Scientific exploration of the Tall Zira'a

Tall Zira´a in 2009

Archaeology of the landscape in the region of Gadara/Jordan 2001 – 2020  - the Gadara Region Project

In the coming years, the German Protestant Institute of Archaeology (GPIA), in cooperation with the Biblical Archaeological Institute Wuppertal (BAI) as well as with other scholars and scientific institutions, will explore the lower section of the Wadi el-‛Arab. After the BAI started the archaeological explorations in 2001, the GPIA institutes in Amman and Jerusalem began to participate in the project in 2004 and 2006, respectively.

The aim is to explore the diverse civilisations, spanning 8,000 years in the history of humankind, in this geopolitically important wadi, which is attractive not only because of its landscape but also because it served as an important link between the Mediterranean and Transjordan. The most significant site in the Wadi el-‛Arab is Tall Zira‛a (geographic coordinates: 211 940/225 180). The tall measures 300x300 m in diameter; its highest point is located at 17 m below sea level.

Click here for the homepage of our Gadara Region Project.

The touristic development project at the excavation at the Church of the Redeemer

Church of the Redeemer

The church of the Redeemer was built on initiative of the German Emperor Wilhelm II. between 1893 and 1898 and is an important of the German cultural heritage in the Near East. She was erected on the ruins of the crusaders’ church St. Maria Latina. The home of the Arabic and German speaking Lutheran congregation in Jerusalem stands next to the complex of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre only separated by the Russian Hospice.

At the beginning of the construction a wall was found which is supposed to be the famous “Second Wall” (Josephus Flavius). This was an important discovery for the history of the city and also a sign for the desire of Christian pilgrims who come to Jerusalem to see which historical sites nowadays could be compared to the remembers of the time of the New Testament. The foundation stone of the Church of the Redeemer was placed in 1893 on the “Second Wall”.

In the 1970s the German Protestant Institut of Archaeology conducted a four-year excavation underneath the church which was let by Ute Wagner-Lux The results got international attention at their time. Until today, their significance for the history of religion is undisputable. This rescue excavation is a great cultural achievement whose important results are going to be made accessible to a broader public – finally after more than 30 years.

Plan of the excavation

The touristic development project wants to enable the visitor to experience the different strata of the historical development of the city within the Christian quarter of the Old City and to understand its historical and religious significance. The results of the excavation - which is inaccessible at the moment – are essential in order to understand the city development - this means the extension of Jerusalem during the time of Herod the Great/the New Testament period until the time of Hadrian and through the Byzantine Era. Furthermore, one of the most important questions in Jerusalem’s topography – the localisation of the Church of Holy Sepulchre – can be answered.

The following steps will be taken to complete the aims of the project:

- Constructions work to allow public access.

- Creating a visitor guidance system.

- Developing a museum and media presentation of the academic results and finds of the excavation.

- Imparting the essential aspects of the city’s history, the cultural history and the religious history of the place in the exhibition as well as in the excavation.

- Editing a publication that highlights the different aspects and topics.


Prof. Vieweger with PM Platzeck

In cooperation with the University of Applied Sciences Potsdam students of the course Architecture and Urban Design created a concept for the tour through the excavation. The cooperation began in March 2009 and proceeds until now.

We are very happy that the federal state Brandenburg/Germany is supporting our project - with a generous financial aid of the pilot project and also with a visit of prime minister Matthias Platzeck in March 2009 when he expressed his deep interest for the development of the old excavation.

This project aims to serve a better understanding between cultures and religions. A publication will accompany the project and give the opportunity to a deeper excursus of all the important aspects and subjects. The project is to be carried out between 2010 and 2012.

GPIA Excavation on the Anglican-Protestant Cemetery on Mt. Zion


In 1894 the British archaeologist F. BLISS excavated on Mt. Zion. Expecting the First Wall to continue around the crest of Mount Zion, BLISS sunk a hole near what is now the parking lot of the restaurants and tourist areas just outside Zion Gate. He discovered a sewage channel beside an ancient street. He followed the buried street toward the southwest by digging a tunnel until it reached a gate in the ancient Jerusalem wall.

When BLISS reached the gate, he opened a crater to the surface. In his early reports in the journal of the London based Palestine Exploration Fund, BLISS identified the gate as the long-lost Gate of the Essenes. Later, however, in a book describing the entire excavation, he wrote with less confidence. The sill, or threshold, of the gateway had several layers of stones, and he frankly admitted that he was unsure of the period to which each of these levels should be assigned.

Fortunately, the steep crater that BLISS left apparently collapsed quite soon burying and thereby preserving the superimposed sills of the gateway.

In the 1980s and ‘90s there was a controversial discussion if a pre-exilic wall extended until the slope of the Hinnom Valley, like the wall found by N. AVIGAD in the northern part of the Jewish quarter and dated by him to the end of the 8th century B. C.

The excavation on the Protestant Cemetery by BARGIL PIXNER and the new excavations in the South of the Khativat Yerushalayim nearby (ZELINGER) are relevant for this debate. According to PIXNER the ancient wall found to the south-east of the “Lower Gate” can be ascribed to the pre-exilic period. If so, the signs of its destruction testify, that it fell under the blows of the Babylonian army in 586 B.C.

ZELINGER is reporting about a Iron Age II fortification wall in his excavation southeast of the Protestant Cemetery. Remains of another fortification wall were found above the rock-hewn terrace that was abutted by the Hasmonean tower. The Hasmonean tower was founded on bedrock after it was trimmed and made level, whereas the foundations of the city wall to its north were set on bedrock which was not prepared and in its eastern part even pockets of bedrock that contained terra rossa soil had remained. This method of construction is different from that of the Hasmonean tower and of each of the sections that were discovered of the ‘First Wall’; therefore, it is probable that this is earlier construction. The manner of placing the base of the wall and the use of massive stones to delimit it is consistent with Iron-Age construction that is known from other places in Jerusalem.

The next wall erected at this site dates to the Hellenistic period, most probably to the reign of the Hasmonean kings (150-37 B.C.). PIXNER found this wall passing through the area of the excavation and changing direction at the point of Tower I.

a) The Gates


The Lower Gate (Herodian; according to Pixner the “Gate of the Essenes”)


F. J. BLISS’s report in Excavations at Jerusalem, 1895-1897 (London 1898), 16-19: “The gate is proved to represent four distinct periods by the different superimposed sills with their sockets. [...] the latest doorsill is [...] composed of three large slabs of white mezzeh limestone, tinged with red, the central stone being not quite in line with the other two. The slabs are cut back 4 inces to form an inner and outer sill. They are well polished, as if by the wear of feet, especially at the outer edge. In the angles of the inner sill are the round sockets marked (1), which indicate seats for the gate-posts. The masonry at this angle is eaten away in a series of furrows … The width of the gate at this latest period is 8 feet along the outer sill, and 9 feet 10 inches along the inner sill.”


As reported by PIXNER in his preliminary excavation report (PIXNER/CHEN/MARGALIT 1989, 85-95), a breach was made during the Herodian period (37 B.C.-70 A.D.) into the city wall and a gate inserted under which a large sewage channel had been constructed (maybe the same which Flavius Josephus called the "Gate of the Essenes" Bell V § 145). After PIXNER (ibid. 87) the pottery from below and around the flanking stones appears to be Hellenistic-Early Herodian. The same can be said of the pottery behind the large limestone slabs that line the sewage channel, where it passes below the gate. These slabs are of excellent workmanship.

For people coming from the desert or Bethlehem, the gate could only be reached by crossing the valley and climbing a steep path reaching the tower and then the gate. F. J. BLISS mentions, that his foreman Yusif Abu Selim noticed this path while digging underground from the gate to Tower I.

The “Gate of the Essenes” – wherever it was situated – was destroyed by the army of Titus in 70 A.D., together with the rest of Mt. Zion. Josephus describes the extent of the destruction: "The Romans now set fire to the outlying quarters of the city  and razed the walls to the ground" (Bell VI § 434). One of the capitals of the "Lower Gate" (PIXNER/CHEN/MARGALIT 1989, 87) shows evident marks of burning on its lower half. On the steps of a ritual bath that had been used in that period, PIXNER found a coin of the second year of the first revolt (67/68 A.D.) underneath thick layers of destruction material.

The Middle Gate (Roman)


Between the sill of the lowest city gate, that is the “Gate of the Essenes", and the uppermost one, the Byzantine gate, there were two courses of limestone slabs used as a threshold. While BLISS was not sure whether they belong to one or two chronologically different gates, PIXNER believed to have found evidence to support the contention that they formed but one gate, the upper slab constituting the outer sill and the lower the inner sill of the same threshold. In the lower sill a socket was found which, agreeing with BLlSS, was probably the only one of this period. Next to that socket markings of the chafing of the gate post against the upper sill were noticed, indicating the simultaneous use of both sills. PIXNER also observed that both slabs had been bonded together by still visible cement plaster on the outside. BLISS noticed that the slab showed signs of wear at its edge.


PIXNER was also able to scrape out some of the rubble fill from below this middle sill and had the pottery found therein examined. The thorough examination resulted in dating the ceramics to the period between 70 A.D. and the early 4th century. Within that period no closer dating is possible. In the rubble outside the gate, 0.40 m above the sewage channel, a city coin of Aelia Capitolina was found. It bears the image of Emperor Elagabalus (218-222 A.D.).


The middle gate was made from spolia and assembled in a rather unskilled fashion. PIXNER suggests to be built after 70 A.D. Titus left the three towers of the Herodian Palace and the western city wall standing to serve as a protection for the 10th Legion (Bell VII § 2). Remains of this wall were discovered by BROSHI.


PIXNER describes the middle gate in a wild compilation of early sources of Christianity as a part of the Christian Quarter on Mt. Zion – of course, much more legend and wish as archaeological proof: “Until the Bar-Kochba Revolt (132-135) this community of Nazorean-Christians on Mt. Zion had a succession of fifteen Jewish bishops ... Up to that time this community must have had a high standing among believers around the Oecumene.” 

The Upper Gate (Byzantine)


When PIXNER remeasured the threshold of the upper gate he was able to discern traces of the missing southern jamb-stone and thus to assess the exact width of the upper gate. The inner width of the upper gate is precisely 3,09 m, or 10 Byzantine feet of 0,3089 m. The northern jamb-stone of this gate measures 0,31 m in width, or 1 Byzantine foot, by 0,61 m or 2 Byzantine feet. 

This middle gate of the murus Sion was superposed by a new Byzantine gate. It is an anonymous pilgrim who came from Piacenza (Italy), ca. 570 A.D., who gives us the name of the initiator of the reconstruction of the southern line of the Byzantine wall of Jerusalem. From a casual remark we learn that at his time Mount Zion and Siloam were included within the city wall. He writes: "For now, since the Empress Eudokia has extended the city's wall, the Siloam Fountain below is also included into the city". Since we know the time of Eudokia's stay in Jerusalem, we can date the building of the Byzantine wall to the middle of the 5th century A.D. This was a peaceful period in the history of Jerusalem. The purpose of the Christian empress, who lived for a long period in the Holy Land, for including Mt. Zion and Siloam into the city might have been her desire to see the walls restored to the extent they had at Jesus' time. No deep foundation trenches were dug for this rather "cosmetical" wall, so that archaeologists get the impression, that Eudokia's wall rests on nothing but a heap of rubble.


Fortunately for archaeology, the Byzantine builders did not bother to dig deep enough to destroy the sills of the lower gates and merely used the one remaining pilaster of the “Essene Gate" as fill material for their new road pavement. The sewage channel was also reactivated. The gate’s threshold of this period shows grooves made by vehicles. This was a new development, which differed from the two former gates, which had only been used by pedestrians. The Byzantine road outside the gate did not descend directly into the Hinnom Valley, but, as suggested by a pavement which was found on the outside at the same level as the upper gate sill, led around the south-western slope of Mt. Zion, and after crossing the valley it might have joint the Byzantine road that G. BARKAY found on the grounds of the Scottish church of St. Andrew leading in the direction of Bethlehem. There is still an open question regarding why this Byzantine gate was blocked up at a later date, as noticed by BLISS when he first discovered it.

BLISS also noticed that not only had the gate been blocked, but even a Byzantine house had been built across the road approaching the gate. 

The small channel which was found running along the wall inside the Byzantine gate (see PIXNER/CHEN/MARGALIT 1989, Fig. 2), seems originally to have had an extension along the interior line of the blocked-up gate. So, for a while, the wall itself was left standing while the use of the gate and the street had been discontinued. The Byzantine house which BLISS found built over the street points in the same direction.

The gate was maybe called “Thekoa Gate” in the Byzantine-Omayyad period.

Mount Zion Excavation, Jerusalem, Israel, created by Jochen Reinhard by archaeobotics on Sketchfab

First Campaign - 2015

From the end of Juli until the end of August the GPIA conducted an excavation on the anglican-protestant cemetery on Mt. Zion under the direction of Prof. Dieter Vieweger und Katharina Palmberger. The aim of the multi-year project is to develop the site of former excavation by Bliss/Dickie (end of the 19th century) and Bargil Pixner (1970/80s) around the so called Gate of Essenes.

The excavation team consisted of  Franziska Kothe, Friederike Schöpf, Maik Strehl, Marcel Serr, Jawad Mushasha und Maher Mushasha. 

“Marry, we got it!“ – The result from four weeks of excavating in the Protestant cemetery

The hottest month of the year, August, was the month we have chosen for doing hard physical work. If you want to call the excavation of 120 t earth and sand as such. But the results speak for themselves: During the month of the excavation in the south of the Protestant Cemetery of Mt. Zion different ancient city walls have been exposed and processed for further archaeological research. 

The area of the Mount Zion, which is located today outside of the walls of the Old City, was from time to time integrated in the walled city area of Jerusalem.

The first wall, which can be assumed in this area, belongs to an urban extension of Jerusalem in the Iron Age (ca. 800 B.C.), under King Hiskija. He expanded the city in the south-east to protect the refugees from the north behind the city walls.

A long time later, in the first century AD, Flavius Josephus mentioned a wall around Mount Zion. From the Tower of Hippicos the wall went to the south until the Gate of the Essenes, where the wall went to the east. Flavius Josephus describes this in his report of the Jewish War.

Another few centuries later Eucherius describeed “quite a large surrounding wall”, built by the Byzantine empress Eudocia in the fifth century. The route of the ashlar wall is very well known and documented, since the two British pioneers Frederick Bliss and Archibald Dickie excavated a tunnel and drew a plan. These plans of Archibald Dickie are still an important basis for the foundations of the walls of Zion. When the two Brits, who excavated along the wall with a tunnel, found the gate they opened a crater upward to take a closer look at the area around the threshold. Finally, Frederick Bliss identified the oldest gate with Gate of the Essenes. Because of topographic reasons this interpretation is quite likely.

A few years later the cemetery was expanded. For this reason the excavation of Bliss and Dickie was closed with a wall to the cemetery. The area above the excavation was mainly used in the twenties and the thirties of the 20th century.

 Between 1977 and 1988, P. Bargil Pixner, a monk from the Dormitio Abbey began to excavate again. He went “on the trail of Bliss and Dickie” and started with a big campaign. He wanted to “reach bedrock” and to follow the wall. Unfortunately in his documentations he focused more on non-scientific speculations about Mt. Zion as a residential district, than on founded, archaeological documentation. Thus a lot of important information, necessary for a comprehensive classification of the walls, was lost. The connection between the foundations and the wall is today nearly impossible to retrace. After Pixner had to stop his excavation in 1988 the excavated soil was moved back into the pit. Afterwards the excavation became dilapidated and more and more the waste area of the cemetery.

Those circumstances created the situation that we found this summer – all dirty and overgrown. At the end of July it was the first step to remove the bigger trees and bushes. Afterwards it was possible to begin with the excavation in the August. The fill in the area was more than estimated in the beginning. Thus the team had to remove 120 t of soil and garbage. As a result it is now possible to see the wall and the gate again, which were described by the former excavators. On this basis new interpretations are possible. Also the ancient structures of the wall and the situation of the gate can be linked to the other excavations of city walls.

For some parts of the excavation an exact dating will be very problematic, because of the previously mentioned reasons. The excavated fill included lots of ceramics from many different centuries but unfortunately this is without any meaning for the archaeology, because of the different refills it is not possible to locate the original place in the area.

The gate is in the north side of the excavation area. Three different entrance situations are on top of each other comprehensible. A big threshold stone lays on top of two smaller stones. The oldest threshold is located between two obliquely trimmed blocks. They mark the start of the archway, which originally span the entrance. The threshold itself is visible from the other side. It is recognizable on the round indentation in the corner, which belong the closing mechanism. Below the level of the threshold there is an ornate made culvert.

The second threshold is a repair of the first, where the height has been raised above 35 cm. Here is also a round indentation of the closing mechanism recognizable. Significantly increased is the third threshold, which marks with her height the new constructions phase. The distance between the thresholds is a result of a thick mortar packing, which continues in the fill of the ashlar wall. On the ground of the threshold the rectangular submissions for the gates are visible. In reference with historical sources it is very probable that the oldest threshold is the Gate of Essenes which Flavius Josephus described.  According to him the gate was built in Hasmonean or Herodian times. However, it is not possible to date the repairing phase. The big threshold above belongs to the wall, which was built by empress Eudecia in the fifth century.

Not far away in the south are three more walls. The oldest wall without a gate in the area of the excavation was built on the adjacent rock and has no connection to the bigger ashlar wall in the east of it. Based on analyses of ceramic the excavators and Pixner connected the wall to the Iron Age. The great ashlar wall, which dominates the area, is slightly oblique built over this old wall. The constructors had to destroy parts of the older wall for its foundations. The ashlar wall belongs to the last construction phase of an all-encompassing city wall, which belongs to the threshold of the gate of Eudecia. The third wall - at this point undated - includes a swath, which was truck in the south-tower. This wall is made of big, rectangular, hewn and mortared fieldstones. It is exactly located between the tower and the ashlar wall. And the way it was built gives evidence that it belongs to a repair phase. The tower in the south marks the spot where the wall, following the slope of Mount Zion, is running to the south-east. The tower was constructed with bosses and with a deep foundation, which differs in its alignment from the other tower. This suggests not necessarily different building phases, because it is also possible that the constructors had to align the irregular subsoil at the slope.

The campaign of 2015 reached its aim to clear the site on the southern slope of Mt. Zion with the intent to re-expose the ancient city walls of Jerusalem. It furthermore provided proper archaeological documentation so that researchers can include this area gainfully in their further considerations on the history of the city. The digging work has to be continued in the coming years. The further consideration of security affairs and preservation options will be of particular importance in the upcoming seasons because in addition to the actual archaeological work an opening of the area for the public is the final aim.     

“Mary, we got it!” was the fervent exclamation of our predecessor Bargil Pixner, when he finally reached the big threshold, which he knew from the excavations of Bliss and Dickie. “Mary, we got it!” became our motto, which we usef whenever we filled another tractor with several tons of sand and earth or whenever we re-found another wall. “Mary, we got it” will hopefully be used several more times in the next campaigns for fascinating new finds.  

Based on the German report by Katharina Palmberger; Übersetzung von Anselm Hohage.