A rare 200-seat theater from the Roman period and eight large ancient stone courses have been unearthed under the Western Wall’s Wilson’s Arch by the Israel Antiquities Authority.
Wilson’s Arch, built of enormous stones, is the last of a series of such arches that once constituted a gigantic bridge leading to the Temple Mount from the west. It is the only intact, visible structure remaining from the Temple Mount compound of the Second Temple period.
The arch, which stands high above the foundations of the Western Wall, served as a passageway for people entering the Temple Mount compound and the Temple. A huge aqueduct also passed over the arch.
The site’s excavators, Dr. Joe Uziel, Tehillah Lieberman and Dr. Avi Solomon, said on behalf of the IAA that the dig was initiated in order to date the structure, but turned into far more when the theater was discovered.
“From a research perspective, this is a sensational find,” Uziel said at a press conference Monday morning in Jerusalem’s Old City. “The discovery was a real surprise. We did not imagine that a window would open for us onto the mystery of Jerusalem’s lost theater. Like much of archeological research, the expectation is that a certain thing will be found. But at the end of the process, other findings – surprising and thought-provoking – are unearthed.”
While the archeologists noted that the exposure of the courses of the Western Wall and the components of Wilson’s Arch are “thrilling discoveries that contribute to our understanding of Jerusalem,” they described the discovery of the theater- like structure as “the real drama.”
“This is a relatively small structure compared to known Roman theaters, such as at Caesarea, Beit She’an and Beit Guvrin,” said Lieberman. “This fact – in addition to its location under a roofed space, in this case under Wilson’s Arch – leads us to suggest that this is a theater-like structure of the type known in the Roman world as an odeon.”
“In most cases,” he continued, “such structures were used for acoustic performances. Alternatively, the structure might have been what is known as a bouleuterion, the building where the city council met – in this case, the council of the Roman colony of Aelia Capitolina.”
Interestingly, the archeologists believe the theater was never used.
“A number of findings at the site indicate this, among them a staircase that was never completely hewn,” said Solomon. “It is clear that great effort was invested in the building’s construction. But oddly, it was abandoned before it was put to use.”
“The reasons for this are unknown,” he added. “But they may have been connected to a significant historical event – perhaps the Bar Kokhba Revolt. Construction of the building may have been started, but abandoned when the revolt broke out.”
Additional evidence of unfinished buildings from this period has been uncovered during excavations of the Eastern Cardo in the Western Wall Plaza, Solomon noted.
The archeologists also noted that numerous findings have been unearthed during digs beneath Wilson’s Arch, including pottery vessels, coins, architectural elements, and other relics which are to be later analyzed in the authority’s state-of-theart Jerusalem laboratory.
“Advanced research methods from various fields were employed to uncover remains invisible to the naked eye, but only viewable through a microscope,” said Uziel.
“This enables conclusions to be drawn at a level of precision that would have been impossible in the past, transforming the study of the findings at Wilson’s Arch into pioneering, cutting-edge micro-archeological research.”
Monday’s press conference was attended by Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz; IAA director Israel Hasson; Western Wall Heritage Foundation director Mordechai Eliav; IAA district archeologist Dr. Yuval Baruch; and the excavation’s directors.
Eliav deemed the discovery one of the most important unearthed during his 30-year tenure with the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.
“There is no doubt as to the immeasurably rich scientific value of the discoveries in this area,” he said.
“The findings symbolize the guests from past empires that were here over the years, as opposed to the Jewish people, who held fast to this place some 3,000 years ago and have been here ever since and always.”
Rabinovitch said he was most taken by the tangibility of the findings.
“Time after time the amazing archeological findings allow our generation to actually touch the ancient history of our people and Jewish heritage and its deep connection to Jerusalem,” he said.
Hasson said the IAA’s primary goal in the area is to continue unveiling ancient Jerusalem.
“The exciting finds from the excavations beneath Wilson’s Arch enhance the importance of expanding the archeological excavations in this region. And I hope that these finds will help push forward the general plan so that we each get to see and be awed by Jerusalem’s glorious past,” he said.
The findings will be presented to the public during a conference called “New Studies in the Archeology of Jerusalem and its Environs,” which will take place later this year at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to mark 50 years of archeology since the unification of Jerusalem.