This article originally appeared in Jewish Action, Summer 2007
Misconception: King David is buried on Mount Zion, in a room that bears the inscription “King David’s Tomb.” Mount Zion is located just outside and to the south of the Armenian Quarter and Zion Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City.
Fact: Evidence indicates that the area known today as Mount Zion was not part of inhabited Jerusalem in King David’s time (tenth century BCE) and that he was not buried there. Rather, King David was buried in the southeastern area of Jerusalem’s real Old City, which is located to the south of the Temple Mount and Dung Gate and is known today as Ir David—the City of David.
Background:  The question regarding King David’s Tomb seems almost as inane as the riddle popularized by Groucho Marx on his 1950s game show “You Bet Your Life.” In order to guarantee that no one left his show empty-handed, Marx would ask a losing contestant: “Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?” (He would usually accept “Grant” as a correct answer despite the fact that the US National Park Service states that “technically, no one is ‘buried’ in Grant’s Tomb. The 159-foot neo-classical structure is a tomb, therefore both General Grant and his wife are ‘entombed’ above ground” and not buried.) Unlike Marx’s joke, however, the question concerning King David’s burial site is not trivial.
Signs direct visitors to Mount Zion through a series of anterooms to an interior room housing a cloth-covered granite cenotaph. This site is believed by many to be the tomb of King David.
To locate King David’s actual burial site, one need only consult the Bible to discover that King David died and was buried in Ir David, the City of David (1 Kings 2:10). The same place, City of David, also appears in Samuel 2 (5:7, 5:9) where the text states that David captured a fortress named Metzudat Tzion from the Jebusites and renamed it “the City of David.” Thus, in order to find his burial site, one needs to ascertain the location of Metzudat Tzion, i.e., the City of David.
The name “Zion” appears in Tanach in reference to the original, ancient Jerusalem. In the Middle Ages, Byzantine pilgrims mistakenly thought that the hill located south of today’s Old City’s Armenian Quarter was part of that ancient city and named it “Mount Zion.” This error was not recognized until 150 years ago when archaeological evidence suggested, and more recently has conclusively shown, that the city captured by David was on the smaller, lower hill located to the south of the Temple Mount (the modern-day City of David). That lower hill was the site of the Jebusite city, which then became King David’s capital, and constituted the whole Jerusalem for probably more than 200 years until it gradually expanded westward and incorporated the area that is today known as Mount Zion.
The erroneous notion that King David is buried on Mount Zion developed over a period of many centuries. During the middle of the second century CE, Jerusalem was razed, Jews were banished from the area, and the knowledge concerning the true location of King David’s Tomb was lost. By the mid-fourth century, the tombs of King David and his father, Jesse, are described as being in Beit Lechem. The first mention of Mount Zion as King David’s final resting place was in the ninth century, and by the eleventh century, this fallacy was so well-established that the Crusaders erected a Gothic cenotaph, in this case an empty sarcophagus, to mark the site, which remains until today.
In the twelfth century, the colorful Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela related that during his stay in Jerusalem, he heard a fantastic story regarding the re-discovery of King David’s Tomb. Two Jewish workers employed by the Christian patriarch to reconstruct a damaged monument on Mount Zion accidentally happened upon a secret passage and found themselves in a palace made of marble columns. Within the palace was a table upon which rested a golden scepter and golden crown, with riches all around. The workers decided this was King David’s Tomb. Suddenly, they were struck down by a fierce wind and heard voices that told them to leave immediately. Three days later, the two workmen were sick in bed and could not be persuaded to return to the site.
The present building housing the cenotaph was erected in 1335, but it is built on top of what is probably a second- to fourth-century building. Little was known about the building until a shell exploded there during the War of Independence in 1948, affording an opportunity for archaeological excavations during repair work. In 1951 an Israeli archaeologist and expert in synagogue architecture, Jacob Pinkerfeld, who was later killed in a terrorist attack at the 1956 Archaeological Convention at Ramat Rachel, carried out an archaeological survey. Behind the cenotaph of King David, Pinkerfeld found a niche that was part of the original structure of the building, and beneath the floor, he found three earlier floor levels: a Crusader floor, a late Roman or early Byzantine floor and the plaster of the original building’s floor. He noted that the niche was oriented towards the Temple Mount and concluded that the building was originally a synagogue and the niche was the aron. Others have argued with his conclusion, and based on various reasons, asserted that it was possibly a church or a Judeo-Christian synagogue.Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky