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Western Wall Tunnel Tours Reveal New Underground Area in Jerusalem

Christian travelers visit Jerusalem to trace Jesus’ last steps along the Via Dolorosa, Muslims to honor the Dome of the Rock, and Jews to insert written prayers into the cracks of the Western Wall.

Some people do all three.

In December, travelers will have a new opportunity to visit Jerusalem. They can go underground to see part of the Old City as it existed about 2,000 years ago.

Underground building

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

EMMANUEL DUNAND | AFP | Getty Images

The Western Wall is also one of the most popular destinations for travelers to Israel. It was visited by 12 million people in 2019, according to Eyal Karlin, Commissioner for Tourism for North America at Israel’s Ministry of Tourism.

The excavated area dates back to the Second Temple period, which was built in the sixth century BC and then significantly expanded by Herod the Great, who ruled Jerusalem from 37 to 34 BC. The Romans destroyed the temple in about 70 AD.

The new chambers are located under the Wilson Arch, the arch that once supported the bridge leading to the Second Temple, which can be seen here in the lower left corner.

Christopher Chan | The moment | Getty Images

The building, located about 50 feet underground, has dual underground chambers separated by corridors and a “magnificent” fountain, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), the government agency that oversees excavation projects in the country. Once located on the street leading to the Temple Mount, the building is now buried deep underground, covered in centuries of construction.

New areas will become part of popular Western Wall Tunnels tours that run all day from Sunday to Thursday and Friday to noon.

What travelers can see

To access new areas, visitors descend stairs that resemble time travel, Karlin told CNBC.

“When you dig, you literally go down in history,” said Karlin. “Each layer represents different parts of history and different ages.”

Part of the steps that lead to newly excavated sites.

Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

“You find yourself in the Ottoman period, the Muslim period, the Crusader period … right up to the Herod period,” he said, referring to the reign of King Herod and his successors from 37 BC. to 73 AD

Support beams reinforce the corridor between the two chambers of the ancient underground building.

Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

The archaeologists knew there was one chamber, but excavations uncovered a larger building with two identical rooms separated by a courtyard.

The building could have been a city council building, said Shlomit Veksler-Bdola, excavation director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, in a press release issued by Israel’s tourism ministry in August. She called the site “one of the most magnificent public buildings from the Second Temple period ever discovered.”

One of two rooms in a building found behind the Western Wall.

Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

Historians believe the chambers were reception areas for dignitaries, wealthy visitors, and members of the higher clergy, Karlin said.

Perhaps they were also places to eat. According to Wexler-Bdolach, archaeologists believe that the rooms once had fold-out sofas on which people ate while lying down, as was common in the Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman eras.

“It was very luxurious – they were large rooms with large decorative elements in the form of flowing water,” said Karlin. “He shows the wealth of that area at the time … and the people who were met there.”

The second excavated chamber, built using stone arched roofs.

Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

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

“These are steps leading to the pool,” he said, “which is usually filled with water from the springs.”

Steps leading to the purification pool, or mikvah, is believed to have been added many years after the excavated building was built.

Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

“The mikvah will not be open to the public,” Karlin said. Members of the general public cleared themselves at the Pond of Siloam, about a third of a mile away. This is the same pool where Jesus is said to have restored sight to the blind, as stated in the Gospel of John in the Christian Bible.

According to Eyal Karlin of Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, the mikvah room was part of the “elite gateway” to the Second Temple.

Israel Antiquities Authority

According to Karlin, behind the baths, visitors can see the stones in the foundation of the Western Wall. The stones are hugesome of them weigh more than 250 tons.

Jerusalem is, at least in part, a city built on top of other cities. Existing buildings became basements or underground living quarters for new construction built up above, according to article in The Times of Israel.

The corridors contained decorative pilasters or decorative columns topped with Corinthian capitals with water pipes inside them.

Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

Therefore, parts of the underground buildings were found safe and sound. The decorative elements “were found whole,” Karlin said. “There were parts that were broken, but the elements that we see were not rebuilt.”

According to Karlin, excavations continue in Jerusalem, but many of them are not open for excursions.

“This is great excitement because [this area] available to the general public, ”he said. “It also sheds light on what life was like then during one of the most important periods in the life of the Jewish people.”

Journey through a new area

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

The opening, which was originally scheduled for August, has been rescheduled to coincide with the Hanukkah celebration in early December, Karlin said.

The ornate remains of a building located behind the Western Wall, or Western Wall. The latter term is losing popularity as some believe it sheds light on the grief of the Jewish community over the loss of the Second Temple.

Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

He said this is a “good time” in many ways.

“If everything goes according to plan this week or early next week, and our government approves the return of tourists to Israel … it will actually coincide when most of the world can … go to Israel.”


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