Near the prayer area of the western wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, a little-known excavation has continued for years. The project has received almost no public notice. The entire dig remains underground, hidden from daylight, only occasionally open to small groups. Unseen by most of the thousands who visit or pray at the exposed western wall, a 600-foot tunnel has been dug next to the buried lower courses of the western wall of the Temple Mount, north of the traditional prayer area. This tunnel, beneath Arab shops and houses is referred to, by those who know of its existence, as the “Rabbinical Tunnel.”
Between 1948 and 1967, the area of the Western Wall, which had been venerated and used as a prayer area by Jews for centuries, and the Temple Mount had been off-limits to most Jews and all Israelis. After the Six-Day War in 1967, when Jews once again gained access to this physical focus of Judaism’s spiritual ties to Jerusalem, the government of Israel allocated areas around the Temple Mount to different supervisory groups. The area on top of the Temple Mount, once the site of the First and Second Temples and now the location of the Dome of the Rock and the El Aksa mosques, was assigned to Moslem administration. The generally deserted areas south, southeast, and southwest of the Temple Mount were allocated to Israel’s Department of Antiquities which supervises all archaeological projects in the country. Professor Benjamin Mazar of the Hebrew University has carried out the grand and by now famous Temple Mount excavation in those southern areas (see “Excavations Near Temple Mount Reveal Splendors of Herodian Jerusalem,” BAR 06:04). The Ministry of 036Religious Affairs was assigned the traditional prayer area next to the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount—an area north of the access ramp up to the Temple Mount. The area allocated to this Ministry also includes the underground areas along the western wall, to the north and northwest of the prayer plaza.
Since 1967 the Religious Ministry, loosely coordinated with the Department of Antiquities, has undertaken a series of projects in the areas assigned to it. These projects involve clearing, uncovering, cleaning and engineering, rather than archaeology, although, presumably, the Department of Antiquities examines the debris for items of archaeological interest. The first project begun by the Ministry required clearing a plaza in the area facing the long-exposed, traditional prayer area of the Western Wall. In subsequent years, other projects have also been undertaken.
The term “western wall” has two meanings. It refers to the entire quarter-mile-long western retaining wall of the Temple Mount and, as the Western Wall, to the 185-foot-long portion of that wall used as the eastern boundary of the open-air prayer area. The 185-foot section abutting the plaza is also called the “Wailing Wall,” Hakotel Hamaaravi(Hebrew for “western wall,”) or simply “The Wall.” This portion is a segment of the entire western retaining wall which is one of four retaining walls surrounding the rectangular Temple Mount. These walls, consisting of gigantic, unmortared ashlars (hewn and squared stones), enclose prodigious amounts of fill. The platform created by the fill within the four retaining walls provided a level area on top of the natural hill upon which were built the First and Second Temples.a The western wall was not actually part of the Temple but is simply the western retaining wall supporting the platform upon which the Temple once stood.
Just north of the “Wailing Wall” portion of the western wall, in an underground chamber, is a magnificent stone 037arch, called Wilson’s Arch. Springing from the western wall, the original arch once supported a bridge which spanned a deep ravine called the Tyropoeon Valley and connected the Temple Mount to the so-called Upper City to the west. According to the latest (unpublished) thinking of Israeli archaeologists, the western pier and eastern spring of this arch are from the time of Herod while the arch itself is Omayyad (sixth-seventh century A.D.). The large hall under Wilson’s Arch was partially cleared of rubble and explored over a century ago. The western wall of the hall is the western wall of the Temple Mount. The Ministry of Religious Affairs has once again cleaned out the cavernous hall and provided additional light. Small adjoining rooms south of this hall were also cleaned by the Ministry. Now in use as Jewish prayer areas and for storage of Torah scrolls and religious books, the rooms are open to and used by the public.
The most direct entrance to the hall is from the men’s prayer area of the plaza, directly in front of the exposed Western Wall, through two small rooms near the entrance which men also use for prayer. Since orthodox Jewish men and women are separated by a divider during religious services, access to the hall was restricted to men until a new route to the chamber under Wilson’s Arch had been cleared. Now, men and women may use the new route, which begins at the Bet Nathan Strauss building, found midway on the plaza’s north side in front 038of the Wall. The passage is generally wide enough for two people to walk abreast. Various rooms and arches, mostly from Early Arab and Crusader times, are being cleared alongside and below this route.
Just north and west of the hall under Wilson’s Arch, other long-buried, refuse-filled, damp rooms were and are being cleared and explored in a three-dimensional labyrinth of construction layers dating from the Second Temple period onward. Some of these rooms are between 40 and 60 feet below ground level. They are located in what was the Tyropoeon Valley—long since filled in at this point—which explains why bedrock is so far below ground surface in this area.
These rooms, closed to visitors except by special permission, are awe-inspiring. Some say the Sanhedrin, the revered court of Jewish elders, met in one especially large room known as the Masonic Hall. Although most of this room clearly dates from the Crusader period (it is cruciform in shape) one lower archway appears to be made of Herodian ashlars. Some grates in the ceiling of this room are part of the floor of the route from Bet Nathan Strauss.
The Religious Ministry’s most intriguing project, however, is the digging of the underground tunnel known as “The Rabbinical Tunnel” which runs north along the western wall. The man in charge of digging the tunnel is an American-born civil engineer named Meir Kusnetz. According to Kusnetz, the original objective was to clear the western wall, to expose the majesty of the Temple Mount, and to open more, or, if possible, all of the western wall to Jewish prayer without intruding into areas assigned to Moslem supervision. Another motive for digging the tunnel may be to get as close as possible to the Shekinah, the spirit of God, which is believed by orthodox Jews to have dwelt in a special way in the Holy of Holies of the Temple. One of the reasons orthodox Jews are forbidden to go on to the Temple Mount itself is that they might, inadvertently, step on the site of the Holy of Holies which once housed the Tablets of the Law. In the 039Rabbinical Tunnel orthodox Jews may get closer to this supremely holy place than anywhere else they are permitted to go.
Since 1967, over 17,000 cubic meters of fill have been excavated in the tunnel project. Most of the workers have been Jewish immigrants from Iran who had worked as miners in their own country. Israeli mining engineers serve as consultants to the project.
Now, the 600-foot-long tunnel is still 225 feet short of the northwest corner of the Temple Mount. Access to the tunnel is gained through a metal door unlocked for those few visitors with permission to visit. At its starting point, about at the floor level of the hall under Wilson’s Arch, the tunnel is nearly 60 feet above bedrock. Though the tunnel remains level, the bedrock gradually rises as it goes north so that the northern end of the tunnel is 30 feet below the upper surface of the bedrock.
Inside, the tunnel is generally about seven feet high and is wide enough for two people to walk through snugly side by side. Occasionally the tunnel widens to the left (west). From time to time the sound of one’s footsteps on the wooden floor boards changes to a hollow tone which indicates the presence below of a shaft sunk down to bedrock.
The dampness inside the tunnel is most noticeable. Many of the metal wheelbarrows scattered about are heavily rusted. A camera lens quickly fogs up if it is breathed on by accident. Yet, it is not cold in the tunnel.
The construction of the tunnel frame is remarkable. Heavy galvanized steel beams go up each side of the narrow tunnel and across the top. The thick beams are sunk in concrete at their bases while at the top they 040support the concrete ceiling. The ceiling is four-inch-thick reinforced, pre-stressed, pre-cast slab concrete. This heavy duty construction is designed to prevent any damage to the foundations of the Arab buildings above the tunnel. A string of open bulbs attached to the ceiling provides the only light.
Opposite the middle of the Temple Mount inside the tunnel is a modern prayer stand, covered with velvet. Around it are sets of candles. Virtually everyone who comes here feels part of a majestic adventure, the search for the physical remains of history.
The magnificent stonework of the western Temple Mount wall forms the eastern side of the tunnel wall and draws the visitors’ attention. The stones resemble the beautiful ashlars we know from the lower courses of the Western Wall in the prayer area. The faces of some ashlars are almost square, while others are rectangles. A century ago, Captain Charles Warren, a British explorer with the Palestine Exploration Fund, sunk a shaft below the floor level under Wilson’s Arch. This shaft, now illuminated and covered with a grate, allows us to see that there are 14 more courses of ashlars between the floor level and bedrock. Hidden now by centuries of fill, these 14 courses, varying in height from two and one-half feet to just over four feet, were once an exposed part of the immense western retaining wall of Herod’s Temple Mount. Some of these long-hidden courses are revealed in the Rabbinical Tunnel.
While the ashlars of the exposed Western Wall adjacent to the plaza are often deeply eroded, those inside the tunnel are still beautifully preserved, with virtually perfect seams. It is impossible to insert even a thin knife blade between one ashlar and another.
Near the beginning of the tunnel, nine courses above the bedrock, there is a gigantic ashlar. It is 46 feet long, over 10 feet high, and, according to an electrical measuring device, 10 feet deep—one solid piece of limestone! Knowing the normal density of limestone, we can calculate that this monolith weighs about 415 tons! Why was this monumental stone placed just at this point? No one seems to know for sure. One suggestion is that it lies on a line perpendicular to where the Temple once stood.
At one point, the excavation of the tunnel was blocked by a large stone, three feet high and about 16 feet long. It lay 600 feet from the entrance to the tunnel. This block of stone has now been nearly fully exposed and the tunnel has been widened to permit passage around it. The side of the stone which faces the western wall is smoothly curved; the other side is flat. This odd stone is a critical piece of evidence to support an ingenious theory explaining how Herod moved and positioned the immense monoliths. In an accompanying article Murray Stein develops this theory.
Plans are to continue the tunnel alongside the wall as far as possible toward the northwest corner of the Temple Mount. Since the present tunnel is comfortable for only one or sometimes two people abreast, there are discussions occurring about whether to widen the tunnel or to dig a parallel return route to permit visitors to circulate more comfortably.
Men and women may enter the Bet Nathan Strauss underground route to walk along the passageways and arches to the hall under Wilson’s Arch. This area is open Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday 8:30 to 3, Monday and Thursday 12:30 to 3, and Friday 8:30 to 12. It is closed on the Sabbath and on most holidays. Special request must be made, however, to arrange for a visit through the Rabbinical Tunnel; requests should be directed to the Ministry of Religious Affairs or to its office on the west side of the Western Wall plaza.
Near the prayer area of the western wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, a little-known excavation has continued for years. The project has received almost no public notice. The entire dig remains underground, hidden from daylight, only occasionally open to small groups. Unseen by most of the thousands who visit or pray at the exposed western wall, a 600-foot tunnel has been dug next to the buried lower courses of the western wall of the Temple Mount, north of the traditional prayer area. This tunnel, beneath Arab shops and houses is referred to, by those who know of […]