Day 7 (Part 2) – Ophel Excavations, Western Wall and Israel Museum

Text and images on this page are from our 2014 pilgrimage. Click on the pictures to see them in larger format.

The Old City of Jerusalem is surrounded by high walls and eight gates. Going clockwise from the northwest corner they are: New Gate, Damascus (Nablus) Gate, Herod’s (Flowers) Gate, Lion’s (St. Stephens) Gate, Eastern (Golden or Mercy) Gate, Dung Gate, Zion Gate and Jaffa Gate. Most of them were built in the late 1500s by the Turkish Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, and all but the Eastern Gate, which is bricked closed, are in use today.

The Dung Gate leads into the area of excavations on the southern end of the Temple Mount (Ophel Archeological Garden), the Moslem entrance bridge to the top of the Temple Mount, the Western Wall and the modern Jewish Quarter of the Old City. This is probably not the Dung Gate mentioned in the biblical book of Nehemiah, though that gate may have been nearby. But this more modern gate earned its name in the 2nd century when refuse was hauled out from here.

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Whatever the name, its walkway is nicely landscaped, modern and very clean — something that can’t be said for every area of the Old City.

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Our first stop inside was the Davidson Center in the Ophel Archeological Garden. The three-story building hosts a state-of-the-art movie theater which shows a re-enactment of an Israelite coming to Passover to sacrifice his offering at the Temple. And there are also dozens of interesting displays about the many different eras of Jerusalem history.

Pictures weren’t allowed inside, but this one is taken of part of our group in the exit area after our tour. Can you tell we’re kind of tired? I can’t remember if this is before or after lunch, but I think it’s “before.” So we’re probably hungry, too!

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The exit from the Davidson Center takes you under the roadway and into the archeological remains that abut the southern wall of the Temple Mount. This area has been extensively explored, beginning with Edward Robinson in 1838. Residential, commercial, administrative and religious buildings have been discovered from the time of King Solomon to the Middle Ages (Crusader and early Islamic).

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During Jesus’ time the area was primarily residential dwellings, and a large group of private and public mikvot (Hebrew plural for mikvah) or ritual baths have been excavated. They were used for purification ceremonies before entering the Temple courts. Some scholars think that the miracle of Pentecost happened near here and that these baths would have been used to baptize the 3,000 Christian converts.

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Our favorite part of this area are the monumental stairs leading up to the double and triple entry gates (bricked over) to the Temple. Most of them are reconstructions, though enough of the originals remain to see the Herodian design elements. There are two shallow steps followed by a single broad step in between. It encouraged worshipers to take their time and to approach God’s sanctuary in a slow and thoughtful manner.

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Many scholars believe that itinerant rabbis used this very public area to draw a crowd and teach. So it’s likely that this is one of the authentic sites where Jesus walked and stood. During Bible study we imagined him criticizing the Scribes and Pharisees — whose offices were probably above the stairs — for failing to worship God wholeheartedly and to lead God’s people with integrity. Since all of us are bearing witness with our lives, it was definitely a lesson worth pondering.

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Returning to the walkway, we continued to climb the hill toward the Western Wall, or Kotel in Hebrew. We’d hoped to be able to visit the Temple Mount, but it’s only open to non-Muslims a couple of hours a day and the line that morning stretched all the way out the Dung Gate. An entry sign to the Western Wall Plaza explained its history and its religious significance to the Jewish people.

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The plaza was crowded with visitors from all around the world.

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But the worship areas were divided into women’s and men’s sections.

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Over on the men’s side, a group of Jewish believers were celebrating a Bar Mitzvah service.

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Visitors of all faiths are encouraged to approach the wall to pray and to place written “joys and concerns” into the cracks in the wall.

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Leaving the area through the Dung Gate, we boarded the bus and headed toward the western side of Jerusalem, which is called the “New City.” While inside the walls it’s easy to forget how modern greater Jerusalem actually is.

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Along the way we passed another of the eight gates: the Damascus Gate.

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And we also passed the “Bridge of Strings,” which was designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava for the city’s new light rail system. Wisconsinites are familiar with his work because he also designed the Milwaukee Art Musuem, which has a similar look.

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After a late lunch, we headed for the Israel Museum. Its beautifully landscaped grounds contain a number of archeological finds from all over Israel.

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A huge model of Jerusalem from Jesus’ time is also situated on the grounds. We first saw it when it was located at the Holyland Hotel. But its 21,000+ square feet of buildings was cut into 1,000 pieces and reassembled at the museum in 2006. The model is a great educational tool and helps our pilgrims to better orient themselves to the contemporary Old City.

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The Shrine of the Book is another of the museum’s prime attractions. Built to house the Dead Sea Scrolls, the top of the building resembles the lid of a jar similar to the one in which the scrolls were found. The fragile scrolls are displayed on a rotating 3-6 months schedule, and the mostly underground rooms are kept in very dim light.

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Thinking about God’s word to his people, about its preservation and transmission, was a great way to end the day.

Click here for more pictures of the Ophel, the Western Wall and the Israel Museum.

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