Recent Excavations in Jerusalem

By: Alfred Friendly

Originally Published in 1973

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Four years of intensive work by Israeli archaeologists in the Old City of Jerusalem—where professional expertise has been inspired by a close to mystic passion to uncover the Zion of their heritage—have met with exciting results.

Especially around the Temple Mount, where once stood Solomon’s and Herod’s temples and the Roman temple to Jupiter and which is now crowned by two of the most holy Moslem shrines, el Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, the discoveries have been dazzling. For the first time since the destruction of the Second Temple in A.D. 70, the immensity and splendor of Herod the Great’s construction are coming to light. Not the least of the satisfactions of the excavations is their validation of the contemporary descriptions of Flavius Josephus and of the findings of Charles Warren, made a century ago under seemingly Impossible conditions.

As will appear, Warren’s discoveries have now been expanded or refined in two respects: The first seems to be a major revision, even more stunning than the original suggestion, of the solution to the question of “Robinson’s Arch,” springing from near the southwestern corner of the Herodian walls; the second is the discovery of an enormous plaza running almost the whole length of the southern side of the Mount, across which worshippers walked to enter the Temple Enclosure through underground passages.

Other excavations in what had been the Jewish Quarter of the Old City before 1948 have, if anything, produced even more historically con­sequential findings about the extent of Jerusalem in the periods before and after the Babylonian Conquest, the grandeur of its edifices and the splendid level of craftsmanship of their builders.

The first “modern” excavations around the Temple Enclosure, dominating the city and since Solomon’s time the throbbing pulse of Jewish tradition and religious inspiration, were made by a young British ordnance officer, Lieutenant (later Captain) Charles Warren.

He was commissioned by the Palestine Ex­ploration Fund of London in 1865 to do what was, as Landay, in Silent Cities, Sacred Stones, says, “nothing short of the rediscovery of ancient Jerusalem…. For so grand a project the Fund should have engaged an army of prophets, not a military engineer. Warren lacked archaeological experience. He was hampered by Moslem struc­tures against excavating within the sacred area (about 150,000 square meters) of the Temple En­closure. He was limited to investigating the out­side perimeter of its massive retaining walls. Warren hired workmen and began mining into the roots of the ancient Jerusalem with a series of vertical shafts, some 125 feet deep. From their bottoms, he ran long galleries up to and along the walls.

The work was dangerous, because the fill and debris through which he tunneled was formed by stone chips which had no cohesion and rub­bish compressed into loose shingles which had a tendency to shift and run like water. There were frequent cave-ins. The rubbish contained sewage that caused the hands to fester….”

What Warren did, in effect, was to make an underground exploration of a large part of the Western and Southern Walls of the Enclosure, burrowing under what had become a mountain of superimpositions of Roman, Byzantine, Moslem, Crusader and ultimately Arabic and Turkish build­ings and houses, each set on the ruins of the one below. At the very bottom, he found Herod’s underground aqueduct running along what was called the Central or Tyropean (“Cheesemakers”) Valley. He discovered huge Herodian building blocks running down to bedrock for about 21 courses, or 21 meters, below the then ground level near the southwestern corner. Digging along the Southern Wall he discovered that the Herodian ashlars extended in some places still another eight courses until they could be set in the bed­rock.

Warren saw that in building his temple, begin­ning about 20 B.C. (a replacement for the more modest one erected almost five centuries before by Jews returning from the Babylonian Captivity and the destruction of the First Temple by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 B.C.) Herod had made a huge fill along the top of Mount Moriah, to raise and level off the platform on which the new struc­ture, its surrounding annexes and his Royal Stoa (or Portico) were to be built. The fill had to be especially deep at the western and southern sides where the land sloped precipitously toward the Central Valley and the Valley of Hinnon to the south. Lest the whole affair slide down the ridge. Herod held it in place by his gigantic retaining walls. From the capstone at the southwestern corner to bedrock, archaeologists suggest that the wall must have comprised more than 50 courses, each about a meter high.

Before the current excavations along the western side there were, as in Warren’s day, only two or three of the Herodian courses to be seen above the ground; the courses above were of later construction—Omayyad, Crusader, Turkish and even more recent. Some three or four of the Herodian courses are now exposed along that portion of the Western Wall known as the Wailing Wall (some 200 years after the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70 the Romans relaxed their ban on the entry of Jews into Jerusalem to permit them once a year “to wail over its stones”). About eight courses are to be seen at the southwestern corner.

The Temple and its environs had been con­temporaneously described by Josephus, a turn­coat Jew who became a Roman commander in Titus’ campaign to suppress the revolt of A.D. 66-73. (Yigael Yadin, the distinguished Israeli soldier-archaeologist, speaking as one Jewish general of another, once quipped: “Josephus was a miserable Jew but a good historian.”) Warren confirmed much of what Josephus had specified: a fine paved road, about 12.5 m. wide, running north-south adjacent to the Western Wall above the aqueduct, and four gates in the wall for entrance into the Enclosure.

Israeli archaeologists are increasingly con­vinced that when Josephus described what he himself saw, he can usually be trusted. In this connection it is interesting that the much disputed passage in his Antiquities mentioning Jesus, and long considered a forgery by later Christian inter­polaters, may well have been perfectly valid in the original words in which Josephus wrote. If so, it would be the earliest—and an almost contem­porary—mention of Jesus by a non-Christian source. The discovery of what may have been close to Josephus’ original text and the implica­tions are discussed at length in The New York Times, February 13, 1972. The research under consideration is An Arabic Version of the Testi­monium Flavianum and its Implications by Schlomo Pines, Israel Academy of Arts and Sciences, Jerusalem 1971.

Of the four gates, the northernmost (“War­ren’s”) is still buried beneath the layercake of later constructions along the wall that filled up the Central Valley over the centuries. It has not been seen since Warren’s time; we take his—and Josephus’—word for it.

The next gate to the south is also still buried under a heap of surmounting buildings but has been excavated from below and one arch of the viaduct to it can be seen. It lies just to the north of the Wailing Wall and now that it has been cleared at the base is seen to cross over an area which is in effect an extension of the Wailing Wall plaza. Josephus noted that it “led to the king’s palace. and went to a passage over the inter­mediate valley.” That passage is presumably a huge bridge the first mighty arch of which. about 15 m. wide, thrusts above the viewer’s head and the rest, doubtless over many more arches cross­ing the valley to the west, disappears under 1900 years of construction and rubble. The assumption is that the palaces of the Hasmonean kings lay on the slope or ridge on the west side of the Central Valley and the bridge—the now visible part known as “Wilson’s Arch”—was their cere­monial route to the Temple grounds.

The third gate (“Barclay’s”) lies at the south­ern end of the Wailing Wall, the space now used for prayers by Jewish women, more or less below a path into the later gate (“Moor’s Gate”) higher up on the wall by which today’s visitors enter the area of el Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock.

Of the fourth and southernmost gate on the Western Wall, some 10 m. north of the south­western corner of the Enclosure, Josephus wrote: “The last led to the rest of the city, where a road descended down into the valley by a great number of steps, and thence up again to the ascent.” From Warren’s time until a year or two ago, and almost without exception, that passage has been astonishingly misread. as indicating that there was a second bridge, as wide as Wilson’s Arch, parallel to it and, like it, thrusting westward over a series of arches across the Central Valley to dwellings in the Upper City on the ridge and slope beyond. Warren had seen the springers of the arch, 15 m. wide (which were also about all that could be seen above ground level when the cur­rent excavations began), but his excavations revealed a pier 15 m. to the west just across the Herodian street. His assumption was that several more arches continued west to carry a bridge.

However, Josephus wrote not of a bridge but of “a great number of steps.” What the current excavations are finding are the traces of a monu­mental staircase, more splendid than any bridge and of a grandeur not hitherto imagined.

The present dig around the Temple Enclo­sure, sponsored by the Israel Exploration Society, the Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew Uni­versity, in cooperation with the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, began in the Spring of 1968. It is under the direction of Prof. Benjamin Mazar, with Meir Ben-Dov as deputy.

In four years, 170,000 cubic meters of earth have been removed (and 50,000 of them sifted) from around the Western and Southern Walls to lay bare not merely the foundations that Warren could only tunnel to here and there, but also a huge Omayyad complex and extensive remains—tombs and structures—of the First Temple period. Today’s excavations do not, of course, entail digging inside the walls of the Temple Enclosure where both Jewish and Moslem religious objec­tions would be intense.

In rediscovering the huge pier of Robinson’s Arch which Warren had seen a hundred years ago, Mazar and Ben-Dov found west of it a large, four-chambered structure, possibly containing shops, and with ritual baths at the lowest level. Alongside to the north a set of stairs led down to the Herodian street at the point where it passed under Robinson’s Arch. As excavations continued, it seemed probable that the viaduct leading to the Temple Mount passed over the roof of the large building, continued over Robinson’s Arch (the top of which formed a platform about 15 m. square) and arrived at the gate to the monumental Royal Stoa inside the Temple Enclosure.

But the present excavations found no addi­tional piers west of the one Warren discovered. And if there was, therefore, no bridge as he had supposed, whence did the stairs to the Arch rise?

In the last months, with the discovery of remnants of arches to the west and south, the mystery seems to be solved. The viaduct crossing the roof of the large building appears to have continued a descent of perhaps 30 steps to the west to a landing, then turned south for about 80 more steps over a series of descending arches to an­other landing, and finally turned east for perhaps 15 to 20 more steps down to the level of the Herodian street. The grandiosity and monumental splendor of this huge stairway, some 15 m. wide over its whole extent and rising from ground level to the gate to the Royal Stoa for a height of about 23 m., can only be imagined. The Stoa, or Portico, itself, which extended from west to east almost the whole of the 300 m. length of the Southern Wall, must have been. next to the Temple itself, the most glorious structure on the Mount, and surely the largest one. Josephus called it “a structure more noteworthy than any other under the sun.” It would be fitting that the major en­trance to it should accord with it in impressive­ness.

So too, the approach to the Enclosure from the south, where myriads of worshippers would have entered from below through the “Double Gate” and the “Triple Gate” of the Southern Wall, should have been of appropriate magnifi­cence, and the most recent excavations have proved it so.

Warren had seen a Herodian street, 7 m. wide, starting at the southwest corner and rising by a series of steps at the western end to run adjacent to the Southern Wall to the east. It has now been traced and parts of it laid bare to the Double Gate (long since blocked by a huge Crusader bastion) and well beyond toward the Triple Gate. But the amazing and recent dis­covery is a huge plaza to the south of it, extend­ing almost the full length of the wall. In the center, flanked by two enormously wide flights of steps mounting with the rise of the land and partly built over arched supports, was a large building con­taining ritual baths. Worshippers from the Ophel, the hill sloping down southwards from the Mount on which the Old City of David was built, would have crossed the plaza, climbed the steps to the Double or Triple Gate and entered passages below the Stoa, ultimately to emerge on the great platform within the Enclosure that surrounded the Temple. Mazar’s team believes that the whole assembly must have been conceived and held together by a single directing architect whom Herod the Great had instructed to spare no expense.

The four years of discoveries are of such volume that only a few can be given passing men­tion. They run from sherds dated to Middle Bronze Age II (evidence that farmers began working the hills of Jerusalem as early as the second mil­lenium B.C.) to artifacts from every epoch in the city’s history.

A multitude of tombs of the First Temple period were discovered on the western slope of the Central Valley. Two at the very bottom of the valley were incorporated by Herod’s architects into the aqueduct, which zig-zagged here and there to take advantage of the convenient cavities.

Very little of importance of the First Temple itself, the glories of which are so abundantly described in I Kings: 5, 6 and 7, has been found but remnants of the Second Temple and Herodian periods that have been discovered are particularly interesting. Various fragments of panels. friezes. cornices, capitals, small columns and the like appear to have come from the Royal Stoa and validate Josephus’ enthusiastic comments, as well as his statement that the capitals of the columns in the Portico were Corinthian, and such as “caused amazement.” Also, four of the architec­tural fragments had traces of gold-leaf overlay, recalling Josephus’ mention of the gold-plating on the Temple itself and further references in the Talmud to the fact that “all the house was over­laid with gold.

One of the most interesting finds was what must have been the capstone on the parapet at the southwest corner. It was found directly below that spot and was inscribed “To the place of the blowing of the shofar.” The most appropriate spot for sounding the ram’s horn that announced the beginning and end of the Sabbath would of course have been at this point, where the call would be heard in both the Upper City to the west and the Ophel to the south.

Another fascinating find made when the ground below Robinson’s Arch was cleared was an inscription in Hebrew carved on one of the ashlars. The carver, missing a couple of words, had obviously intended to quote Isaiah 66:14 (to be cited often in later Jewish writings as the watchword of visionary activity toward the resto­ration of Jerusalem and the Temple): “And when ye see this, your heart shall rejoice and your bones shall flourish like an herb.” In the Bible, the preceding verse reads: “As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you; and ye shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” The supposition is that the inscription was made during the reign of Julian when for a brief period Jews were given hope from the apostate Christian of being allowed to restore Zion.

The hopes of the present generation are more promising—not, to be sure, of rebuilding the Temple–but of retrieving much more information about its environs. The excavators’ program over the next several years calls for investigating and ultimately exposing all of the Southern and Western Walls of the Enclosure.

Already, an enormous Omayyad construction has been laid bare immediately south and some­what west of the Enclosure. Four large buildings, of an elegance and size suggesting a great admin­istrative complex, have been identified. At about the level of the Herodian streets, they appear to have been built in the years immediately after the first Moslem conquest of Jerusalem, i.e. in the late seventh and early eighth centuries. Ben-Dov writes: “We can thus conclude that in the Omay­yad period the region of the Temple Mount under­went a face lifting the extent of which had not been seen since the time of Herod.”

It is clear from the two to three acres ex­posed that the Omayyad caliphs repaired the by then breached retaining walls of Herod and, using much of the stone that had fallen, erected large buildings around them. One building, handsomely decorated, was probably the palace of one of the caliphs, very likely el-Walid I, and others may have housed the servants of Haram el-Sharif (the “Noble Sanctuary” of the Arabs, i.e. the Temple compound). It was from these buildings—as it had been from about the same area 700 years earlier —that pilgrims entered the compound through gates in its Southern Wall to climb up through underground passages to the plazas around el Aqsa Mosque, which el-Walid built. and to the Mosque of the Dome of the Rock that his father. Caliph Abd el-Malik. had built before him.

With the fall of the Omayyad dynasty in the eighth century, the conquering Abbasids repaired the buildings in the Haram but the adjacent palaces and buildings to the south were left to decay and to the ravages of earthquakes and of stone robbers. One may assume that by the time of the Crusaders there was little or nothing of them to be seen.

The extent and vigor of today’s archae­ological work in Israel in general and Jerusalem in particular is surely unmatched by any former period. It is impossible even to summarize here the accomplishments of so many enterprises. One program, however, may be mentioned without being invidious inasmuch as it, like that around Mount Moriah, focuses directly on the First and Second Temple periods. It is in the nature of a rescue operation, but in circumstances many an­other archaeologist elsewhere in the world could envy.

Extensive new construction of religious schools, public buildings and official residences is being undertaken in what was the pre-1948 Jewish Quarter of the Old City, in effect part of the Upper City of Hasmonean times. Under arrangements with the city and national author­ities, Prof. Nachman Avigad of the Hebrew Uni­versity examines the land of every projected construction and if he suspects there is anything of interest he can delay any new work until he has excavated the spot to his satisfaction.

In this process, one of his major finds, of pro­found importance in casting light on the much-disputed question of the extent of Jerusalem in pre-Hasmonean times, has been the identification of the “Broad Wall.” In Nehemiah 3:6 its existence is implied as of a time before the destruction of the First Temple, and Nehemiah goes on to relate that he restored this part of the wall. The question has been, where was it? Israeli scholars had come increasingly to believe that it lay to the west of the Temple Mount, somewhere in what became the Upper City, but the British archaeologist Kathleen M. Kenyon maintained that at least up to the time of the destruction in 587 B.C. and probably for some centuries thereafter Jerusalem did not extend beyond the Ophel, the hill to the south. Her own major excavations in Jerusalem and her findings of traces of David’s city gave great authority to her judgments.

But these must now be modified in the light of Avigad’s discovery of a wall 7 m. wide, “broad” enough by any definition to qualify for Nehemiah’s term, in the Upper City well to the west and north of the Ophel. By the stratigraphy and by Iron Age pottery found there, it can be dated to the eighth to seventh century B.C., i.e. the First Temple period.

In the same area, evidence from later levels is mounting to suggest strongly that here was the location, more or less as expected, of the Has­monean palaces. Avigad uncovered monumental building foundations and a column base 1.80 m. in diameter, so huge that it must have been used in an enormous structure. He has also dug up a superbly executed Corinthian capital, the perfec­tion of whose carving forces a reconsideration of the long prevailing notion that Jerusalem was by way of being only a provincial “hick” town in the Roman Empire where the workmanship was crude.

Another find was a graceful and elaborate engraving on plaster of that universal Judaic symbol, the seven-branched candlestick, or menorah, from the Hasmonean or early Herodian period. It is the finest representation among the handful of such early depictions known. The deli­cate “leaf-and-button” design of the branches brings to mind the representation on the Arch of Titus in Rome of the menorah which he brought as loot from the Temple in Jerusalem.

Finally, Avigad discovered the foundation of the “Nea,” the New Church of the Virgin Mary, built by Justinian in the middle of the sixth cen­tury. Contemporary accounts described it as second only to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in magnificence and size, but it has not been seen since Crusader times. About 3 m. below the present ground level, on the slope of the western ridge, the apse of the southernmost aisle was laid bare. The walls are of an astonishing 6.5 m. thick­ness; only the “Nea” could have been of such dimensions. The location was precisely that shown for it on the famous contemporary Madeba mosaic map, on the floor of a ruined church south of Amman, in Jordan.

Cite This Article

Friendly, Alfred. "Recent Excavations in Jerusalem." Expedition Magazine 15, no. 3 (May, 1973): -. Accessed February 25, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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