Western Wall Tunnel Tours Show New Underground Zone In Jerusalem

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Christian travelers visit Jerusalem to retrace Jesus’ last steps along the Via Dolorosa, Muslims to venerate the Dome of the Rock, and Jews to insert prayers written into the cracks in the western wall.

Some people do all three.

In December, travelers will have a new option available to them when visiting Jerusalem. They can go underground to discover part of the old town as it existed about 2,000 years ago.

An underground building

After an excavation that lasted more than 150 years, a buried building built around 20 AD is expected to open to the public this year.

The underground building is located a short walk from the Western Wall, a retaining wall on the west side of the Temple Mount, which is the holiest site in Judaism and the place where the first and second temples of Jerusalem once stood.

About 10% of the original Western Wall is visible today, most of it buried behind constructions in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City as well as underground.

EMMANUEL DUNAND | AFP | Getty Images

The Western Wall is also one of the best sites for travelers to Israel. It drew 12 million visitors in 2019, said Eyal Carlin, the North American tourism commissioner for Israel’s Ministry of Tourism.

The excavated area dates from the period of the Second Temple, which was built in the 6th century BC and subsequently enlarged considerably by Herod the Great, who ruled Jerusalem from 37 to 34 BC. The Romans destroyed the temple around AD 70.

The new rooms are located under Wilson’s Arch, an arch that once supported a bridge to the Second Temple, seen here in the lower left corner.

Christophe Chan | instant | Getty Images

The building, located about 50 feet underground, contains two underground chambers separated by hallways and a “magnificent” water fountain, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), the government body overseeing the projects. of excavations of the country. Once located on a street that led to the Temple Mount, the building is now buried deep underground, covered by centuries of construction.

The new areas will be part of the popular Western Wall Tunnel Tours, which run all day Sunday through Thursday and Friday until noon.

What travelers can see

To reach the new areas, visitors descend stairs that resemble time travel, Carlin told CNBC.

“When you dig, you are literally walking through history,” Carlin said. “Each layer represents different parts of history and different centuries.”

Some of the steps allow you to reach the newly excavated areas.

Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

“You go down to the Ottoman period, the Muslim period, the period of the Crusaders… up to the Herodian period,” he said, referring to the reign of King Herod and his heirs from 37 BC.

Support beams reinforce the corridor between the two rooms of the old underground building.

Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

Archaeologists knew that a chamber existed, but excavations uncovered a larger building with two identical chambers separated by a courtyard.

The building could have been a city council building, Shlomit Weksler-Bdolah, director of excavations at the Israel Antiquities Authority, said in a press release issued by Israel’s Tourism Ministry in August. She called the excavated area “one of the most magnificent public buildings from the Second Temple period that has ever been discovered.”

One of two bedrooms in a building discovered outside the Western Wall.

Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

Historians believe the chambers were reception halls for dignitaries, wealthy visitors and members of the high priesthood, Carlin said.

They may also have been places to eat. Archaeologists believe the rooms once contained reclining sofas, where people ate lying down, as was common in Greek, Hellenistic and Roman eras, according to Weksler-Bdolah.

“It’s very opulent – they were big rooms with big decorative elements of flowing water,” Carlin said. “It shows the richness of this region at the time… and the people who were welcomed there.”

The second excavated chamber, which is constructed using vaulted stone ceilings.

Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

Archaeologists have discovered a small ritual purification basin, called a mikvah, which priests and aristocrats probably used before visiting the Second Temple.

“These are the steps down” into the pool, he said, which “would usually be filled with water from springs.”

Steps leading to a purification pool, or mikvah, which is said to have been added many years after the construction of the excavated building.

Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

The mikvah would not be open to the public, Carlin said. Members of the general public purified themselves in the Pool of Siloam, located about a third of a mile away. This is the same pool where Jesus is said to have restored the sight of a blind man, as mentioned in the Gospel of John in the Christian Bible.

The coin with the mikvah was part of an “elite gateway” to the Second Temple, Eyal Carlin of Israel’s Tourism Ministry said.

Israel Antiquities Authority

After the baths, visitors can see the foundation stones of the Western Wall, Carlin said. The stones are huge, some weighing over 250 tons.

Jerusalem is, at least in part, a city built on top of other cities. Existing buildings have become basements or underground living spaces for new construction built on top, according to a Times of Israel article.

The hallways contained ornate pilasters, or ornamental columns, topped with Corinthian capitals with water pipes built inside.

Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

This is why parts of the underground buildings were found completely intact. The decorative elements “were found whole,” Carlin said. “There were parts that were chipped, but the parts that we see have not been reconstructed.”

Excavations are underway in Jerusalem, but many are not open for visits, Carlin said.

“There is great excitement because [this area] is accessible to the general public, “he said.” It also highlights what life was like then in one of the most important periods of the Jewish people. “

Visit of the new district

Visitors can see the new underground areas through guided tours booked through the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, a government non-profit organization that manages the Western Wall.

The opening, originally scheduled for August, was postponed to coincide with the celebration of Hannukah in early December, Carlin said.

The ornate remains of the building outside the Western Wall, or “Western Wall”. The latter term is falling from favor, as some see it as shedding light on the mourning of the Jewish community following the loss of the Second Temple.

Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

He said it was “good timing” in more ways than one.

“If everything goes as planned this week or early next week, and our government approves the return of tourists to Israel… it will actually coincide with when the majority of the world can… travel to Israel.”


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