Mystery surrounds the remains of a royal palace overlooking the Biblical heart of Jerusalem after it was uncovered by stunned archaeologists.
The palace, which stood outside the walls of the ancient city, would have commanded a view of King Solomon's Temple, but was likely destroyed in 586 BC.
However, some traces of the lost structure survived, including a number of capitals — a type of stonework used atop columns — closely associated with the Kings of Judah and Israel.
Yaakov Billig, who directed the excavation, said this "proto-Aeolian" style was typical of royal buildings, raising the possibility that the palace belonged to a king.
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"This is a very exciting discovery," he said.
"The level of workmanship on these capitals is the best seen to date, and the degree of preservation of the items is rare."
However what's puzzling experts is why these parts of the palace were neatly buried and thereby preserved, when the rest was plundered.
"At this point it is still difficult to say who hid the capitals in the way they were discovered and why they did so," said Professor Billig.
"There is no doubt that this is one of the mysteries at this unique site to which we will try to offer a solution."
Experts believe the palace was built at some point between the failed Assyrian siege of Jerusalem in 701 BC and the destruction of the city by Babylon in approximately 586 BC.
During that time, Jerusalem was reigned over by a succession of eight different kings, five of whom are named in the Bible as ancestors of Christ.
The association between these ancient kings and the style of the artifacts is so close that a likeness of the stonework actually appears on modern Israel's five shekel coin.
The fact that the palace was built outside the city walls reflected a degree of confidence, experts believe.
Professor Billig said: "This discovery attests to a new revival in the city and somewhat of an 'exit from the walls' of the First Temple period after the Assyrian siege.
"We have revealed villas, mansions and government buildings in the area outside the walls of the city.
"This testifies to the relief felt by the city's residents and the recovery of Jerusalem's development after the Assyrian threat was over."
The artifacts from the palace, which are carved from soft limestone, will be exhibited in Jerusalem over the coming days.
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