Bill Slott

The City of Two Gates

In Hebrew grammar there is occasionally a form that is neither singular nor plural but dual, meaning two of something. (In Arabic this exists for all words, but in Hebrew only for a choice few). These special dual words are characterized by the suffix “ayim.”  Pa’am means once.   Pa’amayim means twice.  Similarly, shavua is a week and shvuayim is two weeks.  Misparayim (a pair of scissors), michnasayim (a pair of pants) and shnatayim (a period of two years) are all in this category as well.

Shaar is Hebrew for gate. The Bible references a town called “Shaarayim” (Joshua 15:36 and I Samuel 17:52), which would seem to mean “City of Two Gates,” though other meanings have been suggested.

With one exception, no Iron Age city has been uncovered that had two gates. The gate of a city being the most vulnerable spot during an attack, it would be foolhardy to build more than one gate. The exception, a site locally referred to as Khirbet Qeiyafa has both a western gate and a southern gate, and on a recent hike with friends, we found ourselves standing inside this city, a day’s walk southwest of Jerusalem, looking out through one of the gates at the Valley of Elah below.  Soon I was explaining to my companions that there must be another gate, scampering ahead like a kid chasing a balloon and trying to inspire in them the joy of an archaeology buff on the verge of a discovery. And there it was:

The second gate.


Very clearly two gates.

These gates caught the attention of Yossi Garfinkel, professor of archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The gates are built to precisely the same standards as other First Temple Period Gates. To the untrained eye they are remarkably similar to the gates of the Biblical cities of Hazor, Megiddo, Lachish  and Gezer.

The similarity of the gates by itself suggests that Khirbet Qeiyafa, like the aforementioned cities, is an Israelite city, perhaps from the period of the United Monarchy of David and Solomon, the early 10th century BCE. But Professor Garfinkel needed more to go on than just some architectural parallels and some ancient Hebrew wordplay.

It bears mentioning that Garfinkel has spent a large portion of his career engaged in an academic battle with the “minimalists” who claim that the biblical account of the United Monarchy of David and Solomon from the 10th century BCE is just a fable, and that if those kings existed at all, it was probably as small-time tribal chieftains from 100 years later or more.  This scholarly debate has been raging among archaeologists for decades, but Khirbet Qeiyafa (or Shaarayim) may have brought this argument to a tipping point in Garfinkel’s favor.

In addition to the gates, there is an entire city plan that is typical of Iron Age Israelite settlements.  A casemate wall surrounds the city, which is essentially two parallel walls with a space in between them and partitions forming a ring of chambers surrounding the site. In the case of the cities of the Kingdom of Judah, a ring of dwellings abut the inner wall, doubly employing the city wall as a wall of each home, and inside of that circle of houses is an immediately adjacent internal ring road. This unique system of three concentric circles, known only in the cities of the Kingdom of Judah, reinforces the claim that Khirbet Qeiyafa was a city of King David.

Further evidence that this city is Israelite: 1) Religious dietary restrictions: Among all of the food waste found by archaeologists, there is not a single pig bone 2) Unlike the Canaanite and Philistine cities, there are almost no statues of gods or animals or any figurative art at all, since as we know, the Ten Commandments forbid graven images.

Alright, say the minimalists.  Maybe it’s Israelite, but who says it’s from the time of King David?  For this, Garfinkel brings further evidence: Fourteen burnt olive pits, carbon dated to between 1,010 BCE and 970 BCE, precisely the chronology of the reign of King David. Finally, a shard was discovered at Khirbet Qeiyafa that bears writing, which Garfinkel claims is the oldest Hebrew writing ever found. Dated to the 10th century BCE, using words similar to those of the Torah, the text appeals to the reader to care for the widow, the orphan, the poor and the stranger and all in the name of the king: an ethical message coming to us from the Kingdom of David across three millennia.

In the biblical story of David and Goliath, the dual takes place in the Valley of Elah “between Socoh and Azekah.”  (two other sites in the area). Our Shaarayim, mentioned in the context of the Philistine retreat from the battle, is exactly between sites now identified as Socoh and Azekah

I am not an archaeologist, and I suspect I will get slammed by archaeologists for my amateur summation of Garfinkel’s findings and my dismissal of the minimalists. I also plead guilty to being a bit of a romantic when it comes to what is usually a somewhat dry field of study. Like most students of the Bible, or just those who love a good battle story, I want to believe that Khirbet Qeiyafa is that same Shaarayim mentioned as being in the path of the retreating Philistines after their defeat in the Valley of Elah. I enjoy imagining this ancient Hebrew frontier town only seven miles across the hills from Gath, hometown of Goliath the Giant (again, depending on which archaeologist you believe). And I am enchanted by the writing on the shard, hinting at the beginning of written Hebrew, and at the beginning of a national moral code.

For Garfinkel and his detractors, archaeology is trench warfare, a slow incremental series of volleys and returns in order to posit or disprove a position that may only be settled after they are dead. For me it is poetry, legend,  mystery and inspiration. Just as Rashi and the sages make scripture come alive through interpretation, so the archaeologist brings to life places, people and things that have been gone for millennia. King David, the (presumptive) ruler of Shaarayim, has been dead for 3,000 years, but according to Jewish tradition, we read his poetry every time we quote from the Book of Psalms. He lives on in our prayers of course, but no less does he live on in the meticulous work of the archaeologist, brushing away dirt from a piece of pottery revealing words from a language both ancient and modern.

There is poetry in that as well.

The Western Gate of “Shaarayim” facing Azekah. Photo: Bill Slott
Southern Gate of “Shaarayim” overlooking the Valley of Elah. Photo: Alon Tal
About the Author
Bill Slott is a licensed Israeli tour guide who has hiked and biked the length and breadth of the country. Bill is a member of Kibbutz Ketura, where he has lived since 1981 with his wife and three daughters.
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