At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem – the most revered holy site in the Christian world – a team of archaeologists excavate a tomb that is believed to be the resting place of Jesus Christ. Cutting through encasements of stone, the experts expose a cavity filled with dust and debris. And after they clear away centuries of grime, the group prise open the crypt. Then the crowd lay eyes on a groundbreaking discovery – and break out into wide smiles.
Among the first people to examine the inside of Christ’s tomb were leaders and representatives from three major Christian denominations: Roman Catholic, Armenian and Greek Orthodox. And, as we’ve seen, the discovery had a visible effect on these dignitaries. According to National Geographic archaeologist Fredrick Hiebert – who contributed to the excavation work – the members of the groups left the site with big grins.
Such a reaction perhaps wasn’t surprising given that no one had opened Jesus’ tomb for several centuries – but what was at stake here? Well, the project was designed and executed by a team of scientists from the National Technical University of Athens. The excavation took place in October 2016 and was part of an interdisciplinary effort to restore the site’s Edicule – the chapel-like structure that encloses the tomb.
Of course, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has a history spanning hundreds of years. It has been damaged, destroyed and reconstructed several times over the centuries, too. And all of this activity has led scholars to doubt the authenticity of the site. Now, though, this team has discovered firm evidence that resolves the debate once and for all. So is this really the location of Christ’s burial place?
The excavation certainly falls under the realm of “biblical archaeology” – a subfield of the discipline that aims to discern the historical truth of events written about in the Bible. Practitioners feel that it is necessary to submit the Bible to scientific analysis because the oldest known copies of the gospel were written approximately 100 years after the death of Christ. That means the accounts cannot be considered historically reliable. And this is significant when considering Christ’s tomb, of course.
For example, there is presently no archaeological evidence to support the claim that Jesus Christ was crucified by the Romans – although most Christians accept this as fact. While the Roman use of crucifixion as capital punishment is well-documented in literature, hard evidence of the practice consists of just two human skeletons. One was discovered in 1968; the other in 2018. And neither represented the remains of Jesus Christ.
That being said, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre does stand nearby the site where Christ is said to have been crucified. One of the most important pilgrimage destinations in the world, the structure lies within the Old City of Jerusalem. This is a district revered for its religious monuments, such as the Dome of the Rock and the Wailing Wall. And Old Jerusalem is a vital spiritual center for Christians, Jews and Muslims alike.
According to biblical accounts, the site of Christ’s execution was Golgotha – “the place of skulls.” After his death, the story goes, Jesus was laid to rest inside a nearby tomb. And three days later, he supposedly rose from the dead, visited his apostles and bestowed upon them a sacred mission. They were to deliver the gospel around the world – the so-called “good news” of spiritual redemption.
According to the Bible, responsibility for Christ’s dead body fell to a wealthy and elderly Jewish disciple called Joseph of Arimathea. Little is known about Joseph, but some scholars have suggested that he was a great uncle of Christ. Other sources suggest that his Christian devotion so enraged the authorities that they eventually arrested him and threw him in prison.
After removing Christ from the cross, though, Joseph of Arimathea apparently carried his body to his family tomb. Carved out of a cave, the tomb consisted of a long burial chamber with niches for holding bodies. According to the scriptures, Joseph then swathed the body in linen, laid it on a burial shelf and sealed the tomb by rolling a rock over its entrance.
Centuries later, in approximately 325 A.D., the Roman Emperor Constantine I sent envoys to find the tomb. The citizens of Jerusalem directed them to a temple commissioned by one of Constantine’s predecessors, Emperor Hadrian. And historical sources suggest that Hadrian ordered the temple’s construction as a symbolic act – to both desecrate the Christian shrine and demonstrate the superior might of Roman religion.
But Constantine was not a pagan; he was the first Roman emperor to embrace Christianity. So he tore down the Roman temple and excavated the ground beneath it. And after locating the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth, he had the roof of the cave removed and a Christian church built around it.
According to the Roman biographer Eusebius of Caesarea, the first Church of the Holy Sepulchre was a lavish construction, fit for the King of Kings. Visitors entered via a staircase from the Cardo, Old Jerusalem’s principal thoroughfare, and passed through a complex of ornately decorated chambers and a “holy garden.” The tomb itself was open to the sky.
Naturally, perhaps, it was only a matter of time before the temple was destroyed. This came after the Arabs invaded Jerusalem in 638. These people were initially accepting of the Christian faith – but anti-Christian unrest eventually led to the destruction of the church’s dome in 966. Then, in 1009, the “Mad Caliph” Fatimid caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah – a notorious fanatic – simply obliterated the church. Fortunately, though, the tomb must have remained intact.
And in the mid-11th century, the Byzantine Empire and the Fatimids agreed on a truce. So, Emperor Constantine IX Monomachus and Patriarch Nicephorus ordered the construction of a new Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In 1077, though, the Seljuk Empire assumed control of Jerusalem and began to abuse the Christian pilgrims. And, in response, European crusaders set off to the Holy Land with the aim of “liberating” the church where Jesus was buried.
After this, in the 12th century, crusaders restored and renovated the church to give it the form it has today. The mid-18th century also saw the city’s Ottoman administrators implement a novel power-sharing scheme to resolve conflicts between the church’s leaders. This was known as the “status quo.” Yet the structure was destroyed by a fire in 1808. It was then reconstructed before being badly shaken by an earthquake in 1927. Throughout it all, stories of the tomb of Jesus Christ remained the one constant.
But the status quo scheme continues today with Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian denominations managing the church together. Conflicts do occasionally flare up, however. In 2008, for example, a dispute between Armenian and Greek Orthodox monks escalated into a physical fight. The church’s collective decision-making process tends to be incredibly slow, too. So it’s no wonder Christ’s tomb remained closed for so long.
For instance, there is a ladder near the church entrance that has been the subject of discussion for years. It is known as “the immovable ladder” because it has not been moved from its position for more than two centuries. Debates around this and about the most recent repairs and renovations began in 1959.
Speaking to the Daily Mail in 2016, a Franciscan monk called Athanasius Macora complained that the renovation was quite restrained. He said, “I personally would have liked to maybe contemplate some alternative to simply restoring the current structure. But because the status quo is so conservative in its nature, we had to more or less accept the fact that there would be no change whatsoever to the current structure.”
But there have been successful archaeological excavations of the church in the recent past. In the 20th century, for instance, researchers made scores of groundbreaking discoveries at the site – including several rock tombs, an ancient limestone quarry pit and what were thought to be walls from Constantine’s first church. But Christ’s tomb remained untouched… until our team of archaeologists got to work.
The 2016 excavation was the first time that the tomb had been opened for several centuries. That’s partly because church authorities covered it over with marble in 1555 to prevent visitors from stealing pieces of the original rock burial bed. So when our 21st-century archaeologists removed the marble cladding, they discovered something quite unexpected.
The discovery came on the evening of October 26. After removing the 16th-century marble casing, the archaeologists found a layer of filling materials and debris. The team then continued digging. And after some 60 hours of non-stop effort, they encountered a second marble slab with a cross etched into it.
Speaking to The Independent, Hiebert said this discovery was a personal highlight. He said, “The most amazing thing for me was when we removed the first layer of dust and found a second piece of marble. This one was gray, not creamy white like the exterior, and right in the middle of it was a beautifully inscribed cross. We had no idea that was there.”
Yes, the slab was something of a mystery. Some historians speculated that the crusaders may have installed it during one of their forays. Others suggested it might be considerably older – and that the crack in its surface could have resulted from the Mad Caliph’s attack in 1009. One thing was certain, though: the slab could not be any newer than the outer cladding. So it was at least five centuries old.
Two days after this discovery, the team finally exposed the original burial slab upon which Jesus Christ sat. And with just a few hours to go before the tomb was scheduled to be closed, the experts speedily gathered samples for analysis in the lab. Of course, there were no guarantees that Christ was ever in the tomb, let alone laid to rest there.
After all, Constantine’s envoys arrived in Jerusalem some 300 years after Christ walked the earth. So they could have identified the wrong grave. According to archaeologist Martin Biddle, who completed a pioneering study of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1999, the only way to know is to diligently analyze all the data.
Yet he does not doubt that the site is authentic. Speaking to National Geographic in 2016, he said, “There are at least half a dozen other rock-cut tombs below various parts of the church. So why did Bishop Eusebius identify this tomb as the tomb of Christ? He doesn’t say, and we don’t know. I don’t myself think Eusebius got it wrong — he was a very good scholar — so there probably is evidence if only it is looked for.”
That is exactly what the 2016 researchers did. After gathering samples, the team resealed the burial bed in its original marble cladding. Speaking to National Geographic in 2016, Professor Antonia Moropoulou, the team’s leader, explained that the tomb won’t be reopened for a very long time – possibly thousands of years. She said, “The architectural conservation which we are implementing is intended to last forever.”
Hiebart later hailed the unearthing of the burial bed as “amazing.” Speaking to The Independent in 2016, he said, “The shrine has been destroyed many times by fire, earthquakes and invasions over the centuries. We didn’t really know if they had built it in exactly the same place every time. But this seems to be visible proof that the spot the pilgrims worship today really is the same tomb the Roman Emperor Constantine found in the 4th century.”
But it was not until November 2017, when the team obtained results from their lab, that they were able to accurately assign a date to the tomb. Their tests involved using samples of mortar from both the burial bed and the hidden slab. A process called optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) then ascertained when sediments of quartz crystals last saw light.
Previous attempts to date the site had indicated that it was only 1,000 years old – despite the documentary evidence linking the shrine to the Roman period. However, the tests released by Moropoulou show that both the burial slab and its hidden cover were last exposed to light in the 4th century.
So the results conclusively prove that the burial bed was sealed during the reign of Emperor Constantine. They therefore resolve the long-running dispute about the veracity of the site. Speaking to National Geographic, Biddle said, “Obviously, that date is spot-on for whatever Constantine did. That’s very remarkable.”
The scientists were able to identify evidence of earlier restoration works, too. For example, the analysis of mortar from the southern wall yielded dates from the 4th and 16th centuries. Speaking to National Geographic, Moropoulou explained that these findings corroborated historical narratives. She said, “It is interesting how [these] mortars not only provide evidence for the earliest shrine… but also confirm the historical construction sequence of the Edicule.”
The team also claims to have identified parts of the original cave. Moropoulou explained to National Geographic that one of its limestone walls is now visible through a new window in the Edicule. She said, “This is the Holy Rock that has been revered for centuries, but only now can actually be seen.”
Yet the findings do not prove that Christ was ever buried in the tomb. Still, archaeologists such as Dan Bahat think the evidence is compelling. Speaking to the Daily Mail in 2016, Bahat said, “We may not be absolutely certain that the site of the Holy Sepulchre Church is the site of Jesus’ burial, but we certainly have no other site that can lay a claim nearly as weighty, and we really have no reason to reject the authenticity of the site.”
The case actually highlights a long-running schism in biblical archaeology. On one side, some scholars take the Bible at face value — and strongly believe that Christ was a real historical figure. On the other, many experts think the historical reality of Christ – if there is such a thing – has been somewhat distorted by biblical fiction and Christian mythologies. Yet both use archaeological research to bolster their claims.
Writing for National Geographic in 2016, Kristin Romey traveled to the Holy Land to uncover the truth. Using the Bible as a kind of travel guidebook, she visited sites described in the New Testament. Romey also spoke to numerous scholars and witnessed the opening of Christ’s tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. There, she experienced an epiphany.
Romey wrote, “I recall being alone inside the tomb after its marble cladding was briefly removed, overwhelmed that I was looking at one of the world’s most important monuments — a simple limestone shelf that people have revered for millennia, a sight that hadn’t been seen for possibly a thousand years. I was overwhelmed by all the questions of history.”
But it wasn’t until Romey returned to the tomb during Easter that she realized those questions may have little import beyond the realms of science and scholarship. Shuffling into the tomb with a crowd of pilgrims, she observed worshippers planting kisses and prayer cards on its marble cladding.
“At this moment, I realize that to sincere believers, the scholars’ quest for the historical, non-supernatural Jesus is of little consequence,” Romey wrote. “That quest will be endless, full of shifting theories, unanswerable questions, irreconcilable facts. But for true believers, their faith in the life, death and resurrection of the Son of God will be evidence enough.”
Plenty of other biblical discoveries have been made in recent years, too. After ice was taken from Mount Kilimanjaro in 2000, for instance, scientists set to work analyzing the valuable samples. When they investigated what had been taken from the famous landmark, however, the experts found something entirely unexpected – and completely stunning. You see, the ice doesn’t just tell us a great deal about how our planet has changed over the millennia. It also appears that the fragments could be evidence to support a well-known Bible passage in the Book of Genesis.
That said, ice cores – including those ones from Kilimanjaro – can often shed light on events in human history. Scientists extract the cores by drilling into glaciers and ice sheets around the world – everywhere from the tropics to the polar regions – either by hand or with specialist machinery. And as power-drilled cores can travel to depths in excess of two miles, elements of that ice may have been on the planet for as long as 800,000 years.
But how can these cores tell us so much about the Earth? Well, many ice fields and glaciers have been formed over millennia, and as each layer of ice is added it creates a record of the climate during that time. For example, water may contain preserved bubbles of air that originate from the period in which it froze. And these findings can then be examined in a lab in order to decipher information such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere during a particular era.
In that way, ice cores can provide key information about former climatic conditions on our planet. But that’s not all. In some cases, you see, the cores can also help us to understand events in human history for which there is no credible documentation. And, on occasion, they may be able to prove that fables such as those contained in the Bible actually do have some basis in fact.
Furthermore, as we’ve already mentioned, those ice cores from Mount Kilimanjaro did seem to confirm a story from the Old Testament. We’ll look at the precise details of the discovery in a moment, but first, let’s learn more about Kilimanjaro itself. And this tale takes us back many millions of years – to a time before humans had evolved in Africa.
As some may know, Mount Kilimanjaro is located in Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro National Park. Geography buffs will tell you, too, that the United Republic of Tanzania – to give the country its proper name – is located on the east coast of the African continent and has borders with eight other nations, including Kenya and Uganda. Tanzania’s 885 miles of coast also overlooks the Indian Ocean.
Kilimanjaro National Park, meanwhile, sits near Tanzania’s northern border with Kenya and covers 652 square miles. And the sprawling land in fact plays home to a group of indigenous people: the Bantu-speaking Chaga, who migrated to the area from about the 11th century onwards. The Chaga’s economy is largely based on agriculture, and their arabica coffee beans are exported around the world.
The Chaga are certainly not alone in the park, however, as the attraction also hosts a wide variety of wildlife – including elephants and leopards. Also living on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro is the tree hyrax – a nocturnal mammal with a bushy coat that is actually a distant relative of the elephant. Blue monkeys, western black and white colobuses and Cape buffaloes have all taken up residence in Kilimanjaro National Park, too.
Mount Kilimanjaro itself, meanwhile, consists of three peaks – all of which have been formed from currently inactive volcanoes. This trio is comprised of Kibo, which has a summit 16,893 feet above sea level; Mawenzi, which rises to 16,893 feet; and Shira, which possesses a summit of 13,140 feet from sea level. Of the three, however, only Kibo could potentially erupt again in the future.
Shira’s life as an active volcano started around two and a half million years ago, with this explosive period lasting for some 600,000 years. Today, though, Shira has a large plateau at around 12,500 feet that is surrounded by the remnants of its caldera – or the lipped edge typical of a volcanic mountain. The caldera has been much reduced over the millennia, too, as the result of erosion.
The volcanic activity from Kibo and Mawenzi, though, was much more recent – taking place about one million years ago. And, as it happens, Mawenzi and Kibo also have a plateau between them – known as the Saddle – at an altitude of about 14,400 feet. All of Kilimanjaro’s rugged peaks also have a range of features, including secondary summits, pinnacles and ridges that have been formed by the eroding action of wind and rain.
The environment around the dormant volcano is pretty verdant to boot. About 1,000 square miles of the land around the mountains are forested, although the Kilimanjaro foothills are cultivated by local farmers. There, they harvest a selection of crops, including beans, sunflowers, maize and wheat. The coffee mentioned earlier grows a little higher up the slopes, however, at an altitude of around 3,000 to 6,000 feet.
As for the highest of the three Kilimanjaro peaks? Well, it appears that Kibo last erupted between 150,000 and 200,000 years ago. Evidence for this comes in the form of fumaroles – breaches in the rock surface that still give off gases. Kibo’s caldera, meanwhile, is a little over one and a half miles across and includes the Reusch Crater. This feature was named after mountaineer Gustav Reusch on the occasion of his 25th climb to the mountain’s summit.
Of course, for East African people, Mount Kilimanjaro has been a familiar landmark for thousands of years. But it was only as recently as 1848 that modern Europeans first got a close-up view of the majestic, ice-covered peaks. And the lucky men in question were two German missionaries: Johann Krapf and Johannes Rebmann.
What’s more, on May 11, 1848, Rebmann wrote an entry in his diary that documented what he and Krapf had seen. According to Hans Meyer’s 1891 book Across East African Glaciers: An Account of the First Ascent of Kilimanjaro, the explorer explained, “This morning, at 10 o’clock, we obtained a clearer view of the mountains of Jagga – the summit of one of which was covered by what looked like a beautiful white cloud.” Jagga was an alternative name for Mount Kilimanjaro at the time.
Rebmann’s diary entry continued, “When I inquired as to the dazzling whiteness, the guide merely called it ‘cold,’ and at once I knew it could be neither more nor less than snow… Immediately I understood how to interpret the marvelous tales Dr. Krapf and I had heard at the coast of a vast mountain of gold and silver in the far interior – the approach to which was guarded by evil spirits.”
Then, once Europeans had managed to reach Kilimanjaro, there were a number of unsuccessful attempts to climb to Kibo’s peak. Finally, in 1889, Hans Meyer and Ludwig Purtscheller made it to Kibo’s summit, which is on the south side of the mountain’s crater.
Meyer – a German geographer who wrote that aforementioned book about Kilimanjaro – had made the attempt on Kibo twice before but had failed on both occasions. At the age of 31, however, he finally succeeded along with his Austrian mountaineer companion. The two had reached the summit thanks to a carefully planned system of well-supplied base camps.
It would be nearly another 25 years, though, before any European reached the summit of Mawenzi. That technically more arduous climb was conquered in the end by Germans Fritz Klute and Eduard Oehler in 1912. And, of course, ever since those milestones were achieved, people from all around the world have flocked to Kilimanjaro to trek up its slopes. As many as 25,000 visit the mountain each year, in fact.
At well over 19,000 feet, Mount Kilimanjaro is Africa’s tallest peak; it’s also the highest free-standing mountain anywhere in the world. And, naturally, the landmark’s height is the reason why it features snow cover and glaciers even though it is in the tropics and relatively close to the Equator.
Indeed, night-time temperatures on Kilimanjaro’s slopes and summit can fall to as low as −20 °F. Yet despite this, it’s well established that snow cover and glaciers atop the mountain have been shrinking. And while this phenomenon occurred for most of the 20th century – melting was recorded from 1912 to 1953, for instance – ice cover diminution has only continued at a faster pace since then.
Scientists view the decreasing amount of ice on Kilimanjaro as part of a wider global trend of glacial retreat, with some even believing that the material will have disappeared entirely from the mountain by 2060. But while the dissipation of the ice has been linked to climate change, there may also be other local environmental factors at work – such as deforestation.
In any case, in 2000 researchers drilled six cores from Kilimanjaro’s ice as a means of helping determine the causes of the mountain’s disappearing frozen water reserves. A team led by Ohio State University geologist Lonnie Thompson camped for about a month at an altitude of 19,300 feet on the slopes of Kilimanjaro in order to retrieve the cores.
Getting the required samples was hardly easy, either. For one, the operation led by Thompson required no fewer than 25 different permissions from various Tanzanian agencies. And after the team were finally given the green light, they still had to get their equipment up the mountain to the drilling site – a task that ultimately entailed no fewer than 92 porters.
Meanwhile, the holes drilled to extract the cylindrical ice cores varied from 30 to almost 170 feet in length, with most at the higher end of that range. Then, two years after the cores had been obtained, Thompson and several of his colleagues published a paper that was based on analysis of the ice samples and entitled “Kilimanjaro Ice Core Records: Evidence of Holocene Climate Change in Tropical Africa.”
And as the name of that article suggests, the reason why Thompson and his fellow scientists had traveled up Mount Kilimanjaro was in order to study the impact of climate change on those high ice fields. But there was yet another find along the way. Ultimately, you see, the group also appeared to verify a story from the Book of Genesis.
Before we show the relevance of the scientists’ research to that tale in the Old Testament, however, let’s just take a look at the dating methods that they used. First off, the way in which the age of the ice cores was calculated actually had its origins in nuclear bomb tests that had taken place in 1951 and 1952. You see, those tests had actually released an isotope called chlorine-36. And once this radioactive material had been detected in the cores, this could subsequently be used as a marker to date the whole historic extent of the ice cylinders.
Upon investigation, then, the cores offered evidence of a drought in Africa that had started about 8,300 years ago and persisted for some 500 years. Thompson explained this discovery further in a 2002 press release from Ohio State University, saying, “We believe that this represents a time when the lakes of Africa were drying up.” The ice also showed a later drought that took place around 5,200 years ago.
But it was a third drought from about 4,000 years ago – and which lasted for 300 years – that seemingly tied in with the story of Joseph as recorded in the Book of Genesis. And as it happens, that tale is not only found in the Christian Bible but also in the Islamic Qur’an and the Jewish Torah.
As some may already know, the purported events of Joseph’s life are recounted in chapters 37 to 50 of Genesis. And according to this account, the man in question was the 11th son of Jacob, who had been born when his father was married to his second wife Rachel. It seems, too, that Joseph was a particular favorite of his dad’s.
The story goes that Jacob subsequently gave Joseph “a coat of many colors” as a means of showing his affection. But apparently this gift – with its clear connotations of favoritism – made Joseph’s brothers intensely envious. And as Genesis relates, the men’s antagonism towards their young brother was only heightened by the mystical dreams that Joseph claimed to have – as well as his reported ability to interpret them.
Then the Bible claims that the brothers seized Joseph in a fit of envy. Some of Joseph’s siblings are said to have wanted to murder him, in fact, but instead he was supposedly sold into slavery to a band of traders whose camel train was on its way to Egypt. And in order to conceal their crime from Jacob, the brothers reportedly smeared Joseph’s coat with goat’s blood and presented it as evidence that he had died.
So, as the tale relates, Joseph began life in a foreign land as a house slave to a rich Egyptian called Potiphar. Unfortunately, though, Potiphar’s wife Zuleika apparently took a shine to Joseph and made her feelings known. And while Joseph is said to have rebuffed those advances, his reward for loyalty to his master was to be thrown into prison after Zuleika laid false rape charges against him.
The Book of Genesis also says that Joseph’s talent for interpreting the dreams of others came to the fore when he was incarcerated – and that he actually performed such a service for two of his fellow prisoners. These men were no ordinary criminals, either; one had been the Egyptian pharaoh’s chief baker, while the other had worked as the ruler’s cup-bearer. Joseph’s translation of the cup-bearer’s dream, then, was that he would be restored to his previous position. The baker, on the other hand, would be executed. And as the Bible tells it, both prophecies ultimately proved correct.
Then, a couple of years later, the pharoah himself apparently had a strange dream. In this vision, he reputedly saw seven emaciated cattle eating seven well-fed cows; he also imagined seven wilted ears of corn eating seven healthy ears of grain. And although no one at court could tell their ruler what these disturbing scenes meant, the pharaoh’s restored cup-bearer remembered his former prison mate’s dream-interpreting talent.
So, the biblical account claims that the pharaoh sent for Joseph, who would tell the other man the meaning of his dreams. In Joseph’s eyes, it’s said, Egypt would enjoy seven years of plenty before subsequently suffering seven years of famine. And the pharaoh was reportedly so impressed by the former slave that he would appoint him to be his vizier – a senior adviser and official.
As the story explains, Joseph as vizier then set about storing great quantities of grain during the seven good years that followed. In this way, when the seven years of drought and famine came along – just as had been predicted – these grain hoards were able to see Egypt through hard times.
And it’s this period of drought recorded in the Book of Genesis – and which scholars claim took place between approximately 3,600 and 3,700 years ago – that ties in with the findings of Thompson and his team. You’ll remember that the ice cores showed a drought had likely started in the area about 4,000 years ago and extended for some three centuries.
More specifically, the evidence that the scientists had uncovered for this barren period had been a thin layer of dust in the ice cores. And along with the account in Genesis, there are other ancient records that indicate Egypt had been troubled by a drought so severe that it ultimately put the authority of the pharaohs at risk. Before then, parts of the Sahara desert as we know it today had been fertile land.
And this unusual conjunction of biblical storytelling and modern scientific fact seems to further bolster the tale of Joseph’s drought prophecy. Yes, while very few take the Old Testament as literal history, Thompson’s Kilimanjaro ice cores appear to show that verifiable facts from thousands of years ago are nevertheless woven into its tales.
Then, over a decade after Thompson’s discovery, experts in Israel unearthed a historical treasure that suggested yet another biblical story had really occurred. Yes, at Mount Zion in Jerusalem, a group of archaeologists are slaving away in the Middle Eastern heat. And as the team go, they pick through thousands of years of history in a bid to find something significant. Their efforts aren’t in vain, though, as ultimately they’re rewarded with an incredible find – something that may just prove a story from the Bible actually once took place.
It’s perhaps no surprise that the archaeologists struck pay dirt, either, as in the sixth century B.C., a great city – one described in the Bible as a place rich in culture and wealth – stood at the location. And even today, Jerusalem hosts a number of historic sights that provide a window into the area’s past. But because many stories have been told about this land, it sometimes takes an expert to separate fact from fiction.
According to the Bible, Jerusalem fell when the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II unleashed his wrath on the Judean king Zedekiah in around 586 B.C. And in the chaos, it’s said, much of the city was destroyed. Even the mighty King Solomon’s Temple was apparently demolished – sparking an archaeological mystery that continues today. But how much of this legend actually has its basis in fact?
Well, before answering that question, it’s worth looking at exactly where the archaeologists’ dig took place. Today, the name Mount Zion is used to refer to an area of Jerusalem known as the Western Hill. Situated in the vicinity of the Old City’s ancient walls, this mound is where many modern excavations take place. And according to some, Mount Zion is the site where the biblical King David constructed his palace.
Jerusalem itself, meanwhile, was first inhabited in around 4,500 B.C. and has seen many changes since, as a succession of invaders conquered its borders. But while history tells us the story of each population, the Bible gives a far more specific version of events. Apparently, the city was home to a community of Canaanite people in the 12th century B.C. – so, before King David arrived.
Then, according to the Bible, in around 1,000 B.C. King David laid siege to Jerusalem and established his own city in its place. There, the leader built his fabled palace, and he declared that this new settlement would be the heart of the Kingdom of Israel. Later, David’s son King Solomon is said to have constructed his own grand temple on the same site.
Nowadays, of course, Jerusalem is integral to a number of religions – not only Judaism, but also Christianity and Islam. As such, the city lies at the heart of the conflict that still rages in the Middle East. And because of this battle for sovereignty, some of the region’s history has become confused. In fact, Western Hill is among three sites that have been identified as Mount Zion over the years.
One of these locations, known as Temple Mount, has been largely off-limits to archaeologists in recent times. Both the Western and Lower Eastern Hills, by contrast, have been subjected to numerous excavations. You see, many believe that the Western Hill contains the true relics of the biblical city – despite evidence that suggests the Eastern Hill was actually once the location of David’s settlement.
Furthermore, today’s Mount Zion has been a hotbed of excavation since at least the 19th century. And in 2007 the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC) launched its own Mount Zion Archaeological Project – the first scheme of its kind by an institution from outside Israel. Since then, each summer season has yielded fascinating finds that help to tell the story of this ancient city.