Ancient City of David roof tiles tell the story of Hannukah


Ancient City of David roof tiles tell the story of Hannukah

The earliest evidence to date for the use of ceramic roof tiles in the Land of Israel was discovered in the City of David National Park surrounding the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. Sixteen Hellenistic-period roof tile fragments dating from the 2nd century BCE were found in archaeological excavations conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and Tel-Aviv University at the Giv‘ati Parking Lot Excavations which are funded by the City of David Foundation.

The researchers noted, “This find is a tangible connection with the story of Hanukkah.” Until now, little evidence of the Greek Seleucid presence has been discovered in Jerusalem. 

Ceramic roofing tiles were invented in Greece as early as the 7th Century BCE, their durability and resistance to water, specifically rainwater and precipitation, gained them a positive reputation and ensured their rapid adoption in neighboring areas. However, 500 years went by until they began to appear in the material culture of the Land of Israel. In fact, it is believed that the person who brought them to Israel was none other than Antiochus IV Epiphanes – known to all of us from the story of Hanukkah. 

“The representatives of the Seleucid King, Antiochus IV, who reigned over vast areas from Syria to Persia, brought the knowledge and tradition of constructing tiled roofs from Seleucid-controlled Syria,” say the researchers.

Rooftile fragments discovered at the Giv‘ati Parking Lot Excavation. Photo by Eliyahu Yannai, City of David National Park.

According to the story in the book of the Maccabees, in 168 BCE, Antiochus IV undertook a military expedition to Jerusalem, which led to the outbreak of the renowned Maccabean Revolt. In order to establish his control of the city, Antiochus constructed a mighty fortress that was known as the “Acra.”

The Greek soldiers residing in the fortress continued to rule the city after the Maccabean cleansing of the Jerusalem Temple, and according to the descriptions in the books of the Maccabees and in the later writings of Flavius Josephus, the fortress embittered the lives of the Jewish residents in the city and the Temple. Despite several descriptions of the fortress in the Jewish and external literary sources, its exact location within the city remains a puzzle debated by scholars to this day.

According to the researchers, Dr. Yiftah Shalev and Dr. Filip Vukosavović from the IAA, and Prof. Yuval Gadot from Tel-Aviv University: “It is surprising how such a small discovery can open a tiny window into a vast world of research.” 

According to Dr. Ayala Zilberstein of the Israel Antiquities Authority and Tel-Aviv University, “The architectural remains uncovered over recent years have reopened the debate, and they actually strengthen the identification of the fortress on the City of David Hill. The discovery of the roof tiles constitutes additional evidence and further reinforcement from a different direction, for the identification of the Hellenistic presence in the City of David, characterized by foreign construction traditions. Further research on many more tiles that were discovered in the previous archaeological expedition directed by Dr. Doron Ben-Ami and Dr. Yanna Tchekhanovets of the Israel Antiquities Authority, may shed more light on this issue.”

“Tiles were very rare in our region during this period, and they were alien to local construction traditions, indicating that the technique of using tiles to roof parts of a tower or a structure inside that famous fortress was brought from Greek-controlled areas by foreign rulers.”

Giv‘ati Parking Lot Excavations at the City of David. Photo by Kobi Harati, City of David

According to Dr. Filip Vukosavović of the Israel Antiquities Authority: “Until now, we had little material evidence for the presence of the Seleucid Greeks in Jerusalem. The new tiles discovered in the City of David provide tangible remains of the Seleucid Greek presence in the region, linking us with the story of Hanukkah. It’s very exciting to encounter the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV ‘face-to-face’, almost 2,200 years after the events of Hanukkah.”

Dr. Vukosavović explains, “The climate and the relatively low precipitation in Israel, as well as other factors, do not justify the use of tiles for roofing, yet Antiochus still chose to make use of these roof tiles, probably for cultural reasons and to make a statement, by introducing Greek monumental material culture in the country at a short distance from the Jewish Temple. It is therefore probably not incidental that with the collapse of Seleucid rule and the ascent of the Hasmoneans, roofing tiles disappear from Jerusalem, until the arrival of the new Roman conquerors.”

According to Eli Escusido, Director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “It is interesting to discover that roof tiles have been a standard roofing component throughout the world, although their design, shape, and size have evolved over the centuries; it’s amazing how such an everyday item can teach us so much.”

The discovery will be exhibited to the public for the first time on Monday 11th December 2023, the Fifth Night of Hannukah, at the Israel Antiquities Authority Conference “In Those Days At this Time–The Hasmoneans are Coming”. It will take place between 15:00–18:00 at the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein National Campus for the Archaeology of Israel. The free event is open to the public and will include a tour of the new National Campus. Details on the Israel Antiquities Authority Facebook. 

For photos and videos, click here

Explanation of pictures:

1. Film with Hebrew explanation. Filmed by Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority, edited by Eliyahu Yannai, City of David National Park.

2. Film with English explanation https://youtu.be/Dkdpn0E439w. Filmed by Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority, edited by Eliyahu Yannai, City of David National Park.

3-5. Rooftile fragments discovered at the Giv‘ati Parking Lot Excavation. Photo by Eliyahu Yannai, City of David National Park.

6. Rooftile fragments discovered at the Giv‘ati Parking Lot Excavation. Photo by Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority.

7. Dr. Filip Vukosavović presents the rooftile fragments. Photo by Eliyahu Yannai, City of David National Park.

8. Dr. Ayala Zilberstein of the Israel Antiquities Authority and Tel-Aviv University. Photo by Eliyahu Yannai, City of David National Park.

9. Rooftile fragments discovered at the Giv‘ati Parking Lot Excavation. Photo by Eliyahu Yannai, City of David National Park.

10. A proposal for the reconstruction of the Acra. Illustration: Shalom Kveller, City of David Archives

11. Giv‘ati Parking Lot Excavations at the City of David. Photo by Kobi Harati, City of David

12. Giv‘ati Parking Lot Excavations at the City of David. Photo by Yonit Schiller, City of David

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