Tunneling Through Jewish History


Jerusalem — Almost every tourist who comes to Israel pays a visit to the Western Wall, but relatively few take the time to tour the Western Wall Tunnel adjacent to the plaza.

Located deep underground, below the present-day Muslim Quarter of the Old City, the tunnel follows the path of the lower section of the Western Wall far beyond what is visible on street level. Along the way, visitors see ancient halls, cisterns and mikvehs, walk along an original Second Temple road, and come within 270 feet of the Holy of Holies, the site where, according to Jewish tradition, the world was created and the Patriarch Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son, Isaac.

The Second Temple, which had been built by Jews returning from their Babylonian exile, was completed in 515 BCE on the site of the First Temple. The Hasmoneans (the Maccabees) rededicated the Temple in 164 BCE after driving out the Helenized Jews who had turned it into a place of pagan worship.

In 19 BCE, King Herod decided to transform the relatively modest Second Temple into a magnificent showpiece, doubling its area. To expand the Temple Mount, Herod constructed four huge retaining walls, one of them the Western Wall. Although parts of the walls remained after the Romans destroyed the Temple, they largely disappeared in the course of ancient urban development.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that archaeologists began to excavate the Western Wall. Among other things, the British archaeologist Charles Wilson discovered a 36-foot-wide arch which may have supported a bridge leading to the Temple Mount more than 2,000 years ago.

When Israel captured east Jerusalem in 1967, the government launched extensive excavations to reveal the Western Wall and other long-buried artifacts. The excavations, which entailed feats of engineering to ensure that sections of the Muslim Quarter didn’t cave in, continue to this day.

One of the most remarkable things that resulted from the excavations is the tunnel’s length: 1,601 feet. (The street level portion where Jews pray today is just 197 feet long).

One of the most fascinating architectural facts revealed by the tunnel is that even at its base, the Wall’s stones aren’t held together by plaster or any sort of adhesive. As the tunnel’s guide explained in an excellent English-language tour, each layer of giant stones is recessed two centimeters from the previous one, and the result is a perfect fit. The Wall, which has survived earthquakes, appears to rise straight up, but this is an optical illusion.

The entrance to the Tunnel complex (there is a fee) is to the left of the Western Wall Plaza, behind the men’s section. Visitors should wear comfortable shoes with non-skid soles. Layers are recommended because parts of the complex are warm, others chilly. The lighting is a bit dim in places, so those with impaired vision might want to bring a flashlight.

Visitors enter a vaulted passage built as a substructure of the modern street above. The passage leads to the Second Temple-period Hasmonean Hall, whose stones are hewn in typical Herodian style. The Large Hall next door is a subterranean structure consisting of four interlocking vaults built in the 13th or 14th centuries as a support for the buildings above.

The hall leads to a remarkably well-preserved section of the Western Wall dating back to the Second Temple period. One of the building stones, called the Western Stone, is the largest building stone ever found in Israel. It is 44 feet long by 14 feet high, and weighs 628 tons. A short animated film theorizes how such enormous stones could have been transported without the use of modern machinery.

“It’s the size of two buses and weighs as much as two jumbo jets with passengers after a New York shopping spree,” our guide quipped, in deference to the many Americans taking the tour together.

Less than 100 yards beyond the sealed-off entrance called Warren’s Gate, a blocked-off entrance to the Temple Mount, lies the Holy of Holies below the Dome of the Rock. Rabbi Yehuda Getz, the former rabbi of the Western Wall, turned the area in front of Warren’s Gate into a tiny synagogue. People sometimes leave “kvitels” — prayers written on tiny pieces of paper — here.

The passageway then leads to a medieval cistern, which leads to the actual Western Wall Tunnel. Tall enough to stand in comfortably, the narrow passes through the adjoining medieval structures built to support Muslim buildings above.

As we proceeded down the tunnel, with the Wall on our right, our guide explained that the last section was constructed not from quarried stones but from etched bedrock. To our left was a Hasmonean cistern, which featured an ancient guardrail that protected passerby from falling in.

A highlight of the visit was the realization that we were treading on an actual street dating to the Second Temple period. Though enclosed by a ceiling, archaeologists believe it was once an open-air market street.

The tour concluded with a Hasmonean water tunnel, a dam, and the Strouthion Pool, which was mentioned by the ancient historian Josephus.

For many years, visitors to the tunnel had to retrace their steps back to the Western Wall Plaza, which was an inconvenience in the narrow tunnel. In 1996, then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ignored warnings that Muslims would view the creation of an exit at the complex’s northern end into the Muslim Quarter as a provocation, and opened the northern exit.

The riots that ensued claimed 80 lives, but the exit has been in use ever since.

Reservations for the Western Wall Tunnels must be made ahead of time (Call 972-2-6271333 from the U.S.)