Capitals of Israel

Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people and of the State of Israel, though it is hardly the only capital the Jews have known. In fact, there were a number of capitals established both before and after the selection of Jerusalem at the close of the 11th century BCE. Some capitals endured for only a matter of years or decades; others survived centuries. Here is a précis of their storied history:

1. Shiloh – Situated north of Beit El and south of Ma’aleh Levonah, in the mountainous territory of Ephraim, Shiloh was the amphictyonic center of tribal Israel and served as the de facto capital for almost 200 years. Shiloh was first settled about 700 years before the era of the Judges, but had been abandoned before Israelite resettlement and fortification. Here Joshua erected the Tabernacle wherein the Ark of the Testimony was housed and here lots were cast to allot the tribal territories and Levitical cities. As the hub of religious worship, Shiloh hosted congregational assemblies, most famously including the annual Tu B’Av festival when Jewish women danced in the surrounding vineyards. Shiloh regularly received devout Israelite pilgrims including Hannah and Elkanah, whose son Samuel was dedicated to the divine service and ministered under Eli the priest in the Tabernacle. Samuel received the prophetic call in Shiloh, which was destroyed circa 1050 BCE after the battle at Aphek by the conquering Philistines, who despoiled the Ark. The prophet Ahijah ben Ahitov was a priestly Shilonite who foretold the advent of Jeroboam ben Nebat, king of Israel, and who later prophesied the demise of the renegade’s dynasty. Shilonites were among the Ephraimites who offered oblations in Jerusalem after its destruction by the Babylonians. Shiloh was revived more than once over time, including under Roman rule, and was frequented by Talmudic sages. Jews made pilgrimage to Shiloh to pray at the tomb of Eli until the 14th century. The site, called Seilun in Arabic, features ancient stone tombs and a pool in a rock hollow, and today once again hosts gatherings for prayer and dancing on special occasions.

2. Givah (Givat Binyamin/Givat Shaul) – The main town in the highlands of the tribal territory of Benjamin and located beside the central road between Judah and Mount Ephraim, Givah (“Hill”) is sometimes confused with Geva or Givon, other notable towns in Benjamin. Givah was destroyed by the Israelite tribes during the era of the Judges in a civil war after certain Benjaminites had shockingly gang-raped to death the Judahite concubine of a roving Levite. The town was rebuilt and, because it was perhaps his hometown (his hometown may alternatively have been Givon; the latter was at least his ancestral hometown), served as King Saul’s capital, thus as the first capital of the Israelite monarchy, and became known thereafter as Givat Shaul. During the Great Revolt, the Roman general Titus encamped at Givah en route to Jerusalem, and his legionaries in time destroyed the site. Givah is identified with Tell el-Ful, three and a half miles north of Jerusalem, where a towered fortress has been excavated. The modern Jerusalem neighborhood of Givat Shaul is unrelated to Givah.

3. Mahanaim – A site in Transjordan, named Mahanaim (“God’s Camp”) by the patriarch Jacob who had envisioned angels at the site prior to his crossing of the Yabbok River en route to Penuel. Mahanaim sat on the border between the tribal territories of eastern Menasheh and Gad, and was designated a Levitical city in Gad. After the Israelite defeat and death of King Saul at the battle of Mount Gilboa, following which Saul’s general Avner took Saul’s son Ish-Boshet to Mahanaim, the locality become nationally prominent as a refuge for fugitives and embattled monarchs. During the internecine Israelite conflict between Ish-Boshet and David, Avner embarked from and returned to Mahanaim, and King David later retreated to Mahanaim during his son Absalom’s rebellion. Here David accepted furniture, wares, and victuals from loyal Gileadites. Later, King Solomon appointed his governor Ahinadav ben Iddo to Mahanaim, wherefrom food was provided to Solomon and his household for one month annually. Egyptian Pharaoh Shishak conquered and plundered Mahanaim during his campaign in the fifth year of King Rehoboam of Judah. The site’s precise location in northern Gilead is uncertain, though it is perhaps the western mound at the twin site of Tulul al-Dhahab by the Yabbok River.

4. Hebron (Kiryat Arba/Mamre) – Originally a Hittite site, Hebron was where the patriarch Abraham settled by the oaks of Mamre and bought from Ephron the Hittite the Cave of Machpelah in which to bury his wife Sarah (Abraham, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and Leah were subsequently buried there as well). During the Exodus, the 12 spies reconnoitered Hebron. Hoham, Amorite king of Hebron, was defeated with his fellow kings by Joshua in the Battle of Ayalon, and Calev ben Yefuneh conquered Hebron. The city was later designated a Levitical city and a city of refuge. The Israelite judge Samson carried off the doors and doorposts of Gaza’s city gates to Hebron. From about 1010 BCE, before conquering Jerusalem, King David reigned in Hebron, his first capital, for seven and a half years; here he was twice anointed king, once over Judah then again over all of Israel. David’s general Yoav and his brother Avishai slew Avner by Hebron’s city gate. Avner, general of Saul’s son Ish-Boshet, was entombed in Hebron (with Ish-boshet’s severed head), as were the Davidic prophets Gad the Seer and Nathan. David’s son Absalom began his ill-fated revolt from Hebron, and later King Rehoboam of Judah fortified the city as one of his administrative centers in the Judean hills.

Eventually Hebron was claimed by the Edomites (who had migrated northwest from the Transjordan) until the Hasmonean era, when Judah Maccabee expelled them, destroying the city’s towers and fortifications. The later Hasmonean ruler Johanan Hyrcanus conquered Idumaea, thereby reincorporating Hebron into Judea. King Herod the Great erected the wall surrounding the Cave of Machpelah (which remains extant). During the Great Revolt, Zealot leader Shimon bar Giora reclaimed Hebron from the Romans until the Roman commander Cerealis reconquered the city and destroyed it. In the seventh century, Muslim Arabs conquered Hebron, and referred to it by several names: Habra, Habran, Khalil al-Rahman, and al-Khalil. Caliph Omar permitted the Jews to construct a synagogue near the Cave of Machpelah and a new local graveyard. Hebron is traditionally considered among the four holy cities of the Jews (along with Jerusalem, Tiberias, and Tzfat). Moses Maimonides, Benjamin of Tudela, Petahiah of Regensburg, and Jacob ben Netanel were among the Jewish notables who visited Hebron during the Middle Ages. Ovadiah of Bertinoro was briefly chief rabbi of Hebron. Since the early modern era, many famous sages lived, studied, wrote, and/or taught in Hebron, including: Elijah de Vidas, Malkiel Ashkenazi, Solomon Adeni, Joseph di Trani, Abraham Azulai II, Hayyim Joseph David Azulai, Mordekhai Rubio, Hayyim Hezekiah Medini, Nathan Tzvi Finkel, Moses Mordekhai Epstein, Yehezkel Sarna, and Isaac Hutner. The renowned Slobodka Yeshiva was transferred from Lithuania to Hebron in 1925. Arab pogroms against Hebron’s Jewish community broke out in 1929 and 1936; Jews returned to Hebron in the aftermath of the Six-Day War of 1967 and also developed the adjacent community of Kiryat Arba.

5. Shechem – Situated in the fertile valley between Mount Eval and Mount Gerizim, the ancient locale was originally a Canaanite village. Upon his arrival in Canaan, the patriarch Abraham beheld God and built an altar here by the terebinth of Moreh. In time the patriarch Jacob encamped before what had developed into a city and purchased an adjacent parcel of land from Hamor the Hivite’s sons for 100 silver pieces. Jacob’s sons, Shimon and Levi, destroyed the city after its prince, Shechem, captured and violated their sister Dinah. Jacob buried the foreign idols and earrings of his household under the terebinth of Moreh at Shechem, and sent his beloved son Joseph from the Hebron Valley to report back on the welfare of his other sons feeding their flock around Shechem. The city was apportioned to the tribe of Ephraim, in whose northern mountain territory it lay. Joshua assembled the Israelite tribes here and established a covenant with the people to loyally serve the God of Israel, erecting a stone monument under the terebinth of Moreh attesting to the covenant.

At Shechem were laid to rest the exhumed bones of Joseph, in the very plot of land his father Jacob had acquired centuries earlier. In the era of the Judges, the short-lived kinglet Avimelekh ben Gidon was coronated in Shechem, whose residents rebelled against their sovereign after three years, prompting Avimelekh to reconquer the city, raze its walls, and sow it with salt. King Rehoboam of Judah was later renounced by the ten northern tribes of Israel at Shechem in favor of King Jeroboam I of Israel, whose first capital Shechem became. In the monarchic period the city featured two-storey abodes, well-designed quarters, and large granaries. Much of the city was destroyed by repeated Assyrian invasions in the eighth and seventh centuries. Resettlement of the site was short-lived until the Hellenistic era, during which the Samaritans who rebelled against Alexander the Great were expelled from Samaria and subsequently regrouped at Shechem. The Hasmonean ruler Johanan Hyrcanus I eventually destroyed the Samaritan settlement and leveled the mound around 107 BCE, and his son King Yannai Alexander was later defeated in a crushing battle nearby. In 72, the Roman general Vespasian built the new city of Neapolis on or in close proximity to ruined Shechem. In the Middle Ages the ruins were visited by Jewish travelers including Benjamin of Tudela. Today the ruins of Shechem, known in Arabic as Tell el-Balata, lie just over a mile southeast of the modern Arab city of Nablus.

6. Penuel (Peniel) – Located in Transjordan south of the Yabbok River, Penuel was where the patriarch Jacob received his new name of Israel after wrestling with a mysterious figure. He called the place Peniel (“God’s Face”) “because I have seen God face to face, yet my life is spared.” Local residents later deprived the Israelite judge Gidon and his fighters of provisions during their campaign against the Midianites, for which reason Gidon later demolished Penuel’s tower and slew the town’s male inhabitants. King Jeroboam I of Israel rebuilt Penuel as his second capital, perhaps to better administer his domains beyond the Jordan River. It has been associated with the beautiful ruins of the eastern mound at Tulul al-Dhahab.

7. Tirzah – A Canaanite town whose king Joshua defeated, Tirzah was allotted to the territory of Menasheh. It became the final capital of King Jeroboam I of Israel, whose son died in Tirzah as per the prophecy of Ahijah the Shilonite. It also served as King Baasha’s capital for 24 years and as his son King Elah’s capital for two years, until the latter was murdered while drunk in his steward’s house by the chariot commander Zimri. The usurper King Zimri reigned for a week in Tirzah before being burned alive in the palace during his rival Omri’s conquest of the city. King Omri reigned for six years from Tirzah until transferring his capital to the newly built city of Samaria. The rebel Menahem ben Gadi arose from Tirzah to infiltrate Samaria, where he slew King Shallum of Israel and took his place on the throne; from Tirzah, King Menahem attacked the defiant town of Tifsah, whose pregnant women he cruelly ripped open. Tirzah was likely destroyed along with Samaria by the Assyrians circa 722 BCE.

8. Samaria (Sebaste) – Founded circa 880 BCE by King Omri of Israel in his seventh regnal year, Samaria was named after Shemer, who sold his hill to Omri for two silver talents. Situated on an isolated elevation some seven miles north of Shechem, the site featured a rectangular acropolis surrounded by ashlar and casemate walls containing the royal palace of Omri, his son Ahab, and the many kings that followed their dynasty. Here Ahab built an ivory house for his infamous Phoenician consort Jezebel, and here he met with King Jehoshaphat of Judah to listen to the ominous prophecy of Micaiah ben Imlah. In Samaria Jehu had the 70 sons of Ahab purged and the temple of Baal destroyed; he later located King Ahaziah of Judah hiding from him in Samaria, and soon put him to death. In 785, King Jehoash of Israel plundered Jerusalem and hauled the spoils of the Temple and royal palace to Samaria. King Pekah of Israel captured 200,000 Judahites and brought them to Samaria, where they were treated mildly then released.

Samaria was the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel for about 160 years until it fell to the invading Assyrians in 722. The city’s inhabitants were deported and replaced by heathen colonists from Babylonia and elsewhere. The Persians retained Samaria as an administrative center within its satrapy, and the local rulers in this period of the Sanballat family clashed with Nehemiah. During the Hellenistic era, the Samaritans assassinated Andromachus, governor of Coele-Syria, thereby rebelling against Alexander the Great who punished them by transforming the city into a Greek colony of 6,000 Macedonians in 331. Hasmonean ruler Johanan Hyrcanus I besieged and razed Samaria around 107, but it was restored by Roman general Pompey the Great. In 25, King Herod the Great of Judaea refurbished the city with a colonnaded street, forum, Augustan temple, theater, aqueduct, and a new wall with towers and gateways; he renamed the city, now the district capital of the province of Samaria, Sebaste (Greek for “Augusta”) as an homage to his patron, Augustus Caesar, which gives the site its modern appellation, Sebastia. It became a Roman colony under Emperor Septimius Severus. Moreover, John the Baptist is traditionally believed to have been interred here, and the site was a bishopric in the third century CE (and again later during the Crusades); a church and monastery were also erected in the lower city in the fifth century. In 614, the Sassanid Persians destroyed Samaria. Today Samaria endures as Sebastia National Park under the management of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.

9. Jerusalem – The Eternal City, nestled in the center of the Judean Mountains, arose upon two ridges circumscribed by the Hinnom (Ben Hinnom) and Kidron (Jehoshaphat) Valleys, its residents sustained by the Gihon spring. Originally known by the Canaanites/Amorites as Salem or Jebus and first mentioned in the El-Amarna tablets, the city was once ruled by the priestly King Melchizedek who blessed the patriarch Abraham. In the period of the conquest, King Adonizedek of Jerusalem assembled his fellow kings to attack Joshua’s allies, the Givonites, in the Battle of Ayalon won by the Israelites. Jerusalem, however, remained an independent Canaanite enclave on the border between Benjamin and Judah, allocated to the tribal territory of Benjamin, in which Benjaminites and Jebusites dwelled together. It was soon absorbed into the tribal territory of Judah, however, and captured by King David circa 1002 BCE; thereafter it was known as the City of David or Zion, after the central mount previously known as Mount Moriah. David made Jerusalem his second capital and transferred there from Givah the Ark of the Testimony, establishing Jerusalem as the religious and political center of the United Monarchy of Israel.

David built a royal palace in the City of David and purchased the threshing-floor of Aravnah the Jebusite atop Mount Zion, immediately to the north, whereon he erected an altar. Thenceforward Israelites dutifully journeyed to Jerusalem for the three annual pilgrimage festivals ordained in the Torah: Pesah (Passover), Shavuot (Weeks/Pentecost), and Sukkot (Tabernacles/Booths). David’s son King Solomon erected the First Temple, replete with bronze pillars named Jachin and Boaz, upon Mount Zion, which thereafter was also known as Temple Mount, as well as an adjacent royal palace and the Millo terrace, circa 950. Jerusalem remained the capital of the southern Kingdom of Judah, ruled by the Davidic dynasts, after the northern tribes of Israel seceded to form the northern Kingdom of Israel. It was plundered in the fifth regnal year of King Rehoboam (circa 925) by Pharaoh Shishak (Sheshonq I) of Egypt and in 785 by King Jehoash of Israel, who dismantled a portion of the city wall. Decades later, King Uzziah fortified towers in Jerusalem and had war-engines placed atop the city wall’s towers and corners; his son King Yotam built the Temple’s upper gate and expanded upon the Ophel wall. In 701, the city was besieged by Emperor Sennacherib of Assyria, but not before King Hezekiah had fortified the Millo terrace, repaired the city wall, built an addition wall, raised watch towers, and excavated a rock-cut tunnel channelling water from the Gihon spring into the newly-walled pool of Shiloah (Siloam) within the city walls. Hezekiah’s son, King Menasheh, erected an outer wall for the city by the Gihon spring and raised the Ophel bulwark.

In 597, Jerusalem was besieged by the Neo-Babylonians under Emperor Nebuchadrezzar II, who took captive 10,000 Judahite elites including King Jehoiachin and Ezekiel the prophet; in 586, the Babylonians led by general Nebuzaradan destroyed the city, including the Temple, royal palace, and city walls. After the Cyrus Proclamation of 539, Judahites under Sheshbazzar, Zerubavel, and Joshua the high priest returned from captivity and repopulated Jerusalem, erecting an altar of burnt offering then building the Second Temple, completed in 516. During the Achaemenid Persian period, Jerusalem served as the capital of a satrapy and a square-shaped citadel called the Birah (Baris) was erected above the northwest corner of the Temple. During the reign of Emperor Artaxerxes I Longimanus, the priest Ezra the Scribe led a new cohort of Judahite exiles from Persia to Judah and Jerusalem, therefrom reintroducing the Torah and revivifying Jewish spiritual life while his junior counterpart Nehemiah, the Persian-appointed Jewish governor, rebuilt the city wall, built gates for the Birah citadel, and marshaled a tenth of all Judahites to repopulate Jerusalem. After the high priest Johanan slew his brother Jeshua in the Temple, the Persian general Bagoas (Bagoses) illicitly entered its precincts. The high priest Jaddua welcomed Alexander the Great to Jerusalem and directed him in offering a sacrifice in the Temple. For the next 150 years, Jerusalem was fought over by the Ptolemies and Seleucids; during this period, the high priest Shimon II The Just repaired damage to the Temple, rebuilt Jerusalem’s walls which had been razed by Ptolemy I Soter, oversaw the digging of a reservoir, and fortified the city against siege warfare.

The Seleucids, however, constructed the Akra citadel south of the Temple to dominate it, as well as a gymnasium west of the Temple. In 169, the Temple was plundered and desecrated under Antiochus IV Epiphanes (who also slew many Jerusalemites), but was consecrated anew by Judah Maccabee and his brothers in 164 during the Maccabean Rebellion, giving rise to the annual festival of Chanukah. Temple Mount was fortified with high walls and strong towers. Shimon Maccabee finally razed the Akra and levelled its hill. Under the Hasmoneans, Jerusalem was once again the capital of the entire Jewish kingdom. In 63, during the Hasmonean fratricidal war, Roman general Pompey the Great occupied Jerusalem and invaded the Temple. In 40, the Parthians captured Jerusalem and ruled it through the last Hasmonean king, Mattathias Antigonus, until the Roman-backed Herod the Great besieged and conquered the city in 37. In 20, Herod began renovating the Second Temple, a relatively modest sanctuary, into a marvelous and elaborate structure upon Temple Mount’s enlarged, peristylar esplanade supported by a retaining wall comprised of ashlar stones (of which the Western Wall or Kotel forms a part).

At the northwest corner of Temple Mount he built the Antonia Fortress on the ruins of the Birah, and also built a theater, amphitheater or hippodrome, and a monument to himself. He further constructed a new royal palace in the northwestern quarter and erected four great towers named Psephinus, Hippicus, Phasael, and Mariamne (the surviving base of Phasael is today erroneously called the Tower of David). In 41 CE, King Agrippa I of Judaea built a third northern wall. The Adiabene royals, converts to Judaism, built royal palaces and pyramidal royal tombs in Jerusalem. In 66, after Roman procurator Gessius Florus had plundered the Temple, the Great Revolt broke out in Jerusalem; after a few years of independence and internecine struggle among the Zealots—and after the surreptitious escape from the city of the sage Johanan ben Zakkai along with his disciples Joshua ben Hananiah and Eliezer ben Hyrcanus—Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed by the Romans under Titus in 70.

In 136, following the Bar Kokhba Revolt, Emperor Hadrian renamed the city, which he had turned into a Roman colony, Aelia Capitolina, and forbade Jews from entering Jerusalem on pain of death. After Emperor Constantine the Great’s conversion to Christianity, Jerusalem became the Holy City for Christians. Constantine’s mother, Helena, visited the city in 325, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was soon built circa 336. Churches and monasteries multiplied in Jerusalem, which attracted pilgrims from near and far. In 614, the Sassanid Persians under Shahanshah Khosrow II briefly occupied the city with the assistance of some 24,000 Jews; in 628, Emperor Heraclius reclaimed Jerusalem for the Byzantine Empire and proscribed Jews from the city. In 637, Jerusalem was conquered by the Muslim Arabs under Caliph Omar, who had a wooden mosque erected upon Temple Mount; this modest structure was replaced in 691 by the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik’s Dome of the Rock shrine, reportedly built employing the labor of 10 Jewish families freed from poll taxes, and the adjacent Al-Aqsa Mosque (repeatedly destroyed by earthquakes and rebuilt until the current structure was built by the Fatimids in 1035). Jews were permitted to return to Jerusalem under Arab rule, but the city was neglected and soon conquered by Seljuk Turks in 1077. In 1099, Crusaders under Godfrey of Bouillon conquered Jerusalem and established it as the capital of their Latin Kingdom; they also slaughtered tens of thousands of Jerusalem’s Jewish and Muslim “infidels”.

In the 12th century, Jerusalem was visited by the sages Judah Halevi and Moses Maimonides, and by the itinerant traveler Benjamin of Tudela. In 1187, Sultan Saladin recaptured Jerusalem for the Muslims. In 1211, hundreds of English and French rabbis repatriated to Jerusalem. In 1260, the city was overrun by the Mongols under Hulagu Khan. In 1267, Moses Nahmanides came to Jerusalem and reorganized the Jewish community, which was over time replenished by Jewish returnees to the Land of Israel from Europe, particularly after the Spanish Expulsion of 1492, and from Muslim lands. The Mamluks reconstructed Jerusalem with new buildings and an improved water supply. From 1527-1542, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent rebuilt the city walls in irregular quadrangular form with eight gates (Jaffa, Zion, Dung, Lions’/St. Stephen’s, Herod’s/Flowers, Damascus, New, and Mercy/Golden), but in general Jerusalem declined severely due to neglect by the Ottoman Turks. Only from 1854 onward were new neighborhoods developed outside the Old City wall, with the help of Jewish benefactors such as Moses Montefiore and Judah Touro. In 1917, General Edmund Allenby occupied Jerusalem for the British after defeating the Ottomans. In spite of the restrictive British Mandate and the Arab riots of 1922, 1929, and 1936-1939, Jewish repatriation to Jerusalem increased and the Hebrew University atop Mount Scopus, founded in 1918, was opened in 1925.

In 1948, Jerusalem became the capital of the third Jewish commonwealth, the State of Israel. Following the War of Independence, Israel’s government and legislators moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, even as Jordan occupied the city’s eastern side. In 1967, during the Six-Day War, Israel recaptured the Old City from the Jordanian Arabs and Jews immediately returned to worship at the Western Wall, from which they had been barred by the Arabs for almost 20 years. The Jewish quarter of the Old City, which the Jordanians had demolished, was restored and repopulated. The 50th anniversary of Jerusalem’s historic liberation and reunification will be celebrated in 2017.

Aside from Jerusalem, all of the capitals of Israel are situated in areas (Judea & Samaria, or Jordan) now predominantly or entirely occupied by Muslim Arab populations. Ceding sovereignty over these seminal historic sites means not only forsaking supremely significant elements of Jewish national heritage, thereby attenuating Jewish identity, but it also means leaving them at the mercy of adversaries who lack basic respect for the important sites and antiquities of other, preceding civilizations. Only under full Israeli sovereignty can the preservation and posterity of these and many other Jewish historic sites be assured.

About the Author
Brandon Marlon is a Canadian-Israeli author whose writing has appeared in 275+ publications in 28 countries. His script The Bleeding Season won the 2007 Canadian Jewish Playwriting Competition. His poetry was awarded the Harry Hoyt Lacey Prize in Poetry (Fall 2015), and he is the author of two poetry volumes, Inspirations of Israel: Poetry for a Land and People, and Judean Dreams. www.brandonmarlon.com
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