coins unearthed all over the site demonstrate that it became a Jewish settlement that existed up until the Great Revolt.

In one of the two columbarium caves discovered on the southern side of the site, a horde of 15 Tyrian shekels was exposed in one of the nesting compartments carved into the wall, just above the floor of the main hall. The treasure was found inside a small ceramic cooking pot, and the coins represent a single collection: all were minted in Tyre and date from 38/37 to 11/10 B.C.E. The uniformity of the coins shows that the horde represents a collection from the period of placement, and if the coins were hidden in the niche when the columbarium was no longer used for raising pigeons, it can serve as the latest possible date for the cessation of its use. After that time the columbarium became a refuse pit into which glass-production waste, jar fragments, and other forms of waste were thrown until the cave was completely filled.

The Late Roman, Byzantine, and Umayyad Periods.

As a direct result of the suppression of the Judean rebellion and the destruction of Jerusalem, Ramat Rahel, like other villages in the Jerusalem area, ceased to exist. The numismatic evidence clearly shows the lack of Judean coins later than year two of the rebellion. Furthermore, there is a very pronounced lack of evidence that can substantiate the existence of a settlement or any other Judean activity at the site during the period between the two Judean revolts.

Following the Great Revolt, the ethnicity of the Ramat Rahel population changed. The site was abandoned for a short period and then reoccupied as a Roman village. A Roman country villa (of the kind known as villa rustica), equipped with a typical bathhouse, was built during the second half of the second century or in the early third century C.E. as part of a new settlement model that developed, at least in the area south of Jerusalem, and was based on an array of private estates. It seems reasonable to assume that all these sites were the private estates of the high officials of provincial rule or Roman veterans who had close connections to the military units that were camped in the area.

From this period and up to the Umayyad period (eighth century C.E.) an organic development can be detected in various areas of local community life. Over a long period of time no significant changes occurred in the nature of the settlement, yet it is still possible to track the physical expression of the changes that took place in accordance with the spatial–functional division. Thus, for example, in some cases agricultural production facilities survived and continued to function, with some modifications, from the Roman period through the Umayyad period.

The process of Christianization of the Roman Empire had a profound effect on Ramat Rahel, and this was expressed in the appearance of the church within the plan of the existing settlement. The church had already been uncovered in 1954, during Aharoni’s salvage excavations in the northeastern sector of the site, together with a structure identified as a monastery on the other side of a stone alley. The church, it appeared, had been “planted” on the northeastern outskirts of the settled area, on top of earlier industrial facilities and dwellings. It was a simple rural church, probably meant to serve the local population. The apse on the east was made of finely cut ashlar stones with remains of a fresco that was painted over the inner side. The pottery and coins unearthed from beneath the foundations confirm that the church was built during the sixth, possibly the seventh, century C.E., much later than the Kathisma Church, just a few hundred meters southwest of the summit of the tell, on the third mile of the main road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, just as the location of the Kathisma is described in the New Testament.



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Oded Lipschits