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The Kotel Tunnels

Minharot Hakotel When I recommend a visit to the Kotel Tunnels, I know what I am talking about. My co-editor of Israelandyou was a guide there for several years. I keep returning to visit the tunnels because of the the feeling I have of tracing the footsteps of my priestly…

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Archeology
Tour Guide Level
Suitable For Kids
Interesting
Recommended

Number one tour in Jerusalem

The Kotel tunnels is absolutely a must. The mixture of stunning archaeological findings, Top level religious importance and an extremely talented tour guides gives it the crown.

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Minharot Hakotel

When I recommend a visit to the Kotel Tunnels, I know what I am talking about. My co-editor of Israelandyou was a guide there for several years. I keep returning to visit the tunnels because of the the feeling I have of tracing the footsteps of my priestly Kohanim forefathers crossing the arch to offer sacrifices in Herod’s Temple. You can experience this yourselves. The tour of the Kotel Tunnels ( or Western Wall Tunnels) is one of the most popular tourist sites in Jerusalem. The tunnels are underground and  connect the western wall prayer area to the north-west side of the temple mount, passing along the side of the temple mount and under the present day houses in the Old City. Along its path are remains from the second temple period (Hasmonean and Herodian), as well as structures from later periods. Walking along the tunnels is a tremendous experience like taking a time machine back to the time of the second temple.

The area west of the temple mount connected the temple to the the western side of Jerusalem during the second temple period – from the Hasmonean period (2nd C BC) up to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem (70AD). There were four gates located on this side – two gates at a lower level (Barcley and Warren) and two gates on top of bridges(Robinson and Wilson). A paved street passed at the foot of the temple mount, and additional structures and installations were located at that street level.

After two millenniums, new buildings were built on top of debris accumulated along the western side following the Roman destruction. However, under these structures, some cavities remained buried deep underground.

British researchers Charles Wilson, in 1864 and Charles Warren, in 1867-1870, uncovered the northern extension of the Western Wall Prayer Plaza. The shafts that Charles Warren dug through Wilson’s Arch can still be seen today.

Immediately after the Six Day War, the Ministry of Religious Affairs began the project of exposing the entire length of the Western Wall. They found enormous courses of distinctively carved stone that were remarkably well preserved. There were also remains of the Herodian road which ran alongside the Temple Mount, ancient cisterns, impressive construction efforts from the Muslim era, and a Hasmonean period aqueduct that had been blocked by Herod’s construction of the Western Wall.

The southern most part of the Kotel is within the Davidson Museum. To the north an open air area is reserved for women. Further north another open air area is reserved for men. A prayer tunnel was excavated uner Wilson’s Arch north of the Kotel and is open to the public, men and women alike, and no entrance fee is required. You can see Wilson’s Arch in the photo below.

Kotel

The tourist site was fully opened in 1996, with 500m long tunnel along the north-western wall. The route of the tunnel tour starts from the entrance on the north side of the  western wall prayer area, and ends at Station No. 1 of the Via Dolorosa. Since there is a limit in the number of visitors that can join a tour, an appointment should be made well in advance.

 http://youtu.be/FyRoKoJW-9s

(a)  Secret passage

The Secret Passage

During the Roman period, one of the western entrances to the temple mount was over a bridge which is now called the Wilson arch, which is located on the north side of the Western Wall prayer area. It is described by Josephus on several occasions: the description of the attack by Pompey in 63BC (Wars 1 7 2): “Aristobulus’s party was worsted, and retired into the temple, and cut off the communication between the temple and the city, by breaking down the bridge that joined them together”. The bridge was destroyed during Titus’s attack in 70AD (Wars 6, 6 2): “…a bridge that connected the upper city to the temple”. It was later repaired by the Romans in the 2nd or 3rd C after may have established a Roman temple Jupiter on the temple mount.    The bridge was repaired in the 7th C by the Arab rulers, who connected the west side of the city to the temple mount for easier access to their new Al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques. The present day Chain street (Silsila) actually passes on its upper side. The cavity below the street was termed “the secret passage” in the middle ages. It stretches along 70m – from the Hagai (Al-Wad) street on the west to the temple mount on the east. This “secret passage” serves today as the entrance to the underground tour.

(b) Second Temple period stairs

Second Temple Stairs

  The area around the “secret passage” is still undergoing excavations. The archaeologists revealed second temple period stairs and other ancient findings.

(c) Large Hall and Model

North to the Wilson arch and bridge is a large underground cavity called the “large hall”. Its high ceiling allows a great view of the hidden western wall. A model of the second temple is located on the west side of the hall, in front of a set of benches. This area is temporarily closed.  The tour guide describes the story of the temple mount with the assistance of the model, which uses the electrical controlled mechanism to demonstrate the phases of its construction by Herod.

(d) Western Wall – section

On the eastern side of the great hall are remains of the lower side of the Herodian Western wall. The base stones are incredibly huge – the largest one – seen below – is 14m wide and 4m high, and weighs 600Tons!

largest stone in western wall

There is no cement holding the stones together; only their weight and the perfect match between the stones made them hold firmly together. Each layer of rock recedes several centimeters to help withstand the enormous pressure of the temple mount over two millenniums. The rectangular holes in the stone were added in the middle ages. Their purpose was to hold the plaster which was applied onto the walls, when this section was transformed into a water reservoir.

(e) Warren’s gate (facing the Holy of Holies)

This underground gate, unfortunately now sealed, is located 40m north of the Wilson arch. Warren’s Gate is now underground, but it was at ground level when built by Herod the Great. You can see the wall sealing the gate in the photo. The entrance here is located at the bottom of the temple mount ancient walls, at a depth which was the street level during the second temple period.    The opening of this gate  faces the Holy of Holies structure and the foundation stone, and therefore is considered  the holiest gate. It was discovered in 1867 by Charles Warren.

 (f) Opposite the Foundation stone

The foundation stone (Hebrew: Even Ha-Shtiya,  from the word “Tashtit”), also known as “The Rock” (Hebrew: Ha-Sela), was the heart of the Holy of Holies. According to Jewish tradition, the rock marks the center point of God’s dwelling and the creation of the world and the site of Isaac’s Sacrifice.  Some traditions and archaeologists locate it in the center of the Dome of the Rock, which is located beyond the wall, although there are other suggested locations around the temple mount.  The Jewish women come to pray here in the niche of the “opposite foundation stone”, or in other locations along the wall.

 

(g) Medieval Cistern

Along the western wall is a medieval period cistern.

 

(h) Western Wall tunnel

During the excavations and preparation of the western wall tunnel tour (1980s and 1990s), a modern tunnel was constructed along the base of the wall (several dozens of meters long) at the Roman street level. It supports the old city structures above it, which were built above the Roman street level during the Medieval periods.  A large number of  large stones were found laying around the Roman paved street. They were thrown from the temple above into the street by the Roman soldiers, during the leveling of Jerusalem, after it was captured and burnt. This evidence of destruction was also found in the South-West Wall excavations.

(i) Dressed Bedrock Begins

On the north side of the temple mount, the builders of the temple mount had to cut away the bedrock. The original topography of the Moriah mountain on the north-west corner was higher than the temple mount, and so the engineers had to remove some of the rock in order to expand the temple mount during the Herodian period expansion. The side of the exposed rock was chiseled and dressed to look like the pillars on the south side.

Temple Mount bedrock

(j) Hasmonean Cistern

The western section of a Hasmonean period cistern was located at this section.

 (k) Ancient Guardrail

A large stone was found that served as a guardrail on the edge of the ancient street. It protected the people from falling into the open trench, which was used to collect rain water from the street.

Ancient guardrail and street

(l) Second Temple period street

The Roman street  stretched along the western wall, from the north to the south.  A section of a second temple period (Herodian) paved street was found in this section.   Only a small section of the street was uncovered.A pair of columns, part of the colonnaded street, are seen on the edge of the street. As in the Cardo Maximus street, shops were located along the street along the side of the wall.

(m) Quarry

The section near the Herodian street was part of a stone quarry, which prepared stones for the western wall.

Quarry

 (n) Hasmonean Water Tunnel

The tunnel traverses the path of a Hasmonean period aqueduct. It supplied water from the north side of the city, filling up the cisterns under the Hasmonean citadel, Antonia, which was located on the north side of the temple mount. The water channel was cut off during the Herodian period when the temple mount was enlarged to the north.

Hasmonean Cistern
Photo: biblewalks.com

(o) Ancient Pool

At the northern edge of the tour is an ancient water reservoir called the Struthion Pool. The meaning of the Latin word is “sparrow”. This large reservoir collects the winter rain water from the rooftops in order to supply water during the dry summer season. Initially it was an open pool, built by the Hasmoneans, and mentioned by Josephus in his accords of the siege of Jerusalem (Wars 5 11 4 ): “For there were now four great banks raised, one of which was at the tower Antonia; this was raised by the fifth legion, over against the middle of that pool which was called Struthius”.    The pool was later covered by the Romans in the 2nd C.The Struthion pool is located at the basement of the Notre Dame De Sion (Ecce Homo) monastery. The initial plan of the tunnel tour was to exit through the monastery, but this was not accepted by the order. Alternatively, the exit of the tour was diverted to a modern opening through the pool, located near the first station of Via Dolorosa.

Pool

During a fascinating tour of the Western Wall Tunnels – Hidden layers of the Wall are revealed underground. They tell the story of ancient Jerusalem and of generations of longing for it.

Did you meet ancestors as you traced the Western Wall of the Holy Temple?

The tour takes approximately an hour and 15 minutes. Opening hours:

Sunday – Thursday: 7am – evening (depending on reservations).
Fridays and on the eve of festivals: 7am – 12pm

The site is closed on Shabbat and festivals, and on the eve of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana, and on Tisha B’av. On Chol Ha’moed the site is open as usual (with a reservation and payment).

The hotline  (02-6271333) is operational between 8:30 – 17:00.

Visitation of the site is only through guided tours which must be ordered in advance. It is recommended that you book two months in advance. To receive your ticket – bring the credit card with which you made your order.

The Generations Center is accessible for all kinds of handicaps. Please speak with our representative about this so that we will be able to give you the best possible service and assistance.

Tours are given in English and in Hebrew. During the month of August tours are given in French as well. For reservations in French call 02-6271333 group tour reservations (line no. 1).

Fees for individuals and for groups using a guide from the Western Wall Heritage Foundation:

  • Adult: 30 shekels
  • Student / Soldier / Security officer: 15 shekels
  • Child (Age: 5-18) / Senior citizen / Handicapped: 15 shekels

Fees for groups with their own guide:

  • Adult: 25 shekels
  • Student / Soldier / Security officer: 10 shekels
  • Child (Age: 5-18) / Senior citizen / Handicapped: 10 shekels

For your information: There is a discount when ordering a combination ticket for the Tunnels and the Chain of Generations Center.

 

Been there, Done that? leave a comment!

 

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