History of Mount Zion

Mount Zion (Hebrew: הַר צִיּוֹן, Har Tsiyyon; Arabic: جبل صهيون‎, Jabal Sahyoun) is a hill in the southern part of Jerusalem just outside the current walls of the Old City, but within the walls of the cityin the First and Second Temple periods.


The term Mount Zion has been used in the Biblical record as referring to  the City of David (2 Samuel 5:7, 1 Chronicles 11:5; 1 Kings 8:1, 2 Chronicles 5:2).  In more recent times the meaning of Zion has morphed into a general concept of Israel, hence Zionism as a recently coined word by Nathan Birnbaum in 1890 and then widely used by Theodor Herzl in his concept of the movement to patriotically reinhabit the land of Israel. 

The name Mount Zion has over the years been referred to at different locations in and around Jerusalem, as its residents preserved the time-honoured name, but shifted the location they venerated as the focal point of Biblical Jerusalem to the site considered most appropriate in their own time. 

The Biblical record says that King David and King Solomon were buried in the City of David.  The record then defines the City of David as being at Mount Zion. Hence, by knowing the location of Mount Zion one gets to know the location of the City of David and thereby the location of the tomb of King David.  By having confusion over the location the important sites become very hard to find.   There is logically reasonable suggestion that the shift in referencing of locations referred to as Mount Zion, may have been a ploy to distract attention from the real site and to thereby confuse invading marauders from the obvious ill intent of plundering tombs of King David King Solomon and King Hezekiah. 

At first, Mount Zion was the name given to the Jebusite fortified city on the northern side of the Hinom Valley.  According to the Book of Samuel,  the Jebusite fortress was called the "stronghold of Zion" that was conquered by King David and then renamed and partially rebuilt by him as the "City of David", where he erected his palace.

Upper Eastern Hill (Temple Mount)

Once the First Temple was erected at the top of the Eastern Hill in Jerusalem there is evidence to suggest that use of the name "Mount Zion" migrated there too. With the Prophets of Israel warning of imminent destruction of the city due to the widespread practice of idolatory and wonten departure from the faith and it would seem logical to the concerned that the cherished locations were concealed. Such diversionary tactics are common even in modern times.   

The identification of the pre-Israelite (Jebusite) and Israelite towns on the Eastern Hill is based on the existence of only one perennial water source in the area, the Gihon Spring, and on archaeological excavations revealing sections of the Bronze Age and Iron Age city walls and water systems.


Adding further confusion to the mix is evidence that the Jebusite inhabitants had 2 areas of residence and lived in both the lower city of Jerusalem and the upper city, where the Zion fortress was located.

The "Mount Zion" mentioned in the later parts of the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 60:14), in the Book of Psalms, and the First Book of Maccabees (c. 2nd century BCE) seems to refer to the top of the western hill located on the northern side of the Hinom valley and the southern extent of Jerusalem.

In the second half of the First Temple period, Jerusalem expanded westward and its defensive walls were extended to include the entire Western Hill behind them. Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed the city almost completely around 586 BCE, severing the continuity of historical memory. A long period of rebuilding followed, ending with Jerusalem's second total destruction at the hands of the Romans in 70 CE.


Josephus, the first-century CE historian who knew the city as it was before this second catastrophic event, identified Mount Zion as being the Western Hill, separated from the lower, Eastern Hill, by what he calls the "Tyropoeon Valley". It must however be said that very interestingly, Josephus never used the name "Mount Zion" in any of his writings, but described the "Citadel" of King David as being situated on the higher and longer hill, thus pointing at the Western Hill as what the Bible calls Mount Zion.


The last shift in the name Mount Zion was back to its original position, to the Western Hill, which is more dominant than the Eastern Hill and seemed to first-century CE Jerusalemites the worthier location for the by-then lost palace of King David. The Western Hill is what today is called Mount Zion.

History since the Late Roman period


At the end of the Roman period, a synagogue was built at the entrance of the structure known as David's Tomb, probably based on the belief that David brought the Ark of the Covenant here from Beit Shemesh and Kiryat Ye'arim before the construction of the Temple.

During the 1948 war, Mount Zion was conquered by the Harel Brigade on May 18, 1948 and became the only part of the Old City to stay in Israeli hands until the armistice. At first it was linked to the Jewish neighborhood of Yemin Moshe across the Valley of Hinnom via a narrow tunnel, but eventually an alternative was needed to evacuate the wounded and transport supplies to soldiers on Mt. Zion. A cable car capable of carrying a load of 250 kilograms was designed for this purpose. The cable car was only used at night and lowered into the valley during the day to escape detection; it is still in place at what is now the Mount Zion Hotel. The ride from the Israeli position at the St. John Eye Hospital to Mount Zion took two minutes.

Between 1948 and 1967, when Jerusalem’s Old City was under Jordanian rule, the closest that Israelis could come to the Temple Mount was Mount Zion, a hill just outside the walls on the southern end of the Old City. Until East Jerusalem was captured by Israel in the Six-Day War, Israelis would climb to the rooftop of David's Tomb to pray. The hill has been called Mount Zion since sometime in the Middle Ages, even though Jewish scripture refers to the Temple Mount by the same name.

Interestingly enough, legend has it that Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent initially meant for Mount Zion to be inside the walls of the Old City. However, the Turkish engineers who were planning the restoration of the walls accidentally left Mount Zion and King David’s Tomb outside the walls, prompting the livid sultan to execute them. Among the important sites and landmarks on Mount Zion are the Room of the Last Supper, King David’s Tomb, the Chamber of the Holocaust, and the Protestant Cemetery. In addition Oskar Schindler is buried here as a righteous gentile, and the Dormition Abbey is located here.


Bliss and Dickie Archaeology Program 1894 - 1897

Frederick Jones Bliss (1859-1937) and Archibald Campbell Dickie (1868-1941), sent by the PEF between the years 1894-1897, conducted significant excavations all around Jerusalem.  Bliss had conducted a number of excavations in the Land of Israel prior and following his excavations in Jerusalem and published several studies on the archaeology of the Land of Israel.  Dickie was an architect and the excavation’s chronicler and later worked as an architect in Britain.  Together, by means of tunnel excavation (rather than vertical excavation), they revealed the southern walls of Jerusalem, dating from the time of the Second Temple (including small sections from other periods) surrounding Mount Zion as well as portions of the city’s central drainage channel in the Tyropoeon Valley.  In addition, they discovered a few steps of the Shiloah Pool from the Second Temple period and parts of steps from the road leading from this pool to the Temple Mount.  Bliss and Dickie designed detailed diagrams and charts of their discoveries, which serve as a useful tool for modern researchers wishing to study Jerusalem in the Second Temple Period.

Mount Zion - looking East.  Photo courtesy of Jerusalem Intercultural Center

Map showing the general topographical layout of Jersalem

and relationship of Eastern Hill and Western Hill.

King David's Tomb, Cenacle Room & King David Statue

Oskar Schindler’s gravesite
photo courtesy http://www.teresathetraveler.com

Dormition Abbey

Exposed walls on Mount Zion. Photo: Y. Zelinger.

Bliss’s markings on a map of Mount Zion. Photo: Y. Zelinger.

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