• Ward Sanford

The Tower of David: The Site of Herod’s Palace?

The Tower of David as seen from the Imperial Hotel balcony, May 2019.

The Tower of David is a popular tourist destination in the Old City of Jerusalem. But it is misnamed. It has nothing to do with King David, nor a single tower. But it may be the site where Herod’s Palace stood in the first century. The Tower of David is actually a complex of buildings that comprise a fortress, or citadel, brought to its present day form to defend the western gate of the city mostly by Egyptian and Ottoman rulers in the 15th and 16th centuries. Recent excavations in the grounds of this Citadel (see photo below) reveal the outer city wall at the time of Herod the Great.

Interior of the Citadel in the Old City of Jerusalem.

It seems this site, at the western gate of the city, was a popular building location for many centuries. During the Crusader period the King’s palace was reported to have been here. This site is the high point of the city and makes a natural look out and defensive location. Herod has his palace built here in the first century BCE. It was not his only palace in Judea, so it was only his residence while visiting Jerusalem. Josephus had much to say about the details of Herod’s palace:

The largeness also of the stones was wonderful; for they were not made of common small stones, nor of such large ones only as men could carry, but they were of white marble, cut out of the rock; each stone was twenty cubits in length, and ten in breadth, and five in depth. They were so exactly united to one another, that each tower looked like one entire rock of stone, so growing naturally, and afterward cut by the hand of the artificers into their present shape and corners; so little, or not at all, did their joints or connection appear low as these towers were themselves on the north side of the wall, the king had a palace inwardly thereto adjoined, which exceeds all my ability to describe it; for it was so very curious as to want no cost nor skill in its construction, but was entirely walled about to the height of thirty cubits, and was adorned with towers at equal distances, and with large bed-chambers, that would contain beds for a hundred guests a-piece, in which the variety of the stones is not to be expressed; for a large quantity of those that were rare of that kind was collected together. Their roofs were also wonderful, both for the length of the beams, and the splendor of their ornaments. The number of the rooms was also very great, and the variety of the figures that were about them was prodigious; their furniture was complete, and the greatest part of the vessels that were put in them was of silver and gold. There were besides many porticoes, one beyond another, round about, and in each of those porticoes curious pillars; yet were all the courts that were exposed to the air everywhere green. There were, moreover, several groves of trees, and long walks through them, with deep canals, and cisterns, that in several parts were filled with brazen statues, through which the water ran out. There were withal many dove-courts of tame pigeons about the canals. But indeed it is not possible to give a complete description of these palaces; and the very remembrance of them is a torment to one, as putting one in mind what vastly rich buildings that fire which was kindled by the robbers hath consumed; for these were not burnt by the Romans, but by these internal plotters, as we have already related, in the beginning of their rebellion. That fire began at the tower of Antonia, and went on to the palaces, and consumed the upper parts of the three towers themselves.

Flavius Josephus, The War of the Jews: 5:174-183.

Herod spared no expenses in his building projects, and that included this palace. Those expenses included three impressive towers built to defend the palace at the west entrance to the city. Although the Palace was built on the hill overlooking the Hinnom Valley, the adjacent three towers made any attacker really avoid approaching the city from this direction. Archers atop such towers could inflict damage on soldiers at a great distance. In the photo below you can see the Tower of David on the hill to the left and the valley to the right of it. In the next blog I will discuss these three towers that Herod had built here.

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