Students on a pre-army education program are working at an Israel Antiquities Authority archeological dig beneath Jerusalem’s iconic Western Wall and the adjoining plaza. They’re delving under a mosaic floor that was once part of a Byzantine building dating back 14 centuries. And what they find underground astonishes both them and the experts running the excavation.
Archeologists Tehila Sadiel and Barak Monnickendam-Givon of the IAA were co-directors of this particular dig. They led and supervised students engaged in a preparatory scheme prior to service with the Israel Defense Forces. The study project aims to give young Israelis an insight into the ancient history of the region.
This Western Wall dig took place beneath the ancient Beit Strauss building, which was named after the Jewish philanthropist Nathan Strauss. He purchased it during the time when Jerusalem was ruled by the British in the first half of the 20th century. This structure was a soup kitchen at one time, but today it serves as the entrance to the historic Western Wall Tunnels.
And it was beneath this structure that the students came across their extraordinary and unique discovery which was announced in May 2020. But before we get into the detail of what was uncovered, it’s worth stepping back for a moment to explore the venerable history of the Western Wall.
The Western Wall dates back some 2,200 years and is a part of one of the Jewish world’s most holy sites: the Second Temple of Jerusalem. The Roman-backed Herod the Great ruled what was historically called Judea from 37 B.C. to 4 A.D. And he started construction of the Second Temple in 20 B.C. The building project on a site known as the Temple Mount – which originally housed the First Temple – was to last for 46 years.
It’s worth noting that King Solomon built the First Temple – which was completed in the year 957 B.C. – on the Temple Mount. Jews believed that the hill was the location where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac on the orders of God. According to the Old Testament, the Lord spared Isaac’s life once Abraham had proven the strength of his faith.
The First Temple’s nemesis was King Nebuchadrezzar II. He destroyed the building in the year 587 or 586 B.C. at around the same time that he forcibly exiled many Jews to his nation of Babylonia. Nearly 50 years later the deported Jews were allowed to return, and it was not long after that they began the construction of the Second Temple.
The Jews finished building the Second Temple in 515 B.C. and for the most part it was left in peace for the next few centuries. Then in 167 B.C. Judea’s foreign ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes defiled the Temple by ordering sacrifices to the Greek deity Zeus there. A Jewish revolt ensued and the Temple was dedicated anew, in an episode that is remembered in the annual festival of Hanukkah.
The Romans seriously damaged the Second Temple in 54 B.C. as they conquered Judea. Then, as we’ve already heard, Herod the Great rebuilt it. And he then expanded the structure significantly – doubling the size of the Temple Mount site and surrounding it with a fortified wall. The Temple now had a large plaza surrounded by porticos, where merchants plied their trade.
But the rebuilt Second Temple’s lifespan was short. In 66 A.D. the Jews rose in revolt against their Roman rulers. The Emperor Nero reacted with all the armed might at his disposal – ruthlessly suppressing the rebellion. The final act of the suppression was the destruction of the Second in Temple 70 A.D., which was just 34 years after Herod had finished rebuilding it.
Just one part of the Second Temple’s structure was left standing, and that is what we see today in the shape of the Western Wall. In fact, some parts of it – the higher sections – were added later. But archeologists are in no doubt that the lower section of wall dates back to the second century B.C. and formed part of the Second Temple’s structure.
In later centuries, the wall would often become a flashpoint of conflict between Jerusalem’s Islamic and Jewish communities. It was 638 when the city first came under Muslim rule. Disputes arose because as well as being the only surviving part of the Second Temple, it also bordered – and still does today – the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.
The Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque were built between the seventh and eighth century – with the former being constructed atop the site of the Second Temple. And the structures extremely important in Islamic belief. The latter is the religion’s third most revered holy site after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, it is from the Dome of the Rock that the prophet Mohammed is said to have ascended to heaven.
Just to add to the religious tangle that surrounds the Western Wall and the Temple Mount, Christians also have a stake in the site. According to the New Testament, one of the most famous episodes of Jesus’ life took place at the Temple Mount. It was here that the Son of God is said to have overturned the tables of the moneychangers in one of the best-known episodes of his life.
According to the historian F.M. Loewenberg, Jewish attachment to the Western Wall – and their use of it as a sacred site of devotion – seems to have its origins in the 16th century. In a 2017 article in Middle East Quarterly, the historian wrote that this reverence of the Wall started after the Ottomans under Sultan Suleiman I the Magnificent conquered Jerusalem in 1517.
The Ottomans wrested control of Jerusalem and the surrounding lands from the Mamluks and took a much more tolerant attitude to the Jews than their previous rulers had. Indeed, Sultan Suleiman encouraged the return of Jews who’d earlier been exiled to Spain and Portugal. And, the expert wrote, it was this new influx which seems to have precipitated the use of the Western Wall as a venerated site of Jewish worship.
But the real catalyst which confirmed the Western Wall as a sacred place was a calamitous earthquake in 1546. After the disaster, Suleiman ordered that the ruins around the Temple Mount and the Western Wall should be cleared to create a space where the Jews could worship and pray. The Ottoman ruler issued a decree which gave Jews the absolute right to practice their religious devotions at the Wall.
The “Wailing Wall” term apparently entered into English literature in the 19th century. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, the name was bestowed by foreign travelers who were struck by the passionate prayers recited by some Jews at the Western Wall. The Jewish Virtual Library website, meanwhile, says that the name has no equivalent in the Hebrew language.
But still, the Western Wall was not as central to Jewish beliefs as it would later become. According to the Middle East Quarterly, Jews generally only came to pray at the Wall at times of dire necessity. However, there was also a habit of people coming to pray to mark the time when the First and Second Temples were destroyed.
In fact, the large plaza by the wall and the high numbers of visitors and worshippers only came into being after the Israelis took control of the area after the Six-Day War of 1967. Before that, there was only a narrow passage by the wall which was around 13 feet wide and 90 feet long.
Sadly, the Wall is till at the center of disagreements between Palestinians and Israelis about access. But nevertheless, there have been some stunning archeological finds in recent years. Before we come to the discovery we mentioned at the start of this piece, however, it’s worth taking a moment to review some other outstanding finds.
One exceptional discovery made in 2007 dates back to Roman times. An Israel Antiquities Authority team uncovered a 90-foot section of a Roman thoroughfare. At the time, a regional archeologist for Jerusalem called Jon Seligman spoke to the Reuters press agency about the significance of the find. And he elaborated on how it contributed to knowledge about the city’s Roman era.
Seligman said, “We find bits of Roman road all the time but this discovery helped us piece together a picture of Roman Jerusalem. It was a real ‘Eureka’ moment.” The alleyway linked a main street with a bath house and also with the Temple Mount via a bridge. As you’ll remember, it was the Romans who had destroyed the Second Temple at the Temple Mount in 70 A.D.
After the Romans had demolished the Second Temple, they built a neighborhood on the Temple Mount site called Aelia Capitolina. Archeologists discovered this street linking to the Roman construction below a sewage pipe and the office of the Western Wall’s Chief Rabbi. After painstakingly removing large quantities of earth, the street was revealed in surprisingly good condition.
As well as the street itself, the researchers uncovered what they believed to be a Roman bath house. The evidence for this included a set of latrines and some plumbing of the type used to operate below-ground heating. The archeologists believe that the evidence revealed by this Roman road may indicate that despite the destruction of the Second Temple, the Temple Mount was still a thriving area in Roman times.
And the Israel Antiquities Authority announced another intriguing discovery in 2017. This find offered more evidence of life in Roman Jerusalem, and in particular around Temple Mount after the destruction of the Second Temple. Archeologists had uncovered a large subterranean section of the Western Wall and the remains of a Roman theater.
During the two-year dig, the researchers revealed a section of the Western Wall that lay more than 25 feet below the modern surface. This part of the wall – beneath a section called Wilson’s Arch – hadn’t been seen by human eyes for some 1,700 years. In order to excavate, the plaza and wall above the dig had been reinforced so that worshippers and visitors to the Western Wall were undisturbed.
But it was the uncovering of the ancient Roman theater that generated the most excitement. Archeologist Dr. Joe Uziel told The Times of Israel in 2017, “The discovery of the theater-like structure is a real drama.” In fact, the existence of the building – with a capacity of up to 300 – was known from the writings of the Roman-era historian Josephus Flavius. It seems the theater was covered over after a devastating earthquake around the year 360 A.D.
For his part, Western Wall rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch told the publication, “We have a great deal of archeological work ahead. And I am certain that the deeper we dig, the earlier the periods we will reach – further anchoring the profound connection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel and to Jerusalem.”
And so we return to the 2020 discovery which did indeed – as Rabbi Rabinovitch had suggested – date back to an earlier time than previous archeological fins around the Western Wall. This new site beneath a Byzantine-era mosaic floor from 1,400 years ago dated back some 2,000 years. That’s almost certainly earlier than the Roman theater and before the Romans destroyed the Second Temple.
What the experts had now uncovered was an extraordinary underground complex. This was hewn from the solid bedrock below the area near the Western Wall and just some 300 feet from the Second Temple. The structure consists of three chambers laid out over three floors, and the Byzantine building which concealed these underground rooms was built on top of them.
The Israel Antiquities Authority excavation co-director Dr. Barak Monnickendam-Givon, elaborated on the location of this latest dig. He told The Jerusalem Post in May 2020, “At the time of the Second Temple, 2,000 years ago, this was a public area – the civic center of ancient Jerusalem.”
Monnickendam-Givon continued, “We think that the public street passed just a few meters from here, and we are standing next to what we archeologists call the ‘big bridge’ that connected the upper city to the Temple itself.” The underground complex consists of two rooms joined by stairs and a courtyard which would have been open.
Furthermore, the structure’s entrance has obvious evidence that it had a door fitted with bolts. Inside the rooms are shelves carved into the bedrock as well as small niches which would have been used for oil lamps. A variety of artifacts have been uncovered in the rooms, which Monnickendam-Givon and Sadiel described in a press statement quoted by The Times of Israel.
The researchers said, “Among other things, we found clay cooking vessels, cores of oil lamps used for light, a stone mug unique to Second Temple Period Jewish sites, and a fragment of a qalal. [This is] a large stone basin used to hold water – thought to be linked to Jewish practices of ritual purity.”
These latest finds have allowed the archeologists to conclude that the rooms would have been in use during the first century A.D. Further research is needed to identify how long the rooms might have been in use before then. The press statement continued, “This is a unique finding. This is the first time a subterranean system has been uncovered adjacent to the Western Wall. You must understand that 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem – like today – it was customary to build out of stone [blocks].”
The two experts went on, “The question is, why were such efforts and resources invested in hewing rooms underground in the hard bedrock?” Furthermore, talking to the Jerusalem Post, Monnickendam-Givon pointed out that, “Besides from burials, we have rarely found any complete rock-cut rooms from that era.”
Speaking to the newspaper, Monnickendam-Givon continued, “Most people in ancient Jerusalem lived in stone-built houses. What was the function of this hewn system just under the street level? Was it a house, a storage unit? Something else?” He added that getting to the bottom of this archeological mystery may take as much as another 30 years of research and excavation.
And little is currently known about the Byzantine era building that was constructed above the complex carved from the stone below it. Speaking to The Jerusalem Post about the Byzantine structure, Israel Antiquities Authority architect Michael Chernin said, “We do not know whether it was a religious or a civil building. We do know it collapsed during an earthquake at the beginning of the 11th century.”
Chernin added, “We want to understand the function of these structures, as well as their connection with the topography of the Roman and Byzantine Jerusalem. It is possible that more subterranean rooms will also emerge.” So the Western Wall continues to yield its ancient secrets, and the prospect of further discoveries is intriguing indeed.