New find, old tomb, and peeks at early Christians
For centuries it has been known as "Absalom's Tomb." People made pilgrimages to it. Jews, Christians, and Muslims would throw stones at it to punish King David's rebellious son. But now, because of an almost chance discovery, one of Jerusalem's oldest landmarks is reemerging as one of the sites of early Christianity.Skip to next paragraph
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A recently unveiled inscription, believed to date circa AD 350, identifies the monument as the tomb of Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist. Scholars say it does not necessarily mean Zacharias was buried on the site and some completely discount that possibility. But the find is seen as adding significantly to what they know of the lore of the fourth century Christian community in Jerusalem. Some believe it could lead to further significant finds about early Christians.
The funerary monument in the Kidron Valley, with its striking colonnades and roof shaped like an inverted siphon, has for at least eight centuries been associated with the burial place of David's third son, Absalom, who led an insurrection against his father during which he was killed.
Scholars say there is scant basis for the idea the monument houses Absalom's remains, stressing that the monument was built hundreds of years after his death. Still, local lore had a power of its own. According to Gideon Foerster, a Hebrew University archaeologist, it became associated with David's son around the 12th century.
Scholars say that Jews, Christians, and Muslims all recognized it as his burial site. Pilgrims' and visitors' accounts, as well as 17th-century etchings, show stones piled in front of it and recount a Muslim tradition to pelt the building to punish Absalom for rebelling against King David. Its facade bears marks from centuries of stoning.
The Absalom tradition held considerable power. One of Israel's renowned geographers, Zeev Vilnay, wrote in his encyclopedia of Jerusalem that it was customary to bring disobedient children to the memorial. Parents, he wrote, would strike children while telling them "look what end came upon the rebellious son, everyone strikes him."
The link to early Christendom came through a series of improbable events. Although the tomb had been neglected in recent years, a Hebrew University art history student made it the subject of a seminar paper.
In 2000, the student showed a picture of the monument to Joe Zias, a physical anthropologist and a retired curator for the Israel Antiquities Authority. "I looked at it and said, 'There's an inscription - you can clearly see the Greek alpha,' " he recalls. Mr. Zias found the photographer who had taken the shot years earlier and was told that, judging from the light, the photo was taken at the end of a summer day. "I went there many times, knowing there was something there, sometimes sitting there for hours. One day when the sun was sitting on the walls of Jerusalem just before dusk conditions were optimal. It was then I could see more letters, six to eight. In the morning, I could see only two to three....
"What was unnerving," he recalls, "was the drug addicts coming down to the place from time to time, smoking a joint or two and doing their deals. It was then I knew I had to make a cast and work from that with artificial lighting under lab conditions."