Around the corner from the Western Wall, a gem of archeology

This historic wall, which is just south of the crowded Western Wall plaza, is the southwestern corner of the wall that surrounded the Temple.

Archeologists make preparations for excavations. (photo credit: MEITAL SHARABI)
Archeologists make preparations for excavations.
(photo credit: MEITAL SHARABI)
People from an assortment of faiths and from all over the world visit the Western Wall every year, but only a few visit – or are even aware of the existence of – the archeological park adjacent to the southern wall of the Temple Mount.
This historic wall, which is just south of the crowded Western Wall plaza, is the southwestern corner of the wall that surrounded the Temple.
A brief tour of this archeological area, which is still an active excavation site, reveals an incredible piece of Jerusalem’s rich history. For some reason, even though this spot contains significant remains from the Second Temple period, very few Israelis have ever been there.
Right in the center of the park you can see the monumental stone steps that pilgrims would climb to reach the Hulda Gates, which led into tunnels that reached the Temple Mount.
As you walk through the site, you can see stones scattered around whose inscriptions and etchings tell a fascinating story. The deeper you delve into the site, the more history you discover.
There is the main market area and the gigantic mikvaot (ritual baths) that still stand intact.
During your visit, you will catch a glimpse of the sacred and the secular, and learn when structures were built and why they were later destroyed.
As you step into the dig, take a moment to look down at the stones under your feet: You will notice that each one is a different color.
Look to your sides and you will notice the same phenomenon in the wall stones. The reason for this is, like many other parts of the Old City, this area was constructed from leftover stones, and so the floors and walls were built from a haphazard medley of colors, textures and sizes.
To overcome the constraints of building with a variety of sizes and colors, builders covered the stones with molded plaster in an effort to give the stones a uniform appearance.
The structures on the ground you are walking on were built by the Muslims, who conquered the region in the seventh century, but there are many layers underneath here that have not yet been excavated. There are many areas here – and elsewhere in the city, as well as throughout the entire country – that show structural mismatches and a juxtaposition of time periods, since they were destroyed and rebuilt numerous times. There was an incredible amount of building during the First Temple period, but when the Temple was destroyed and the Jews exiled to Babylonia, Jerusalem remained in ruins for ages and was only rebuilt during the Persian era. Later on, with the arrival of the Romans, building accelerated and the architectural influence of Herod and other Roman kings can clearly be seen.
Historically, during the Second Temple period most of the Jews lived in exile, but there is still a tremendous amount of evidence testifying to the continuous arrival of Jewish pilgrims coming to Jerusalem.
During excavations, writings including names of regional rulers were found, as well as stones on which distances were engraved, showing us that people came from faraway places to visit the Temple. If you continue along the path, you’ll reach a staircase next to which you can see the remains of a two-story structure, which some people believe is one of the oldest synagogues in the history of the city.
If you continue towards the south, you will reach the Herodian street, which was the main thoroughfare during the Second Temple period. At the entrance of the road, you will notice an ancient drainage opening and then a few steps later you will see the remains of shop stalls on your right and left. This is where the market was held – the Wall Street of ancient times – where people would exchange foreign currencies or buy animals to be used in sacrifices on the altar of the Temple. Archeologists found hundreds of foreign coins in one of the stalls. Keep walking down the street and you will see some of the gigantic stones the Romans used to destroy the city.
These stones have never been moved to excavate underneath them, so you can imagine the stories in which they were involved that took place in the very same spot they lie today.
When you’ve finished walking down this impressive street, retrace your steps for a few seconds until you reach the corner of the southern wall of the Western Wall. If you look carefully, you’ll be able to decipher 14 separate layers of stone that are perfectly intact after all these years. Apparently, there are another six layers hidden underground.
Proceed in the same direction and on your right you will see what archeologists believe is an ancient lavatory, since there are sophisticated drainage ditches that lead away from the room.
From there, continue on to the main plaza of the archeological park, to the spot where the surrounding wall intersects with the Temple Mount wall. If you look closely, you will notice another building, which apparently was destroyed in an earthquake before it was completed.
The walls of this structure surround the open-air plaza. Cross the courtyard and pass through the gate that leads to the excavation.
You are standing in a neighborhood of ancient Babylon that was built on top of remains from the Second Temple period. Just after you come through the gate, on your right side you will see an ancient mosaic that says “Welcome Home,” apparently this was the entrance to a house.
On your left, you will see an enormous public mikve and the large steps that led down to it. They probably built such a large bath to accommodate the masses of people who wished to purify themselves before entering the Temple.
There is a stone banister separating the people who are going up and down. More than 50 mikvaot were found within the perimeter of the archeological park.
From here, walk along the path that leads to the Ophel, the staircase upon which Jewish pilgrims would cross to get from the mikvaot to the gates leading to the Temple. (Parts of it are the original stones and others have been restored.) The stairs are very narrow, and you must walk single file to get through. One of the reasons they were built so narrow is that the builders wanted to force the people entering to slow down and watch where they were going, and to prevent too many people from forming a bottleneck at the entrance.
Another reason is related to the spiritual state of the person climbing the stairs. Apparently, they were interested in altering the pilgrims’ state of mind as they approached the Holy of Holies. If you look up above the staircase, you will see a half-arch with a cracked stone above it. This is the exact spot where people would enter the Temple.
Archeologists believe that this was the main entrance to the Temple and they base their claim on the grand arches that remain. As you stand there looking up at one of the most important remains from Jewish history, take a moment to picture the multitudes of people who must have stood right where you are as they prepared themselves to go up to the holiest place on earth.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.