September 2, 2011
by Nadav Shragai
Two thousand years after King Herod’s builders laid the foundations for the Kotel on the Temple Mount, Israeli archaeologists have reached these foundations. The Wall’s architectonic picture is nearly complete and will soon be unveiled publicly.
The Herodian era street and drainage.
These past few months have witnessed the completion of a historic work undertaken in the City of David: the uncovering of the lowest point of the Western Wall’s foundational structure. The discovery, which has been hidden deep underground for thousands of years, was made possible by the uncovering of a Herodian-era drainage canal by archaeologists. Now the Western Wall’s entire architectonic picture is nearly complete, and it will be unveiled publicly in the next few weeks.
The tens of thousands of Jews who streamed toward the Western Wall two nights ago to ask for divine forgiveness could not have known that just south of them, deep underground, a real archaeological drama was unfolding. Two thousand years after King Herod’s builders laid the foundations for the Western Wall on the Temple Mount, Israeli archaeologists have managed to reach these foundations and expose them anew.
The impressive slabs of hewn stone that make up the foundations rest on a layer of stone that had previously been laid in preparation for the construction of the Temple Mount. They were hidden and buried underground during the Second Temple period, much as the foundations of modern structures are welded into bedrock and are hidden from the naked eye. Even the pilgrims who made the trip to the Temple could not see them. Now the digging crew, led by archaeologists Roni Reich (Haifa University) and Eli Shukron (the Israel Antiquities Authority), has reached these layers. In a few weeks, the public will likely have the chance to get a glimpse for itself.
Access to the foundations was made possible by the Herodian-era drainage canal, which was finally unveiled by Reich and Shukron recently. The canal, which once guided away the rainwater that fell on Jerusalem, has yet to be opened to the public. It rises and meanders a full 600 meters, originating from the Pool of Siloam in the City of David to the foot of the Temple Mount. At the northern edge of the canal, at the foot of the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount wall, the archaeologists dug eastward and found the Western Wall foundations at their lowest point, the first time this feat has been accomplished in 2,000 years.
We, too, visited the site for a glimpse at the four bottom layers that lie beneath the Western Wall. They measure 11 meters in width. Although they are nothing more than stones, the first-hand contact is indeed a jarring experience. There is no need to summon one’s imagination. Everything is laid out for all to see: the foundational stone of the Temple Mount, upon which rests the huge slabs of hewn stone. These cornerstones are not as smooth as the familiar stones which are known to all of us from the Western Wall plaza. It is evident that Herod’s builders shaped these stones in relatively coarse fashion.
Even the customary Herodian masonry that is a hallmark of the Western Wall stones is less organized, and the dented margins of each stone are deeper than those on the Western Wall. The stones, which were hidden from sunlight for thousands of years, are of a grayish hue, yet their enormous size is reminiscent of the Western Wall stones. These foundational layers are also taller in height. They were not placed one on top of the other in a way that would create friction while preserving a perfectly straight vertical line. Instead, they were arranged in a special manner, in which every layer was moved back two centimeters from the layer underneath it. This was designed to strengthen the structure’s stability and to provide it with an impressive when viewed from afar.
The lowest point
In recent months, government ministers, opposition lawmakers, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and senior army officers have been brought to the site. They all walked the length of the space that separates the Pool of Siloam and the City of David from the Western Wall’s foundations. Almost all of them were moved to tears. Now the Western Wall architectonic picture is nearly complete: It stretches 488 meters in length. As archaeologist Benjamin Mazar quickly discovered immediately after the Six Day War, the first 81 meters are positioned on the southern side, a piece which includes the Mughrabi embankment. The next piece on the northern edge is a 57-meter slab, where finds the plaza where worshippers pray, just as it was designed after the Six Day War. The remaining 350 meters continues northward, passing underneath the streets and homes of the Old City.
Excavations on this subterranean level revealed the Western Wall tunnels and the wall’s layers, which remained preserved. North of the worshippers’ plaza, along the route of the tunnel but still above ground, one can see a small piece of the wall adjacent to the Iron Gate. It is known as “the little Kotel.”
As such, the puzzle is almost complete. The Antiquities Authority, the Nature and Parks Authority and the Ir David Foundation (which has financed the project) revealed the Western Wall foundations at their lowest point. Theoretically, one can see the foundation from inside the shafts that were mined by the British archaeologist Charles Warren mroe than 150 years ago. The shafts, however, are too narrow and, thus, inaccessible. A few of the Western Wall foundations are also visible from the Western Wall tunnel north of the worshippers’ plaza, yet they are the foundations that are at a more elevated point, significantly higher than the cornerstone at the southern edge.
The path to the Western Wall foundations that was paved by Shukron and Reich was no less moving than an encounter with these fine archaeologists. The drainage canal which led the researchers to the Wall’s foundations runs underneath the street paved with large stone plates. The same street led them from the Pool of Siloam to the Temple Mount.
Josephus as eyewitness
Tens of thousands of pilgrims who made their way to the Temple Mount would often stop to rest alongside the Pool of Siloam after taking a dip. From there, they ascended to the Temple Mount until they reached the Huldah Gates via the staircase on the southern side of the mount. The stairway’s path is no longer intact. There are just a few sections of it that have been excavated, yet the drainage canal underneath remains completely intact. It was discovered purely by chance while Shukron and his team dug an exploratory ditch in the Hayuval quarter of the City of David as part of an effort to uncover another section of the Herodian-era street. Suddenly, Shukron slipped and fell into the secondary drainage canal. Within a few minutes, he found himself in the main canal.
“This was a total surprise,” he said. “We never dreamed of getting here.”
It happened in 2007. Four years and one High Court of Justice petition later, the archaeologists weathered the storms and uncovered the 600 meters, which, in their own unique way, tell the story of the destruction of the Second Temple and the great revolt against the Roman Empire.
Archaeologists discovered five separate holes in the floor of the street that stretches above the drainage canal. Since they did not find any boulders that would account for the existence of these holes, they were left with the conclusion that they were caused as a result of deliberate action. Other artifacts, including cooking pots and coins that date back to the second, third, and fourth years of the revolt, hinted of a possible solution to the mystery: the drainage canal was apparently the last refuge for the remaining Jewish mutineers who went into hiding from Roman soldiers.
Some clues could be gleaned in the seven-volume account "The Wars of the Jews," in which the author, Flavius Josephus, wrote that the rebellious Jews had hid in the tunnels in an attempt to escape the wrath of the approaching Romans, who were left with no choice but to lay waste to the entire city.
Josephus told of how the Jewish fighters fled to the valley underneath the Siloam. Reich and Shukron say that the artifacts which they uncovered were most likely concealed there by the rebels. “Whoever survived the civil war, the Roman siege, and the destruction and was not killed immediately afterwards, put his belongings in the underground drainage canals in which the rebels hoped to find shelter,” Reich said.
A half-meter sword
The holes in the floor tell the story of the bitter end. According to Josephus, the Romans found the hiding rebels in the tunnels underneath them. They ripped open the floor beneath their feet and began stabbing the Jewish rebels, many of whom had died of starvation.
Many artifacts were found in the drainage canal, evidence that seems to support Josephus’ observations. The most memorable discovery, which was first revealed on the eve of the 9th of Av this year, was a Roman legionnaire sword and an engraving which depicts the Temple menorah. The sword is perhaps the most moving artifact that was discovered in the drainage canal. Perhaps it was the sword that was used by the anonymous legionnaire who killed the last remaining group of rebels that hid in the canal. The iron sword, which stretches 50 centimeters in length, was found inside a leather sheath. Parts of the belt that carried the sword were also found.
The other discovery was a stone tool in which an image of a menorah was engraved. They cited the importance of the detail in which the base of the menorah was inscribed, since it supposedly provides clues as to how the original menorah appeared. The fact that the engraved menorah was found so close to the Temple Mount is also of great importance. The researchers believe that a passerby who saw the menorah and was astounded by its beauty engraved it onto a stone and then threw the carving device to the side of the road.
Another significant artifact that was discovered was the golden bell which we have heard much about. It is a bell from which a loop is attached at one end. Researchers believe that the bell was sown onto an article of clothing worn by a high official in Jerusalem towards the end of the Second Temple period (the first century AD). The bell was found in the canal.
Another possibility is that the same person wandered along the streets of Jerusalem and lost the bell, which may have fallen from his clothing and into the canal. According to early Jewish texts, the high priests who performed religious services at the Temple wore golden bells that were attached to the sides of their coats. It is simply impossible to know for sure whether the bell belonged to one of the high priests, but the archaeologists say that it should not be ruled out.
Where is the canal?
Removing the dirt from the drainage canal was a grueling task that was aided by a group of young Jews made available to the archaeologists by the Ir David Foundation. Arab laborers, who were employed at the site in the past, refused to take part in the excavations this time because of threats to their lives. Because of the narrow dimensions of the canal, it was dug by one laborer who filled up a bucket with dirt and handed it to a chain of other workers who stood behind him near the Pool of Siloam. It was only in the later stages of the work that a mini-cable car was brought in, allowing the removal of the dirt to continue at a faster pace.
Near the exit of the drainage tunnel, the archaeologists encountered large stones from Robinson’s Arch which collapsed into the canal during the destruction of the Temple. It is a spot adjacent to the entrance of the Temple Mount during the period of the Second Temple. It enabled pedestrians outside of the Temple walls to ascend to the higher street that was on the same level as the mount walkway. The arch was named after the 19th century archaeologist, Edward Robinson, who discovered the remnant.
During the course of the excavation, the archaeologists were stunned to discover that the drainage canal had “disappeared.” The researchers happened upon the foundations of the Umayyad palace, which were exposed near the foot of the Wall facing the south. The foundations cut through the canal. “We looked for the rest of the canal, east, west,” said Shukron. “We didn’t give up, and finally we got around the palace’s foundations and reconnected with the rest of the canal and finished the dig.”
The general public will have to wait patiently. The canal and the Western Wall foundations are still not open to visitors, yet that will soon change once the proper safety equipment is installed on site.