The Ophel (Hebrew: עופל) or Ophlas, meaning fortified hill or risen area, is the biblical name given to a certain part of a settlement or city that is elevated from its surroundings. In the Bible the Ophel refers to the elevation in two cities: the City of David in the Old City of Jerusalem, and at Samaria, the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Israel.
The Ophel in Jerusalem
The City of David, also known as the Ophel, is a narrow promontory beyond the southern edge of Jerusalem's Temple Mount and Old City, with the Tyropoeon Valley (valley of the cheesemakers) on its west, the Hinnom valley to the south, and the Kidron Valley on the east. The previously deep valley (the Tyropoeon) separating the Ophel from what is now referred to as the Old City of Jerusalem currently lies hidden beneath the debris of centuries. Despite the name, the Old City of Jerusalem dates from a much later time than the settlement in the City of David, which is generally considered to have been the original Jerusalem. Traditionally, the name City of David applied to the area inside the ancient fortifications, while the name Ophel applied to the area between the end of the city wall and the Temple Mount.
During the 4th century reign of Constantine the Great, guesses were made to identify places important to Christianity as being within the Upper City rather than located under detritus in the City of David; an understandable mistake. From the days of Constantine until the 7th century, Jews were banned from Jerusalem. In 614 AD the Sassanid army captured Jerusalem & held it for fifteen years, until the Byzantine emperor Heraclius retook it in 629 AD. Eight years later, Caliph Umar Ibn Al Khattab accepted the surrender of Jerusalem in April 637 AD.
In 638 AD, Umar ibn al-Khattab wanted to know where the Temple used to be, so that he could build a Muslim institution at the same site, the Christian leader, Patriarch Sophronius, took him to a place near the Gihon Spring. Umar was not impressed with the trash heap, but he found some stones that had been part of the Temple. These he carried up to the clean area that originally had been the Herodian Antonia Fortress and five centuries later, the enlarged site of the *Nea Church of Justinian the Great, which had been destroyed by the Sassanids & the Jews around 614 AD.
There, Umar had the Al-Aqsa Mosque constructed in a clean place where worshippers could face Mecca when they prayed, and at the same time pray through the Temple area. Some people at that time still knew where the Temple had been. Later, Umar allowed 70 Jewish families to settle at the south end of the City of David, because they wanted to be near the Temple and the Gihon Spring.
- Procopius Buildings of Justinian 5.6.4-11 The Nea Church of Justinian.
"Such were the works of the Emperor Justinian in Cilicia. And in Jerusalem, he dedicated to the Mother of God, a shrine with which no other can be compared. This is called by the natives the "New Church"; and I shall explain of what sort it is, first making this observation, that this city is for the most part set upon hills; however these hills have no soil upon them, but stand with rough and very steep sides, causing the streets to run straight up and down like ladders All the other buildings of the city chance to lie in one group, part of them built upon a hill and part upon the lower level where the earth spreads out flat; but this shrine alone forms an exception.
For the Emperor Justinian gave orders that it be built on the highest of the hills, specifying what the length and breadth of the building should be, as well as the other details. However, the hill did not satisfy the requirements of the project, according to the Emperor's specifications, but a fourth part of the church, facing the south and the east, was left unsupported, that part in which the priests are wont to perform the rites. Consequently those in charge of this work hit upon the following plan. They threw the foundations out as far as the limit of the even ground, and then erected a structure which rose as high as the rock. And when they had raised this up level with the rock they set vaults upon the supporting walls, and joined this substructure to the other foundation of the church.
Thus the church is partly based upon living rock, and partly carried in the air by a great extension artificially added to the hill by the Emperor's power. The stones of this substructure are not of a size such as we are acquainted with, for the builders of this work, in struggling against the nature of the terrain and labouring to attain a height to match the rocky elevation, had to abandon all familiar methods and resort to practices which were strange and altogether unknown. So they cut out blocks of unusual size from the hills which rise to the sky in the region before the city, and after dressing them carefully they brought them to the site in the following manner. They built wagons to match the size of the stones, placed a single block on each of them, and had each wagon with its stone drawn by forty oxen which had been selected by the Emperor for their strength.
But since it was impossible for the roads leading to the city to accommodate these wagons, they cut into the hills for a very great distance, and made them passable for the wagons as they came along there, and thus they completed the length of the church in accordance with the Emperor's wish. However, when they made the width in due proportion, they found themselves quite unable to set a roof upon the building. So they searched through all the woods and forests and every place where they had heard that very tall trees grew, and found a certain dense forest which produced cedars of extraordinary height, and by means of these they put the roof upon the church, making its height in due proportion to the width and length of the building."
- Lightfoot, John. 2007. From the Talmud and Hebraica, Vol. 1 (reprint). New York, New York: Cosimo. p. 62. ISBN 978-1-60206-406-5
- Freedman, David Noel; editor. 2000. Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., p. 990. ISBN 0-8028-2400-5
- Book of Chronicles Chapter 27:3, 33:14
- Book of Kings II, Chapter 5:24