Were it not for an eccentric Finn and a former officer in the British army, King David’s family tombs might never have been found. No, we don’t mean the tomb on Mount Zion, whose doubtful sighting is based on Christian traditions from the Middle Ages. Rather, we are referring to a group of tunnels and caves in the City of David that more closely fit the biblical description. These were uncovered during excavations adjacent to Beit Meyuhas, a 19th-century house built by one of the first Jews to move outside the walls of the Old City.
It all started when Valter Henrik Juvelius met Captain Montague Parker. Juvelius was a Finnish surveyor, poet and philosopher who wrote his doctoral thesis on Jewish chronology. Obsessed with the possibility of locating the lost Holy Ark and Temple treasures, he planned to bring an expedition to the Land of Israel in their pursuit. Parker loved the idea.
Parker was a rich, noble, and possibly bored British ex-army captain. According to some accounts, before his departure, Parker attended a séance at which, in perfect English, King Solomon told him where to look.
Some say that Juvelius claimed to have read a secret book in an even more secret library which revealed the location of the treasures. Others, like lecturer Tal Chenya, say that Juvelius claimed his unique way of reading between the lines of the Bible would divulge the site.
Parker and Juvelius collected over $100,000 from supporters of their quest. They then bribed Turkish government officials into obtaining permission from the Jerusalem Pasha to dig in what we today call the City of David.
Living there already was Rahamim Nathan Meyuhas, a butcher whose family had found its way to Jerusalem from Spain in 1510. The slaughterhouse he used for his animals operated before dawn and was located outside the Old City, where Meyuhas lived with his family. Since the doors of the Old City only opened when the sun rose, he decided to move outside the walls.
In 1873 he picked a location known as the City of David, where there were few houses. Across the Kidron river bed in Silwan there was Arab settlement, but the Meyuhas family would be alone in the first Jewish home to be built in the area. For water they had the Shiloah, or Siloam Spring, and they grew all of the vegetables they ate.
We got a look at the historic Meyuhas house on a tour with Chenya, who guides regularly at the City of David. He told us that warm and friendly relationships sprang up between the Arabs and their Jewish neighbors across the way. Happy occasions like weddings and holidays were always celebrated together, with the Jews bringing matzah to the Arabs on Passover, and the Arabs big trays of honey to the Jews. For their weddings, the Arabs even made sure the Meyuhas family would have kosher food.
Juvelius and Parker arrived in 1909, hired several hundred Arab workers, and fenced off an area in the City of David not far from the Meyuhas house. Then they began to dig.
At one point Jerusalem’s Jews began to wonder what kind of shady happenings were taking place beyond the fence. Baron Edmund de Rothschild — a banker philanthropist who founded many an early settlement in the Land of Israel — got wind of their activities. Worried that Solomon’s crown and other treasures could end up in the hands of non-Jews, he decided to buy the property on which the excavations were taking place.
Parker was convinced that the treasures were actually somewhere on the Temple Mount. In 1911, when it became obvious that the adventure was coming to an end, he bribed the guard at the Temple Mount to look the other way. And one dark night when no one was supposed to be about, Parker and his crew dressed up as Muslims and began digging beneath the Dome of the Rock — the stone believed by some to hold up the world.
Unfortunately for Parker, they were not alone for long. That night an Arab Jerusalemite held a party and had so many guests that he had to find himself another place to sleep. He picked the Temple Mount, and after climbing up was shocked and startled to find people digging away under the stone.
As he screamed for help Parker and his associates fled from the spot, making it all the way to Jaffa. Unfortunately for them, the telegraph had already been invented and Jaffa gendarmes had instructions to search their luggage.
Parker wasn’t fazed for a minute. He invited the police to his yacht, where, he said, they could go through his bags in comfort. Then, Parker loaded the boat with a number of sacks and dashed off before the gendarmes arrived. Contemporary newspaper accounts related that he did make off with some fabulous treasures, from Solomon’s crown to Moses’ staff.
In 1913, Baron Rothschild asked archeologist Raymond Weill to excavate the property that he now owned in the City of David. Weill, the first Jewish archeologist to conduct excavations in Palestine, made two major discoveries. The first was an inscription discovered deep in a cistern. Written in Greek, it belonged to a synagogue over 2,000 years old.
The inscription is attributed to Theodotos, a Jewish priest who was the head of the synagogue. It speaks of a synagogue founded by his forefathers where Jewish law was read and the Bible’s commandments taught. Also mentioned are a guest room, an inn, and water facilities. A copy of the inscription can be seen next to the caves today.
The second discovery was made on the slopes above the Siloam Pool: a Roman quarry next to a group of caves assumed to have been used for burial. According to the Bible, King David was buried “in the City of David” (1 Kings 2:10). Of course, we can’t know today what royal tombs looked like in David’s time. However, the Book of Nehemiah, written in the 5th century BCE, places them just about where Weill discovered the caves.
Once Jews began returning to Jerusalem from their exile in Babylon, they began repairing the walls of the city: “Shallun… repaired the wall of the Pool of Siloam… as far as the steps going down from the City of David… Nehemiah son of Azbuk… made repairs up to a point opposite the tombs of David.” (Nehemiah 3:15)
Following Weill’s discovery, and as excavations continued at the end of World War I, the Meyuhas family was asked to leave so that workers could dig under their home. They left, but the house remained standing. Later on, Arabs moved into the City of David.
After Rothschild passed away in 1934, the property he had purchased was transferred to the Jewish National Fund (JNF).
Entrance to the City of David is NIS 28; half price for seniors, children and soldiers. While you can just appear at the ticket window, it is better to reserve in advance by calling (in Israel) 02-626-8700 or *6033, or visiting the City of David website.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.