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2,000-year-old banquet hall recently excavated in Jerusalem. Source: Yaniv Berman / Israel Antiquities Authority

Archaeologists Unveil 2,000-Year-Old Underground Banquet Hall in Jerusalem

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The remains of a spectacular banquet hall from the Second Temple period in Jerusalem were unveiled by archaeologists as they announced that the site will soon be opened to the public for the first time. Said to be one of the most impressive sites in the Old City of  Jerusalem, this roughly 2,000-year-old banquet hall will be part of a new Western Wall Tunnels Tour which has been created by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation in Israel.

Dr. Shlomit Weksler-Bdolach, the director of the excavations in the Western Wall Tunnels, presenting the newly unveiled banquet hall. (Yaniv Berman / Israel Antiquities Authority)

Dr. Shlomit Weksler-Bdolach, the director of the excavations in the Western Wall Tunnels, presenting the newly unveiled banquet hall. (Yaniv Berman /  Israel Antiquities Authority )

Tunneling into the Jerusalem Banquet Hall

The excavations of this fabulous banquet hall in Jerusalem,  Israel, have been going on for some time. The eastern hall was originally discovered back in 1867 by Charles Warren. After the Six-Day War in 1966, when Israel annexed the Old City of  Jerusalem, further excavations were conducted on the site. 

Several decades later, between 2007 and 2012, archaeologists tried a novel approach by digging a tunnel along the underground portion of the holy Western Wall (also known as the Wailing Wall, or the Buraq Wall in  Islamic tradition) underneath modern-day structures to investigate the underground parts of the Western Wall and its surroundings. 

An identical western banquet hall was discovered in 2007 at the site by the late archaeologist Alexander Onn of the Israel Antiquities Authority. Over the following years, excavations by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation and the Israel Antiquities Authority uncovered the central portion of the banquet hall structure. Surprisingly this part of the building included a water reservoir, which fed water through lead pipes where it spouted through Corinthian capitals into the room. 

During excavations of the ancient banquet hall, archaeologists discovered a fountain which would have had water gushing out from lead pipes to create a unique water feature. (Yaniv Berman / Israel Antiquities Authority)

During excavations of the ancient banquet hall, archaeologists discovered a fountain which would have had water gushing out from lead pipes to create a unique water feature. (Yaniv Berman /  Israel Antiquities Authority )

About the Roman-Era Banquet Hall

The Roman-era banquet hall structure was built around 20 AD. This date is based on carbon dating of organic materials found at the site, as well as coins and pottery. The “magnificent” hall was a rectangular structure measuring 24.5 meters (80 ft) by 11 meters (36 ft). This was divided into two identical halls on the east and west, measuring 7 meters (23 ft) wide by 5.7 meters (18.7 ft) long. These were connected by a hallway with a peculiar water feature. 

In a  Haaretz article, the IAA explained that the style of the building was “typical of opulent Second Temple-period architecture.” The walls and the fountain were highly ornate and featured decorative Corinthian capitals. “Visitors to the site can now envisage the opulence of the place: the two side chambers served as ornate reception rooms and between them was a magnificent fountain with water gushing out from lead pipes incorporated in the midst of the Corinthian capitals protruding from the wall,” highlighted Dr. Weksler-Bdolah.

The Second Temple-era banquet hall will be opened up to the public as part of the Western Wall Tunnels Tour under Jerusalem. (Yaniv Berman / Israel Antiquities Authority)

The Second Temple-era banquet hall will be opened up to the public as part of the Western Wall Tunnels Tour under Jerusalem. (Yaniv Berman /  Israel Antiquities Authority )

According to  France 24 , when speaking of the Herodian-period banquet hall, Dr. Weksler-Bdolah stressed that "it is a very magnificent building, one of the most magnificent public buildings that we know of from the  Second Temple period." The excavations also uncovered the remains of wooden couches along the walls of the halls. Researchers have concluded that this is proof that it was a banqueting hall, rather than a nymphaeum, since the ancient Greeks and Romans are known to have dined while reclining on wooden sofas. 

Archaeologists are unsure as to the purpose of the opulent banquet hall, and being that it was in use 2,000 years ago we may never know for sure. Nevertheless, due to its location just 25 meters (82 ft) west of the Temple Mount, experts hypothesize that it would have been located on the main road leading to the Second Jewish Temple and could have been used for local elites and visiting dignitaries, possibly on their way to worship at the temple. 

The underground archaeological site includes evidence of various historic periods, from the Hasmonean, to the Herodian and the Roman. “At the end of the  Second Temple  era, within the western hall they installed a stepped, plastered pool that we think served as a ritual purification bath after the hall went out of use,” explained Weksler-Bdolah. She also explained that the banquet hall had been abandoned by the 7th century Islamic period, as it had been filled in with different materials. The street level by that time was several meters above the hall as the city continued to develop on the vestiges of  Jerusalem’s history.

The Western Wall Tunnels Tour will now include new paths and routes, and will visit the recently unveiled banquet hall. (Yaniv Berman / Israel Antiquities Authority)

The Western Wall Tunnels Tour will now include new paths and routes, and will visit the recently unveiled banquet hall. (Yaniv Berman /  Israel Antiquities Authority )

Launch of the Revamped Western Wall Tunnels Tour

These days, the only part of the Second Temple complex that can be seen above ground level in the light of day is a roughly 70 meter (230 ft) section of the  Western Wall . This wall would have originally been one of four walls built around the temple courtyard and experts believe that it was originally about 500 meters (1,640 ft) long. The remaining parts lie buried underground, covered by new construction which has taken place over the centuries.

The banquet hall will be part of a new tour of the Western Wall Tunnels. During this tour, visitors will be given the opportunity to go underground to view  Second Temple -period remains. According to Mordechai Soli Eliav, Chairman of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the tour shows off the “complexity of Jewish life in Jerusalem between the Hasmonean and the Roman periods.”

Shachar Puni, an architect working with in the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Conservation Department, explained that the team invested attention and resources in order to create an interesting experience for visitors. The tour has incorporated several different underground trails and paths with the Western Wall Tunnels in the hope of encouraging repeat visits. 

Visitors will descend underground, beneath the bustling city of Jerusalem, in order to explore the history of the holy site. “One of the interesting and unique features of ancient Jerusalem is that many whole sections were left completely intact under the ground,” stresses  The Times of Israel

To illustrate the point, Puni explained that “new construction was performed on top of older structures” with “ domedceilings serving as building bases, and still intact chambers underneath used as basements or cisterns, or even hideaway living spaces.” 

This new  Western Wall Tunnels Tour  is set to open to the public in time for the Hebrew month of Elul (August 2021) which takes place before the Rosh Hashanah Jewish New Year. “By making the route accessible and open to the public, visitors are introduced to one of the most fascinating and impressive sites in the  Old City of Jerusalem ,” concluded Puni.  

Top image: 2,000-year-old banquet hall recently excavated in Jerusalem. Source: Yaniv Berman /  Israel Antiquities Authority

By Cecilia Bogaard

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We're they originally built under ground?

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