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Excavating subterranean chambers at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, Israel. Source: IAA

Puzzling Subterranean Chambers Discovered at Jerusalem's Western Wall

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Three 2,000-year-old subterranean chambers have been found by students excavating at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The actual purpose of these underground rooms is perplexing archaeologists.

Jerusalem’s Old City, with its 30 centuries of historical significance for three of the world's major religions, has revealed many artifact-loaded archaeological layers since the mid-19th century. In recent years, excavations at the Ophel Archeological Garden  below the southeastern corner of the Temple Mount represent 2,500 years of Jerusalem's history in “25 layers of ruins” from the structures of successive rulers, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs .

The ancient staircase and the Hulda Gate , through which worshippers entered the Second Temple compound, and the ruins of the 7th century Muslim period royal palaces are among the city’s archaeological treasures. The City of David Archeological Park has the ancient city’s main water source, Gihon Springs , and the remains of Canaanite and Israelite citadels too. And now the first subterranean living space has been discovered.

Dr. Barak Monnickendam-Givon at the subterranean system. (Shai Halevi/IAA)

Dr. Barak Monnickendam-Givon at the subterranean system. ( Shai Halevi/IAA )

Painstakingly Hand Hewn in Solid Bedrock

Chiseled by hand out of solid bedrock with tools including iron hammers, the new archaeological site is located near the Western Wall in Jerusalems Old City . Dating to a time before the city’s fall in 70 AD, the purpose of a subterranean complex of three rooms remains unclear. However, Israeli archaeologists do know that the underground spaces were created in the Second Temple-era and the complex is called “the first evidence of everyday life gone underground in Jerusalem,” in a JPost article.

Co-directors of the Israel Antiquity Authority (IAA), Dr. Barak Monnickendam-Givon and Tehila Sadiel, said in a press release on Tuesday that this “unique finding” was made by students of a pre-military preparatory program working in cooperation with the IAA. This is the first time a subterranean system has been uncovered adjacent to Jerusalem’s Western Wall, but they are at a loss trying to explain why such great architectural efforts and investment of resources had been expended in hewing three underground rooms in hard bedrock.

Jerusalem’s Western Wall - A Prime Subterranean Location

The Western Wall is almost half a kilometer long, and the Western Wall Tunnels allow visitors to walk through ancient and subterranean spaces interacting with rare archaeological features such as stone arches, water wells, and an aqueduct that ends at the Strouthion Pool . Located beneath a large white mosaic floor in a 1,400-year-old Byzantine/Umayyad building in the Beit Strauss” complex, this former soup kitchen is now an entrance lobby to the Western Wall Tunnels .

Monnickendam-Givon said the three subterranean rooms occupy different floors and were connected by stairs. They measure 2.5 meters x 4 meters (8.2 ft. x 13.1 ft.), 2.5 meters x 2.5 meters (8.2 ft. x 8.2 ft.), and the third is yet to be excavated but is approximately the same size as the second. The archaeologists say the subterranean system was created in a prime location” and it might have been part of a much larger public structure that has since been destroyed.

Excavation and conversation work under the Jerusalem Old City's 'Beit Straus' complex, May 2020. (Shai HaLevi/Israel Antiquities Authority)

Excavation and conversation work under the Jerusalem Old City's 'Beit Straus' complex, May 2020. ( Shai HaLevi/Israel Antiquities Authority )

Prehistoric Purification Rituals Under Lantern Light

Before the excavation had been completed it was considered that perhaps the niches hewn into the bedrock, which are aesthetically similar to graves of that period, were for holding the dead, but Monnickendam-Givon said that this was unlikely because ancient Jewish traditions prohibited burials within the city walls. In a The Times of Israel article, excavation co-director Dr. Monnickendam-Givon speculates that the three rooms may have been a “basement pantry, living space, or even a place to hide during raids.”

Monnickendam-Givon emphasizes that many contemporary ritual baths and graves had been hewn out of rock in this era, but that these three rooms are the “first evidence” of a living space with doorjambs, carved lantern niches, and shelves for storage, all chiseled into solid bedrock. Archaeologists also discovered oil lamps , clay cooking vessels, a stone mug, and a piece of qalal  - a water holding basin linked with Jewish purification rituals.

Oil lamps were discovered in the subterranean chambers at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. (Yaniv Berman/IAA)

Oil lamps were discovered in the subterranean chambers at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. ( Yaniv Berman/IAA )

This is the first time that a subterranean complex has been discovered near Jerusalem’s Western Wall and the lead archaeologists reminds us that we have to understand that 2,000 years ago – like today – it was customary to use stones to build in Jerusalem. He concluded that “The wealth of finds being discovered in the dig gives us a glimpse into the day-to-day lives of the residents of the ancient city.”

Top Image: Excavating subterranean chambers at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, Israel. Source: IAA

By Ashley Cowie

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