Photo Credit: Michal Haber/Hebrew University
The steps of the ritual bath.

An excavation near the Temple Mount by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Institute of Archaeology has unearthed a unique ritual bath (mikvah) dating back to the late Second Temple period (1st Century CE).

The ritual bath, discovered inside a private villa, is hewn into the bedrock and features a vaulted ceiling with fine masonry typical of the Herodian period. It is located on top of a cliff in the “Upper City”—a term used by historian Josephus Flavius to describe the area of Herod’s City which housed Jerusalem’s elites.

The finely hewn stones of the ritual bath’s vaulted ceiling. Note the watermarks on the bedrock. / Michal Haber/Hebrew University
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A plastered water cistern was uncovered near the same villa. It was in use until the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and held the remains of nearly 40 cooking pots, some still intact.

In addition to the ritual bath, the excavations unearthed artifacts that span the Second Temple, Roman-Byzantine, and Ottoman periods, including a network of plastered pools and channels. Among the finds were a section of the “Lower Aqueduct” which transported water from Solomon’s Pools near Bethlehem all the way to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and an industrial pool built by soldiers of Rome’s Tenth Legion who were stationed in Jerusalem after the establishment of the Roman colony of “Aelia Capitolina” in 130 CE.

View of the ritual bath (left) and surrounding remains of Herodian-period structures. / Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority

The pool lies on top of the remains of an earlier Roman oven, also installed by soldiers of the Tenth Legion. The bottom contains a layer of tile bricks, one of which was stamped with the letters “LXF,” alluding to “Legio X Fretensis,” the full name of the Tenth Legion.

Also discovered by the excavations was a fragment of a late Byzantine-period ceramic oil lamp, inscribed with the phrase “The Light of Christ shines for all” in Greek. This phrase may have its source in the ceremony of the Holy Fire, part of the Orthodox Easter celebrations at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Such oil lamps, dated primarily to the 6th and 7th centuries CE, may have been purchased by Christian pilgrims who flocked to the Byzantine city they called “Hierosolyma.”

Descending the steps of the ritual bath. / Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority

The excavations, which began in February 2021 to provide access to the handicapped from Jerusalem’s Old City to the Kotel, were overseen by HU’s Michal Haber and Dr. Oren Gutfeld, and funded in part by Israel’s Ministry for Jerusalem Affairs and the William Davidson Foundation, and spearheaded by the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem Affairs Minister Zeev Elkin inaugurated the Kotel Elevator Project, noting that “these rare artifacts, discovered during the Kotel Elevator Project excavations, are truly exciting. They provide proof of a continuous Jewish presence in Jerusalem for millennia. Under my leadership, Israel’s Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage will continue to preserve and develop Jerusalem’s rich Jewish past and transform the capital into a modern, innovative city.”

Surveying the unique finds, Dr. Gutfeld said: “The excavation revealed remains dating from the Second Temple, Roman-Byzantine, and Ottoman periods. The number of water channels, cisterns, and pools discovered in the area reflects the central role played by Jerusalem’s water supply throughout the ages.”

The steps of the ritual bath. / Michal Haber/Hebrew University

But the highlight of the archaeological dig was the ritual bath. Haber explained the significance of this find, saying that “during the Herodian period, the area was home to the city’s wealthiest residents. While several other ritual baths have been unearthed in the area, the importance of this particular discovery stems from its striking proximity to the Temple Mount—raising the question of who lived in this grand villa on the eve of the city’s destruction. It may well have been a priestly family.”

Dr. Amit Reem, the chief archaeologist of the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Jerusalem District, said the ritual bath will be preserved and incorporated into the new Western Wall Elevator complex.

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