Recent archeological discoveries at the Western Wall – What lurks beneath the surface

A recent tour of the area with researcher and archeologist Dr. Avi Solomon, revealed some of the most fascinating finds in recent years.

 
 Western Wall Tunnels (photo credit: WESTERN WALL HERITAGE FOUNDATION)
Western Wall Tunnels
(photo credit: WESTERN WALL HERITAGE FOUNDATION)

At almost 500 meters long (1600 feet) and 19 meters high (62 feet), the Western Wall, one of the last remaining wall of the Temple Mount support wall from the Second Temple period, stands as a proud remnant of the Jewish past and a signpost and symbol for the future. Each year, millions of visitors pass through the Western Wall Plaza to pray and meditate opposite its massive stones. But when it comes to the Western Wall, there is more than meets the eye. Recent archeological discoveries excavated by the Israel Antiquities Authority have shown that what is underneath the area of the Western Wall is almost as significant as what is above ground.

A recent tour of the area with prominent researcher and archeologist Dr. Avi Solomon confirms this statement. Solomon, an archeologist with more than 20 years of experience in conducting excavations in the Old City of Jerusalem and the Western Wall Tunnels, revealed some of the most fascinating finds in the area on our visit.

Our day begins mid-morning at the new Western Wall Heritage Center building, which is at the back of the Western Wall Plaza. “The building was intended as an educational and administrative center,” explains Solomon. Indeed, the structure contains classrooms for tour guides. Solomon adds that the initial plan called for the construction of a three-level, underground parking lot. “First, though, they decided to dig, and they found many amazing things.”

Western wall tunnels (Credit: WESTERN WALL HERITAGE FOUNDATION)Western wall tunnels (Credit: WESTERN WALL HERITAGE FOUNDATION)

What lies beneath the surface is a treasure trove of archeological finds that shed light on Jewish life in Jerusalem from as far back as the time of the First Temple (10th century BCE-586 BCE) that continues to the time of the Second Temple as well. 

Archeological work is still being done in the area, and we walk carefully on the building’s lower section. Solomon points out remnants of a four-room house, characteristic of the mud and stone structures that were built during the First Temple. “The four-room house was the standard building style in Israel from the time of Joshua until the end of the First Temple period,” explains Solomon. According to archeological estimates, the building dates from the time of King Hezekiah, the 13th king of Judah, who ruled during the siege of Sennacherib in 701 BCE. 

“What is even more interesting,” continues Solomon, “is that inside the remnants of the house, archeologists found jar handles with the ancient Hebrew inscription, “jars for the king.” Solomon explains that the containers contained items such as wheat, barley and olives that were brought to King Hezekiah or the royal administration. “King Hezekiah knew that Sennacherib was going to begin his siege, and he gathered tribute from the agricultural communities.” The remains found in the building indicate that this was an administrative center of the kingdom. 

In addition to the jar handles, a royal seal was found in the ruins, which contained a drawing of an archer, arrows and a bow, with the words “For Hagav” inscribed on the seal. Who was Hagav? Solomon explains that in the time of the First Temple, only select individuals possessed these types of items and a special seal. He speculates that Hagav may have been a special weapons-bearer in the time of Hezekiah.

The fact that the remnants of this 2,600-year-old structure just 100 meters away from the walls of the First Temple have been standing for thousands of years illustrates the deep and ancient ties that the Jewish people have always had for Jerusalem. It is indeed a remarkable archeological find.

Another recent discovery that illustrates the close association between the Jewish people and the Temple area is the Great Bridge Route, one of the Kotel Tunnel Tours offered by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. Solomon explains that the Hasmoneans built the Great Bridge during the Second Century BCE to bring water from Solomon’s Pools in Bethlehem to the area of the Temple – a distance of some 23 kilometer. The aqueduct was one of Jerusalem’s primary water sources for 2,000 years until the British Mandate.

The Great Bridge was much more than a transporter of water. It was a three-level structure with a footpath on top that led straight into the entrance to the Temple. Below the footpath were the aqueduct’s arches, and below the arches was an additional level, dating from the Second Temple.

As we walk below ground level, we encounter numerous tour groups of visitors from around the world who have returned to Israel after the pandemic and are enjoying the fascinating tours. 

Solomon points out a number of fascinating details and objects in the vast space where we are standing. At one end, we see a section of the Western Wall in pristine condition that had been hidden for 1,600 years. Solomon points out that while the area of the Western Wall that is visible in the Kotel Plaza is 60 meters long, the actual total length of the Western Wall, which was the outer retaining wall of the Second Temple, is 488 meters long. The stones in this area are said to date from the time of King Herod, the Roman-appointed King of Judea, who ruled for 32 years from 37 BCE to 4 BCE.

Next, Solomon points to the remains of a small Roman theatre with space for perhaps two hundred people, not far from the rediscovered stones of the Western Wall. Solomon reports that when the archeologists first unearthed the structure, researchers initially thought it might have been the location of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high court that sat in session outside the Temple in the years shortly before the Temple was destroyed. That idea, however, was quickly dispelled, and the archeologists concluded that the theatre was built and used by the Romans themselves in the years following the Temple’s destruction.

Solomon suggests that the Roman domination of Jerusalem, as evidenced by the construction of a theatre near the site of the Temple that had been destroyed, may have been one of the causes of the Bar Kokhba revolt, which began in 132 CE until it was crushed by the Romans three years later in 135 CE. Building a theatre near the site of the Temple would have infuriated the Jews, leading to the revolt.

Continuing in the tunnels, we next come across an equally important reminder of the Jewish presence in Jerusalem – the remains of a mikveh (ritual bath) from Herodian times. The mikveh was located underneath the Great Bridge, near the entrance to the Temple. The water source came from the lower aqueduct that supplied water to the area. This mikveh was discovered in 2009, and while the lower aqueduct is no longer supplying the water to it, there is water that flows in it from another source. One can clearly see the steps that were carved into the stone thousands of years ago leading into the ritual bath.

Adjacent to the mikveh is another public building from Herodian times. Like much of the Western Wall Tunnels, it was discovered by Charles Warren, an officer in the British Royal Engineers. Warren was one of the earliest European archeologists of the Holy Land and the Temple Mount. Solomon says that this large room, which had several openings for fountains from the walls, was a large public room, where people readied themselves for immersion in the mikveh. Solomon says admiringly, “There is no wall from Herodian times this high – it is 6 meters high – that is in such good condition.”

These and other fascinating archeological finds in recent years near the Western Wall illustrate the vital role that the Temple and the surrounding area have played in Jewish history for thousands of years. They can be experienced and viewed when you next visit the Western Wall.