How archaeologists recreated Jerusalem’s 586 BCE burning

The Hebrew Bible is the only surviving record of the siege that destroyed Solomon’s Temple.

A September study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science reports that archaeologists have found fresh evidence to corroborate biblical accounts of the Babylonians’ siege and burning of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.

The only record of this historic event, which included Solomon’s Temple being destroyed, can be found in the Hebrew Bible. According to co-author Nitsan Shalom of Tel Aviv University in Israel, “the Babylonian chronicles from these years were not preserved,” he told New Scientist. “The whole city was burned and remained completely empty, like the descriptions you see in [the Book of] Lamentations about the city deserted and in complete misery,” the biblical account says of the violent and complete destruction.

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Under Nebuchadnezzar II’s leadership, Judah was a vassal kingdom of Babylon in the latter half of the 7th century BCE. This infuriated Judah’s king, Jehoiakim, who, in 601 BCE, rose up against the Babylonian king in spite of the prophet Jeremiah’s warning not to. When Nebuchadnezzar attempted—and failed—to invade Egypt, he stopped making the obligatory tribute payments and took a side with that nation.Upon the death of Jehoiakim, his son Jeconiah took over as Nebuchadnezzar’s army besieged Jerusalem in 597 BCE. The city was plundered, and Jeconiah gave up and, in exchange for his troubles, he and a large number of Judah’s people were taken to Babylon. (The number is 10,000 according to the Book of Kings.) Zedekiah, his uncle, rose to become Judah’s king.

Zedekiah, too, was displeased with Babylonian rule and staged his own uprising. He refused to make the tribute payment and instead formed an alliance with Hophra, the pharaoh of Egypt. Nebuchadnezzar’s army brutally besieged Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, for thirty months as a result. In the end, the Babylonians triumphed once more, scaling Jerusalem’s defenses to take control of the city. After being made to witness his sons’ execution, Zedekiah was blinded, bound, and transported as a prisoner to Babylon. In 586 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar showed less mercy and gave the order for his army to demolish Jerusalem and tear down the wall.

The story that the city and neighboring towns and villages on the western border were destroyed by fire is supported by archeological findings. Between 1978 and 1982, excavations at three residential buildings revealed burned wooden beams that may have been around 586 BCE. When archaeologists excavated multiple structures at the Giv’ati Parking Lot archeological site, close to the assumed location of Solomon’s Temple, they also discovered burned wooden beams and ash from the same period. Plaster floor samples revealed exposure to temperatures as high as 600 degrees Celsius.

But from that evidence, it was impossible to conclude whether the fires were accidental or intentional, or even where the intentional fire originated. Shalom and her associates concentrated on the two-story Building 100 at the Giv’ati Parking Lot location for their most recent study. They employed archaeomagnetic analysis, which establishes whether samples containing magnetic minerals were heated enough to reorient those compounds to a new magnetic north, and Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy, which measures the absorption of infrared light to determine how heated a sample had been.

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Three rooms on the lower level of Building 100, designated A, B, and C, had varied degrees of exposure to high-temperature fire, with Room C displaying the most evident evidence, according to the analysis. If there had been a fire path, this would have indicated that Room C was the ignition point, but Room C’s fire seemed to be personal. The authors came to the conclusion that multiple fires were started in the building, with the exception of the “intense local fire” in Room C on the first floor, and that the fires burned strongest in the upper stories when combined with data from an earlier 2020 study on sections of the building’s second level.

“When a structure burns, heat rises and is concentrated below the ceiling,” the authors stated. “The walls and roof are therefore heated to higher temperatures than the floor.” It appears that this is what happened based on the charred beams found on the floors. Radiant heat was present on the floors, but the majority of the heat rose to the ceiling, burning the beams until they collapsed. However, the size of the debris suggests that the Babylonians went back in and purposefully destroyed any more walls because it was probably not just that collapse that caused it.

Besides, Shalom told New Scientist, “they targeted the more important, the more famous buildings in the city,” instead of demolishing everything without a second thought. “2600 years later, we’re still mourning the temple.”

Shalom et al. concluded that “we may assume the fire was intentionally ignited due to its widespread presence in all rooms and both stories of the building,” despite the fact that they could not find any additional fuels that might have acted as accelerants. “The materials discovered inside the rooms suggest that there was sufficient combustible material—wooden and plant-based objects as well as building supplies—to eliminate the need for extra fuel. The extensive charred remains point to a purposeful fire destruction. The building collapsed quickly and the fire spread widely, indicating that the destroyers made great efforts to completely destroy and destroy the building.”

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