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On the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av, in the year 70 C.E., the armies of Titus captured the Temple, burned it down and destroyed its walls. Among other things, the Romans damaged the western part of the external Temple Mount Wall and brought down its upper portions. The lower portions remained standing and the central-southern part of the wall that remained exposed has since then been known as "the Western Wall," which is "the remnant of our Temple."

The longer, northern section of that same external wall was buried during subsequent centuries beneath construction rubble, especially during the Muslim Mameluke period. During this period (from the middle of the 13th century for 250 years) the valley between the Temple Mount and the city to the west of it was filled with arches and domes upon which streets and houses were built. In this way the Muslim Quarter was built, with the arches and domes creating subterranean spaces beneath it. The Tunnel Wall is in fact a unification of spaces that was created from those arched supporting structures that were built adjacent to the Western Wall of the Temple Mount; it follows the route of the "Herodian Street" that was paved along that wall until the destruction of the Temple.

The Jews return (and dig)

In 1968, just a few months after the Six Day War, the state of Israel, through the Ministry of Religious Affairs, began to expose the entire length of the Western Wall. At first the area for prayers was made deeper and wider, to the depth of one and a half courses of stone beneath the level at which it stood on June 7, 1967 (the day the Old City was conquered). Later during the course of the excavations, the opening of the Large Bridge (called Wilson's Arch, after Charles Wilson, a British engineer who studied the place in the middle of the 19th century) was discovered. The excavators cleared out the rubble from the arch and continued to progress northwards.

The completion of the work

In 1985, after 17 years, the excavation was completed. The Western Wall was exposed for its entire length to a depth of two or three courses of stone, and in several places the exposure went down as far as four courses of stone. In the northern part of the tunnel, the Hasmonean water channel that was hewn into the rock was rediscovered. This channel constitutes the last part of the Tunnel Wall site and from it the opening to the Via Dolorosa was carved out, because of which the riots of September, 1996, broke out.

The entrance and tour

The entrance opening to the Tunnel Wall is located close to the northern end of the familiar prayer plaza. First you enter the Entry Hall, which is known as the Donkey Stable (a part of a 14th century Mameluke supporting structure), and from there turn right (east) to an underground corridor known as the Secret Passage (a name given it by Majid al Din, a Muslim judge who lived in the 15th century). This passage, above which the Street of the Chain (Hashalshelet) is located today, leads the area of the Herodian Hall and Wilson's Arch. When you arrive at the arch that is adjacent to the Wall, you turn north along the Western Wall, pass Warren's Gate, you veer towards a hall that contains a three-dimensional model of the Temple Mount area to hear explanations and then return to the route and continue northwards along the Wall that has been exposed.

The route

From the area of Warren's Gate, the tunnel proceeds along the Temple Mount wall, on a level close to that of the Herodian Street (that was there until the destruction of the Temple.)

As holy as can be

Facing the Holy of Holies is the part of the Wall that is nearest to the heart of the Temple. Further on there is a 14th century Mameluke cistern, the eastern wall of which is the Western Wall. If you look up you can see small openings. Through these openings, the people who lived in the ancient houses adjacent to the wall drew water.

The route of the tunnel continues northward and enters a narrow chamber about one meter wide, of which the Western Wall is the eastern side. The opposite, western side, was artificially constructed by the excavators, who reinforced it with metal and concrete supports. Not all of the stones in the Wall along the tunnel are original stones from Herod's time (which are characterized by Herodian masonry). Some of them were added as fillers to repair damages, especially those caused by the earthquake that struck Jerusalem in 1033.

A look at the big bang

Further along the tunnel are two shafts, the openings of which are covered with thick glass to make observation easier. Down one of the shafts it is possible to see Herodian stones that were toppled from the top of the Mount on the day of the destruction of the Temple and have been lying there since that 9th of Av in 70 B.C.E. Inside the second shaft, it is possible to see the four lowest Herodian courses of stone, beneath which the natural bedrock peeps out as well as remains of the dome of a shop from the days of the Second Temple.

At this stage the tunnel (like the ancient Herodian street) is carved into a rocky hill. The Wall in this area is no loner built of imported hewn stone, but rather of the natural bedrock, which is disguised as Herodian stone. The route of the walk goes past a Hasmonean water cistern, steps across a remnant of the (original) Herodian street and ends at the quarry from which the stones of the Wall were taken. There, apparently, a new excavation will continue in the future to unearth structures from the Second temple period. At this northern point, the Western Wall ends and the walking route turns to the Hasmonan water channel.

The Hasmonean water channel

This channel, which is hewn into the rock reveals an important chapter in the way water was supplied to Jerusalem during the Second Temple period, before Herod's time. In its day the channel carried well water to the area of the Temple Mount, until the establishment of the Herodian project to bring water from Solomon's Pools (by means of an aqueduct). This channel was first discovered in the middle of the 19th century, when the foundations of the Convent of Notre Dame de Sion in the Via Dolorosa were excavated. The walking route through the (dry) channel gradually climbs upward. To the left and to the right hides the rock platform of Antonia Hill. It is important to note that the Hasmonean water channel of today is only a small part of the original channel that reached the area of the Damascus gate and north of it.

The end of the route

To the left of the Struthion Pool a staircase from the Roman period has been uncovered. Today these steps lead to an opening in the Al Awanmeh lane in the Muslim Quarter. This opening was sealed after an unsuccessful attempt to open it in the 1980s, because of demonstrations. The tunnel now exits under the staircase of the Al Omariyya School.

Two important facts

A. The Tunnel Wall does indeed pass under the houses of the Muslim Quarter, and it is possible to understand the inhabitants' concerns when they heard the hammers striking beneath their feet.

The opening of the tunnel: hesitations, prices, lessons

Every government of Israel from 1968 to 1996 (from Levi Eshkol to Benjamin Netanyahu) was involved in the excavations to reveal the hidden portion of the Western Wall from the north of the prayer plaza to the edge of the walls of the Temple Mount. In 1985 (during the period of Yitzhak Shamir's government) the work was completed, but the order to break through the opening was not given. In April 1995, during a visit to the site, prime minister Yitzhak Rabin authorized the work, but circumscribed it with the words "in coordination with me and at a suitable time." After Rabin was assassinated, Shimon Peres renewed the authorization in principle, but left it on the theoretical level. On January 24, 1996, after the ministerial committee on security matters authorized the waqf (Muslim religious trust) to open the mosque in Solomon's stables, there were those who urged Peres to carry out the step, but he remained firm in his refusal for fear of the results. A hint of what was liable to occur had been given six years earlier in July 1988, when people from the Ministry of Religious Affairs broke through an opening from the edge of the Hasmonean Tunnel that is at the end of the Wall Tunnel, into Al Awanmeh Street in the Muslim Quarter. Then two demonstrations erupted and under international pressure the government of Israel decided to seal off the opening immediately. Peres remembered the 20 Palestinians who had been killed in the Temple Mount riots in 1990 (which had nothing to do with the tunnel). Nine months later prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu authorized the breaking through of the opening.

On September 23 1996, with the encouragement of the mayor of Jerusalem at the time, Ehud Olmert, Netanyahu ordered the opening to be carried out. The preparations on the inner side had been completed many months earlier and they included the installation of a staircase, lighting and iron gate. And thus, in the middle of the night, workers began to burst through the thin wall that separated the tunnel from the street and within one hour the opening became a controversial fact. The waqf guards who heard the striking of the hammers informed the Palestinian Authority; two days later riots broke out, spreading through the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The price in blood was relatively high, and at the time was considered unprecedented. Seventy-one Palestinians and 15 Israeli soldiers were killed, and hundreds of people were injured.

Today, for NIS 18 shekels per adult and NIS 10 per child, any visitor, either singly or with a group, can organize for himself a tour of the Wall Tunnel. The entrance is in the northern part of the Western Wall plaza, the exit in Via Dolorosa, through the opening that once aroused controversy. The tour, which takes an hour and a half, includes a guide - 70 guides have been trained for this purpose - helped by a large model of the Temple Mount and a slide show on a computer screen that is concealed in the wall behind a revolving stone. The rate of the tours is intense during the summer. Every 20 minutes a group of up to 30 people enters; there is no need to wait for it to return as the northern exit spits it out on the Via Dolorosa to the merchants of the Old City.

Arieh Banner, the spokesman of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, says that despite the intifada, hundreds of thousands of visitors have taken the tour, among them many Christians and Muslims. According to him, it is the most attractive tourism site in Jerusalem, and perhaps in all of Israel. This year the site is expected to attract 300,000 visitors and the visiting hours can go on into the night. "It is just necessary to coordinate," says Banner.

For details, telephone 02-627-1333.