Sights and Insights: Jerusalem down under

The Western Wall Tunnels allow visitors to explore the full length of the Kotel, seeing first-century Jerusalem.

By WAYNE STILES
January 23, 2012 14:37
Western Wall excavated tunnel

Kotel Tunnels 311. (photo credit: BiblePlaces.com)

Wayne Stiles has never recovered from his travels in the Holy Land. Follow him on Twitter (@WayneStiles) or on his blog at www.waynestiles.com.


Question: What major site in Jerusalem can a visitor see without wasting daylight but that still requires men to wear a hat? (Okay, so you could wear a yarmulke instead of a hat. And really, most men remove the hat after ten minutes anyway.)

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Answer: The Western Wall Tunnels.

When you say the words “Kotel” or “Western Wall,” most folks think of the Western Wall plaza, the place where bar and bat mitzvahs regularly occur and where soldiers are inducted. It’s the spot where Jews come to pray—as well as many tourists—and the place of national prayer gatherings.

But like the tip of an iceberg, the Western Wall plaza represents only a small part of the whole picture. Most of the Kotel lies buried beneath the rubble of time and hasn’t seen the light of day for centuries. Because the site represents part of the Western Wall, the tour requires all men to cover their heads respectfully.

I passed beneath a sign that read, “Western Wall Heritage,” and stood in a small room before a scale model of the Temple Mount’s original topography. A young guide explained to our group the stages of building the first two temples on the site. Solomon built the original temple, and the Babylonians destroyed it in 586 BC. After the Jews’ return from exile, Zerubbabel helped rebuild the temple. Herod the Great extensively expanded it in the first century BC—though the construction continued into the first century—decades after Herod’s death. The stones visible in the tunnel tour date from Herod’s time and represent the western section of the massive retaining wall that supported the base of the Second Temple. But these treasures weren’t always visible.

Men pray at the Kotel Tunnels (Photo: BiblePlaces.com)Nineteenth century scholars struggled to understand the dimensions of the Western Wall. Between 1864 and 1870, British explorers Charles Wilson and Charles Warren discovered the area just north of today’s prayer plaza; an arch and a gate were named after each of them, respectively. Wilson’s Arch looms twenty-five feet above the ground—though the original height was closer to seventy-five feet. The arch covers a large room where Jewish men can study and pray beside the Western Wall.

As our group made its way along the full length of the Wall—a total of 1500 feet—we observed bits of archaeology from the first century. Descending some steps we came to a massive stone that represents part of the “master course” of stones. One of these stones measures forty-four feet long, ten feet high, and more than twelve feet deep. Weighing in at 570 tons, it remains the largest of its kind in the Middle East. Every first-timer’s jaw drops when he or she sees it. Mine still drops.

We watched a brief video presentation that explained how first-century workers maneuvered the massive stones into place through a system of pulleys. Simply a marvel of engineering.

Western Wall place closest to Holy of Holies (Photo: BiblePlaces.com)A little further through the tunnel, we stopped at a small alcove with recessed lights. An elderly woman faced the wall and clutched a prayer book, unaffected by our presence. This spot represented, our guide told us, the closest we could get to where the original Holy of Holies stood on the Temple Mount. She went on to say that we stood a mere 300 feet from the foundation rock where God created Adam and where Jacob had his dream of a stairway to heaven. It always bothers me when any tradition contradicts Scripture. After all, the same book of Genesis that informs us that God created Adam and that Jacob dreamed also gives the geography associated with those events. (And unless Moses got it wrong, neither occurred in Jerusalem.) Why would we accept one truth without the other?

Traveling parallel with the Western Wall, my hands rubbed the stones that bore Herod’s signature relief along its edges. We came to a portion of a first-century street where the signature relief continued in the bedrock of the hill itself. Plexiglas flooring allowed us a peek at the aqueduct that ran underground, with the ceiling of the tunnel now high above us. The tour dead-ended at the Strouthian Pool, beneath the site of the Antonia Fortress. The pool’s name means “lark,” because, like the tiny bird, the pool(s) represented the smallest public pools in Jerusalem at that time.

Arches supporting Street of Chain (Photo: BiblePlaces.com)Assuming the political climate allows, visitors can file upstairs and find themselves in the Muslim Quarter. But I prefer to backtrack through the entire tunnel and exit in the Western Wall plaza. It seems there’s always something I have missed when I walk the tunnel from another perspective.

The popularity of the tour requires reservations. But it’s worth the trouble. I can’t imagine a better use of time after the sun goes down.

What to Do There:
You’ll see all this article mentions—plus more. You’ll need to make reservations for a guided tour. See the Web site for more info: http://english.thekotel.org/

How to Get There:
Walk to the north side of the Western Wall plaza to the sign, “Western Wall Heritage.”

Wayne Stiles has never recovered from his travels in the Holy Land. Follow him on Twitter (@WayneStiles) or on his blog at www.waynestiles.com.


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