Text and images on this page are from our 2014 pilgrimage. Click on the pictures to see them in larger format.
We had hoped to take the tour of the Western Wall Tunnel when we were in that area yesterday, but they were booked solid until very late at night — a good reminder that even the best planned itinerary still has to be flexible. So this morning found us bright and early outside the Dung Gate again. Several of us sampled the freshly baked ka’ak (Arabic) or beigeleh (Hebrew), which are large loops of bagel-like bread covered in sesame seeds. They are sold by mobile vendors all over the Old City, and it’s one of Pastor Randy’s favorite snacks.
The entrance to the Western Wall Tunnel Tour is almost hidden in an adjoining wall at the far left end of the plaza.
And most of the Western Wall is hidden, too! What you see above ground — both length and height — is only a small portion of the western side of the enormous retaining structure that Herod built to support the enlarged Temple platform. The rest of the western side lies deep underground, stretching another 1500+ feet beneath the streets and buildings of the Jewish and Muslim Quarters. It took over twenty years to complete the tunnel excavations and to install air conditioning, lighting, signage and walking paths in order to accommodate tourists. The effort was well worth it, and this is one of the most fascinating sites in the Old City.
The first thing you see after entering is the synagogue built under the archeological remain called Wilson’s Arch. It is used mostly by men, and women are encouraged to use a smaller balcony prayer room above it.
There is a state-of-the-art educational display in one of the large excavated areas. It includes a 3-D moving model of the Temple platform, which shows how it looked throughout Jewish history and into the modern age.
During Jesus’ time, a large street ran along the base of the Temple platform. Much of it has been excavated and you can see the massive blocks of stone that were cut and built into the site.
Referred to as Herodian ashlars, they are easy to pick out here and at other sites throughout Israel because of their distinctive design — indented margins on the edges with a raised smooth boss in the middle. Some of the stones in the tunnel are larger than a semi truck and scholars still aren’t exactly sure where they came from or how they were moved to the site. And they are fitted together so exactly that you can’t even get a credit card between the cracks.
There is also a large Hasmonean era (140-116 BC) cistern and aqueduct that served the water needs of the Temple and immediate area. Fun to walk through, unless you’re claustrophobic!
Leaving the Western Wall area, we headed downhill along the southern hillside to the City of David. This was the first time one of our pilgrim groups had stopped here, and I found it very interesting.
Continuously inhabited for the last 5,000 years, the City of David was the main headquarters of King David and his successors until King Hezekiah expanded the city to the west. Scholars think that during Jesus’ time the city’s poor lived in this area downhill from the Temple. As with all of the archeological and historical sites under Israeli control, this one had a beautifully landscaped entrance and grounds.
But the real treasures lie beneath the surface. This is the oldest part of Jerusalem that was built around the Gihon Spring, a sure water supply in a very rocky area. King David won the city from the Jebusites around 1000 BC and he developed and expanded it to serve as the headquarters of his kingdom. (2 Samuel 5:6-12) An enclosed excavation called “The Large Stone Structure” is thought by many to be the remains of his palace.
A large terraced stone foundation — The Stepped Stone Structure — extends down the hill from the palace remains. It dates to the 12th century BC and is probably the once mysterious “millo” mentioned in the King James version of the Old Testament.
From the top of the terraced stone structure you can look down on an area of residential houses. It isn’t hard to imagine King David watching Bathsheba while she bathes on her rooftop.
One of the residential excavations is called “The House of Ahiel.” It is a typical 4-room Israelite house (we also saw them in Capernaum) that dates from 586 BC. Cosmetics and housewares were found in its well-preserved remains.
The only time it rained during our entire trip was for about 4 minutes while we were doing Bible study in a shelter at the foot of the Stepped Stone Structure.
From the City of David we traveled downhill and farther east to the excavations of the Pool of Siloam, which sits within the Arabic town of Silwan. The site is revered by Christians because after Jesus miraculously healed a blind man he told him to go to the pool to wash the mud from his eyes. (John 9) The most recent excavations were begun in 2004 when a public works project led to the discovery of several sets of large terraced steps that lead down to a monumental pool. Pottery fragments and coins helped date the site to the Second Temple Period, and the pool was probably filled in after Jerusalem was conquered by the Romans in 70 AD.
The picture below shows the state of the current excavations. The garden to the left is owned by the Greek Orthodox Church.
A sign near the entry shows an artist’s rendition of what the monumental pool would have looked like in the time of Jesus.
Pilgrims coming to Jerusalem for any of the holy festivals would typically start their trek uphill to the Temple from this cleansing pool, and priests also carried its water up to the Temple altar where it was used during a ritual for Sukkot or the Feast of Tabernacles. The walkway has been recently excavated and you can see its entry in the tunnel area on the right of this picture. The stairs on the left going upwards lead to the end of Hezekiah’s Tunnel and to a Byzantine era pool that was traditionally honored as the Siloam pool.
Click here for more pictures of the Western Wall Tunnel, the City of David and the Pool of Siloam.