The most holy site today for Judaism is the ‘Wailing Wall’. It is called this as Jews throughout the centuries have come here to mourn that this alone remains of the Great Temple structure. It is also called the ‘Western Wall’ since it comprises the western side of the Temple platform. Incidentally, the Wall’s name in Hebrew is ‘Kotel’.
The entire length of the Wall though runs 1,600 feet. The most southern end of the Wall runs for 262 feet and is part of the Israeli Archeological Park. The next 187 feet is the Prayer Plaza. The remaining portion can be seen by visiting the Rabbinical Tunnel. Most of it however is behind or beneath residential structures built along its length.
Your tour guide really has to be on top of his or her game to get you into this important location. And, your group better show up promptly at its scheduled visiting time – or you won’t be allowed in.
When the Temple was destroyed by Rome in 70AD, the complex was leveled. However, the platform holding the Temple was left in place – i.e., each of the four platform walls were left standing. The Western Wall in particular is considered most sacred to Jews. This one would have been the closest to where the Temple’s Holy of Holies would have resided.
Prior to the 19th Century, very little was known about the wall’s length. Centuries of warfare, neglect, and just the passage of time – had long since filled in the area with debris. British researchers with an interest in Biblical archeology began exploring the location in the 1860’s. Charles Wilson explored here in 1864. Charles Warren dug here from 1867 through 1870. They collectively uncovered finds that begged for further excavation.
If there’s a front line between Islam and Judaism, the Western Wall is it!
In 1917, the British defeated the Ottoman Turks and gained control of the Land. They tried to accommodate Jewish desires to worship at the Wall and Muslim sensibilities. The Wall is quite close in proximity to the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque – both of which sit atop the Temple Mount. This hope at accomodation proved to be far more difficult than the British could have imagined.
In 1928 during Yom Kippur, Jews placed screens in between the men and women who were praying at the Wall. This is customary for Orthodox Jews. The Turks had previously forbidden any kind of structure being set up by the Jews at the Wall. In response to this, Muslim leaders began to protest. The British in fear of a riot, forcibly removed the screens. Arab authorities began to exploit this throughout Palestine and the Arab world by claiming that the Jews planned to take over the Temple Mount.
In 1929 during the feast of Tisha B’Av, Jewish Nationalists assembled at the Wall. They raised the Jewish Flag, sang Hativkah (Israel’s anthem) and exclaimed that the Wall belonged to them. This triggered a violent response from Islamic leaders in the territory. Over the course of the next week or so, hundreds were killed and wounded throughout Palestine.
In 1948, as soon as the British left, the Wall fell into the hands of the Jordanian Army. Along with this, the Jewish Quarter of the Old City was heavily destroyed.
During the ‘Six-Day War’ of 1967, Israel’s paratroopers gained control of the entire Temple platform. Shortly thereafter, Israel’s Ministry of Religious Affairs started excavating the entire length of the wall. The operation was complex to say the least. The whole time digging was taking place, the thriving neighborhoods of the Old City of Jerusalem lay above them.
For nearly twenty years, excavations took place that revealed more and more about the dimensions and topography of the Temple Mount. In 1987, the Rabbinical Tunnel complex was opened to tour groups. Tours however would have to walk the length of the tunnel (more than 1000 feet) and then turn around and double back to exit. In many places, there is room enough only for one-way traffic. Each request to open an exit to the tunnel on its most northern end, was denied by Muslim authorities.
In 1996, Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, orderd that an exit be cut from the area of the Struthion Pool out near the Via Dolorosa. Yasser Arafat, PLO Chairman, recklessly commented that the true aim of the Jews was to collapse the platform and the Dome of the Rock. This again sparked violence which resulted in more than 80 people being killed.
The Western Wall Heritage Foundation is now responsible for the oversight of the Rabbinical Tunnels and making sure its story is made available to the public. This diagram is taken from its website: http://english.thekotel.org/
The entrance to the Rabbinical Tunnel faces the Western Wall Plaza. To visit, you must have previously made arrangements. The tour begins in a room that the explorer Charles Warren referred to as the ‘Donkey Stable’. He called it this due to the many ways in which the vaulted room appears to have been used over the Centuries – including as a stable.
Centuries of rubble had accumulated here prior to Warren beginning his dig. Today, a number of underground chambers and archways have been uncovered here.
These date back to the time of Saladin. After he had driven off the Crusader Kingdom, he built a platform here that was more level with the Temple Mount. This would allow Muslims greater access to the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Atop this platform, schools, mosques and neighborhoods were constructed. These archways served to hold up the platform above.
One of the first stops you make within the Rabbinical Tunnel is at a topographical model of the Temple Mount. This shows how the mountain looked 3000 years ago prior to Solomon’s commissioning the build of the Temple. Thousands of tons of earth were then removed and the area was leveled off to allow the building effort to take place. Guides use the model to illustrate the topographical and engineering history of the Temple Mount.
Next is the ‘Secret Passage’, which is an underground corridor that dates back to the time of the 1st Century. It also includes construction dating to the time of the Crusaders and Saladin. The name itself comes from a medieval legend where King David was said to have walked through here as he went from the Temple Mount to his palace. This is only legend though as it dates to well after David.
In the 1st Century BC, Herod the Great funded an enormous construction project to beautify the Temple complex. This construction project included an effort to widen a bridge that led from Jerusalem’s Upper City over to the Temple Mount. This bridge also contained an aqueduct that brought water all the way from Hebron.
One arch found by Charles Wilson in the 1860’s had a distinctive Herodian style. This connects to the Western Wall and appears to be the remnants of that bridge. Today, it is referred to by the British explorer’s name. We know from Josephus that this bridge was destroyed by the Jews as they prepared for the coming Roman siege in the late 60’s AD.
At the end of the Secret Passage and down one level are the remains of great hall dating to the time of the Herod. This building appears to have had beautiful ornamentation and seems to have served in some kind of public capacity during the 1st Century. Roman catapult stones are still found here – evidencing that this was one of the key points of battle during Jerusalem’s assault at the hands of Rome. This hall was uncovered during Charles Warren’s dig.
Back up one level and north of the Hall of the Hasmoneans, you’ll come across the largest hall in the complex. This hall has no openings or floors and acted solely as a foundation for the structures above. Extending from this hall are four corridors. The eastern one leads to the Western Wall itself. In the western corridor is fantastic mechanical model that shows in great detail how the Temple Mount has changed over time.
Once you leave the large hall and walk down through the eastern corridor, you are brought to the Western Wall itself. At this point, you are 655 feet from the southern tip of the Wall and 983 feet from its northern most point. You’ll then make a left turn, with the Western Wall directly to your right hand side.
Quickly you’ll come to the largest stone ever used in a construction project! Made of limestone, it is @ 41 feet in length, varies in depth from 11 ½ feet to 15 feet, and its height is another 11 ½ feet. During a recent trip, the guide said that recent estimates had placed the weight of the stone at 468 tons. Online, you’ll find other sources that claim its weight to be even as high as 570 tons. Either way, it is colossal!
What is truly amazing is that when you are standing by this stone, you are actually 20 feet above the level of the Street during the time of the 1st Century BC. Additionally, the bedrock is another 10 – 13 feet below that. This platform and its walls were an engineering marvel. To this day, a typical crane couldn’t even come close to lifting such weight. Such large stones apparently stabilized smaller stones underneath and served to strengthen the overall structure against earthquakes.
Note: Engineers and archeologists alike refer to such building stones as ‘ashlars’ – i.e. large square-hewn stones that have superior strength. Limestone is a soft stone that resides underground. Once it is exposed to the sun, it hardens. This makes it excellent for use in construction.
Continuing north along in the Rabbinical Tunnel, you’ll soon come to another important find. In 1867, Charles Warren uncovered an ancient gate leading to the Temple Mount. Today it is called the ‘Warren Gate’. Here, you’re actually walking on smooth Herodian stones that made up the street as laid down in the 1st Century BC.
Even after Jerusalem’s fall to Titus, this gate remained accessible. Jews even treated this area as a synagogue. Unfortunately, in 1099 the Crusaders expelled the Jews and closed the area down. In 1187, Saladin completely covered the area over.
Just a few yards further, and you’ll come to an alcove. This is considered to be the closest spot along the Wall to where the heart of the Temple would have stood – i.e. the Holy of Holies. About 300 feet directly east of here is where the ‘Foundation Stone’ resides. Jews believe that from the Foundation Stone God created the world, Abraham offered up Isaac, and the Holy of Holies was located.
In this same vicinity, a Missionary named James Thomas Barclay in 1848 uncovered a gate. Researchers have since identified this as one of the gates leading into Herod’s Temple. It is referred to as ‘Barclay’s Gate’. In the 10th Century it was walled up.
For the next 500 feet or so you travel along a narrow corridor running next to the Western Wall. The Herodian road underneath is visible through glass-covered shafts appearing at points along the walk. Other shafts reveal stones hurled by Romans as they destroyed the Temple.
Architects have marveled how each row of stones in the Wall is set back slightly from the row beneath. This provides an optical illusion of a perfectly straight wall – otherwise, it would appear as if the Wall was leaning forward.
As you walk along the Kotel, you’ll come to a point where the unfinished bedrock of the Temple Mount and the Western Wall actually meet. Once Herod’s engineers reached bedrock, the made use of it – only decorating its exterior to match the rest of the Temple platform.
Next, we come upon an ancient Hasmonean Cistern. Archeologists have uncovered at least 36 cisterns to date that go back to the time of Christ in or along the Temple Mount complex. Above this would have sat a fortress dating back to Nehemiah’s time called ‘Baris’ or the ‘Tower of Hananel’.
‘Hananel’ in Hebrew means “God is gracious.” According to Neh. 3: 1 and 12: 39, the Tower of Hananel adjoined the Tower of Hammeah and was in the vicinity of the Sheep Gate into Jerusalem:
“Then Eliashib the high priest rose up with his brethren the priests and built the Sheep Gate; they consecrated it and hung its doors. They built as far as the Tower of the Hundred (i.e., the Tower of Hammeah), and consecrated it, then as far as the Tower of Hananel.”
Nehemiah 3: 1
When Herod enlarged the Temple Mount complex, he leveled the Baris. All that was left were its cisterns. Herod’s engineers used this as a reservoir to collect rainwater. However, he covered most of the cistern up when he laid down the road running parallel to the Temple platform. Herod installed a large guardrail made of stone along the cistern. This still exists as well as the stairway leading down to the cistern.
Ahead, the Kotel widens dramatically to a colonnaded street with paved stoned and ancient water channels for sewage. This originally ran the full length of the Wall. It appears that a second road intersected in this locale that originally ran perpendicular going out toward the west.
Such a layout would be in keeping with Roman city planning. The ‘Cardo’ would be a main street running north and south. A Street running east to west called the ‘Deco Manus’ would typically intersect it.
Remnants of unfinished paving stones and unset pillars are also evident here. Construction on these colonnaded roads stopped in midstream. Some have theorized this took place due to the death of Herod and the fact that there was no one to fund the project. Others have conjectured that this building effort only stopped as Rome’s armies advanced on Jerusalem 70 years after the tyrant’s death.
A little further north and you reach the ancient quarry. This is where many of the stones used in building the Temple and its platform originated.
We know a good deal about 1st Century BC engineering and architecture as a result of Marcus Vitruvius Polio (@80BC – 15BC). He was a Roman engineer who served in Julius Caesar’s army. Vitruvius wrote a book called De Architectura (a.k.a. the Ten Books on Architecture).
During the 1st Century, quarry technology worked as follows:
Engineers would move the heavy rocks through a variety of techniques, including:
In the northern section of the Temple Mount resides a long aqueduct. Water from the north flowed through this channel cut through limestone. The Hasmoneans initially dug this. However, Herod’s engineers seemed to have blocked this up.
At the end of our journey through the Rabbinical Tunnel, you come to a Roman pool known as the ‘Struthion Pool’. This is where the Hasmonean Aqueduct terminates. The Hasmoneans originally built the Struthion as an open-air cistern. Though its original dimensions were 171 feet in length by 46 feet in width, it was regarded as one of the smaller public pools. Struthion itself means ‘sparrow.’ Its purpose was to collect rainwater and ground run-off. Today, you can only see about 1/8th of the original pool.
Herod converted this into a moat and included it in his defense works around the city. This moat was part of the Antonia Fortress and was situated on its northwest corner. Antonia Fortress is the most likely place where Christ would have been tried before Pilate.
Later, Titus would fill this in during his siege of Jerusalem.
After the Bar Kochba Revolt in 135 AD, Hadrian attempted to change the whole character of Jerusalem. Part of this included renaming the city to ‘Aelia Capitolina’. This also included building large Roman structures in and around the city.
Above the Struthion, Hadrian built a forum or marketplace. As a result, the pool was covered over by vaulted archways. Hadrian’s engineers built the market square atop these vaults. The pavement laid down in the 2nd Century today make up the floor of the Sisters of Zion Convent.