Clearing work was finished on a drainage channel underneath the Western Wall
Plaza dating from the Second Temple Period, the Israel Antiquities Authority
announced on Tuesday. The cleared channel, which is over half a kilometer long,
was built under the main road of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.
of the archeological dig to Al-Aksa Mosque and the Temple Mount stirred concerns
that Jerusalem’s Arab population would riot on Tuesday.
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work in the Western Wall Plaza has often led to violence in the past, such as in
February 2007, when construction of a temporary bridge to the Mugrabi Gate
entrance of the Temple Mount sparked violent protests not just in Jerusalem but
across the Muslim world. The Jerusalem police, however, told The Jerusalem Post
it was “very quiet” in east Jerusalem all day on Tuesday.
The channel was
an early drainage system for the city of Jerusalem, which emptied into the
Shiloah Pools on the southern end, in today’s Silwan neighborhood. Archeologists
believe that the other side of the channel is near Damascus Gate. The channel was
extensively excavated more than 100 years ago by British explorer Charles Warren
in 1867 and archeologists Bliss and Dickey in the 1890s. The southern section of
the channel has been open to the public for many years, but this was the first
time that it was discovered that it is a continuous channel, about 600 meters
Much of the channel had already been excavated by
previous explorers, said Eli Shukron, the archeologist overseeing the project
for the Israel Antiquities Authority.
After additional budget was made
available for the excavation work, IAA started excavations seven years ago in
cooperation with the City of David park and the Israel Nature and Parks
Shukron led the Post on a tour of the channel following the
announcement on Tuesday afternoon. The channel is about 1/3 of a meter wide and
ranges in height from one to two meters, and is between 15 to 20 meters
underground. The channel’s clearing also allowed archeologists to see the lower
stones of the Kotel that are currently underground, though Shukron dismissed the
Kotel stones as the least exciting part of the project.
“You know the
Kotel already; that’s already been overdone,” he said, hurrying past the bottom
of the Kotel to point out an underground mikve (ritual bath) and an ancient
“Every rock has a story here,” he said, gesturing to a large
boulder in the ceiling. He explained that the boulder had fallen into the arch
of the ceiling during the Roman plundering of the city in 70 CE and serves as
physical testimony to the violence of the times.
“What this gives us is
an understanding of the conditions of the roads in Jerusalem during the Second
Temple period. How did the city work? How did the city live? Here you’ve got
something important, something interesting, something that you can relate to,”
Shukron also pointed out the remnants of previous explorations,
including old wires and writing on the wall in French. He stressed that the
channel did not go anywhere near the Temple Mount or the mosques, in
contradiction to some claims. The channel follows the Tyropoeon Valley, which is
the lowest area in ancient Jerusalem. “That’s why I can’t go up to the Temple
Mount, because the Temple Mount is high. There’s no way that a drainage pipe
could reach there,” Shukron explained.
The rabbi of the Western Wall,
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, strongly denounced claims that the channel was an
attempt to disrupt the delicate status quo in the area.
“No one is
digging their way underneath the Temple Mount, both because it’s explicitly
forbidden according to Halacha and because it’s simply not possible” he said.
“Every attempt to claim that the digging will damage the holy area is an
outright lie, whose only goal is unnecessarily and dangerously fanning the
flames in a place that is holy to all of the religions.”
The NGO Ir Amim
has expressed concern about the project over the past years.
archeological work of the Old City and its immediate environs is a highly
sensitive political issue, not only an archeological issue,” said Sarah Kreimer,
the associate director of Ir Amim. “The work should be done with maximum
transparency, and in consultation with all of the parties who are connected to
the Old City. By carrying out the work in a secretive and non-transparent way,
it leaves [room] open for a lot of suspicion and rumors.”
She faulted the
project for being unclear about the funding of the project and the permits for
digging. A few years ago, residents of Silwan appealed to the Supreme Court,
accusing the IAA of operating with an incorrect archeological permit that would
not allow such extensive excavations. The Supreme Court rejected the
IAA acting spokesman Itzhak Rabihiya told the Post that the IAA
had received all of the correct permits throughout the seven-year
Final work on the channel will be completed in the next few
months and Shukron hopes it will eventually be open to the public, perhaps as
soon as in the next year or two.
“This is a part of the story of the
city, that there were roads and there were places to park and there were
pedestrians,” he said.
Even Josephus, the Roman historian who documented
the final moments of Masada, describes the importance of the drainage channels,
which provided a hiding spot for the last Jews fleeing from the Romans during
the siege of the city. The channel has the remnants of pots and living areas,
leading historians to believe some Jews hid in the channel for significant
periods of time.
“The Romans killed some of them, some they carried [away
as] captives, and others they made a search for underground, and when they found
where they were, they broke up the ground and killed all they met with,”
Today, 20 meters below the Western Wall plaza, it’s
possible to see the stones that were broken by the Romans as they searched for
the last remaining Jews, and to visualize the layout of the city as it stood
2,000 years ago.