Western Wall Jerusalem Excavation Roman street -  Emil Salman - 21022012
Excavation site in the Western Wall plaza, Jerusalem, where the remains of an ornate Roman street were discovered. Photo by Emil Salman
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If you look at a map of the Old City of Jerusalem, you'll notice something odd. While the vast majority of the Old City's streets form a crowded casbah of winding alleyways, there are a few straight-as-a-ruler streets that bisect the city from north to south and east to west.

The best known of these straight roads are Beit Chabad and Hagai streets, exiting through the Damascus Gate; David Street, exiting the Jaffa Gate; and the Via Dolorosa.

Like the rest of the Old City's streets, these straight roads are narrow but, unlike the others, they preserve a historical skeleton of sorts that forms the basis of the Old City we know today. This skeleton was created, most archaeologists agree, not during Jewish, Christian or Muslim rule, but during the Roman period, when the city of Aelia Capitolina was built on the ruins of Jerusalem following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD.

Ironically, it is actually the streets of this imperial and pagan city - which supposedly left behind no cultural or spiritual heritage for modern Jerusalem - that have bequeathed to the city the skeleton structure that has survived to this day.

In the history of Jewish Jerusalem, Aelia Capitolina is the very embodiment of defeat and destruction - a reminder of the humiliation of the Second Temple's destruction, which erected a pagan temple in its place. This image has distanced Aelia Capitolina from the fathers of Israeli archaeology, who were naturally drawn to the ornate, Jewish city that preceded it. "No one concealed Aelia Capitolina, but we wanted to talk about the Second Temple," says Dr. Ofer Sion, of the Antiquities Authority. "Aelia Capitolina was an accursed city, a city from which we were banished. It was more idealistic to excavate the Second Temple."

Almost all of the archaeologists who study Aelia Capitolina call it "an elusive city." As opposed to the Jerusalem of Second Temple times that preceded it, Aelia Capitolina has not been entirely unearthed during the many excavations that have been performed in the city since 1967. The residents of Aelia Capitolina did not leave written texts like the works of Flavius Josephus during the Second Temple era or of Christian travelers in the following period.

It is known that the Roman city was established by Emperor Hadrian between 130 and 140 AD. After the Bar Kochba revolt of 135, Jews were forbidden to enter the city. Its most important inhabitants were the soldiers of the 10th Legion, who would remain encamped in Jerusalem for 200 years.

Salvage operations

Following the latest wave of excavations, which began in the mid-1990s, more and more archaeologists have become convinced that Aelia Capitolina was a much larger and more important city than was once thought, and its influence on the later development of modern Jerusalem was dramatic.

Aelia Capitolina has sprung to life in a significant way through no less than four extensive excavations that have taken place in the Old City area, and in a number of other digs in other parts of Jerusalem. Most of these digs have been rescue excavations by the Antiquities Authority, salvage digs carried out before new construction and development goes ahead. In a few more years, Aelia Capitolina could again be covered over by new buildings.

In the rear section of the Western Wall plaza, in the spot where the Western Wall Heritage Foundation intends to erect a large building that it calls "the Core House," Antiquities Authority researcher Shlomit Wexler-Bedolah discovered an ornate and broad Roman street, complete with shops on each side. This is the eastern cardo, along whose path Hagai Street would later be paved.

Three hundred meters to the south, another Antiquities Authority researcher, Dr. Doron Ben-Ami, discovered the place where the Roman street apparently ended. The corner of the street is adjacent to the Givati parking lot at the top of the Silwan valley - the spot where the Elad organization intends to build a large visitors center. In a large rescue excavation at this location in recent years, Ben-Ami exposed a large, fancy Roman villa unlike any other structure from its time in the entire country. He estimates that the villa he uncovered was the home of the regional governor or some other central authority.

In another excavation, in the tunnel under the Western Wall, Wexler-Bedolah and archaeologist Alexander Onn re-estimated the dating of a large bridge leading to the Temple Mount. As with other ancient monuments this too turned out to be of Roman origin and not from the Second Temple period. Another example is the Roman bathhouse and swimming pool discovered by Sion a year and a half ago. "It's a tremendous spa, a country club," Sion says, comparing the bathhouse to similar facilities found in other parts of the Roman Empire.

This increasing number of Roman-era discoveries strengthens the notion that the Temple Mount, even after its destruction, did not lie totally barren, but was used for pagan worship rites.

But not only the Old City and its immediate surroundings have turned up new findings from Aelia Capitolina. Excavations made a few years ago in the area near the Binyanei Ha'uma international convention center, carried out in preparation for the expansion of the Crowne Plaza Hotel, uncovered a large pottery-workers village that served as the legion's central clayware manufacturing plant. Along the route of Jerusalem's new light-rail, remains of a large water facility serving the legionnaires were discovered, and in the area of Shuafat, a Jewish settlement from the same period was discovered.

The latest excavations give archaeologists much greater insight into Aelia Capitolina than was possible even a decade earlier. Experts agree the city was planned extraordinarily well, based as it was on designs of other cities in the empire and according to orders that came directly from the emperor. It included broad streets, numerous and magnificent entrance gates, temples and infrastructure, and it even housed a new elite of army officers and free soldiers who turned Aelia Capitolina into a thriving city.

"When I began to study the history of the Roman city, it was a barren field," says Prof. Yoram Zafrir, one of Israel's most veteran archaeologists. "Today, it is clear that the basic structure of Jerusalem is that of Aelia Capitolina." Zafrir describes the process by which, after the Roman period, beasts of burden replaced wagons, the central government became weak and streets became "privatized." This process led to the city that we know today.

"Similarly to the British Mandate, which lasted just 31 years but had a significant impact on modern Jerusalem, from the perspective of architecture, the Roman period established a whole new, imperial language that still holds sway today," archaeologist Dr. Guy Stiebel concludes. Stiebel even notes the irony of history: "Aelia Capitolina effectively saved Jerusalem. It raised her once again onto the stage of history. She returned like a phoenix from the ashes."