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The Western Wall: Ancient Herodian Street Along the Western Wall

At the end of the 1st century BCE King Herod rebuilt the Second Temple and made it into an edifice of great splendor. It was destroyed in the year 70 CE when the Roman legions under Titus, son of Emperor Vespasian, crushed the five-year-long revolt of the Jews against Rome and conquered Jerusalem. The foundations of the massive retaining walls built by Herod to create the podium on which the Temple stood, are visible to this day; the best known section is the Western Wall, the venerated remnant of the Temple where Jews pray to this day.

Excavations were begun during the 1970s along the southwestern corner of the Herodian Temple Mount enclosure. Remains of structures from many periods, covering 2,000 years of history, were uncovered above the destruction layer from the Second Temple period.

From 1993 to 1997, new excavations were conducted between the Western Wall and the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount. After removing the debris of later periods, the Herodian street running along the western wall of the Temple Mount was exposed in its full length. It followed the course of the Tyropoeon Valley between the Temple Mount and the western hill, where the Upper City, the quarter of the well-to-do in the Herodian period, was located (today's Jewish and Armenian quarters within the Old City wall and Mt. Zion south of the wall).

The street was uncovered for a total length of 70 m. It is about 10 m. wide, paved with large (3 x 1.5 m), very thick stones, carefully trimmed and joined together for comfortable walking. On both sides the street is bounded with elevated curbstones and beneath it is an impressive network of drains, the lowest of them covered with stone vaults, high enough to walk in. Between the street and the western wall of the Temple Mount, a row of small shops which opened onto the street was found; evidence of the commerce that once took place here is provided by the many stone weights of different sizes which were found in this area.

The base of a massive arch protrudes from the western wall, some 12 meters north of the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount enclosure. This is known as Robinson's Arch (after the American explorer who identified it in the mid-19th century as part of the Herodian construction). Opposite it, some 13 meters from the western wall, the remains of a pier which supported the other end of Robinson’s Arch were exposed. The pier is constructed of large ashlars, similar to those of the Herodian walls of the Temple Mount. It contains four cells, like those in the row of shops on the opposite side of the street.

South of the pier, the foundations of a row of vaults which gradually rise from south to north were exposed. This row of vaults and Robinson's Arch, which is at right angles to it, supported a huge staircase which connected the street in the valley with the Temple Mount, just as described by Josephus Flavius. (Antiquities XV, 410-415)

The street was found covered with an accumulation of large stones which had been knocked down from the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount, destroying the shops and damaging the pavement. Among the hundreds of stones weighing several tons each, architectural fragments were found which make it possible to reconstruct the staircase of Robinson’s Arch and the upper part of the Temple Mount retaining wall. There are stones with projections from the rows of pilasters which protruded from the upper part of the enclosure wall; and a lintel, apparently part of the gate through which people entered the Temple Mount. Other stones with narrow, rounded upper edges served as coping of the balustrade on top of the Temple Mount enclosure wall.

A large corner stone with a typical Herodian profile had been found during the 1970s, lying in the street below the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount. On this stone a Hebrew inscription, partially preserved, is carved: To the trumpeting place to… The most likely reconstruction of the mis-sing ending of the inscription is "proclaim" or "separate."

The stone had stood at the top of southwestern corner of the Temple Mount, from where the Temple priests announced the onset of the Sabbath (on Friday evenings).

The great piles of fallen stones provide dramatic evidence of the destruction wrought by the Roman legions in Jerusalem in the year 70 CE., which Josephus Flavius described in great detail.

Some of the stones which covered the street were removed and the site was opened to visitors, who can walk on the original pavement of this street from the Second Temple period and follow in the footsteps of the throngs of pilgrims who walked here 2000 years ago on their way to participate in the rituals on the Temple Mount.

The excavations during the 1970s were conducted by B. Mazar on behalf of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. The later excavations were directed by R. Reich and Y. Billig on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry