BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Searching for Solomon

Does archaeology shed light on the legendary king?

The Judgment of Solomon, by Raffaello Sanzio (Raphael), c. 1518. Public Domain

The Judgment of Solomon, by Raffaello Sanzio (Raphael), c. 1518. Public Domain.

The figure of King Solomon has captivated countless generations of Bible readers. The wise king had already reached legendary status in antiquity, and by the first century CE, numerous tales were told of his exploits, including many not even found in the Bible. Even to the authors of the Deuteronomistic History (the books of Deuteronomy through Kings), Solomon’s reign represented a Pax Solomonica—a Golden Age of peace and prosperity for ancient Israel following many long decades of conflict. The wars of Saul and David had been fought and won, and Israel and Judah lived in safety, “every man under his vine and fig tree” (1 Kings 4:25). The Bible says Solomon established a vast political network from the borders of Egypt to beyond the Euphrates, with many nations paying him tribute. He used this wealth to fund building projects across the land, the most famous being his royal palace and the Temple in Jerusalem.

But is there evidence that such a prosperous time existed for ancient Israel and Judah? If so, can these achievements be attributed to Solomon? Although no direct textual or archaeological evidence of Solomon has been discovered, archaeologists continue to look for clues that can substantiate key aspects of his reign as described in the Bible, including his legendary wealth, trade connections, and building projects.

Solomon’s Wealth

In the Bible, we are told that Solomon brought in more than 650 talents of gold annually from his various business and trading endeavors (1 Kings 10:14–15). But was such wealth even possible for a kingdom like Judah? Could Solomon really have traded with distant lands such as Sheba, Ophir, and Tarshish, as described in the Bible?

Although such a large amount might seem fantastic, it is comparable to figures mentioned in contemporary accounts of the wealth of Israel’s neighbors. For example, Egypt’s Osorkon I (r. 922–887 BCE) dedicated 383 tons of gold and silver to the gods of Egypt in the first four years of his reign. That figure is roughly the equivalent of 17 years of Solomon’s supposed annual income and that is just the portion of Osorkon’s wealth he gifted to temples. Solomon seems poor in comparison to his neighbors on the Nile.

As for Solomon’s supposed trade network, including contact with distant lands like the legendary Ophir, evidence does exist, albeit from centuries later. An ostracon (inscribed pottery sherd) dating to the eighth century BCE discovered at the site of Tell Qasile (near Tel Aviv) mentions precious goods that came from afar, including “Ophir gold to Bet Horon, 30 shekels.” Another inscription, dating to c. 600 BCE (though admittedly unprovenanced and purchased from the antiquities market), indicates trade existed with the South Arabian kingdom of Saba (biblical Sheba) as well. Written in the Sabaic language, the bronze inscription, which may have once adorned a South Arabian temple, details a trade expedition to “Dedan, Gaza, and the towns of Judah.”


Become a Member of Biblical Archaeology Society Now and Get More Than Half Off the Regular Price of the All-Access Pass!

Explore the world’s most intriguing Biblical scholarship

Dig into more than 9,000 articles in the Biblical Archaeology Society’s vast library plus much more with an All-Access pass.

access

While this evidence is compelling, it does not provide definitive proof that Judah engaged in extensive trade with distant peoples during Solomon’s reign. It does show, however, that the kingdom of Judah had trade relations in the centuries leading up to the Babylonian invasion in 586 BCE. It is certainly possible this trade began in the days of Solomon, but it could also have come about only later, in the eighth and seventh centuries, when biblical and historical sources indicate Judah was a larger and more influential kingdom.

Map showing the long desert route that connected Sheba and the southern Levant passed through major trading towns such as Dedan and Gaza, both of which are mentioned alongside Judah in the inscription. Courtesy the Biblical Archaeology Society

The long desert route that connected Sheba and the southern Levant passed through major trading towns such as Dedan and Gaza, both of which are mentioned alongside Judah in the inscription. Courtesy the Biblical Archaeology Society.

Epigrapher Daniel Vainstub has argued the so-called Ophel pithos inscription, discovered in 2012 by Eilat Mazar in Jerusalem’s Ophel area, contains evidence of relations with Saba closer to the time of Solomon. Dating to the tenth century, the inscription has defied any straightforward translation. Vainstub believes this is because the inscription is not early Hebrew, but rather a form of early Sabaic and that it refers to ladanum, a type of incense made from the resin of shrubs native to Arabia. Some identify ladanum with the sheḥēlet mentioned in Exodus 30:34, as the second component of the incense that was burned in the tabernacle.

In the biblical text, we are told that Solomon expanded his influence as far as the Gulf of Eilat, the northern Sinai, and the Negev (1 Kings 9:18,26–28), most likely to strengthen his control over the trade routes that connected the Arabian Peninsula to the Mediterranean. An extensive network of strongholds dating to the time of David and Solomon was discovered in the Negev highlands and the Wadi Arava, including the fortress of En Haseva located halfway between the Gulf of Eilat and Jerusalem.

While securing trade was certainly a priority, the fortresses were also likely meant to control the extensive copper-mining operation in the Arava region, especially at sites such as Timna and Wadi Faynan—sites often associated with the biblical Edomites. According to the biblical text, David subdued the Edomites and set up garrisons throughout their lands (2 Kings 8:13–14). Whatever its beginnings, the copper industry appears to have thrived following Egypt’s departure from the area at the end of the 11th century. Even though it is located in the arid wilderness, Timna has ample evidence for the existence of a wealthy ruling class, with fine purple-dyed clothing and high-quality foods imported from long distances, such as almonds, grapes, pomegranates, and Mediterranean fish. Business at the mines appears to have been good. If Solomon’s administration did oversee this operation, it would have added considerable wealth to his coffers. In any event, the fortresses appear to have been destroyed or abandoned in the second half of the tenth century, most likely as a result of the campaigns of Pharaoh Shoshenq I (r. 943–922 BCE), while the mining operations ceased at the end of the ninth century.

“Slaves’ Hill” in the Timna Valley

“Slaves’ Hill” in the Timna Valley, where a large copper smelting camp with the remains of furnaces and ore-processing workshops was discovered. Photo courtesy Erez Ben-Yosef and the Central Timna Valley Project.

Solomon’s Palace and Temple

Even though it is impossible to excavate the area where Solomon’s palace and the first Jerusalem Temple once stood, the Bible’s detailed descriptions of these buildings can be compared with many contemporary structures built by Israel’s neighbors. According to 1 Kings 7, Solomon’s palace had several main features: the “house of the forest of Lebanon,” the “hall of columns,” the “other court within the wall” (or living quarters for palace staff), the throne room, the king’s private rooms, and a private house for Pharaoh’s daughter.

Many palaces from the time of Solomon have been discovered in southern Anatolia and northern Syria. Often labeled bit hilani-style palaces, they all have similar designs and layouts. The entrance to the building is through a columned portico that gives access to the main rectangular hall. To the side of the entrance and behind the main hall are several smaller rooms, which form the back and sides of the building. A square tower, which presumably supported a staircase to the building’s second story, is also often found beside the entrance hall.

Plan of a bit halani palace at Zincirli containing many of the features said to have been in Solomon’s palace.

Indeed, a bit hilani palace found at the site of Zincirli in southern Turkey has many of the same features as Solomon’s palace. Known as Kilamuwa’s Palace, one enters the structure through a portico that has a single column. The portico leads to a front hall, which together form a hall corresponding to Solomon’s “hall of columns.” Proceeding from there, one enters into the building’s large throne room. The far side of the building contained living quarters for the royal household. This palace also seems to have had an open courtyard with plastered floors and a drainage system. This could be comparable to the “other court” in Solomon’s palace.

While nothing like the “house of the forest of Lebanon” has been discovered in any bit hilani palaces, a comparable structure was discovered within the citadel complex at the Urartian city of Antintepe in Turkey. Dating to the eighth–seventh centuries BCE, the rectangular 150-by-94-foot building contained a large hall featuring 18 column bases. Each base was 4.5 feet in diameter and, together, were arranged in three rows of six. While the hall contained considerably fewer pillars than the 45 said to have filled Solomon’s hall, it shows the general idea of a separate grand hall filled with pillars was well known during the Iron Age.

Plan of the colonnaded building in the Urartian citadel of Antintepe in eastern Anatolia.

As for Solomon’s Temple, the Bible describes it as a tripartite building with an entry porch flanked by two pillars, a rectangular long room, and an inner sanctuary or “holy of holies” at the far end (1 Kings 6–7). This was a common temple design throughout the Levant in the second and first millennia BCE. Considering the biblical text even refers to a northern influence on the construction (1 Kings 5:1), it seems likely the Jerusalem Temple was built with these northern structures in mind.

Tayinat Temple. Courtesy the Biblical Archaeology Society.

Tayinat Temple. Many temples in the northwest Levant were “long-room” structures that were longer front-to-back than they were wide. Courtesy the Biblical Archaeology Society.

Two similar temples were discovered at Tell Tayinat in southeastern Turkey, one of which was located near a large palace, not unlike the situation in Jerusalem. Both temples are elongated, with one or two columns in the front, and divided into three parts. Another example is the temple at Ain Dara in northwestern Syria. This temple is particularly interesting because the plan includes all five architectural features mentioned in the Bible—forecourt, outer sanctum, holy of holies, side chamber, and an entry porch with two columns. The holy of holies also appears to be a square room, similar to how the Jerusalem Temple’s innermost sanctuary is described.

Map ofAin Dara Temple. Courtesy the Biblical Archaeology Society.

Ain Dara Temple. While the relative proportions of the Tayinat temple are closer to Solomon’s, the Ain Dara temple has a raised inner shrine and outer corridors like the temple in Jerusalem. Courtesy the Biblical Archaeology Society.

Even more intriguing is the temple recently discovered at Moẓa, just an hour’s walk from Jerusalem. Situated within an enclosure that contained large grain silos, the temple measures about 33 by 60 feet and has many of the same features as the Ain Dara and Jerusalem temples. Dating to the ninth century, the temple appears to have been a smaller, rural alternative to the Temple in Jerusalem.

Solomon’s Other Building Projects

In addition to his new palace and temple, Solomon fortified the walls of Jerusalem, Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer (1 Kings 9). Famed Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin identified six-chambered gates and casemate walls at three of these cities. Finding all three to have similar designs and construction—possibly indicating a shared architectural blueprint—Yadin determined that the same royal authority—the biblical King Solomon—must have been behind their construction. More recently, Eilat Mazar uncovered a similar gate complex in Jerusalem that she also dated to the tenth century.

The Canaanite cities of Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer all seem to have suffered destruction at the end of the Late Bronze Age (late 13th century BCE) and took many years to recover, with new fortifications only erected in the middle of the tenth century. Gezer, however, became a well-fortified city at this time, with a large administrative center protected by a massive six-chambered gate and adjoining casemate wall. The administrative building is similar to the bit hilani-style palaces mentioned above. Hazor received a similar treatment, with a monumental pillared building (likely an administrative center) built in close proximity to the wall.

The four “Solomonic” gates at Hazor, Megiddo, Gezer, and Jerusalem.

The four “Solomonic” gates at Hazor, Megiddo, Gezer, and Jerusalem. All have similar architectural features and are of similar size, suggesting a common blueprint.

Scholars remain divided, however, on exactly when these monumental fortifications were built and by whom. Archaeologist Israel Finkelstein, who has directed excavations at Megiddo since the 1990s, believes many of the buildings traditionally associated with Solomon should be dated around a century later, to the ninth century and the reigns of kings Omri and Ahab of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Unlike Solomon, these kings are well documented in contemporary historical sources, which provide clear evidence they ruled over a powerful, expansive kingdom. Other archaeologists, like Yosef Garfinkel who excavated the site of Khirbet Qeiyafa in the Shephelah, believe more recent radiocarbon evidence confirms the traditional tenth-century chronology. Khirbet Qeiyafa, which features two monumental gates, is firmly dated by ceramics and radiocarbon dates to early Iron Age IIA (1025–975 BCE). Similarly at Gezer, recent radiocarbon evidence dates the destruction of its gate and administrative complex to the middle or late tenth century, most likely coinciding with Shoshenq’s campaign.

Plan of Khirbet Qeiyafa. Courtesy the Biblical Archaeology Society.

Plan of Khirbet Qeiyafa. Possibly biblical Sha’arayim (“two gates”), the heavily fortified tenth-century city had not one but two gates leading into the casemate-walled city. Courtesy of the Khirbet Qeiyafa Archaeological Project.

Whether the fortifications of these cities date to the tenth or ninth century, the fact remains that, outside of the Bible, there is no concrete evidence for who ordered their construction. Unlike many of the cities and monuments built by Solomon’s contemporaries, no stela or inscription proclaims Solomon as the illustrious builder of these monumental works. Indeed, the similar architecture found at sites like Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer indicates only that such building styles were popular and in widespread use across the southern Levant through much of the Iron Age. This fact was made clear with the discovery of six-chambered gates at Lachish and Tel Ira, which date to the ninth and eighth centuries, respectively, and, therefore, clearly could not have been built by Solomon.

Historical Evidence for Solomon

Even though Solomon’s legend grew to untold heights in later centuries, no textual evidence of his reign or achievements exists outside of the Bible.i The biblical text paints Solomon as a wealthy king with a large kingdom who engaged in many building projects. It’s a scenario not uncommon in the ancient world; many ancient kings did the exact same thing. However, those ancient kings often left behind evidence of their achievements, especially inscriptions taking credit for foreign campaigns and monumental building projects. But Solomon’s name, whose legendary Golden Age should have been a beloved memory, is preserved nowhere outside of the Bible.ii

As to the historicity of the biblical accounts, over a century of research and debate has gone into unraveling this question. The consensus is that the Book of Kings (and the greater Deuteronomistic corpus to which it belongs) is largely a product of the seventh and sixth centuries BCE—nearly 400 years after Solomon would have lived. The final version of this work—called the Deuteronomistic History—addresses the circumstances of the Exile and provides theological reflections on the history of Israel and Judah. The question then becomes whether the biblical writers had actual court records at their disposal, and, if so, how they used those sources to write their history?

Many scholars do take the biblical accounts at face value, treating them as (mostly) authentic history. Much of the archaeological evidence presented above would indicate the existence of some kind of Judahite state in the tenth century that was able to organize monumental building projects. As such, since the Bible says Solomon was king in this period and that he was an extensive builder, he must have been responsible for these projects.


FREE eBook: Life in the Ancient World.
Craft centers in Jerusalem, family structure across Israel and ancient practices—from dining to makeup—through the Mediterranean world.

* Indicates a required field.

More critical scholars, however, see the biblical accounts as mostly reflecting the period in which they were written. They view the character of Solomon as largely a literary creation that used Assyrian and Egyptian kings for inspiration. The legendary Pax Solomonica does not reflect the tenth century, but rather the seventh century, in the days of King Josiah. As mentioned above, much of the evidence used to support Solomon’s extensive trade network actually comes from this period, when the kingdom of Judah was prosperous and Jerusalem was a large and impressive capital city. According to this view, the Deuteronomistic History was largely written to legitimize King Josiah’s religious reforms and political aspirations as the scion of the House of David. Simply put, the Book of Kings is not a reliable historical source and, therefore, should not be used to support the dating of archaeological finds traditionally attributed to King Solomon.

Still, many scholars believe the Bible cannot be thrown out altogether when writing a history of ancient Israel. Even if its historical reliability is questionable, the Deuteronomistic History represents how a particular group viewed Israel’s history, whether embellished or not. These texts weren’t created ex nihilo; as the authors state or imply, some original source material was likely used (see 1 Kings 11:41; 14:19,29; 1 Chronicles 27:24) and some events they write about were clearly historical. Such is the case with the late tenth-century invasion of Pharaoh Shoshenq (biblical Shishak; 1 Kings 14:25), which can be corroborated from the pharaoh’s own accounts from the Karnak Temple. Unfortunately, this type of corroboration is rare, so we have no way of knowing which biblical events actually happened and which were embellishments by later authors. Ultimately, until archaeologists find a royal stela or official inscription produced during Solomon’s reign, the evidence for the legendary king will remain circumstantial at best.

Notes

i. Given the discovery of the ninth-century Tel Dan Stele, which famously refers to the kingdom of Judah as the “House of David,” many scholars assume the biblical tradition of a Davidic dynasty that included Solomon as David’s successor is historically reliable.

ii. Interestingly, even Solomon’s other name, Jedediah, which was given at birth by the prophet Nathan (2 Samuel 12:24–25), is nowhere to be found. This would have been Solomon’s throne name and used on all sorts of royal propaganda, including monuments and victory stelae.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Archaeological Evidence of Solomon and Sheba?

Nomadic Biblical Kingdoms

Did Solomon Really Take an Egyptian Bride?

A Rival to Solomon’s Temple

Khirbet Qeiyafa and Tel Lachish Excavations Explore Early Kingdom of Judah

Biblical “Chamber” Identified in Jerusalem?

Shishak’s Campaign: A Meeting of Archaeology and the Bible?

All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:


Where Did Solomon’s Gold Go?

Solomon & Sheba, Inc.

Solomon’s Temple in Context

Edom & Copper

Where is the Tenth Century?

A “Centrist” at the Center of Controversy

The Birth and Death of Biblical Minimalism

Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

Related Posts

Cuneiform tablets from the site of Nuzi in northern Iraq. Zunkir, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Jun 17
The Nuzi Tablets

By: Philippe Bohström

bamah-shiloh
Jun 16
High Places, Altars and the Bamah

By: Ellen White

roman road
Jun 14
The Golan’s Roman Road

By: Nathan Steinmeyer

qeiyafa-doorway
Jun 11
The Doorways of Solomon’s Temple

By: Megan Sauter


Write a Reply or Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Write a Reply or Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Send this to a friend