Photo Credit: Shai Halevi, Israel Antiquities Authority
The Antiquities Authority's excavation and preservation works in the Western Wall Tunnels.

In honor of Jerusalem Day, the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation revealed new discoveries beneath the lobby of the Western Wall Tunnels. The system was excavated by the IAA in the Beit Strauss complex near the Wall.

Philanthropist Nathan Strauss (he owned both R.H. Macy & Company and Abraham & Straus, and the city of Netanya is named after him) donated funds for a soup kitchen adjacent to the Kotel Plaza. The excavations under this historic structure uncovered extraordinary structures from various periods (when the coronavirus crisis is over, you can come down and enter this underground site from the upper section of the Western Wall Plaza).

The Antiquities Authority’s excavation and preservation works in the Western Wall Tunnels. / Shai Halevi, Israel Antiquities Authority

The excavations have been renewed about a year ago, as part of the work to prepare for a new and engrossing tour, which will be offered in addition to the classic WWHF tour. The researchers presume that the complex was used by Jerusalem residents during the Early Roman period, before the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70.

The system, which was sealed under the plain white mosaic floor of a large Byzantine period structure from about 1,400 years ago, is composed of an open courtyard and two rooms arranged in three levels, one above the other, connected by hewn staircases.

The Antiquities Authority’s excavation and preservation works in the Western Wall Tunnels. / Shai Halevi, Israel Antiquities Authority

Depressions were found at the entrance to the complex that were meant to firmly fix door hinges and bolts. Round and square niches were carved into the walls, alongside small triangular niches for oil-lamps, as well as elongated carvings for shelves. These findings allude to the rock-cut system being for daily use.

“Perhaps it served as a pantry for an overhead structure that didn’t survive, or as a hewn space that allowed for subterranean living,” the IAA press release speculated.

The frequent renovations of the structure and its ultimate destruction reminded IAA researcher Michael Chernin of a letter dated back to the 11th century CE, from the Cairo Geniza, regarding the renovation of a synagogue in Jerusalem after the earthquake of 1035 CE. The renovation was undertaken using a donation from the Jewish community of Tyre, Lebanon, to the Jewish community of Jerusalem.

The structure was destroyed during the Fatimid period (11th century CE), and the findings in it were covered over until they were exposed in the current archaeological excavations.

Dr. Barak Monnickendam-Givon in the rock-hewn system. / Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

Archaeologists have been curious for some time as to why the good people of ancient Jerusalem had invested huge resources in digging such a grand subterranean system 2,000 years ago. Dr. Barak Monnickendam-Givon and Tehila Sadiel, the IAA directors of the excavation, said (well, one of them did, but the press release did not specify which one): “The rich array of findings discovered in this excavation shed light on the daily life of the residents of the ancient city. Among other things, we found clay cooking vessels, cores of oil lamps used for light, a stone mug unique to Second Temple period Jewish sites, and a fragment of a kalal (a massive goblet-shaped tool designed on a large lathe from a single block of stone – DI).”

Clay candles decorated with clusters of grapes from the Abbasid Caliphate period. / Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

Mordechai (Suli) Eliav, Director of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, said: “I am excited, on the eve of Jerusalem Day, to reveal to the Jewish nation a new treasure trove of remarkable and intriguing findings that shed light on life in Jerusalem throughout the generations in general, and on the eve of the destruction in particular. These finding epitomize the deep connection of Jews to Jerusalem, their capital. Even when there were physical limitations, prayer at the foot of the remnant of our Temple never ceased, and this is a tangible evidence of that.”

Measuring cup from the Second Temple period. / Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

By the way, Jews continued to pray on the Temple Mount itself as well, whenever their own government didn’t abandon the holy grounds to Muslim invaders.

The discovery was made by students of a pre-military preparatory program in Jerusalem. The students have been integrated in archaeological digs as part of the IAA educational efforts to connect Jewish youths with their past.

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