Art and Archaeology:
The Preservation of the Site

The Site

Seated high above the modern city of Jerusalem is the ancient site of Ramat Rahel. Over the last fifty years many have realized that this seemingly natural hill holds within it many secrets that only the archaeological spade can reveal. Excavation carried out at this hill had uncovered the story of a palatial center surrounded by a garden and built at the time of the kings of Judah and during the time the return from exile. Another story embedded within its soil relates to a Jewish community that lived here during the days of the Second Temple until its destruction in the great rebellion (ca. 70 CE). Last but not least, the site reveals the story of a Christian monastery and a church built half way between the two holy cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. All of these stories were however forgotten. If it were not for the work of hundreds of people from all over the world who voluntarily gave of their time and money to unearth these stories, we would never have known them. The more material evidence we recover, the more we realize that there are still many secrets awaiting us: Who built the palace and why? What did the garden look like? From where did they collect water to water the garden and did they have a secret reservoir? These questions and many others like them can only be answered by uncovering more evidence from the site. Read more about Ramat Rahel and join us in our quest to explain these ancient secrets.

What is Ramat Rahel?
The site of Ramat Rahel is located within the international 1947–48 border of Israel, in the western part of Kibbutz Ramat Rahel, on a hilltop (818 m above sea level), about midway between the Old City of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. This site was inhabited since the last century of the kingdom of Judah (7th century BCE) until the early Muslim reign in Palestine (10th century CE).

Previous excavations at the site unearthed a large scale citadel with a royal palace from the time of the last kings of Judah. It was probably first built by King Hezekiah (2 Kings 18–20). The citadel is surrounded with a large, impressive casemate wall, which is typical of the ancient Israelite monarchies. Inside this wall, a magnificent palace was unearthed. This is the only royal palace ever found from the kingdom of Judah. Proto-Aeolic capitals, window balustrades, and other finds reveal the luxury of this royal residence. Not only does this site boast the only known Judaean palace, it also has a special water system that was used to fructify beautiful royal gardens. This palace with its lush greenery is sensational! Rain water collected from roof tops were stored in reservoirs and then used to water gardens planted around the royal edifice at the site. If our reconstruction has merit, this would mark the first time royal gardens dating to the Iron Age and Persian period have been found in Israel. We have also exposed the remains of a large fortified structure, probably belonging to the royal palace and its gardens. These areas require further excavations in the years ahead.

This evidence raises several questions. While we can explain the strategic reason for having a citadel in Ramat Rahel—located above Jerusalem and guarding the main southern and western entrances to the ancient capital—we face challenges explaining the location of a royal palace at this site. Who needed such a magnificent palace just outside the official capital and ancient sacred center of Jerusalem? Did it really belong to the last Judean kings of the house of David? Or perhaps it was the local seat of the successive empires ruling the ancient Near East—Assyria, Babylonia and Persia?

One thing is quite sure: Ramat Rahel was one of the most important administrative centers in ancient Judah. A large number of seal impressions dated to the Iron Age, Persian and Hellenistic periods reveal administrative activity of tax collection. We have found about 200 lmlk (means: "belonging to the king") seal impressions, dated to the time of king Hezekiah; dozens of rosette seal impressions dated to the time of King Josiah (2 Kings 22–23); and 250 yehud seal impressions dated to the Persian period (after the Second Temple was rebuilt in Jerusalem and Judah became the province of "Yehud" within the Persian Empire). We have also found yrslm ("Jerusalem") seal impressions with the five pointed star. They date to the Hellenistic period, when the Ptolemaic and the Seleucid kings ruled Palestine.

All this proves beyond adoubt that Ramat Rahel served not only as an impressive royal citadel, but that it was also an important administrative center, probably of the foreign empires that ruled over Judah from the 7th century to the 2nd century BCE. Maybe this was a contributing factor in the decision of the Jewish dynasty of the Maccabees to destroy the beautiful gardens, when they seized the throne of Jerusalem in the middle of the 2nd century BCE. When the the Hasmonean-Maccabean dynasty rebelled against the Seleucid (Greek) regime in Judah and won several major battles, the character of Ramat Rahel changed from being a royal or administrative center. During the Hasmonean period, the royal gardens were destroyed and the water was used to nourish about 20 Jewish ritual baths (Mikvaot)! Furthermore, many columbaria were built to breed sacrificial doves that Jewish pilgrims could purchase on their way to Jerusalem. Ramat Rahel turned into a Jewish religious place—a way station on the route to Jerusalem where Jews could take ritual baths and prepare for their entry into the holy city of Jerusalem. Today, this site, with a beautiful hotel occupying some of its grounds, still functions as a respite for a variety of religious travelers visiting Jerusalem.

During the Byzantine period (4th–7th centuries C.E.), the Jerusalem vicinity became heavily populated by Christians and by their churches. One of the most important churches was the Kathisma. It was built where the Virgin Mary, according to tradition, rested on her way to give birth in Bethlehem. The Kathisma, located just down slope from Ramat Rahel, is octagonal in shape with a rock at its center. Some scholars believe that this church inspired the construction of the golden Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount, one of the most sacred Muslim centers. On the Ramat Rahel hill itself, archaeological excavations exposed a Byzantine village dated to the 5th–7th centuries C.E. This village was probably a monastic village inhabited with early Christian monks. Here we have found rooms and halls, a cemetery, and significantly another Byzantine church located at the northeast corner of the upper hill at Ramat Rahel, at the same place where the citadel of the Judean monarch once stood! The church has beautiful mosaics and a special apse facing ancient Jerusalem. In this church we have found stone crosses and even a bronze chain. Thus, Ramat Rahel turned not only from an administrative political center into a Jewish religious way-station, but also from a Jewish religious site into a Christian center.

In addition to all of this, we have found at Ramat Rahel a roman villa and a bathhouse, which probably belonged to the Roman 10th legion that occupied Jerusalem at the year 70 C.E. after the great Jewish Rebellion. Closely related to this structure is a large wine production center, with wine presses and agricultural installations dating from the Roman to early Muslim periods.