Edward Robinson (1794-1863), the “Founder of Biblical Archaeology,” was the initiator of the modern scientific study of the Holy Land who transformed our knowledge of biblical Eretz Yisrael. Recognized as the foremost American biblical scholar of his day in linguistics and interpretation, he was the first to bring a critical, scientific approach to the study of the topology and archaeology of the land. Traveling through Eretz Yisrael for months, he subjected the land to the first critical study of its surface features and the first modern analysis of its Arabic place names; his basic principle was that original biblical place names were preserved only through the oral tradition of the local peasantry, whom he interviewed extensively, and not through the lore of priests and ecclesiastical tradition.
However, some critics found fault with his methods, which subordinated scientific ends to religious considerations and created tension between archaeology and faith. Indeed, the first archaeological projects in Eretz Yisrael were not conducted by archaeologists but rather by theologians such as Robinson, who were primarily interested in locating biblical sites.
The result was the scientific location of scores of biblical sites and the publication of the monumental Biblical Researches in Palestine, Mount Sinai and Arabia Petrea (1841). His return to the field in 1852 led to the publication Later Biblical Researches in Palestine and the Adjacent Regions (1857), and his Physical Geography of the Holy Land was published posthumously in 1865.
Robinson’s travels initiated a new period of biblical research. By branching out and leaving the well-beaten track of pilgrims to the Holy Land, and by examining early traditions, he shed new light on biblical topography. Openly critical of past topological studies of Jerusalem and arguing that ancient Jerusalem lay deep beneath the visible city, he was the first to excavate the site of the Har HaBayit, where he discovered important remains of the Third Wall of the Beit HaMikdash. Besides discovering Robinson’s Arch, he also unearthed five of the six ruined cities of the Negev, identified Masada, became the first to systematically explore the Pools of Shiloah, and demonstrated that “Mount Sinai” could not possibly be located at its commonly accepted site.
In what was undoubtedly his greatest discovery, Robinson located a stone stump in 1838 about 40 feet from the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount (see exhibit), which he theorized was part of a massive span of large stone arches that supported a bridge leading to the Temple Mount. The stump, which came to be known as “Robinson’s Arch,” was built as part of the expansion of the Second Beit HaMikdash begun by King Herod in 19 BCE.
With the Temple in need of repairs, the Jews responded appreciatively when Herod proposed to not only renovate the Temple compound but also to enlarge the Temple Mount, which had become too overcrowded for the great number of pilgrims seeking to visit the site. The Chasmoneans had previously extended the Temple Mount somewhat, but Herod enlarged it even further by creating an artificial platform around the mountain. Although he could not expand the eastern side of the Temple Mount because of the steepness of the Kidron Valley, he extended its other three sides and, when completed, the Temple Mount platform had doubled in size.
The walls of this enlarged Temple Mount needed to be sufficiently strong to prevent the entire structure from collapsing under its own weight, and this was accomplished by enclosing the platform with huge ashlars (cut limestone blocks), which ranged in weight up to as much as 600 tons. Herod’s construction was so solidly built that the Romans were able to dislodge only a few upper ashlars after destroying the Temple.
Herod also built a Royal Portico, a grand basilica in the southern section of the Temple Mount that was used for administrative and financial purposes, including changing money and buying sacrifices; the only extant remains of the basilica are the tops of some of its columns, and the al-Aqsa Mosque now sits on some of the area in which it once stood. Access to the Royal Portico was through Robinson’s Arch.
Herod plated the Kodesh HaKadashim with gold; overlaid the rest of the Temple with white marble; and tiled the floor of the Temple Mount with blue-hued marble that gave the impression of moving seawater. As the Talmud states in Tractate Bava Basra 4a, “One who was not privileged to see Herod’s Temple never saw a magnificent building” and, indeed, the Temple became one of the great architectural wonders of the Roman world, with pilgrims and travelers arriving from across the breadth of the Roman Empire to admire it.
The Temple renovation in general, and Robinson’s Arch in particular, were not entirely complete when Herod died in 4 BCE. Construction continued during the following decades, and the best contemporary archaeological evidence suggests that storefronts built into the piers along the street level weren’t fully developed until the governorship of Pontius Pilate, or King Agrippa i (circa 26-36 CE). As such, the construction was only completed for a few decades before the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. Moreover, excavations beneath the street near the Arch yielded three oil lamps of a type common in the first century CE and coins struck by Valerius Gratus, the fourth Roman prefect of Judea, in 17-18 CE. As such, although the Temple Mount and the staircase of Robinson’s Arch are Herodian, the Arch and nearby sections of the Western Wall had to have been constructed after this date, and it likely was not completed until at least twenty years after Herod’s death.
The destruction of Robinson’s Arch has traditionally been ascribed to the Roman legions, which destroyed the Temple Mount enclosure and eventually set fire to the entire city, but contemporary authorities attribute its destruction to zealots who had taken control of the Temple Mount and wrecked the Arch to make it more difficult for the besieging Roman forces to gain access to the Temple platform. Indeed, according to Josephus, there was a bridge that also ascended to one of the gates built into the western enclosure of the Temple Mount, which was broken off by the rebels in the days of the Chashmonaim during the reign of Pompeius Magnus (aka “Pompey,” assassinated 48 BCE). This bridge was most one of those leading to a gate that was thereby rendered unusable. According to Josephus, there were four gates in the western quarters of the Beit HaMikdash: the first led to the king’s palace and then to a passage over the intermediate valley; two others led to the suburbs of the city; and the final one (the remnants of which are now known as Robinson’s Arch), led to the city proper, where the road descended into the valley by a great number of steps, and then up again by the ascent.
Upon completion, the Arch, among the most massive stone arches of classical antiquity, spanned 49 feet, and the stepped street it bore over a series of seven additional arches was more than 115 feet long. The pathway, approximately the width of a modern four-lane highway, carried traffic up from ancient Jerusalem’s Lower Market area and over the Tyropoeon Valley street, a major traffic artery at the time lined with shops, to the Royal Stoa, a large non-sacred cathedral complex that served various commercial and legal functions and looked down on the intersection from atop the Temple platform.
Robinson was the first to recognize that the great stones jutting out of the southern end of the western wall had not been displaced by an earthquake, as many believed, but formed the spring of a monumental arch supporting a straight bridge. Connecting the Robinson overpass with Josephus’s description of a bridge, he described his initial encounters with these architectural remnants as follows:
The course of these immense stones, which seemed at first to have sprung out from their places in the wall in consequence of some enormous violence, occupy nevertheless their original position; their external surface hews to a regular curve; and being fitted one upon another, they form the commencement or foot of an immense arch, which once sprung from out from this western wall in a direction toward Mount Zion, across the valley of the Tyropoeon. This arch could only have belonged to “The Bridge,” which according to Josephus led from this part of the temple to Xystus on Zion …
He further writes of his certainty that the Arch was part of the Beit HaMikdash:
At the first view of these walls, I was led to the persuasion, that the lower portions had belonged to the ancient temple; and every subsequent visit only served to strengthen this conviction. The size of the stones and the heterogeneous character of the walls, render it a matter beyond all doubt, that the former were never laid in their present places by the Muhammedans; and the peculiar form in which they are hewn, does not properly belong, so far as I know, either to Saracenic or to Roman architecture. Indeed, everything seems to point to a Jewish origin; and a discovery which we made in the course of our examination, reduces this hypothesis to an absolute certainty …
We observed several of the large stones jutting out from the western wall … the stones had the appearance of having once belonged to a large arch. At this remark a train of thought flashed upon my mind, which I hardly dared to follow out, until I had again repaired to the spot, in order to satisfy myself with my own eyes, as to the truth or falsehood of the suggestion. I found it even so! …This arch could only have belonged to The Bridge, which according to Josephus led from this part of the temple to the Xystus on Zion; and it proves incontestably the antiquity of that portion of the wall from which it springs …
The existence of these remains of the ancient bridge, seems to remove all doubt as to the identity of this part of the enclosure of the mosque with that of the ancient temple. How they can have remained for so many ages unseen or unnoticed by any writer or traveler, is a problem, which I would not undertake fully to solve. One cause has probably been the general oblivion, or want of knowledge, that any such bridge ever existed. It is mentioned by no writer but Josephus; and even by him only incidentally, though in five different places …
Here then we have indisputable remains of Jewish antiquity, consisting of an important portion of the western wall of the ancient temple area … Thus we are led irresistibly to the conclusion, that the area of the Jewish temple was identical on its western, eastern, and southern sides, with the present enclosure of the Haram.
The original thinking of Robinson’s Arch was that when Herod enlarged the area of the Temple Mount, the wall was higher in the southern part and a valley was created separating the Western Wall from the Upper City. With direct access to the Mount rendered more difficult, a series of bridges and arches over the valley to the Mount was created to solve this problem, with the bridge located close to the southern end of the Western Wall being Robinson’s Arch. However, this theory was disproved by Benjamin Mazar, who began his “Big Dig,” the historic decade-long historic excavation along the outside of the southern and western sections of the Temple enclosure, after Israel captured the Old City in 1967 and proved that the arch had spanned over paved streets at multiple angles.
Prior to his excavations, ground level stood immediately below Robinson’s Arch, but he excavated down to shops and the street level, which meant that the staircase up to the Arch was more than 65 feet high. He demonstrated that the Arch had spanned the paved street and that a row of smaller vaults he had found, together with the Arch, supported a large staircase that, as had been described by Josephus, led from the street to the Royal Stoa on the Temple Mount. He found many stone steps that had originally formed part of this structure, and he discovered massive cut stones lying on a street built during the first half of the first century CE that had fallen from the Western Wall during the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.
A few feet to the east, Mazar uncovered stone doorways, which would have been entrances to shops that lined the street opposite the Western Wall, and the shops were built into the chambers of a massive, 12.5-foot wide, 50-foot-long stone pier that had been built by Herod. Further excavations revealed that the pier connected to a structure with a series of vaults running perpendicular to the direction of the arch, and Mazar determined that, like Robinson’s arch itself, these vaults formed the foundation for an overhead walkway (see exhibits). These vaults generally descended in height toward the south, and Mazar’s theory that the structure included a huge staircase that descended westward and took a single 90-degree turn southward became the accepted standard. However, after Mazar died in 1995, his granddaughter, a renowned archaeologist in her own right, reviewed his papers, reexamined the gradated vaults that supported the staircase, and found that the staircase had four turns.
Today, we have a clear picture of the true function of Robinson’s Arch: it was part of a monumental staircase that connected a gate in the Temple Mount’s outer precincts with the Herodian Street far below.
Born in Poland, Benjamin Mazur (1906-1995), recognized as the “Dean of Biblical Archaeologists,” pioneered a synthesis of biblical research with historical geography in Eretz Yisrael and laid the foundations for interdisciplinary integrative research that combined the study of archaeology, the Bible, ancient Near Eastern sources, and historical geography. He is perhaps best known for his digs south and southwest of the Temple Mount, but he also conducted the first archaeological excavation under Jewish auspices in Israel at Beit She’arim, the largest catacombs ever found in Israel (1932); he became the first archaeologist to receive a permit from the new State of Israel, for a dig at the Philistine town of Tel Qasile in northern Tel Aviv (1948); and he also famously conducted important excavations at Ein-Gedi (1957-1966) (see exhibit).
Mazar was trained as an Assyriologist and was an expert on biblical history, authoring more than a hundred publications on the subject, and he developed the field of historical geography of Israel. For decades he served as the chairman of the Jewish Palestine Exploration Society and of the Archaeological Council of Israel, which he founded after making aliyah in 1929 as the authority responsible for all archaeological excavations and surveys in Israel. Between 1951 and 1977, he served as Professor of Biblical History and Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1943) and later as the university’s rector (1952) and president (1953-1961). He founded both the Hebrew University’s new campus at Givat Ram and the Hadassah Medical School and Hospital at Ein Kerem. He was also chairman of the Archaeological Board of Israel and a member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, and he was awarded the prestigious Israel Prize for Jewish Studies in 1968. He headed the editorial board of the biblical encyclopedia Enẓiklopedyah Mikra’it (1950-89) and, for two generations, he trained most of the Israeli archaeologists and Bible scholars.
Today the surviving portions of the Arch complex – including four stone courses of the eastern spring of the Arch, consisting of a row of impost blocks and three layers of voussoirs – may be seen within the Jerusalem Archaeological Park adjacent to the Kotel. The location of the Arch along the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, yet at a distance from the Kotel Plaza, has prompted the Israeli Government to set aside the Arch area, which is not under the control of the Religious Affairs Ministry, for alternative, non-Orthodox services that do not meet the approval of the Ministry of Religious Affairs.
Horrified Orthodox Jews maintained that when the Talmud pronounced that the Shechina never left the Kotel, it did not limit these statements to the area that today we call Kotel Plaza but that it extended to the entire length of the western retaining wall of the Har Habayit, specifically including the area around Robinson’s Arch; nonetheless, “egalitarian” prayer took place at the site under the auspices of the Conservative movement, although the Reform movement, which was also offered Robinson’s Arch as a prayer site, refused. In May 2000, Women of the Wall, an Orthodox women’s prayer group, were also offered Robinson’s Arch as an alternative to the Kotel, but the group was permitted to continue its traditional prayer at the Kotel when the Supreme Court ruled that Robinson’s Arch was unsuitable for their prayer.
In April 2003, the Supreme Court prohibited women from reading the Torah or wearing tallitot at the plaza itself, but it ordered the Israeli government to prepare the site of Robinson’s Arch to host such events. The site was inaugurated in August 2004, but the court-ordered compromise continues to be contentious. Reform worshippers and Women of the Wall activists consider the location to be unsatisfactory, due in part to the designation of the park as an archaeological site and the resulting restrictions on access and worship, and in part due to their perceived treatment as “second-class citizens” and their exclusion from the Western Wall plaza.
In April 2013, Natan Sharansky, the former Russian refusenik and chairman of the Jewish Agency, proposed a solution for the hullabaloo over female prayer at the Western Wall by calling for the renovation of the site at the foot of Robinson’s Arch to make it accessible to worshippers at all hours of the day, independent of archaeological site hours. The proposal met with critical opposition not only from charedi Knesset parties and traditional Orthodox Jews, but also from concerned citizens across the religious and political spectrum who feared that construction expanding the space for prayer would, at best, cover historical evidence and, at worst, irrevocably damage the most important archeological site for the Jewish people.
Nonetheless, on August 25, 2013, a new 4,480-square-foot prayer platform was completed at the site with 24-hour access. After some controversy regarding the question of authority over this prayer area, the decision was made to have it operate under the auspices of a government-appointed “pluralist council” that would include non-Orthodox representatives.
In January 2017, however, the Supreme Court ruled that the right of entry to the Robinson’s Arch area does not constitute equal access to the Western Wall and that women must be permitted to read from the Torah in prayer services at the Western Wall itself. In response, the Kotel Rav, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, established a rule that no outside scrolls may be brought in for use at the Kotel, thereby preventing women from reading from Torah scrolls at the site, but some Labor MKs use their parliamentary immunity – security guards at the Wall are legally prohibited from searching MKs entering the area – to bring in sifrei Torah. The issue promises to be highly controversial for years to come.