Descending deep into the underground excavations in Jerusalem's Old City, the air gets thick. It's humid. And it's dark.
Besides heavy breathing, the only sounds are the buzzing of a sole 500-watt bulb and sticky footsteps on shadowy wooden stairs as we descend dozens of meters beneath the approaches to the ancient Jewish Temple.
Here, archeologists have cleared away centuries of debris to reveal an enormous arch, called the "giant causeway," which once carried Jewish pilgrims to the Second Temple over two millennia ago. They also found ritual baths. The Romans destroyed that temple, but spared the arch. Underneath it, sometime in the third or fourth century, they built smaller arches. Someone, perhaps a merchant or a potter, stored clay inside the arch for some future date.
"Go ahead, feel it," says Miri Sak, of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. "It's as soft, wet and pliable as when they first put it here all those years ago."
It has remained undisturbed for 16 centuries. It is amazingly unsullied and ready to be thrown on a potter's wheel or shaped into a cup or bowl as much now as it was 1,600 years ago.
Working quietly for the past three years, archeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority have excavated this site near the Western Wall, Judaism's principle site.
"When Jerusalem was destroyed as a Jewish city in the year 70 and became a Roman colony, the use of the ritual baths became irrelevant because temple worship was no longer an aspect of people's lives. Those spaces were used for other things," says Jon Seligman, Jerusalem Regional Archeologist for the IAA.
"The clay has been levigated, or prepared for the production of ceramics. It is an ancient store of clay from 1,600 years ago and just placed there as a building store and waiting to be used, and it has been waiting from then till now to be used," Seligman tells The Media Line. "So far, this is the only ancient clay hoard ever found in Israel."
Any time you dig in the Old City of Jerusalem you never know what you will discover. The Media Line was offered one of the first visits to the clay room as well as to another dig nearby that revealed the main Roman-era roadway. The area sits next to the Western Wall, which draws over eight million visitors a year. The digging was required before a new visitors' center could be built.
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovich, rabbi of the Western Wall, is glad to have the visitors. He would welcome more, but he bemoans the lack of basic facilities to handle the traffic of worshipers, pilgrims and tourists.
"There are 8 million visitors a year and this is the most visited site in Israel. They don't have any facilities. They have no toilets," Rabinovich says. "There are many things that have to be provided to them."
Together with the Western Wall Foundation, a plan was drawn up for a new visitors' center. The only problem was that even before the cornerstone could be laid, an archeological excavation had to take place.
"All the excavations that have been done in the past few years have completely revolutionized our understanding of that period inside Jerusalem," says Seligman.
Rabinovich recalled that when they demolished a small building to begin the digs, a bulldozer hit it and revealed it was teetering on top of an ancient arch.
"It was hanging in mid air," Rabinovich says. "Underneath there's a treasure, a Cardo, a street from the time of the Second Temple, and maybe even things from the First Temple period. There were wonderful things."
After the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD they tried to wipe out the memory of the Jewish nation. They even changed the name of the city to Alia Capotalina and rebuilt it, laying wide stone roads over the rubble of the city.
In a large pit on the western side of the plaza before the Western Wall, one can see these very same paving stones along with large pillars. Digging underneath parts of the road, archeologists also discovered remnants of homes from the First Temple period some 3,000 years ago, including some rare ancient Hebrew stamps used by officials in the court of King Solomon.
"We found a bronze seal of an archer with fine details. It's no bigger than a shekel, or a penny. The name on it is Hagav. We find in the Book of Prophets b'nei Hagav written once - the sons of Hagav. Is this the same Hagav who was mentioned? He might have actually stood here, lived here some 2,800 years ago," says Miri Sak.
Archeologists uncovered a total of some 6,000 ancient coins, as well as tens of thousands of pottery shards spanning the city's history, from the First Temple, Roman and Byzantine, to the Persians, Umayyad, Crusaders, Mukluks and Ottomans.
Now that digging is complete engineers are planning where to build the large visitors' center. American businessman Mort Zuckerman is the financier of this project and building is scheduled to begin once permits are issued.
The plans have drawn criticism, particularly from other archeologists.
"The cement and the concrete will go down, the iron poles will go down to the street into the excavation, and I don't see any advantage in doing this," says Yoram Tzafrir, professor emeritus from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "This is a kind of cultural pearl that we cannot cover with buildings."
Officials believe the new building will actually preserve it better.
"How will you be able to see it? It will fill up with water when it rains and no one will be able to reach it. In one moment you've ruined it all and nothing will remain. You need some kind of construction," says Rabbi Rabinovich.
Archeologist Seligman believes a compromise can be reached.
"It is a matter of finding the balance between on the one hand, living in the city of Jerusalem, developing the city of Jerusalem and letting people live their lives here, and on the other hand, ... preserving the most important aspects of the ancient past."
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