Hold on to your proverbial Indiana Jones hat….we are about to enter a place that evokes faith, facts, myths and mysteries! The Western Wall Tunnel or Rabbi’s Tunnel, a sort of “time tunnel” to ancient Jerusalem, sweeps us back 2000 years. In fact, the Western Wall Tunnels are really a microcosm of Jerusalem itself…from the Jews to the Romans to the Ottomans, everyone has built here and tried to claim a share of its 2,000 year history.
Herod’s Wall Still Doing Its Job
From the earliest day it was opened to the public, millions of Holy Land travelers have visited the tunnel, trekking past huge stones, gates, water cisterns and pools. The first inkling of a tunnel came in 1864 when British engineer and archaeologist Charles Wilson arrived in Jerusalem to map the city. A few years later, in 1867, another British archaeologist, Charles Warren arrived and added to Wilson’s research. They were the first to discover that the Western Wall continued underground beneath the Muslim Quarter. Jews had been praying at the exposed section of the Western Wall since the 1700s…this discovery proved that the entire retaining wall was still intact, still holding up the massive burden of the Temple Mount.
50 Years In The Dark
Sadly, for 50 years after the initial discovery, the unexposed area of the western wall lay uncovered. Unearthing the wall was stymied by several world events:
- Difficulties with the Ottoman Empire
- Two world wars
- Infant Israel’s struggle to survive
Finally The Light of Day
Only after the Six-Day War in 1967, when Jerusalem was unified and the area finally came under the control of Israel, were the excavations of the Western Wall Tunnels resumed. The project, with the goal of uncovering the entire length of the wall, was assigned to the Ministry of Religion under the direction of the Rabbi of the Western Wall, the late Rabbi Meir Yehuda Getz.
One Stone – 600 Tons
Although the Western Wall is best known for the plaza where people come to pray and tuck notes in Herod’s retaining wall, the open square is merely the tip of the iceberg for this holy site. Within its confines, the tunnel reveals:
- An additional 1600 feet of retaining wall
- A maze of tunnels under the Old City
- Different methods of construction dating back to the 2nd BC
- Various activities surrounding the Temple Mount through the centuries
- A water channel to bring water to the Temple dated to the Hasmonean period
- A 600 ton rock known as the Western Stone, one of the largest, heaviest objects ever lifted by humans without the help of machinery
- The bedrock of Mount Moriah.
From Stones to Bedrock
Entering the tunnel on the left of the open air plaza and exiting at the Via Dolorosa, you walk along large Herodian stones that give way to Mount Moriah’s bedrock. In some sections, the bedrock is chiseled and dressed to look like Herodian stones (i.e. a border cut around the edge). While the base stones are incredibly large, you can’t help but notice there is no cement holding the whole thing together! It is their weight and perfect match that holds them fast allowing the retaining wall to withstand two millenniums of Temple Mount weight. Just FYI: the rectangular holes seen in the stones were cut in the middle ages to hold plaster which was applied when certain sections were transformed into water reservoirs.
Treasure Hunt Cut Short
Now for the Indiana Jones stuff…. Rabbi Getz believed that a gate discovered in the tunnels was used in the past by priests going up to the Temple…thus the name “Rabbi’s Tunnel.” According to ancient Jewish sources, including the Talmud, the compound contained many tunnels which were used by priests to access the holy sanctuary and for purification rituals. In addition, Rabi Getz also believed that these passages led to lost Temple treasures such as the Ark of the Covenant. (AHA! Rich has always promoted this theory!) But alas, after working in secret for about a month, the Arabs discerned that the Israelis were excavating at the foot of the Temple Mount underneath the Muslim Quarter and, descending from above, they closed off the newly discovered gate with a very thick concrete wall. So the dream of Getz to unearth the tunnels and possibly reach the Temple Treasures was dashed.
Clashes and Control
Like most everything in Jerusalem, the Western Wall Tunnels are a source of political and religious controversy. Because the wall runs along the mount that holds two sacred Muslim sites, the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque, the Palestinians and Israelis frequently clash over who controls and who owns the Temple Mount and all its environs.
Guide To Hidden Treasure
Ancient tunnels served a whole range of purposes, some were used for protection from attack, others for purification, many just for access…. could one purpose be to hide treasures? Tradition holds that King Josiah…one of the good kings…hid the Ark somewhere under the Temple Mount. It is a known fact that among the Dead Sea Caves artifacts a copper scroll, appearing to be a guide to hidden treasure, was discovered. So…Indiana Jones, where are you?