In the fifteenth century, following an attempt by the Jews to purchase the site, the Muslims wrested control from the Franciscans, and for the next five centuries all non-Muslims had restricted access to the site. Nonetheless, Jerusalem’s Jews would make an annual pilgrimage there on Shavuot, King David’s yahrtzeit. It was only after the War of Independence, when Mount Zion came under Israeli control, that free access to the site was granted to people of all religions. Since 1948, Israel’s Department of Religious Affairs has administered both King David’s Tomb, which is used as a synagogue, and the upper room, which is left open for Christian visitors. The site was one of the few “holy sites” under Israeli control from 1948 to 1967. Currently, the Diaspora Yeshiva oversees the entire complex. The building also includes the Last Supper Room, right above King David’s Tomb, and other sites of significance to Christians. Because of this, there have been repeated discussions over the years, including during Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s visit to the Vatican, about transferring it to the Church, despite the fact that the Diaspora Yeshiva permits free access to all. Even though the site does not contain King David’s Tomb, it should be clear to all that it has been sanctified as a site of Jewish pilgrimage and prayer for centuries and should be treated as a Jewish holy place.
If King David is not buried on Mount Zion, then where is he buried? The first clue is from the Bible, which states that King David, his son King Solomon and the kings of Judea who followed for the next 150 years were buried in “Ir David.” This likely refers to a subsection of the modern-day area known as the City of David. Another important source regarding the location of the royal burial site is found in Nechemiah (chap. 3), which describes the teams set up to repair the walls of Jerusalem. The text describes the groups of workers and the region of the wall they repaired in an orderly fashion, circumnavigating the city wall. It states that Shallun, the son of Colhozeh, built, among other things, the “wall of the Pool of Shelah [Shiloah]” until the stairs that go down from the City of David. It further states that Nechemiah, the son of Azbuk, repaired the wall “as far as opposite the tombs of the [the house of] David” (15-16). From this description it is clear that 500 years after King David was buried, the location of his tomb was still well known and that it was located near the southeast corner of the city, inside the walls, near the Siloam, otherwise known as the Shiloah (Shiloach) Pool.
Rabbi Akiva, 600 years later, was also familiar with the site. He was once asked why the graves of the Davidic dynasty were allowed to be within the city walls despite his opinion that all graves should be re-interred outside the city boundaries due to reasons of tumah (ritual impurity). He responded that the impurity of King David’s grave was diverted out of the city to the Kidron Valley via a rock channel (Tosefta, Bava Batra 1:11 [p. 399, Zuckermandel ed.]; Yerushalmi, Nazir 9:3). Because the Kidron Valley is located on the eastern side of the City of David, Rabbi Akiva’s statement is further evidence that the sought-after grave is located in the City of David.
Given that the City of David is so small and that there are very specific descriptions in Tanach and by Chazal regarding the location of the burial site, French archaeologist-Egyptologist Raymond Weill went searching for the tomb in 1913. This was the first archaeological expedition conducted by a Jew, with funding from a Jewish sponsor (the mission was funded by Baron Edmond de Rothschild) and at a clearly “Jewish” site in the Land of Israel.
Weill, whose complete report was not published until 1947, was successful in finding important artifacts, and possibly the kings’ graves themselves.
Weill discovered eight man-made cave-like structures that he described as tombs, as well as a ninth cave in a second expedition between 1923 and 1924. He designated these caves T1 through T9 and proclaimed that the most monumental, T1, was King David’s Tomb. T1 is a long tunnel, with some features of an ancient burial cave. Unfortunately, the caves were used as a quarry during the Roman period, making it difficult to restore them.
Weill’s conclusion was initially accepted by the archaeological community, but today many archaeologists disagree with him. They claim that the caves he found are not identical to other First Temple period tombs, and furthermore, they argue, it is not certain that these structures are from King David’s period (tenth century BCE). They suggest instead that these clearly well-planned structures were water cisterns or cellars from the Second Temple period. Those who continue to support Weill’s contention argue that no other cisterns like those have ever been found and that their structure is not ideally suited for that purpose. Weill’s supporters concede that there are indeed no other tenth-century BCE tombs known in Jerusalem and that Weill’s findings are not identical with the many known Jerusalem eighth-century tombs. However, an exact similarity cannot be expected; firstly, the known eighth-century tombs were not those of kings or royalty and secondly, the tombs in question were built 200 years later. Finally, they argue, there is really no way to know what Weill’s caves looked like before they were destroyed by the extensive quarrying.
In summary, the known facts, based on Biblical texts and nearly universally accepted archaeological findings, are the following: King David is buried in the southeastern section of the City of David and not on Mount Zion; one would expect his tomb to be well-planned and unique; and a well-designed, large man-made cave has been found in the likely area. Logic suggests, although it cannot be proven with certainty, that the T1 cave is indeed the burial place of the Kings of Judea, beginning with Kings David and Solomon.
Today, the City of David is part of a national park and is administered by the non-profit organization called El-Ad. For more information on this area located at the heart of Jerusalem, visit www.cityofdavid.org