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Israeli archeologists on Sunday said they've stumbled upon the site of one of the great dramatic scenes of the Roman sacking of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago: the subterranean drainage channel Jews used to escape from the city's Roman conquerors.
The ancient tunnel was dug beneath what would become the main road of Jerusalem in the days of the second biblical Temple, which the Romans destroyed in the year 70, the dig's directors, archaeology Professor Ronny Reich of the University of Haifa and Eli Shukron of the Israel Antiquities Authority, told a news conference.
The channel was buried beneath the rubble of the sacking, and the parts that have been exposed have been preserved intact.
The walls - ashlar stones one meter deep - reach a height of 3 meters - in some places and are covered by heavy stone slabs that were the main road's paving stones, Shukron said. Several manholes are visible, and portions of the original plastering remain, he said.
Pottery sherds, vessel fragments and coins from the end of the Second Temple period were discovered inside the channel, attesting to its age, Reich said.
The discovery of the drainage channel was momentous in itself, a sign of how the city's rulers looked out for the welfare of their citizens by organizing a system that drained the rainfall and prevented flooding, Reich said.
The discovery "shows you planning on a grand scale, unlike other cities in the ancient Near East," said anthropologist Joe Zias, an expert in the Second Temple period who was not involved in the dig.
But what makes the channel doubly significant is its role as an escape hatch for Jews desperate to flee the conquering Romans, the dig's directors said.
Historian Josephus Flavius indicated in "The War of the Jews" that numerous people took shelter in the channel and lived inside until they fled the city through its southern end.
"It was a place where people hid and fled to from burning, destroyed Jerusalem," Shukron said.
Tens of thousands of people lived in Jerusalem at the time, but it is not clear how many used the channel as an escape hatch, he said.
The discovery of the channel was unintended.
Shukron said excavators looking for Jerusalem's main road in the time of the Second Temple happened upon a small drainage channel. That discovery led them to the massive tunnel that archeologists say lies beneath that road.
"We were looking for the road and suddenly we discovered it," Shukron said. "And the first thing we said was, 'Wow."'
The icing on the cake, he said, is that archeologists now know in what direction the road lies.
About 100 meters of the canal have been uncovered so far. Reich estimates its total length will approximate one kilometer, stretching north from the Shiloah Pool at the Old City's southern end to the Temple Mount.
Archeologists think the tunnel leads to the Kidron River, which empties into the Dead Sea.