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Guided excursions of the Western Wall tunnels present the brand new underground space in Jerusalem

Christian travelers visit Jerusalem to follow the last steps of Jesus along the Via Dolorosa, Muslims to worship the Dome of the Rock, and Jewish people to insert written prayers into the cracks of the Western Wall.

Some people do all three.

Starting in December, a new option will be available to travelers visiting Jerusalem. You can go underground to experience part of the old city as it existed about 2,000 years ago.

An underground building

After more than 150 years of excavation, a buried building erected around AD 20 is due to be opened to the public this year.

The underground building is just a few steps from the Western Wall, a retaining wall on the west side of the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism and the site where Jerusalem’s first and second temples once stood.

About 10% of the original Western Wall is visible today, with most of them buried behind buildings in the Muslim quarter of the old town as well as underground.

EMMANUEL DUNAND | AFP | Getty Images

The Western Wall is also one of the top attractions for travelers to Israel. It drew 12 million visitors in 2019, said Eyal Carlin, the tourism commissioner for North America at Israel’s Ministry of Tourism.

The excavated area dates from the Second Temple period, originally built in the 6th century BC. And later by Herod the Great, who ruled Jerusalem from 37 to 34 BC.

The new chambers are under Wilson’s Arch, an archway that once supported a bridge to the Second Temple, here in the lower left corner.

Christopher Chan | Moment | Getty Images

The building, which is about 15 meters underground, contains two underground chambers separated by corridors and a “magnificent” water fountain, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), the government agency that oversees the country’s excavation projects. Once located on a road that led to the Temple Mount, the building is now buried deep underground, covered by centuries of construction.

The new areas will be part of the popular Siegfried Line tunnel tours, which run all day Sunday through Thursday and Friday through noon.

What travelers can see

To access the new areas, visitors descend stairs that are like traveling back in time, Carlin told CNBC.

“When you dig down, you literally go through history,” said Carlin. “Each layer represents different parts of history and different centuries.”

Part of the steps used to reach the newly excavated areas.

Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

“You go back to the Ottoman period, the Muslim period, the time of the Crusaders … all the way to the Herodic period,” he said, referring to the rule of King Herod and his heirs from 37 BC. Chr. To 73 AD

Support beams reinforce the corridor between the two chambers of the old underground building.

Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

Archaeologists knew a chamber existed, but excavations uncovered a larger building with two identical rooms separated by a courtyard.

The building could have been a city council building, said Shlomit Weksler-Bdolah, excavation director for the Israel Antiquities Agency, in a press release from the Israel Ministry of Tourism in August. She called the excavated area “one of the most magnificent Second Temple-era public buildings ever unearthed.”

One of two chambers of a building discovered outside the Western Wall.

Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

Historians believe the chambers were reception rooms for dignitaries, wealthy visitors, and members of the high priesthood, Carlin said.

They could also have been restaurants. Archaeologists believe that the rooms once contained couches on which one ate lying down, as was common in the Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman times, according to Weksler-Bdolah.

“It’s very opulent – they were big chambers with big decorative elements made of running water,” said Carlin. “It shows the prosperity of the area at the time … and the people who were welcomed there.”

The second excavated chamber, which is built with arched stone ceilings.

Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

Archaeologists found a small ritual cleaning pool called a mikveh, which priests and aristocrats likely used before visiting the Second Temple.

“These are the steps that lead down into the pool,” he said, “which is usually filled with water drawn from springs.”

Steps leading to a purification basin, or mikvah, believed to have been added many years after the excavated building was constructed.

Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

The mikveh would not be open to the public, Carlin said. Members of the general public cleaned themselves in the Pool of Siloam, which was about a third of a mile away. This is the same pool in which Jesus is said to have restored sight to a blind man, as mentioned in the Gospel of John in the Christian Bible.

The room with the mikveh is part of an “elite gate” to the Second Temple, said Eyal Carlin from the Israeli Ministry of Tourism.

Israel Antiquities Authority

Past the baths, visitors can see the foundation stones of the Western Wall, Carlin said. The stones are huge, some weighing over 250 tons.

Jerusalem is, at least in part, a city built on top of other cities. Existing buildings have been turned into basements or underground living quarters for new construction, according to an article in the Times of Israel.

The hallways contained ornate pilasters or columns topped with Corinthian capitals into which water pipes were built.

Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

Therefore, parts of the underground buildings were found completely intact. Decorative elements “were found as a whole,” said Carlin. “There were parts that broke off, but the elements we see have not been reconstructed.”

Excavations are ongoing in Jerusalem, but many don’t open for tours, Carlin said.

“The excitement is great because [this area] is open to the general public, “he said.” It also sheds light on what life was like at that time in one of the most important epochs of the Jewish people. “

Tour of the new area

Visitors can see the new underground areas through tours booked through the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, a non-profit government agency that manages the Western Wall.

The opening, which was originally scheduled for August, has been postponed to the Hannukah celebration in early December, Carlin said.

The ornate remains of the building are found outside the Western Wall, or “Western Wall”. The latter term has fallen out of favor as some consider it disparaging for the grief of the Jewish community over the loss of the Second Temple.

Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

He said it was “good timing” in more ways than one.

“If everything goes according to plan this week or early next week and our government approves the re-entry of tourists into Israel … that will actually collapse when the majority of the world can … travel to Israel.”

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