Western Wall Tunnels tours show new underground area in Jerusalem

Christian travelers visit Jerusalem to retrace the last steps of Jesus along the Via Dolorosa, Muslims to venerate the Dome of the Rock, and Jews to insert written prayers into cracks in the Western Wall.

Some people do all three.

In December, travelers will have a new option available to them when visiting Jerusalem. They can descend underground to discover part of the old city as it existed around 2,000 years ago.

An underground building

After an excavation that lasted more than 150 years, a buried building built around the year 20 should open to the public this year.

The underground building is located just steps from the Western Wall, a retaining wall on the western side of the Temple Mount, which is Judaism’s holiest site and where Jerusalem’s First and Second Temples once stood.

About 10% of the original Western Wall is visible today, with most of it buried behind construction in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City as well as below ground.

EMMANUEL DUNAND | AFP | Getty Images

The Western Wall is also one of the best sights for travelers to Israel. It attracted 12 million visitors in 2019, said Eyal Carlin, tourism commissioner for North America at Israel’s Ministry of Tourism.

The excavated area dates from the period of the Second Temple, which was originally built in the 6th century BC and later greatly expanded by Herod the Great, who ruled Jerusalem from 37 to 34 BC. The Romans destroyed the temple around 70 AD.

The new chambers are located under Wilson’s Arch, an arch that once supported a bridge leading to the Second Temple, seen here in the lower left corner.

Christopher Chan | time | Getty Images

The building, located about 50 feet underground, contains two subterranean chambers separated by hallways and a ‘magnificent’ water fountain, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), the government body that oversees the projects excavations in the country. Once located on a street that led to the Temple Mount, the building is now buried deep underground, covered by centuries of construction.

The new areas will be part of the popular Western Wall Tunnels tours, which run all day Sunday through Thursday and Fridays until noon.

What travelers can see

To reach the new areas, visitors descend stairs that feel like time travel, Carlin told CNBC.

“When you dig, you literally go through history,” Carlin said. “Each layer represents different parts of history and different centuries.”

Part of the steps used to reach newly excavated areas.

Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

“You go down to the Ottoman period, the Muslim period, the Crusader period…until the Herodian period,” he said, referring to the reign of King Herod and his heirs, from 37 BC. to 73 CE.

Support beams reinforce the corridor between the two chambers of the old underground building.

Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

Archaeologists knew there was a bedroom, but excavations unearthed a larger building with two identical rooms separated by a courtyard.

The building may have been a city council building, said Shlomit Weksler-Bdolah, director of excavations at the Israel Antiquities Authority, in a press release issued by Israel’s Tourism Ministry in August. She called the excavated area “one of the most magnificent public buildings from the Second Temple period that has ever been discovered.”

One of two chambers in a building discovered outside the western wall.

Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

Historians believe the chambers were reception halls for dignitaries, wealthy visitors and members of the high priesthood, Carlin said.

They may also have been eating places. Archaeologists believe the rooms once contained reclining sofas, where people ate while lying down, as was common in Greek, Hellenistic and Roman times, according to Weksler-Bdolah.

“It’s very opulent – they were large rooms with large decorative elements of flowing water,” Carlin said. “It shows the wealth of this area at the time…and the people who were welcomed there.”

The second excavated chamber, which is constructed using vaulted stone ceilings.

Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

Archaeologists have found a small ritual purification pool, called a mikveh, which priests and aristocrats likely used before visiting the Second Temple.

“It’s the steps down” into the pool, he said, which “are usually filled with water from springs.”

Steps leading to a purification pool, or mikvah, believed to have been added many years after the excavated building was constructed.

Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

The mikvah would not be open to the public, Carlin said. Members of the general public cleaned up in the Pool of Siloam, located about a third of a mile away. This is the same pool where Jesus is said to have restored sight to a blind man, as recorded in the Gospel of John in the Christian Bible.

The hall with the mikveh was part of an “elite gateway” into the Second Temple, said Eyal Carlin of Israel’s Tourism Ministry.

Israel Antiquities Authority

Past the baths, visitors can see the foundation stones of the Western Wall, Carlin said. The stones are huge, some weighing over 250 tons.

Jerusalem is, at least in places, a city built on top of other cities. Existing buildings have become basements or underground living spaces for new construction built above, according to a Times of Israel report.

The corridors contained ornate pilasters, or ornamental columns, which were topped with Corinthian capitals with water pipes built into them.

Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

This is why parts of the underground buildings were found completely intact. The decorative elements “were found whole,” Carlin said. “There were parts that were chipped, but the elements that we see have not been rebuilt.”

Excavations are underway in Jerusalem, but many are not open for tours, Carlin said.

“There is great excitement because [this area] is accessible to the general public,” he said. “It also sheds light on what life was like back then in one of the most important periods for the Jewish people.

Visit of the new district

Visitors can view the new underground areas through guided tours booked through the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit government agency that manages the Western Wall.

The opening, originally scheduled for August, was postponed to coincide with the Hannukah celebration in early December, Carlin said.

The ornate remains of the building located outside the Western Wall, or “Wailing Wall”. The latter term is falling out of favor, as some see it as shedding light on the Jewish community’s mourning over the loss of the Second Temple.

Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

He said it was “good timing” in more ways than one.

“If all goes as planned this week or early next week, and our government approves the re-entry of tourists to Israel…it will actually coincide when the majority of the world can…travel to Israel.

Bonny J. Streater