<p>A herder serenades his goats near Jerusalem, a few miles from where David tended his herds.</p>

A herder serenades his goats near Jerusalem, a few miles from where David tended his herds.

Kings of Controversy

Was the Kingdom of David and Solomon a glorious empire—or just a little cow town? It depends on which archaeologist you ask.

The woman sitting on a bench in the Old City of Jerusalem, round-faced and bundled up against the autumn chill, chews on an apple while studying the building that has brought her both fame and aggravation. It doesn't really look like a building—just some low stone walls abutting an ancient terraced retaining wall 60 feet high. But because the woman is an archaeologist, and because this is her discovery, her eyes see what others might not. She sees the building's position, on a northern escarpment of the ancient city overlooking Jerusalem's Kidron Valley, and she imagines an ideal perch from which to survey a kingdom. She imagines the Phoenician carpenters and stonemasons who erected it in the tenth century B.C. She imagines as well the Babylonians who destroyed it four centuries later. Most of all, she imagines the man she believes commissioned and occupied the building. His name was David. This, she has declared to the world, is most likely the building described in the Second Book of Samuel: "King Hiram of Tyre sent … carpenters and masons, and they built a house for David. And David realized that the Lord had established him as king over Israel, and that He had exalted his kingdom for the sake of His people Israel."

The woman's name is Eilat Mazar. Munching and gazing, she is the picture of equanimity—until a tour guide shows up. He's a young Israeli man accompanied by a half dozen tourists who assemble in front of the bench so they can view the building. The moment he opens his mouth, Mazar knows what's coming. The tour guide is a former archaeology student of hers. She's heard how he brings tourists to this spot and informs them that this is NOT the palace of David and that all the archaeological work at the City of David is a way for right-wing Israelis to expand the country's territorial claims and displace Palestinians.

Mazar jumps up from the bench and marches over to the tour guide. She chews him out in a staccato of Hebrew, while he stares passively at her. The gaping tourists watch her stalk off.

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