Ancient Jerusalem may have had fewer than 10,000 people
It’s made such an enormous impact on Western civilization that it’s hard to fathom how small its population really was—small compared even to the centers of contemporaneous empires to the east and to the west. Of course, I’m talking about Jerusalem.
Today many of us live in cities of millions. Very few of us live in towns of only thousands, but hardly any of us live in a village as small as King David’s capital.
In 2016, a study of Jerusalem’s population in various periods has been published by one of Israel’s leading Jerusalem archaeologists, Hillel Geva of Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the Israel Exploration Society. Geva bases his estimates on “archaeological findings, rather than vague textual sources.” The result is what he calls a “minimalist view.”1 But whether you accept Geva’s population estimates or those of various other scholars he cites, to the modern observer the ancient city of Jerusalem can only be described as “tiny”—with population estimates at thousands and tens of thousands during many periods of the city’s history. (In comparison, Rome in the century before Jesus lived is estimated to have had a population of 400,000 tax-paying males—so the entire population must have been about a million.)
The first period that Geva considers in his study is from the 18th–11th centuries B.C.E. (Middle Bronze Age II to Iron Age I, in archaeological terms), the period before the arrival of the Israelites. Jerusalem was then confined to the small spur south of the Temple Mount known today as the City of David. As Geva reminds us, even then Jerusalem “was the center of an important territorial entity.” From this period, the area includes a massive fortification system that has recently been excavated. Overall, however, the area comprises only about 11–12 acres. Geva estimates the population of the city during this period at between 500 and 700 “at most.” (Previously other prominent scholars had estimated Jerusalem’s population in this period as 880–1,100, 1,000, 2,500, 3,000; still this is hardly what we would consider a metropolis.)
The next period Geva considers is the period of the United Monarchy, the time of King David and King Solomon and a couple centuries thereafter (1000 B.C.E. down to about the eighth century B.C.E.). In David’s time, the borders of the city did not change from the previous period. However, King Solomon expanded the confines of the city northward to include the Temple Mount. This increased the size of the city to about 40 acres, but the increase in population was not proportionate since much of this expansion was taken up with the Temple and royal buildings. “It is likely that Jerusalem attracted new inhabitants of different social classes,” Geva tells us. “Some of these people came to reside in the city as a consequence of their official and religious capacities, while others came to seek a livelihood in its developing economy.” Geva estimates the population of the city at this time at about 2,000. (Previously, other scholars had estimated the number of people living in the city at this time as 2,000, 2,500 or 4,500–5,000.)
In the mid-eighth century B.C.E., the area usually referred to as the Western Hill was added to the city of Jerusalem. This area is well documented archaeologically. With this addition, more than a hundred acres were added to the city, and the population of the city increased proportionately. According to some scholars, this increase may have been at least in part due to the influx of refugees from the north after the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel in 721 B.C.E.
By the end of the First Temple period (the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E.), the walled city of Ancient Jerusalem covered 160 acres. By that time, settlement also extended northward outside the city walls, all of which expanded the city further. At its height, the population of Jerusalem at the end of the eighth century B.C.E., according to Geva, was 8,000.
As a result of the siege of Jerusalem by the Assyrian monarch Sennacherib in 701 B.C.E., Ancient Jerusalem’s population declined to about 6,000, and so it remained until the Babylonians destroyed the city in 586 B.C.E. and forced much of its population into exile in Babylon.
Other population estimates of Jerusalem during the nearly 200 years before the Babylonian destruction vary widely—partially because they focus on different time periods. Geva’s estimate is carefully grounded in archaeological data.
After the Babylonian destruction, the few inhabitants who remained in the city (or who returned) lived primarily in the old area of the City of David. After the Persians wrested control of Jerusalem from the Babylonians and even after Ancient Jerusalem became the capital of the Persian province of Yehud, Jerusalem continued to be confined to the spur known as the City of David with an estimated population of about a thousand people on 40 acres. (Geva calls it “minute.” Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University puts the number even lower: 400 to 500.)
It was not until the late Hellenistic (Hasmonean) period (150–50 B.C.E.) that Jerusalem flourished again, just as it had at the time before the Babylonian destruction. Geva’s population estimate: 8,000.
The next period—the Herodian (or Early Roman) period—extending from about 50 B.C.E. to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., includes the time when Jesus is associated with the city. Again, this period is very well documented archaeologically, but estimates of the city’s population at the time of the Roman destruction vary widely. One scholar estimated the number at nearly a quarter million, another at more than a 100,000. Several put the number around 75,000. A number of others estimated between 25,000 and 75,000. Geva, always the population minimalist, estimates the number at 20,000.
In the Byzantine period (fourth–seventh centuries C.E.), Jerusalem was a Christian city.a Estimates of the city’s population are as high as 100,000 and then go down gradually to 70,000 to 60,000 to 50,000 to 25,000. Geva’s estimate: 15,000.
In 637 C.E. the Muslims besieged Jerusalem; the period of Islamic Jerusalem commenced. The change in the population’s religious commitment was gradual but constant. And since the city of Jerusalem was not as central to Islam as to Christianity, the number of people living there gradually declined. By the 10th–11th centuries C.E., the city was confined to the area of the present Old City. Geva estimates the population at only 7,000.
However you cut it, Jerusalem was a tiny place in ancient times. Yet it played a major role in the march of history.
Jerusalem from the Middle Bronze Age through to the Early Islamic Period.2
“Ancient Jerusalem: The Village, the Town, the City” by Hershel Shanks originally appeared in Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2016. It was first republished in Bible History Daily on May 9,
a. See Hershel Shanks, “After Hadrian’s Banishment: Jews in Christian Jerusalem,” BAR, September/October 2014; Eilat Mazar, “Temple Mount Excavations Unearth the Monastery of the Virgins,” BAR, May/June 2004; Jodi Magness, “Illuminating Byzantine Jerusalem,” BAR, March/April 1998.
1. Hillel Geva, “Jerusalem’s Population in Antiquity: A Minimalist View,” Tel Aviv 41 (2014), pp. 131–160.
2. We thank Hillel Geva and Tel Aviv (Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University) for the images.
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[…] Ancient Jerusalem […]
The article states that “the “city of Jerusalem was not as central to Islam as to Christianity.” An accurate statement. So why the big deal over Israel declaring Jeusalem do be its undivided capital?
What I want to know is how did he get his numbers. Where is his sources (Hillel Geva).
I understand what his opinion is but a little veracity is called for and logic. What I want to know is how does he get his numbers, basically. Minimalist. Yes get it. But to understand is essential to commoners like me (percentage, persons per acreage, etc.) How? I’m I the only one asking this question?
For decades similar “minimalist” population statistics for the Troy generally taken to be the one mentioned in the Illiad (Troy VI I think …) were taken as gospel. Then came the discovery of a much larger area of occupation beyond the massive walls – the Trojan suburbs, if you will. The “beetle-browed” walls of Troy VI appear to have represented the citadel, containing temples, palace, and homes of the aristocrats, with most of the population apparently living close by outside. So Peter’s comments below should be taken very seriously. Now I gotta get back to making my class syllabus.
Hillel Geva is internally inconsistent. His number for Rome is far larger than the number contained within the walls. The ancients did not count the population of a city by his terms. In 300 BC a Greek geographer states the population of Jerusalem as 125,000. The many years of relative peace by the turn of BCE/CE allowed increase from that. As noted Herod’s building project required great populations and the stones are still there to witness. Josephus is rejected but he wrote to people who were there and knew the truth. If he was filled with massive errors, he would have been decried at the time. His number and the Talmud’s of 2,500,000 pilgrims at the festivals is supported by the stones on the ground.
20,000 seems low for 70 CE. Here is a link I think is great concerning the Temple throughout this time. http://templemountlocation.com/templeMountProgression.html
Hillel’s analysis makes sense, but the geographical constraints on the actual city of Jerusalem don’t necessarily limit the population that considered themselves residents of Jerusalem who dwelt outside of the city in the same region. This is the thinking of a hypothesis that I started to work on when I was a M.A. Archaeology student at Hebrew University. The idea is that the ancient cities of the Levant served the function of a “temple precinct,” which was where a central authority consolidated their rule, religious ritual was located, and store houses of grain, etc. were built and protected. In this view, residents of a city were those the general population associated with the ruling and priestly class, “cohenim” in Hebrew, ruled by the “Cohen-King” as in the tradition of the Ancient Near East.
In this model, the majority of the population associated with any given city actually lived outside of the city and were semi-nomadic pastoralists living in tents like the Bedouin in Israel still do to this day. The difficulty proving this is that semi-nomadic pastoralists don’t leave easily identifiable remains to archaeologists who by necessity must limit the scope of excavations.
Interestingly, the “City of David” section of Jerusalem, which is the Jebusite city that King David conquered, remained the priestly district as Jerusalem expanded under the rule of the biblical Kings of the House of David, and remained the priestly district right up to the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.
Where did the large numbers go? Killed off in warfare, emigrated to more prosperous locales, or disease? One case of enslavement to Babylon is mentioned. Otherwise Jerusalem looks to be an unexpectedly transient place.
Every so called “archaeologist” will publish anything controversial about Jerusalem so that his name will be circulated amongst Israel’s enemies and be used to bash the Jews about their connection to Jerusalem and the Holy Land.
Maybe he should read the Bibles and the books written by the Maccabees, Josephus Flavius and other Roman historians before publishing papers.
No doubt there is solid archaeology to support Hillel Geva’s research but it is very hard to understand what sort of economy could have produced such substantial building projects in all eras with the tiny economic base he suggests. With a majority of the working population undoubtably involved in food production and defense, there would be precious little manpower remaining to build anything lasting. I think of what our modern small towns can create with populations of 5,000 to 10,000 people and they rarely can build a single substantial building: the odd church or city hall. Certainly no castles or fortresses.