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The Temple and The Western Wall Tunnel

By Jacqueline Schaalje

On Yom Kippur the High Priest of the Temple in Jerusalem visited the Holy of Holies. It was the only day in the year that he was allowed to enter the sacred inner part of the Temple. In the First Temple period, the time of King Solomon, the Holy of Holies contained the Ark with the Stone Tables of the Torah.

Many visitors in the last 3000 years have been wondering where the Temple stood and where the Holy of Holies would have been. The picture becomes a bit clearer by a visit to the western wall tunnel. The walk underground spans the whole length of the western Temple wall from the time of King Herod.

A visit must begin with a contemplation of the long and tenacious history of the Temple Mount. A bare-rock model at the entrance to the tunnel shows what it is all about: Mount Moriah and the "Foundation Stone", the flattened rock on its top over which the Holy of Holies was founded. The rock is now a part of the Dome of the Rock mosque.

The first Temple was built on Mount Moriah, which is traditionally the place where Abraham offered the life of Isaac. Later King David bought the threshing floor from Arauna and erected an altar (2 Samuel 24:18-25). With the designs that his father already had made, his son Solomon executed the building of the Temple that was meant to be a home for the Ark of the Covenant. No remains have been found of his Temple.

After the First Temple had been destroyed by the Babylonians, a small but fervent group of Jews, called Judeans, returned from their exile in Babylon, and under the leadership of Zerubabel built a new temple. This was once more destroyed by the Syrian king, Antiochus IV, but soon after a new house of reverence was put in place by his enemies, the Maccabees. The Maccabees enlarged the Temple area to the south. Remains of this are seen on the current platform and may also be described in the tractate Middoth in the Mishnah. The king-priests Hasmoneans reigned from this Temple for many years, until the ambitious Herod decided that the Temple complex was still too small and devised a new plan. He also wanted to raise the Temple so visitors from the city would physically feel that they would rise in order to reach the Temple. In order to reach maximum effect he built a huge platform which was superimposed on the natural hills. The Maccabean eastern wall was left intact but all the other sides were extended.

According to Josephus, the Jews of Jerusalem at the time thought that Herod had gone stark mad that he wanted to build a new Temple when the old Temple seemed to function satisfactorily. Before they agreed to erect a new Temple they demanded that all the materials would be ready in advance, and only then would they destroy the old Temple (Josephus, Antiquities 15:380-425, War 5: 184-247). Maybe this story also explains why Herod's Temple walls have endured time, despite the Roman destruction of the actual buildings when they conquered Jerusalem in 70 AD. After their destruction no new plans to build a new Temple have materialized, although there were some drawings which circulated from the Roman time onwards. In later centuries Arabic constructions blocked dreams to erect a new Temple. The western wall was almost completely obscured by Arab buildings which leaned against its stones.

Maybe it sounds like a stupid question, but why actually is the western wall, or as it used to be called, the Wailing Wall, the most important wall of the Temple complex and why do Jews pray almost exclusively on this side?

The answer lies in that the location of the Holy of Holies lay on the western side of the Temple plaza. After the destruction of the Temple and the Holy of Holies Jews have been praying at the western wall for centuries, at the site where the Holy of Holies would have been closest. Its location was opposite the middle of the western wall.

The western wall is the longest wall of the former Temple platform of Herod and nearly stretches 500 meters. Only a length of 70 meters is visible today, which includes the prayer area. The rest of the wall can only be seen underground. As is well known, the western wall plaza has been cleared after 1967, before that Arabic houses and mosques halted only at a distance of four meters.

The Tunnel Alongside the Western Wall

Religious Jews can enter the western wall tunnel from the prayer area, tourist visitors must enter from the north of the western wall plaza. The western wall tunnel was dug after 1967 in several stages, although some parts are older. The last short part was dug under the Netanyahu government and caused an Arab upheaval.

Upon entering, a long vaulted corridor turns eastwards to the Wall. It was built in the early Arab period and served as a secret underground passage. The roof was used to support the Street of the Chain lying above-ground. The arches on the left supported a 12.5 meter broad bridge with an aqueduct in Herod's time which brought water from Solomon's Pools to the Temple. The archway was destroyed by the Zealots who defended Jerusalem against the Romans in 70 CE. Later it was rebuilt again by the Crusaders.

A little further a window looks into a lower-lying Herodian room with original stones in the lower courses of the walls, with a column in the middle.

The last arch of the bridge, "Wilson's Arch", is called after the nineteenth century discoverer. Debris caused by the destruction of the Temple used to fill the whole area. A window illustrates the amount of work archaeologists had clearing the tunnels. In the ground two holes, dug by the American archaeologist Charles Warren during his investigations in the nineteenth century, indicate the height of the bridge with the aqueduct which spanned the Tyropeoen valley between the city and the Temple platform. One hole reaches bedrock after 12.5 meter and the other after only 17.5 meter.

From Wilson's arch the actual western wall tunnel has been dug northwards alongside the Temple wall. A large chamber in the form of a cross formed cisterns for later built Arab houses above, the space has been used to show in a computerized model what the Temple Mount looked like in the time of Herod. In the north-west corner of the mount can be seen that Herod built his platform by cutting in the natural rock of the northern hill. In the other corners the natural hills have been raised in order to support the platform. That there was a hill in the north can also be concluded because the tunnel gently slopes upwards along the route.

On the right of the large chamber the western wall is directly reached. The lower two courses consist of beautiful Herodian stones which have perfectly dressed margins so they fit on top of each other hardly without any gaps. Each higher course is laid back two centimetres from the lower one, to give stability. The stones in itself also look quite stable, measuring different lengths, but their height is always 3.5 meter and thickness is 4 meter according to scans. At our viewpoint the second course is called the "master course" because of there being an enormous stone of 13.5 length. Modern scanning has shown that behind the master course lies a large empty space which was supported by large stable slabs of stone.

Further down the route another computer model shows a possible explanation how the rocks were quarried and lifted to their positions in the Temple walls. Although Herod's walls proved indestructible, the upper layers are missing. These were restored in the Arabic period, when smaller stones were used.

A few meters further to the north there is a blocked passage in the wall. This is the location of "Warren's Gate", named after its discoverer. There were four of these gates in the western wall which led to Herod's Temple. Of course there were more gates in of the other walls. The eastern gate led directly into the courts of the Temple, which was orientated from east to west. The High Priest in the Temple would perform his rituals in the direction of Jerusalem and to the people (who lived on the western hill).

The passage of the western gate was used by Jews during the early Moslem time as a synagogue. Its name "the Cave" proves that it was underground. A spot in the wall and a bench in front of it a few meters onwards indicates the position from where the Foundation Stone in the Temple is revered. According to ancient wisdom, the stone was the position of the "navel of the world" from which life was created. On it the Holy of Holies was placed, which in the time of Solomon contained the Ark of the Covenant. According to a tradition which is told by Maimonides, Solomon already knew that the Temple would be destroyed and devised a place in deep tunnels under the Temple for the Ark to be hidden in time of need. King Josiah placed the Ark in the place that Solomon had prepared (The Book of Temple Service, 17). Another tradition says that the Ark is in Ethiopia. Of course the Ark has never been found because the Temple Mount has never been dug.

Modern science now uses scanning, information in the works of Flavius Josephus and others, and mathematics to determine the location of the Holy of Holies. Its conclusions are similar to the ones of religion. The scientific conclusions are based upon archaeological finds of old stones and marks from the Second Temple . There is some controversy if the Holy of Holies was on the Foundation Stone; i.e. the visible rock in the Dome of the Mosque, or whether the Foundation Stone was the location of the Altar of Burnt Sacrifices. But anyway this leads to the same location for the reverence of the Foundation Stone.

The walk continues along the entire length of the western wall. On the left are cisterns and supports of later Arab buildings which were built against the Temple wall. At a certain point the natural bedrock of the northern hill is reached. The Herodian wall is built on top of the hill. At the bottom the natural rock is convincingly dressed as if they were cut stones.

Where the tunnel widens a Herodian street begins, which ran along the whole length of the western wall (a part may be seen also in the south-west corner). On the left were cisterns from the Hasmonean period. One large polished stone is from Herod's time and functioned as a balustrade so people would not fall into the open pool. The Herodian street has original marble pavement and two columns. Next to the room is a quarry from which Herod took his stones for the Temple.

After that the western wall tunnel proper stops as the northern corner of Herod's Temple wall is reached. The walk continues through a water tunnel that the Hasmoneans dug. It did not have a roof as it was dug from the ground down. Its curves follow the natural outlines of the hill. The canal was covered with flat stones.

Directly to the north of the Temple Herod built the Antonia fortress which was meant to defend Jerusalem. Not a single feature of this fort is retrieved, except for the water pool which is reached after a few minutes. It was a part of the moat around the Antonia fortress. Later the Roman emperor Hadrian turned the area into a marketplace which was supported by large vaults over the pool. In a corner of the pool a Roman staircase led to the street outside.

From the pool a short new tunnel exits to the Muslim Quarter.


Visits to the Western Wall tunnel have to be booked in advance at tel. 02-6271333.


from the October High Holiday 2000 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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