Introduction: The Jewish–Babylonian War
The walls of Jerusalem have shifted many times throughout history, and today large sections of the ancient city lie outside the current Ottoman-era fortifications. Despite evidence of permanent settlement dating back to at least the Early Bronze Age (c. 3300–2300 BC), Jerusalem was not fortified until the Middle Bronze Age (c. 2000–1550 BC). Since then, the walls of Jerusalem have been destroyed and rebuilt multiple times. Indeed, the walls that surround the Old City of Jerusalem today are only around 500 years old.
The Siege of Jerusalem between 589 and 587 BC was the decisive event of the Jewish–Babylonian War, in which the second Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar II, besieged Jerusalem, the capital city of the Kingdom of Judah. Jerusalem finally succumbed after an 18-month siege, following which the Babylonians pillaged the city and destroyed the First Temple of Jerusalem.
The revolts of the Kingdom of Judah against Babylon were a series of attempts by the people of the Kingdom of Judah to escape dominance by the Neo-Babylonian Empire, which lasted from 601 to 586 BC. The result was a Babylonian victory and the destruction of the Kingdom of Judah. It marked the beginning of the prolonged hiatus in Jewish self-rule in Judaea until the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd century BC.
Babylonian forces captured Jerusalem, the capital city of Judaea and destroyed King Solomon’s Temple, completing the fall of Judah, an event which marked the beginning of the Babylonian captivity, a period in Jewish history in which a large number of Judeans were forcibly removed from Judah and resettled in Mesopotamia (rendered in the Bible simply as “Babylon”).
King Nebuchadnezzar II had barricaded Jerusalem for nearly two years and eventually breached the city’s walls in July 587 BC. He had arrayed Nebuzaradan with 300 mules loaded with axes that could cut iron. All mules, but one, were destroyed in the effort to open one of the gates of Jerusalem. After the city’s fall, many Judeans were forcibly exiled to Babylon, beginning the exilic period. Judah was subsequently annexed as a Babylonian province.
Whilst the Nebuchadnezzar Chronicle (see below) provides information about the siege of Jerusalem, the only known records of the siege that culminated in Jerusalem’s destruction in 587 BC are found in the Hebrew Bible.
When one considers the Walls of Jerusalem, it is important to remember that it is all about protecting the city and keeping marauders out. In 1000 B.C., King David conquered Jerusalem and made it the capital of the Jewish kingdom. His son, Solomon, built the first Holy Temple some 40 years later. The Babylonians, led by King Nebuchadnezzar II, occupied Jerusalem in 586 BC, destroyed the Temple, and sent the Jews into exile.
Picture Credit: “Cuneiform cylinder: inscription of Nebuchadnezzar II describing the construction of the outer city wall of Babylon” is marked with CC0 1.0.
How do we know all this? The answer is that it is recorded in the Nebuchadnezzar Chronicle (also known as the Jerusalem Chronicle) – one of the series of Babylonian Chronicles – tablets recording major events in Babylonian history. As such, they are one of the first steps in the development of ancient historiography and contain a description of the first 11 years of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II (604–562 BC).
The tablet records Nebuchadnezzar’s military campaigns in the west and has been interpreted to refer to both the Battle of Carchemish and the Siege of Jerusalem (597 BC). The tablet is numbered ABC5 in Grayson’s standard text and BM 21946 in the British Museum. It is one of only two identified Chronicles referring to Nebuchadnezzar and does not cover the whole of his reign.
The ABC5 is a continuation of Babylonian Chronicle ABC4 (The Late Years of Nabopolassar), where Nebuchadnezzar is mentioned as the Crown Prince. Since the ABC 5 only provides a record through Nebuchadnezzar’s 11th year, the subsequent destruction and exile recorded in the Hebrew Bible to have taken place ten years later are not covered in the chronicles or elsewhere in the archaeological record.
As with most other Babylonian Chronicles, the tablet is unprovenanced – it was purchased in 1896 via an antiquities dealer from an unknown excavation. It was first published 60 years later in 1956 by Donald Wiseman.
The tablet claims that Nebuchadnezzar:
“crossed the river to go against the Egyptian army which lay in Karchemiš. They fought with each other, and the Egyptian army withdrew before him. He accomplished their defeat and beat them to non-existence. As for the rest of the Egyptian army, which had escaped from the defeat so quickly that no weapon had reached them, in the district of Hamath, the Babylonian troops overtook and defeated them so that not a single man escaped to his own country. At that time, Nebuchadnezzar conquered the whole area of Hamath.”
The Kingdom of Judah
The Kingdom of Judah was an Israelite kingdom of the Southern Levant during the Iron Age. It was centred in the region of Judea, and its capital was Jerusalem. The other Israelite polity, the Kingdom of Israel, lay to the north. The Jews are both named from and mostly descendants of the Kingdom of Judah.
The Hebrew Bible places the Kingdom of Judah as a successor to the United Kingdom of Israel, a term denoting the united monarchy under biblical kings Saul, David and Solomon and covering the territory of two historical kingdoms, Judah and Israel.
However, since the 1980s, sceptical approaches to the Biblical text and the archaeological record have led some scholars to believe that the existent archaeological evidence for an extensive kingdom before the late-8th century BC is too weak and that the methodology used to obtain the evidence is flawed. The Tel Dan Stele, discovered in 1993, has shown that the kingdom, in some semblance, existed by at least the mid-9th century BC, but it does little to show to what extent.
In the 10th and early 9th centuries BC, the territory of Judah appears to have been sparsely populated, limited to small rural settlements, most of them unfortified, but in the 7th century BC, the kingdom’s population increased greatly, prospering under Assyrian vassalage, despite Hezekiah’s revolt against the Assyrian king Sennacherib.
After the fall of the Neo-Assyrian Empire in 605 BC, the ensuing competition between the 26th Dynasty of Egypt and the Neo-Babylonian Empire for control of the Levant resulted in the rapid decline of the Kingdom of Judah.
In the early-6th century BC, Judah was weakened by a series of Babylonian invasions, and as already mentioned, in 587/6 BC, Jerusalem was besieged and destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar II, who subsequently exiled the Judeans to Babylon. The fallen kingdom was then annexed as a Babylonian province.
The Jews who had been deported in the aftermath of the Babylonian conquest of Judah were eventually allowed to return to Judah following a proclamation by the Persian king Cyrus the Great following the fall of Babylon to the Achaemenid Empire in 539 BC. The returned Jewish population in Judah were allowed to self-rule under Persian governance. The Jews fully regained their independence only 400 years later, after the Maccabean Revolt.
The Kingdom of Israel and the United Monarchy & 
The Kingdom of Israel or the Kingdom of Samaria was an Israelite kingdom of the Southern Levant during the Iron Age. The kingdom controlled the regions of Samaria, Galilee and parts of the Transjordan. Its capital, for the most part, was Samaria. The other Israelite polity, the Kingdom of Judah, lay to the south. The Hebrew Bible depicts the Kingdom of Israel as one of two successor states to the former United Kingdom of Israel ruled by King David and his son Solomon, the other being the Kingdom of Judah.
The Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Neo-Assyrian Empire around 720 BC. The records of Sargon II of Assyria indicate that he deported 27,290 inhabitants of the former kingdom to Mesopotamia. This deportation became the basis for the Jewish idea of the Ten Lost Tribes. Britannica.com explains:
“Ten Lost Tribes of Israel: 10 of the original 12 Hebrew tribes, which, under the leadership of Joshua, took possession of Canaan, the Promised Land, after the death of Moses. They were named Asher, Dan, Ephraim, Gad, Issachar, Manasseh, Naphtali, Reuben, Simeon, and Zebulun—all sons or grandsons of Jacob. In 930 BC, the 10 tribes formed the independent Kingdom of Israel in the north and the two other tribes, Judah and Benjamin, set up the Kingdom of Judah in the south. Following the conquest of the northern kingdom by the Assyrians in 721 bc, the 10 tribes were gradually assimilated by other peoples and thus disappeared from history.”
Many Israelites migrated to the southern kingdom of Judah. Foreign groups were settled by the Assyrians in the territories of the fallen kingdom.
The United Monarchy is the name given to the united Israelite kingdom of Israel and Judah, traditionally dated to have lasted between 1047 BC and 930 BC. On the succession of Solomon’s son Rehoboam in c. 930 BC, the Biblical account reports that the country split into two kingdoms: the kingdom of Israel (including the cities of Shechem and Samaria) in the north and the kingdom of Judah (containing Jerusalem) in the south.
Map of the twelve tribes of Israel according to the Book of Joshua
Attribution: 12 tribus de Israel.svg: Translated by Kordas12 staemme israels heb.svg: by user:יוסי12 staemme israels.png: by user:Janzderivative work Richardprins, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons
File URL: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c2/12_Tribes_of_Israel_Map.svg
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Destruction (586 BC), Rebuilding (446 BC and 1535-1538 AD)
Jerusalem has been destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times during its long history. The walls of Jerusalem were breached and destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar II in 586 BC because he was fearful that the Egyptians would cut off the Babylonian trade routes to the eastern Mediterranean region known as the Levant.
Nehemiah was a high official in the Persian court of King Artaxerxes I at the capital city of Susa, which lay 150 miles east of the Tigris River in what is now modern Iran. Nehemiah was the cupbearer to King Artaxerxes I at a time when Judah in Palestine had been partly repopulated by Jews released from their exile in Babylonia.
Nehemiah’s position enabled him to speak to the king and ask for favours. After hearing about Judah’s sad state of affairs, Nehemiah obtained the king’s permission to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city and its fortifications to protect it from insurgents. Although the Temple at Jerusalem had been rebuilt, the gates had been burned, and the walls were still in ruin 140 years later when Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem. He saw that the city was exposed to intruders, and its people were exposed to danger without the wall for protection. The Jewish community was dispirited and defenceless against its non-Jewish neighbours. Nehemiah, aided by Ezra (a Hebrew religious leader), set about rebuilding and reestablishing Jerusalem in the 5th century BC after their Babylonian exile.
Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem in 445 BC as the provincial governor of Judah/Yehud. He immediately surveyed the damage to the entire city on his well-known night journey around the walls. He enlisted the help of the small Jewish population to repair the breaches in the wall and set up guards to defend against the constant threat of those who opposed their efforts, including the armies of Samaria, the Ammonites and the Ashdodites. The walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt to dimensions similar to Solomon’s day.
The walls were rebuilt yet again, nearly 2,000 years later on the order of Suleiman I, between 1535 and 1538, when Jerusalem was part of the Ottoman Empire. The length of the walls is 4,018 metres (2.4966 miles), their average height is 12 metres (39.37 feet), and the average thickness is 2.5 metres (8.2 feet). The walls contain 34 watchtowers and eight gates. The rebuilding timeline is:
Sources and Further Reading
- YouTube Video – Routes Uncovered: Jerusalem Walls: https://youtu.be/YLpQ8chLUas
- YouTube Video – History of Old City Jerusalem: Its Walls, Gates, & Key Sites: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uxzfFA-DU5g
- What is the significance of the Walls of Jerusalem: https://www.gotquestions.org/walls-of-Jerusalem.html
- Who destroyed the Walls of Jerusalem that Nehemiah rebuilt: https://askinglot.com/who-destroyed-the-walls-of-jerusalem-that-nehemiah-rebuilt
- Book: The Walls of Jerusalem: Guide to the Ramparts, by Ronnie Ellenblum and Amnon Ramon, 1st June 1998, Paperback: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Walls-Jerusalem-Ramparts-Walking-Travel/dp/9652171220/
- Book: The High Walls of Jerusalem: A History of the Balfour Declaration and the Birth of the British Mandate for Palestine, by Ronald Sanders, 1st January 1984, Hardcover: https://www.amazon.co.uk/High-Walls-Jerusalem-Declaration-Palestine/dp/0030539714/
- Book: Walls of Jerusalem: by Nicolai Canetti, 1st November 1976, Hardcover: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Walls-Jerusalem-Nicolai-Canetti/dp/0672522616/
- Book: The Walls of Jerusalem: Preserving the Past, Controlling the Future, by Alan Balfour, 28th December 2018: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Walls-Jerusalem-Preserving-Controlling-Future-ebook/dp/B07MSBZPKW/
- Book: The Destruction of Jerusalem, by George Holford, 1st January 2001, Hardcover: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Destruction-Jerusalem-Absolute-Irresistible-Christianity/dp/1361796227/
- Book: The History of the Destruction of Jerusalem, by Flavius Josephus, 8th November 2015, Paperback: https://www.amazon.co.uk/History-Destruction-Jerusalem-Flavius-Josephus/dp/1519168543/
- Book: The Destruction of Jerusalem: Catalan and Castilian Texts (Kings College London Medieval Studies), by David Hook, 1st January 2000, Hardcover: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Destruction-Jerusalem-Catalan-Castilian-Medieval/dp/095221198X/
- Source: https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/bas-onsite/onsite-the-walls-of-jerusalem/ ↑
- Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judah%27s_revolts_against_Babylon ↑
- Nebuzaradan served under King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Most Bible translations call him the captain of the guard. ↑
- The Exilic Period refers to the Babylonian captivity in the history of Israel, from the fall of Jerusalem (586 B.C.) to the reconstruction in Palestine of a new Jewish state (after 538 BC). After the city’s capture by the Babylonians, thousands (probably selected for their prosperity and importance) were deported to Mesopotamia. In 538 BC, Cyrus the Great, the new master of the empire, initiated a new attitude toward the nations and decreed the restoration of worship at Jerusalem. The prophesied 70 years of captivity were fulfilled when the new Temple was completed in 516 BC. Source: https://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Exilic+Period↑
- Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nebuchadnezzar_II ↑
- Source: Lendering, Jona. “ABC 4 ( Late Years of Nabopolassar)”. Livius.org. ↑
- Source: Lendering, Jona. “ABC 5 (Jerusalem Chronicle)”. ↑
- Lemche, in Grabbe, p216; quote: “It is so easy to forget that 587 BC is exclusively a biblical date. That the one of 597 BC is confirmed by external sources does not prove that 597 BC really took place. It is probably likely that something like 587 BC happened, but it cannot be proven. The presence of members of the Judaean royal family at the Babylonian court in Neo-Babylonian times does not presuppose the destruction of 587 BC not even according to the Old Testament-it only presupposes the abduction of Jehoiachin in 597 BC” ↑
- Source: The_Babylonian_Chronicles_Classification_and_Provenance. Donald John Wiseman OBE FBA FSA was a biblical scholar, archaeologist and Assyriologist. He was Professor of Assyriology at the University of London from 1961 to 1982. ↑
- Source: Wiseman, 1956, pages 1+2 ↑
- Hamath (aka Hama) is a city on the banks of the Orontes River in west-central Syria. It is located 213 km north of Damascus and 46 kilometres north of Homs. It is the provincial capital of the Hama Governorate. With a population of 854,000, Hama is the fourth-largest city in Syria after Damascus, Aleppo and Homs. ↑
- Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingdom_of_Judah ↑
- The Levant is an approximate historical geographical term referring to a large area in the Eastern Mediterranean region of Western Asia. The Southern Levant is a geographical region encompassing the southern half of the Levant. It corresponds approximately to modern-day Israel, Palestine, and Jordan; some definitions also include southern Lebanon, southern Syria and/or the Sinai Peninsula. As a strictly geographical description, it is sometimes used by archaeologists and historians to avoid the religious and political connotations of other names for the area. Geographically it is dominated by the Jordan Valley, a section of the Great Rift Valley bisecting the region from north to south, and containing the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River and the Dead Sea – the lowest point on the earth’s land surface. The Southern Levant has a long history and is one of the areas of the world most intensively investigated by archaeologists. It is considered likely to be the first place that both early hominins and modern humans colonised outside of Africa. Consequently, it has a rich Stone Age archaeology, stretching back as early as 1.5 million years ago. With one of the earliest sites for urban settlements, it also corresponds to the western parts of the Fertile Crescent. ↑
- Finkelstein, Israel (2001-01-01). “The Rise of Jerusalem and Judah: the Missing Link”. Levant. 33 (1): 105–115. doi:10.1179/lev.2001.33.1.105. ISSN 0075-8914. S2CID 162036657. ↑
- Sources: (i) Brenner, Michael (2010). A short history of the Jews. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-14351-4. OCLC 463855870.
Nd (iii) Adams, Hannah (1840). The history of the Jews : from the destruction of Jerusalem to the present time. Sold at the London Society House and by Duncan and Malcom, and Wertheim. OCLC 894671497. ↑
- See: Garfinkel, Yossi; Ganor, Sa’ar; Hasel, Michael (19th April 2012). “Journal 124: Khirbat Qeiyafa preliminary report”. Hadashot Arkheologiyot: Excavations and Surveys in Israel. Israel Antiquities Authority., and Finkelstein, Israel; Fantalkin, Alexander (May 2012). “Khirbet Qeiyafa: an unsensational archaeological and historical interpretation” (PDF). Tel Aviv. 39: 38–63. doi:10.1179/033443512×13226621280507. S2CID 161627736. ↑
- Source References: (i) Rabbe, Lester L. (2007-04-28). Ahab Agonistes: The Rise and Fall of the Omri Dynasty. Bloomsbury Publishing USA. ISBN 9780567251718. The Tel Dan inscription generated a good deal of debate and a flurry of articles when it first appeared, but it is now widely regarded (a) as genuine and (b) as referring to the Davidic dynasty and the Aramaic kingdom of Damascus. (ii) Cline, Eric H. (2009-09-28). Biblical Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199711628. Today, after much further discussion in academic journals, it is accepted by most archaeologists that the inscription is not only genuine but that the reference is indeed to the House of David, thus representing the first allusion found anywhere outside the Bible to the biblical David. (iii) Mykytiuk, Lawrence J. (2004-01-01). Identifying Biblical Persons in Northwest Semitic Inscriptions of 1200-539 B.C.E. Society of Biblical Lit. ISBN 9781589830622. Some unfounded accusations of forgery have had little or no effect on the scholarly acceptance of this inscription as genuine. ↑
- Source: Mazar, Amihai. “Archaeology and the Biblical Narrative: The Case of the United Monarchy”. One God – One Cult – One Nation. Archaeological and Biblical Perspectives, Edited by Reinhard G. Kratz and Hermann Spieckermann in Collaboration with Björn Corzilius and Tanja Pilger, (Beihefte zur Zeitschriftfür die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 405). Berlin/ New York: 29–58. ↑
- Explanation: A vassal state is any state that has a mutual obligation to a superior state or empire, in a status similar to that of a vassal in the feudal system in medieval Europe. Vassal states were common among the empires of the Near East, dating back to the era of the Egyptian, Hittite and Mitanni conflict, as well as ancient China. The use of vassal states continued through the Middle Ages, with the last empire to use such states being the Ottoman Empire. The relationships between vassal rulers and empires was dependent on the policies and agreements of each empire. While payment of tribute and military service is common amongst vassal states, the degree of independence and benefits given to vassal states varied. Today, more common terms are puppet state, protectorate, client state, associated state or satellite state. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vassal_state ↑
- According to the biblical narrative, Hezekiah witnessed the destruction of the northern Kingdom of Israel by Sargon’s Assyrians in c. 722 BC and was king of Judah during the siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib in 701 BC. ↑
- The Neo-Babylonian Empire (aka the Second Babylonian Empire and historically known as the Chaldean Empire) was the last of the Mesopotamian empires to be ruled by monarchs native to Mesopotamia. Beginning with Nabopolassar‘s coronation as King of Babylon in 626 BC and being firmly established through the fall of the Neo-Assyrian Empire in 612 BC, the Neo-Babylonian Empire and its ruling Chaldean dynasty were short-lived, conquered after less than a century by the Persian Achaemenid Empire in 539 BC. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neo-Babylonian_Empire ↑
- The Jewish rebellion led by the Maccabees against the Seleucid Empire and against Hellenistic influence on Jewish life. The main phase of the revolt lasted from 167–160 BC and ended with the Seleucids in control of Judah, but conflict between the Maccabees, Hellenised Jews, and the Seleucids continued until 134 BC, with the Maccabees eventually attaining independence. ↑
- Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingdom_of_Israel_(Samaria) ↑
- Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingdom_of_Israel_(united_monarchy) ↑
- See: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Ten-Lost-Tribes-of-Israel ↑
- See Citations, 8, 9 and 10 at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingdom_of_Israel_(united_monarchy)#cite_note-harvey1996-11 ↑
- Source: https://nehemiahlv.org/nehemiah/readers-ask-who-destroyed-the-walls-of-jerusalem-before-nehemiah-rebuilt-them.html ↑
- Source: Nehemiah 1:11 ↑
- Source: https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/people-in-the-bible/nehemiah-the-man-behind-the-wall/ ↑
- Source: Source: https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/people-in-the-bible/nehemiah-the-man-behind-the-wall/ ↑
- Source: https://www.stgeorgehoteljerusalem.com/en/the-walls-of-jerusalem ↑