Many people think that only about 200 feet of the Western Wall remain, but we all know the area underneath the Jewish Quarter. Later we rediscovered the Western Wall tunnel that runs beneath the Muslim Quarter.
Yet another discovery was the continuation of the Western Wall and the entire southern wall, the site of the southern Temple Mount excavations, or as it’s now called, the Jerusalem Archeological Garden – Davidson Exhibition and Virtual Reconstruction Center.
The site near the southern Temple Mount is one of the most impressive in Jerusalem. Those who have asked why the Temple Mount isn’t considered one of the wonders of the world are right. We can see the Western Wall and the southern wall in their full height and grandeur.
The rabbis of the mishna and Talmud said of the Temple Mount: “Anyone who was not seen the Temple of Herod has never seen a beautiful building” (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Bathra 4a). And here, in the corner where we’re standing, you can really see what they meant.
To the right of the entrance to the Davidson Center is a small museum that displays a time line and films about the site in addition to the archeological finds. There’s a short film that reconstructs daily life in Jerusalem and the journey of a Jew to the Holy City on the three pilgrimage festivals. Start your tour at this point, then after the demo, go out to the courtyard and see what it’s all about.
For some time there’s been a 3-D model of the Temple Mount at the end of the Second Temple Period, but in October a 3-D interactive computerized model was introduced that lets you take a virtual tour of the streets and buildings near the Temple Mount as they appeared in the eighth century, when the city was ruled by the Umayyad Caliphate, the first Muslim rulers of Jerusalem.
The Huldah Gates
We’re standing at the southern edge of the Western Wall, across from Robinson’s Arch, named for American Bible scholar Edward Robinson, who first identified the remains in the 19th century.
In the Second Temple Period some of the areas near the Western Wall and the southern wall were a social and economic center. The southern wall was a place from which Jews ascended to the Temple Mount, through the Huldah Gates.
This is evidenced by the not insignificant number of stores and coins found here, and by the large number of mikvaot (ritual baths), some 50 in all, which were found mainly in the area of the southern wall, and were used by Jews who planned to ascend to the Temple Mount.
Between the arch in the wall and its base you can see authentic paving from the Herodian street. This street continues northward to the area of the Western Wall tunnel, and also south to the area of the Shiloah pool in the City of David, which was recently uncovered.
Note the depression in the middle of the pavement that was created by the huge stones the Romans threw from the wall and the Temple Mount in 70 C.E. As there was a fear that some of these stones had been part of the Temple, they were removed and then buried on the site.
A bit below the arch you can see one of the stones from the wall that bears an inscription from Isaiah 14: “And when ye see this, your heart shall rejoice, and your bones shall flourish like young grass,” which apparently was written after the Second Temple Period.
Some say that the inscription was made in the time of Byzantine emperor Julian the Apostate in the mid-4th century, when the emperor tried to abandon Christianity and return to paganism, and along the way to allow the Jews to rebuild the Temple. What is definite is that the inscription was uncovered only after the Six Day War, when the area began to be excavated.
Jew, Christian, and Muslim meet
The most impressive place is the southwestern corner itself. Stand under it and lift up your heads. As you experience neck pains and perhaps a slight dizziness from the immensity of the wall, remember that this is a huge site built over two thousands years ago. Just a few feet above us you can see a sort of hole in both walls.
According to a Muslim tradition, this is the place where Muhammad tied his legendary horse al-Buraq to the Western Wall, which is called the al-Buraq wall by Muslims to this day.
According to Muslim tradition, this is the place from which Muhammad ascended to the Temple Mount and prayed from the “furthest mosque,” (“al-aqsa” in Arabic), before ascending to heaven from the area of the Dome of the Rock. Apparently this is a very late tradition, since the area was uncovered only in the 1970s.
In the corner nearby is a copy of a stone that was found here, which bears a Hebrew inscription from Josephus’s The Jewish Wars. The stone apparently stood above, in the corner of the mount, from where the start and end of the Sabbath were proclaimed with trumpets in the Holy City. Bet Menorot, a structure whose walls and lintels have crosses and menorahs, was also found in this corner.
At first scholars believed it to be a Jewish-Christian congregation, but apparently it is a Christian house turned into a synagogue in the 7th century, at the time of the Muslim conquest of the city, and the menorahs were painted in red in order to cover up the crosses.
Let’s walk in the direction of the southern wall, which we can see in all its splendor. To the right above us is the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Ottoman wall of Jerusalem that intersects the southern wall, which we are facing. Near the wall, before we go through a small gate, you can climb toward the Turkish wall to a breathtaking lookout point that gives you a view of the Jewish Quarter with the Temple Mount to the left.
To the south, far away, is the Haas Promenade in East Talpiot, and a bit to the left is the village of Silwan, where the City of David is located. To our east is the ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives. Let’s go back to the gate I mentioned earlier, or else underground to the rooms from the Byzantine period. We’ll exit through the other side of the wall to the stairs underneath the southern wall, and at the entrance to the Temple Mount – the Huldah Gate.
One small step for mankind
Some of the stairs are authentic. From here we ascend to the Temple Mount from the direction of the City of David. These are the stairs through which the People of Israel ascended to the Temple Mount and the Temple. This is where the city’s rabbis and elders met and made decisions. In the south wall of the Temple Mount are the Huldah Gates.
The western Huldah Gate, known as the “double gate,” is right beneath al-Aqsa, while the continuation of the gate is behind the Turkish wall, and on the other side is al-Aqsa.
If we look to the right and the east toward the wall, at a distance of several dozen yards, we’ll see the remains of three blocked gates, which constitute the eastern Huldah Gate (the triple gate), from which we entered the area of the mount.
A person who was in mourning or who had been excommunicated would do the opposite, that is, leave through the Huldah Gate underneath al-Aqsa, and then leave through the triple gate in order to be consoled by passersby (Masachet Midot, chapter 2, mishnah 2). Our forefathers apparently had a thing or two to teach us about manners and customs.
Behind the triple gate, within the Temple Mount, is the Mosque of King Solomon’s Stables, opened in 1996, and known to some of us from The Da Vinci Code as the stables where the Templars found the treasures of King Solomon. The reason there is one large step followed by a small step, and so on and so forth, is apparently the importance of walking slowly and even bowing your head while ascending to the Temple.
In the 1970’s Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, was visiting the steps near the southern wall. When he realized that Jesus had walked here, he said he was more excited to stand here than on the moon.
This year Uma Thurman, William Shatner, and Warren Buffet have visited the site. Try to imagine Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai sitting here on the steps and planning his escape from the city during the siege of Jerusalem, or Rabbi Gamliel the Elder, who is mentioned by the rabbis of the mishnah and Talmud as an important Jewish leader whose residence was on the Temple Mount (Babylonian Talmud).