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The Western Wall: The Western Wall Tunnels

From the times of King Solomon to the return from the Babylonian exile and the Hasmonean period (tenth to first centuries BCE), the Temple Mount in Jerusalem was a relatively small platform built on top of Mount Moriah and its highest point was the Stone of Foundation; this was the site of the Temple. King Herod’s greatest building project was to double the area of the Temple Mount by incorporating part of the hill to the northwest (which had to be leveled and on which he built the Antonia Fortress) and by filling up parts of the surrounding valleys. Herod transformed the Second Temple into an edifice of splendor and surrounded the Temple Mount on its four sides with massive retaining walls. The walls, founded on bedrock, were built of large ashlar stones with beautifully dressed margins. Each course was set back about 2 - 3 cm. from the course below it; the stones weigh some five tons each, the corner blocks tens of tons.

The Temple Mount, the buildings and the Temple itself were completely destroyed by the Roman legions in 70 CE. The lower part of the Temple Mount walls was preserved and its remains are still standing.

Long sections of the southern wall of the Temple Mount and its southwestern corner were exposed during the 1970s, furnishing a comprehensive picture of the monumental Herodian walls surrounding the Temple Mount and the vast, planned areas of public construction outside of them.

The western wall of the Temple Mount, inside today's Old City of Jerusalem, is the longest — 485 m. Most of its construction features, including the foundations and the four gates once located in it, are now known. Not far from the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount, the remains of “Robinson’s Arch” can be seen projecting from the wall. This arch once supported a monumental staircase which gave access to the Temple Mount from the main street below it.

Best known of the remaining Herodian Temple Mount constructions is the traditional Jewish prayer area of the Western Wall (the “Wailing Wall”) which has stood exposed, above ground level, for two thousand years. The Six-Day War provided an opportunity to explore along the continuation of the Western Wall from the prayer plaza northwards.

Entering a tunnel at the prayer plaza, one turns northwards into a medieval complex of subterranean vaulted spaces and a long corridor with rooms on either side. Incorporated into this complex is a Roman and medieval structure of vaults, built of large dressed limestone. It includes an earlier Herodian room, constructed of well-dressed stones, with double openings and walls decorated with protruding pilasters. Ch. Warren, who surveyed the area in the 19th century, erroneously named it the “Masonic Hall.”

The vaulted complex ends at Wilson’s Arch, named after the explorer who discovered it in the middle of the 19th century. The arch, supported by the Western Wall, was 12.8 m. wide and stood high above the present-day ground level. Josephus Flavius mentions a bridge which connected the Temple Mount with the Upper City to the west during the Second Temple period. This bridge once carried water via a conduit from Solomon's Pools; it was destroyed during the Jewish Revolt against Rome (66-70 CE) and rebuilt during the early Islamic period.

Beyond Wilson’s Arch, a large cruciform hall, part of a Mamluk period construction, was cleared of debris and a large water cistern was removed, revealing the Herodian Western Wall in its full glory.

From this point, along the outer face of the Herodian western wall of the Temple Mount, a long narrow tunnel was dug slowly and with much care under the supervision of archeologists. As work progressed under the buildings of the present Old City, the tunnel was systematically reinforced with concrete supports. A stretch of the western wall — 300 m. long — was revealed in pristine condition, exactly as constructed by Herod.

At the end of this man-made tunnel, a 20 m. long section of a paved road and an earlier, rock-cut Hasmonean aqueduct leading to the Temple Mount were uncovered. Today one can proceed along it to a public reservoir and from there, a short new tunnel leads outside to the Via Dolorosa in the Muslim Quarter.

The project of the Western Wall Tunnels was supervised by archeologists M. Ben-Dov and later by D. Bahat on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry

Photos: Mitchell Bard