The underground Jerusalem

In 1967, in the wake of the Six Day War, then-religious affairs minister Dr. Zerah Warhaftig decided to clear, excavate and expose the entire length of the Western Wall.

Kotel Tunnels 311 (photo credit:
Kotel Tunnels 311
(photo credit:
The excavations conducted 100 years earlier by Charles Wilson served as an example and inspiration.
The work was stopped in 1982 due to pressure by the Foreign Ministry and Jerusalem Municipality, but was resumed in 1985 at the initiative of Zevulun Hammer, the religious affairs minister at the time, who appointed a committee to carry it out.
Dan Bahat participated in this effort as both the Jerusalem district archeologist and the supervisor of the work, charged with documentation and the preparation of the tunnel for visitors. Bahat’s book, The Jerusalem Western Wall Tunnel, contains archeological reports and analyses, based upon his direct observations and subsequent interpretation of the findings.
Eventually, a long tunnel running along the entire length of the Western Wall was cleared and opened to the public. Due to the proximity of the Temple Mount and Arab suspicions, the work was carried out in secrecy and in consultation with the Israeli government, the Foreign Ministry, the Jerusalem Municipality and the Antiquities Authority. A wealth of archeological discoveries and finds justified the research and offered the Jewish people a new avenue for prayers, while the Muslim fears that neighborhood buildings might be endangered proved unfounded.
In this huge, illustrated and well-bound volume, which is nicely printed on chromo paper, Bahat sums up the decades of intense archeological research on the Western Wall tunnel, with all the pertinent details of its history, including various buildings, additions and changes.
The author, a participant in numerous archeological excavations and publications on ancient Jerusalem, is an associate professor at the Faculty of Theology, University of St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto. He received his doctorate in medieval history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and worked at the Antiquities Authority from 1963 to 1990.
He was a senior lecturer at Bar-Ilan University’s Department of Land Studies from 1996 to 2004, and conducted the tunnel excavations until 2006.
The monumental Herodian period construction of the Wall, characterized by huge ashlars, was found along the entire length of the tunnel – except at the very northern end, where it was incomplete.
One of the four western gates to the Temple, known today as the Warren Gate, may be now seen by visitors, and this is significant due to its proximity to the Holy of the Holies site of the Second Temple, which served as a place of prayer for medieval Jewry.
After a general introduction, each particular section of the tunnel’s excavation is distinctly described in a series of consecutive chapters like “The Great Bridge Complex and Wilson’s Arch” or “The Passage from the Western Wall Plaza to Wilson’s Arch.” Each section of the tunnel is marked by a reference number and the text is accompanied by numerous photographs from different angles and drawings, allowing a better understanding of the site, even for casual readers.
For instance, L1004, Square No. 9 (Plan 8.3), refers to the site known as “Opposite the Holy of Holies,” where the Religious Affairs Ministry established a locus opposite the Foundation Stone, beneath The Dome of the Rock. (The Foundation Stone is thought to be the site of the Second Temple’s Holy of Holies – hence its importance.) The numerous drawings mark each particular ashlar and one can only imagine the enthusiasm of the builders, who toiled hard to ensure the Temple’s security and whose work would continue to last for generations. The piles of collapsed building stones testify to the 70 CE destruction of the Temple by the Romans, up to the walls of the Temple Mount enclosure.
Bahat traces changes and additions as well as signs of destruction of the original Herodian undertaking, carried out by the Romans, Crusaders, Mamelukes and Arabs throughout the centuries. He describes in detail the Baris Fortress, the Hasmonean Cistern, the Herodian Street and the end of the tunnel, as well as the Antonia Fortress, Hasmonean Aqueduct and Strouthion Pool. He identifies the Temple Mount Gates and the cave of the early Islamic period, along with many other sites, explaining how the Western Wall become a place of Jewish prayer. There is also a catalogue of pottery and small finds, all well illustrated.
Upon Bahat’s retirement in 2006, a permit to continue excavations of the tunnel was granted to the late Alexander On.
Due to different opinions on the dating of some sites and the complexity of the problems arising from the successive changes and innovations, Bahat offers his own notes on the excavations from 2006 to 2010, including his findings. His notes are based on historical data and circumstantial evidence, and include the author’s views on the date of construction of Wilson’s Arch and the Great Bridge. He clarifies that Wilson’s Arch could not be dated to the Herodian or Roman period, and was built in the Islamic period, reexamining this in light of some of the architectural finds from previous and recent excavations.
The appendix on the Western Wall contains a reprint from the 11th International Conference on Ground-Penetrating Radar (GPR), held in 2006 in Columbus, Ohio; it was written by Bahat and two other Israeli participants in the conference. It explains that the thickness of the Western Wall was probed at three locations by a non-invasive and non-destructive GPR, which revealed that its thickness ranged from approximately 1.8m. to 2.5m. – much thinner than earlier soundings at 4.6m. The entire length of the Western Wall is approximately 488m., in the past standing as high as 60m. The appendix reveals that it now stands 40m. tall at its highest exposed point, while the rest remains underground. The Western Wall Plaza, for its part, is 56.5m. long, and the Wall at the plaza stands approximately 18.9m.
high and another 13m. underground.
The stones date from different times and show changes that occurred from the time of the Temple’s destruction, with other stones placed on top of them. The original stones are of different sizes and range from 80 cm. to 13.6m. in length, and from 1.1 to 3.5m. in height.
An index of loci, walls, list of plans and figures and a bibliography closes this extensive volume.
Two envelopes enclosed within the book’s back cover contain a drawing of the southern section of the Western Wall from the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount, south of Mughrabi Gate, on the scale of 1:100, drawn by Sharon Ma’ayan; and a drawing of the tunnel and the overlying Mameluke structures.
Due to occasional new discoveries and other objective difficulties, the completion of this extensive report had been delayed for years. Nevertheless, it offers readers, scholars, students and the general public a well-documented and detailed description of this unique archeological and historical site in eternal Jerusalem.