The Ivory Palace of King Ahab

The Ivory Palace of King Ahab

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Now the rest of the acts of Ahab, and all that he did, and the ivory house which he made, and all the cities that he built, are they not written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Israel?
(The Bible, 1 Kings 22: 39) 

According to the Old Testament, King Ahab was the seventh king of the northern kingdom of Israel since Jeroboam I, and reigned during the 9 th century B.C. In the Old Testament, Ahab, along with his wife, Jezebel, gets a rather negative portrayal for the various things that they did, such as the worship of Baal.

King Ahab

An artist’s impression of King Ahab, from the “ Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum”.  Photo source: Wikimedia

According to the Old Testament, Ahab’s father, Omri, purchased the hill of Samaria and founded a city there: “In the thirty and first year of Asa king of Judah began Omri to reign over Israel, twelve years: six years reigned he in Tirzah. And he bought the hill Samaria of Shemer for two talents of silver, and built on the hill, and called the name of the city which he built, after the name of Shemer, owner of the hill, Samaria.” (The Bible , 1 Kings 16: 23-24) 

It was on this hill that Ahab built his ‘ivory palace’. It is often pointed out that the existence of such a structure has been confirmed by archaeological evidence. However, it will be shown that this is not as straightforward as it seems, and that the phrase “Ivory Palace of King Ahab” is a rather problematic one. In 1932, the Joint Expedition to Samaria, located in present-day West Bank, discovered a large quantity of ivory objects and decorations (a total of 250 fragments were recorded) near the northern area of Samaria’s summit. This has led people, including the archaeologists, to believe that they have found King Ahab’s Ivory Palace. 

‘The Woman at the Window’ – an ivory artifact

‘The Woman at the Window’ – an ivory artifact from Samaria. Photo source .

There are two problems with this interpretation. The first problem involves the question of what is meant by an ‘ivory palace’. One may envision an ivory palace to be a building somehow constructed literally from ivory (that’s what I’d imagine anyway). After all, if King Ahab were to be depicted as a really wealthy king, this would be a pretty good way to do so. However, these fragments were probably once attached to wooden furniture. The ivories from Fort Shalmaneser in Nimrud, Iraq, may be seen as parallels to those found in Samaria. Of course, one might argue that an ‘ivory palace’ was a building that had lots of ivory-decorated furniture, or ivory carvings, rather than a structure built of ivory.  

The bigger problem, however, is the fact that this structure was not even built by King Ahab. Based on the Kathleen Kenyon’s stratigraphic notes and summaries of the site, it seems that most of these ivory fragments date to the Hellenistic and Roman periods, several hundreds of years after the reign of King Ahab.

Although a structure containing ivory fragments was discovered by archaeologists, it was not King Ahab’s Ivory Palace. So, why was it identified as such then? Perhaps it was only natural that the Biblical reference produced an impulse to date these ivory fragments to the reign of King Ahab. The area where the ivories were found was also initially thought to be part of the royal palace (the large “palace” discovered to its west by the Harvard team in 1908-1910 was relegated to the status of a ‘supplementary building’). This view, however, was withdrawn in 1938, when the archaeologists realized that the walls of this building actually comprised only a section of a section of a second, inner enclosure wall, and that they could not “make a room or pavilion out of them.” By then, the damage was already done, and the ‘Ivory Palace of King Ahab’ is still regarded by some as having basis in archaeology. 

If you think the score board is ‘Archaeology – 1, Bible – 0’, it isn’t quite as simple. Reliance on the Bible for the interpretation of archaeological evidence is very much like the reliance of any textual evidence. Although historical archaeology is said to be the “handmaiden to history”, it isn’t quite so. If you think archaeology’s here to support the textual evidence (of which history relies on), you’d better think again. I suppose, at the end of the day, one has to be critical of one’s sources, and not take the textual evidence at face value. Also, archaeologists ought to be careful with what they say, since there may be unforeseen repercussions, sometimes much worse than the misidentification of an ancient structure.       

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