Text size

An underground passage is being planned in Jerusalem's Old City to link the reconstructed Ohel Yitzhak synagogue in the Muslim Quarter with the Western Wall tunnels in the Jewish Quarter.

The passageway, which is being planned by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, will utilize existing spaces created by archaeological excavations beneath the Muslim Quarter. This would minimize the need for new digging, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz told Haaretz.

The idea still needs approval from the government, security services and the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA).

Rabinowitz, the rabbi of the Western Wall, said the foundation signed an agreement a few days ago with Cherna Moskowitz, who owns the Ohel Yitzhak complex. Moskowitz is the wife of American Jewish tycoon Irving Moskowitz, who has been active in settling Jews in Muslim areas of Jerusalem.

According to the agreement, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation will manage and maintain both Ohel Yitzhak and the areas beneath it that the IAA has excavated. The foundation plans to open an educational institute and museum at the site, which will preserve the antiquities unearthed by the excavations.

IAA Director General Yehoshua Dorfman said that while he has not studied the foundation's plan carefully, his initial impression is that it is a good idea, assuming that the IAA's professional staff approves and that the foundation complies with any conditions the IAA sets.

The foundation also presented the plan to security officials a few days ago and gave them a tour of the site.

Contrary to claims already raised by the Islamic Movement, Arab Knesset members and the Waqf (the Muslim religious trust that runs the Temple Mount), the plan will not involve any digging within the Temple Mount compound. The new passage will lie about 100 meters west of the mount.

Ohel Yitzhak was built in 1917 but was abandoned during the Arab riots of 1936. It was then blown up by the Jordanians, along with every other synagogue in the Old City, after they captured the area in 1948.

About 15 years ago, the Moskowitzes bought the site. They then financed the synagogue's reconstruction, based on old photographs plus remnants of the destroyed building found at the site.

In 2004, the IAA began excavating under Ohel Yitzhak. The principal find was a giant public bathhouse from the Mameluke period (the 14th century), which occupies the entire site.

Its cloakroom was completely intact, and archaeologists also found remnants of the ovens that produced the steam and the vents that carried the warm air into the baths. According to IAA archaeologist Yuval Baruch, this is the most complete relic of the Mameluke period ever discovered in Jerusalem.

Other relics found at the site come from the Roman, Byzantine, early Islamic and Crusader periods.

The Western Wall tunnels, which were first discovered more than 20 years ago, currently attract millions of visitors a year.

Muslims have repeatedly accused Israel of digging under the Temple Mount with the goal of causing its mosques to collapse. But only once has an Israeli dig penetrated the mount - and that dig, organized by the Religious Affairs Ministry in 1981, was swiftly halted by then prime minister Menachem Begin, and the opening into the mount was sealed.

More Jewish World news and features