Tens of thousands of people were expected to visit the Old City on May 8 for Jerusalem Day, the anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem during the 1967 Six-Day War. While celebrations go on above ground, excavations underneath and around the Old City are being uncovered and opened to the public, peeling back layers of history.
Old City expert Rabbi Barnea Selevan, a veteran licensed tour guide and co-director of Foundation Stone, is excited about a series of archaeological digs taking place in the vicinity of the Western Wall. For the past several years, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation has sponsored excavations at the back of the plaza, and workers have uncovered part of a Roman colonnaded street dating back to the 2nd century C.E.
But what was ignored until recently, according to Selevan, are several small stone buildings, overgrown and blocked by material from the dig.
“When I look down from the street in front of the Chabad building several levels above the site, those old walls are the most exciting thing I see,” Selevan says. “There’s no question they are from First Temple times.” Seals from the Temple were found nearby. The walls, according to some archaeologists, are from homes that were abandoned but not destroyed by the Roman onslaught on Jerusalem in 70 C.E.
Selevan notes that the streets exposed at the back of the plaza lead to the Temple Mount in the Robinson’s Arch area and provide evidence that the Romans stayed in Jerusalem and used the Temple Mount.
Plans call for further excavations underneath the plaza and then to open the underground area, much as the Western Wall tunnels have been open to the public since the 1990s. Selevan says that excavations are continuing in the tunnel area, too, and beautiful rooms with ornate capitols from First and Second Temple times are being prepared to be open to the public.
In today’s Jewish Quarter that lies above the Western Wall Plaza, Selevan recounts the “delicious” discovery of a “fancy Roman bathhouse” two stories underground on Ha’omer Street, that was found in the course of construction of a new mikveh for men. “In all likelihood, the bathhouse was used by the Roman 10th Legion — the same guys who thought they were wiping out the Jews,” he says.
Dr. Yuval Baruch, Jerusalem District Archaeologist at the Israel Antiquities Authority, says that despite the archaeological excavations in the Jewish Quarter, so far not even one building has been discovered there that belonged to the Roman legion.
“The absence of such a find led to the conclusion that Aelia Capitolina, the Roman city established after the destruction of Jerusalem, was small and limited in area,” he says.
“The new find, together with other discoveries of recent years, shows that the city was considerably larger than we previously estimated,” says Baruch.