Revealing Jerusalem

One can easily make out a street, aqueducts and a large arched entrance at the Western Wall Plaza.

digs 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
digs 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There is a huge hole at each end of the Western Wall Plaza, one of which is expanding by the day. Both are significant archeological excavations now in progress under the auspices of the Israel Antiquities Authority, but they differ in their scope and implications for the area. The Mughrabi Gate excavation site and that where the police station once stood are both considered "rescue digs" - that is, important construction was about to take place in the area, but first the government wanted to check what was "going on underneath." As is typical in the Old City, excavators were not disappointed with what they found. At the western end of the plaza where the now-gutted police station once occupied an old Turkish building, Shlomit Wexler and Alexander On are the archeologists in charge of the excavation. On the day I visit, the site is a beehive of activity. Under a huge black mesh canopy, more than 40 workers are picking carefully at the rubble, handing up bucketloads of dirt, tagging pails of significant finds, piling rocks and using the surveying equipment to mark off new areas for exploration. Wexler, in a red blouse and floppy hat, is busy sketching a newly uncovered area. "That's part of the original floor - leave it and dig around it," she yells down to a helmeted workman in the pit. "Yusef," she calls over another man, "put a tag on that pail and take it over to Brigette," she says, pointing to the "office," a long table where initial identification of important finds are made. The work force is a microcosm of Israeli society: Ethiopian immigrants, Silwan residents, former South American history professors, Russian-born engineers, veteran Israeli diggers, all cooperating under the direction of the hovering archeologists. Already, even the untrained eye can make out a wide paved street, aqueducts, a large arched entrance, niches carved into the westernmost bedrock and sections of pillars - from the Roman period it turns out. As Wexler describes the finds, she admits that the team has uncovered plenty of surprises in the 12 months they have been digging. That's why they were given permission to considerably expand the excavation, she says. "A large educational center for Moreshet Hakotel will be built on this plot," she begins. "That's why we were called in to conduct a 'rescue dig.' The first thing we found were buildings from the Mameluke period [mid-13th century through early 16th century]. This must have been an important commercial center in that period." She continues, "As we dug deeper we found a second-century Cardo - a huge boulevard that runs from this area all the way to Damascus Gate," which ran parallel to the one in the Jewish Quarter that was flanked by pillars, she explains. "We've only found pillars on one side, so far," she admits, "but that's what is shown on the famous Madeba Map." This thoroughfare ran along El Wad (Rehov Hagai today) and was once 14 meters wide. There was also a well-constructed drainage system, with aqueducts that carried water all the way from the Hebron area to the Temple Mount. There are remnants of a wide sidewalk and shops along both sides of the boulevard. The outlines of some shops are discernible in the bedrock that marks the western cliff-like limits of the plaza (under the present Chabad soup kitchen). "By the sixth or seventh century, however, the Cardo along this section was gone, either destroyed by wars, an earthquake, or to make room for a massive building," says Wexler. "What's clear," she continues, "is that this was always a commercial area. We've found more than 2,000 coins, ceramics, jewelry, remnants of shops and later light industry. For instance in the Mameluke period there was a tanner's workshop and a dye factory (the first ever found in this region) which in later years evolved into a bakery." Yuval Baruch, the district archeologist for the Antiquities Authority, believes that these workshops may have given the nearest gate, the Burkai (Tanner's) Gate, its name. For Wexler, tracing the changing size of the road through history alone is exciting. "From 14 meters across in the Roman period, this street shrank to five meters in the Mameluke period and then to a mere two meters in the Ottoman period, becoming a typical Middle Eastern winding lane, like you still see today." Unlike the more advanced digs on the western edge of the plaza, excavation around the Mughrabi Gate, the only access for non-Muslims entering the Temple Mount, has been limited by its contentious location. When the dig began in early February, it drew heavy protest from Muslim leaders who charged that the work endangered Al-Aksa - the gray mosque at the south end of the Temple Mount compound. Though the plan to build a new bridge to the Mughrabi Gate has been nixed, the excavation is still ongoing. As a result archeologists have been extremely cautious. They are also very guarded about what they expect to reveal. The previous bridge was on the verge of collapse from heavy rains and earth tremors in recent years, when the authorities constructed a temporary, wooden one (until the digs are completed). In the five months since they've been permitted to continue with the excavation, head archeologists Haim Barber and Fanny Vito have unearthed Ottoman homes from the 16th to 19th centuries, part of the Mughrabi Quarter that was destroyed after the Six Day War. They have also uncovered a 15th-century ceramics factory and sections of the many narrow lanes that criss-crossed the neighborhood. "It's very slow going," admits Baruch, "due both to the political situation and logistics." The area is adjacent to the main prayer area which further curbs the excavators' freedom of movement. But because of the site's proximity to the Temple Mount and the famous southern excavations there is potential for much earlier and significant discoveries to be made there. The hope is that an archeological park will be established underneath the new bridge, Baruch says, so that whatever is uncovered will be available to the public, as in the Temple Mount excavations. I ask Wexler if her involvement in such important discoveries makes her feel at times like a midwife, bringing to light what 19th-century archeologist Charles Warren termed "unrevealed Jerusalem." Without hesitation she replies, "No, I feel more like I'm giving birth, discovering something that's been hidden all these centuries." Then after a pause, she adds, "I only hope that they don't cover it all up again after the finds have been recorded and published. Jerusalem belongs to all osur residents."