For 3,000 years, the 12-foot high walls of an ancient city have been clearly visible on a hill towering above the Valley of Elah where the Bible says David slew Goliath.
But no one has ever linked the ruins to the city mentioned in the First Book of Samuel's famous account of the legendary duel and the victory of the Israelites - until now. On Tuesday, Hebrew University archaeology Professor Yosef Garfinkel will present compelling evidence to scholars at Harvard University that he has found the 10th century biblical city of Sha'arayim, Hebrew for "Two Gates." Garfinkel, who made his startling discovery at the beginning of this month, will also discuss his findings at the American Schools of Oriental Research conference hosted by Boston University on Thursday.
Garfinkel believes the city provides evidence that King David ruled a kingdom from his capital of Jerusalem. Some modern scholars have questioned the biblical account of David's kingdom and even whether he existed. Although it is not clear how the Sha'arayim relates to David, Garfinkel says finding a Judean city along the ancient highway to Jerusalem that appears to have been a fortress on the western border with the Philistines indicates a kingdom with a developed political and military organization that was powerful enough to include a major fortified city.
"There is no question that Yosef Garfinkel has found a unique and interesting site of a type we haven't had until now," said Aren Maeir, professor of archaeology at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan who is excavating Goliath's hometown of Gath nearby. "But we have to wait for more findings and more analysis."
The revelation comes only weeks after Garfinkel's team discovered the oldest Hebrew inscription ever found at the same five-acre site - a 3,000-year-old pottery fragment bearing five lines of text in proto-Canaanite script, a precursor of Hebrew. It was found in a house next to a massive gate on the western side of Khirbet Qeiyafa hill, which Garfinkel believed was the city's only entrance - until finding a second gate last week.
Carbon-14 tests at Oxford University on four olive pits discovered near the inscription dated the relic to the late Iron Age, specifically to the early part of the 10th century B.C., or between 1000 and 975 B.C., the time King David, leader of the Kingdom of Israel, would have lived. David is believed to have united Judea and Israel, establishing a large kingdom that under his son, Solomon, stretched to present-day Egypt and Iraq, according to the Bible.
The five-line text has not yet been deciphered because the ink on 10 of the 50 letters has faded, making them invisible to the naked eye. The fragment will be examined next week at Megavision in Santa Barbara - a company that manufactures digital cameras - and Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, where sophisticated spectrum and ultra-violet fluorescence imaging may reveal the missing letters.
"The discovery of this early Hebrew text tells us for the first time that the people here could read and write at the time of King David, so historical knowledge could be transmitted in writing and not just by oral tradition as some have suggested," Garfinkel said.
Garfinkel knew from the biblical text that Sha'arayim was near the location of the famous duel between David and Goliath and wondered whether the ruins might be the city. Locating the second gate confirmed his belief that he had found the only site mentioned in the David and Goliath narrative that has yet to be discovered. Sha'arayim is not to be confused with the City of David, which is the name of a promontory located within Jerusalem.
Garfinkel, who has excavated numerous sites in Israel, says he discovered the second gate after noticing an apparent break in the massive stone wall as he walked along the 2,100-foot long structure that faced the road to Jerusalem. After two days of digging, his hunch paid off. A second entrance constructed from massive stones lay just a few feet beneath the topsoil.
"This is the only city from the Iron Age in this region ever found with two gates," said Garfinkel as he clambered over the huge structure. "It was probably a mistake. It made the city more vulnerable. It might explain why it appears to have been settled only twice, for very short periods."
Garfinkel says he is certain the newly-found massive stone gate was the main entrance to the city that existed at the beginning of the 10th century B.C. and then again for a few years at the time of Alexander the Great.
"It is enormous, it has symbolic value demonstrating authority and the power of the kingdom," Garfinkel said while describing the huge building blocks of more than 3 feet square and 10 feet long, each weighing more than 10 tons. "They are the largest ever found from the Iron Age. If King David ever came here from Jerusalem, he entered from this gate. It is likely we are walking in the footsteps of King David."
Some scientists say this Iron Age city with evidence of Hebrew civilization and an unexplored fortress at its center will transform current understanding of the ancient Israelites.
Little is known about the Davidic kingdom except for biblical text. In fact, there is little evidence that King David existed, except for one inscription discovered at Tel Dan in northern Israel in 1993 that refers to the "House of David." Some scholars have even suggested that David was little more than a local sheikh who commanded a small tribe in Jerusalem.
"We don't have to interpret the biblical story of David and Goliath literally," said Garfinkel. "There could have been many Davids and many Goliaths. I see this as a border area between the Israelites and the Philistines that was fought over through many generations, like Alsace-Loraine between France and Germany. ... The cities are all where the Bible says they are, and the dating of our finds shows they were settled at the time the Bible suggests."
To date, Garfinkel has excavated less than 5 percent of the site in two seasons of digging. Next year, the Foundation Stone, an educational organization based in Jerusalem that is supporting the project, hopes to encourage hundreds of volunteers to join the dig.
In the meantime, biblical scholars will undoubtedly be poring over the new findings and reigniting the debate over David's existence and whether he battled the giant Goliath as a youth.
"If he is right, this puts David and Solomon out there and shows they are not a figment of the imagination of some much later writer, as some have suggested," said Professor Maeir.