"Jerusalem is like an Atlantis that sank into the sea
everything there is submerged and sunken
This is not the heavenly Jerusalem but the one down below,
way down below. And from the sea floor they dredge up ruined walls
and fragments of faiths, like rust-covered vessels from sunken
prophecy ships. That's not rust, it's blood that has never dried"
(Yehuda Amichai, 1998)
Jerusalem has vastly expanded in the 7,000 years of its existence. Including, in the past two decades, downwards.
Beneath the Old City, one can already walk hundreds of meters underground, pray in subterranean spaces of worship and see shows in subterranean caverns and halls. There are plans in place to dramatically increase this area – essentially, restoring the true ancient city beneath the visible one. Jerusalem 2.0, below ground.
From Silwan to Damascus Gate: Click on a number to start
Critics claim the project over-simplifies the narrative for the complex Jerusalem reality. Underground, no stones are thrown, no rubber bullets are fired. The only light is artificial, shining on the places that the designers decide to showcase.
The excavations are also geared precisely to the glorious ancient strata of Jewish Jerusalem, while skipping over Christian and Muslim strata, and Muslim spaces being opened tend to undergo a process of "Judaization". Thus for instance a Mamluk bathhouse became the "Journey to Jerusalem" hall.
The new spaces created below and by the Old City beg difficult questions. To whom does the land beneath the houses actually belong? Is this the right way to study one of the most important archaeological tells in the world – by means of complex engineered excavations that requires thousands of tons of concrete to be poured to strengthen the houses above the tunnels? Is this just another way to exclude the Palestinians and their story from Jerusalem? Is it wise to dig so close to the Temple Mount? When, some day, someone decides to divide the city between the Israelis and the Palestinians, how will "Lower Jerusalem" be divided?
And: do the various groups involved in the excavations have a master plan? If so, who is behind it?
The diggers are painstaking to respect the dignity of the Temple Mount. Despite complaints from the Islamic Movement and Palestinian groups, not a single dig penetrates beneath the mount. But given the city's volatile situation, any conspiracy theory could ignite uproar.
Key to the Jerusalem underground project is Elad, a right-wing nonprofit association that handles housing purchases, Jewish settlement, tourism – and, in the last 20 years or so, has become deeply engaged in archaeology, in Jerusalem in particular and in Israel in general. It has received hundreds of millions of shekels over the last decade, primarily from companies registered in tax havens.
Elad is behind the biggest archaeological excavations in Jerusalem history, including in the City of David and in the adjacent village of Silwan, where the recent discovery of houses dating back some 7,000 years threw back the known history of the city by thousands of years.
The fact that tens of thousands of Palestinians live in Silwan was a problem for Elad's ambitions to expand the City of David National Park, which it administers, and for archaeological aspirations. Hence the controversial method of excavating by tunnel.
Regular vertical excavation meticulously peels away strata from top to bottom. Excavation in tunnels, a common method in the 19th century, penetrates whatever strata in the middle. According to modern archaeological methodology, this method is controversial at best.
That said, Prof. Ronny Reich of the University of Haifa, who headed most of the City of David excavations up until five years ago, claims it suitable in this case. There's nothing much but dirt above the tunnels, he explains, and here, the tunnels aren't new ones – they are ancient structures being emptied by the archaeologists.
Whatever the case, the upshot is a subterranean world in the City of David national park.
Near a 3,000-year-old fortification wall in the park's center, or in the center of Silwan – depending on whom you ask, we descend underground through an iron door. It leads into a short tunnel that opens up into a series of rooms and halls.
Here, in an area still closed to the public, fortification and water systems were discovered, mainly from the Canaanite period, or according to Jewish chronology – prior to the capture of the city by King David. Some have been known to science for over 100 years.
In the 1990s, when Elad took over management of the park, two archaeologists – Reich and Eli Shukron of the Israel Antiquities Authority – began expanding the old excavations. They exposed huge fortifications of the ancient Canaanite fortress, the original "Zion" captured by David (which became an alternative name for Jerusalem and for Israel itself):
"Now the king and his men went to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, and they said to David, 'You shall not come in here, but the blind and lame will turn you away'; thinking, 'David cannot enter here.' Nevertheless, David captured the stronghold of Zion, that is the city of David" (2 Samuel 5:7).
Volumes could be written about everything discovered in this area. One recent finding is a 20th-century glass bottle from Milan, from the time of the Parker excavation (1909-1911) some 100 years ago. The oldest finding in this part of Jerusalem is a residential cave from the Chalcolithic period, about 6,000 years ago, by the Gihon stream. Other finds include a large pile of fish bones from the First Temple period: given that Jerusalem is nowhere near the sea or fish-bearing lakes, they had to have been imported from afar.
The Gihon Spring shaped the evolution of Jerusalem. The Canaanites built a large fortification above it; the kings of Judea dug the famous Silwan Tunnel leading from it; and the Elad nonprofit association had planned to build a visitors' center by it, but after realizing the importance of the findings at the site, it nixed that plan in favor of a roofed space sheltering the discoveries. The space features a lovely audio-visual show that includes the virtual construction of the remains using sophisticated software.
"[Elad's] motivation of strengthening the Jewish and Zionist narrative is totally clear to me, but I think the system is far more careful today about respecting other narratives in Jerusalem," says Shahar Shilo, who guides us through the City of David tunnels.
Shilo, a researcher of Jerusalem and tourism, had been Elad's marketing director and today works advises the NGO. He initiated translation of material on Elad website into Arabic, and regularly leads groups of Palestinian tour guides.
At the exit from the Gihon Spring (which the Palestinians call Umm al Daraj) tourists can roll up their trouser legs and wade through the Shiloah (Siloam) Tunnel. This most famous channel in Jerusalem history was carved through of the bedrock in order to secretly bring the spring's water into the fortified city, to help Jerusalemites withstand sieges. King Hezekiah is believed to have been the hand behind this extraordinary engineering project.
We forgo the watery trek and continue through a dry Canaanite water channel. At its end, our hosts from Elad insist that we board transportation to take us 200 meters up to the Siloam pool, where we could once again descend underground – chiefly to avoid walking along the streets of Silwan, which is liable to end in an attack with stones, a reminder of what is happening on Jerusalem's surface.
Until now, the biggest development in underground Jerusalem since the Western Wall Tunnel was opened 20 years ago, was the excavation of the "drainage canal" from the Second Temple period, which leads from the Siloam Pool in the lower part of Silwan, runs beneath the main street of the village and the walls of the Old City and reaches the area of the Western Wall.
That drainage canal, which Reich and Shukron excavated between 2007 and 2011, is dwarfed by the vast tunnel now being dug, the same route from Siloam Pool to the Western Wall, a distance of about 700 meters – no narrow channel this time, but a vast edifice encasing King Herod's stepped street, Jerusalem's main thoroughfare in the late Second Temple period. The street was a regulation Roman street, 7.5. meters wide, illuminated, with signage.
The channel, featuring exhibits on its walls, will lead to a subterranean "ninth gate" in the walls of Jerusalem. Once this project is complete, tourists will be able to visit a sort of "parallel universe" from the Western Wall to the City of David – leaving outside Silwan, Palestinians, Jewish settlers, and Border Police jeeps. It will be the main drag of subterranean Jerusalem.
Part of this Herodian street was excavated shortly after the discovery and exposure of Siloam Pool about 12 years ago. In his book "Excavating the City of David: Where Jerusalem's History Began," Reich frankly admits that the excavation was done without a permit.
But as happens in underground Jerusalem, what began as a breach of procedure became an official project.
Reich and Shukron excavated about 60 meters of the Herodian street, but only up to a width of 2.5 meters. In the past two years excavation resumed at another section, the party of the street ascending to the Old City. So far 120 meters at a full width of 7.5 meters have been excavated.
Reich, now chairman of the Archaeological Council, admits that the grandiose excavation is mainly an issue of tourism and politics, rather than for the purpose of gaining archaeological knowledge. "In scientific terms, it doesn't add much," he says. "It may be a nice addition as a monument, but it won't augment information much. We knew the route of the street, we knew how it looked and when it was built."
Meanwhile, we ascend the narrow drainage tunnel, which is about shoulder-width. The ceiling is high enough for us to walk erect. It is illuminated with florescent lamps, around which greenish colonies of moss have developed. A brisk 10-minute walk brings us to the entrance to the Givati parking lot by the entrance to the City of David National Park. In recent years the Givati parking lot has become a huge excavation site, dotted with remnants of structures from all the periods of Jerusalem's existence.
This is a stage on the way to constructing Elad's new visitors' center, which will be a hub in the subterranean city. The drainage canal already reaches it and large Herodian street channel will link to it too.
Another short tunnel, running beneath the highway, will connect it to the existing City of David Visitors' Center. A large Byzantine water cistern called "Jeremiah's cistern" has already been excavated in that area. That, say the site operators, is where the doomsday prophet Jeremiah was imprisoned.
"Give glory to the LORD your God, Before He brings darkness And before your feet stumble On the dusky mountains, And while you are hoping for light He makes it into deep darkness, And turns it into gloom. But if you will not listen to it, My soul will sob in secret for such pride; And my eyes will bitterly weep And flow down with tears, Because the flock of the LORD has been taken captive." (Jeremiah 13:16-17)
Another tunnel is planned from the Givati parking lot to the area of the Ophel, the area south of the Temple Mount. Continuing along the drainage tunnel, we pass the foundations of the Ottoman wall, reaching another large wall that blocks the path, creating creates a T junction - the Western Wall.
From here one can ascend winding steps to the Davidson Archeological Park.
When the drainage tunnel excavators reached the Western Wall, they turned right – southward, and dug a tunnel 10 meters long, to the corner of the Western Wall, locally called the Kotel.
There, in a place still closed to the public, we saw the cornerstone of the bottommost foundation of the Kotel. We took pictures of each other next to it and exited via spiral stairs, emerging in Davidson Park.
This spot is where a prayer area is planned for pluralistic denominations, and it's also the subject of a legal battle between the state and Elad. The NGO has an agreement with the Jewish Quarter Development Company (a government company that owns the site) for Elad to administer it too. The state opposes the agreement, fearing mainly that it will undermine the agreement with the other denominations or that Elad's control will exacerbate tensions with Jordan and the Palestinians. The state wants the agreement canceled and whole issue is now in the Supreme Court.
Unlike us, the diggers who reached the drainage tunnel turned left – northward, and progressed about 50 meters along the length of the Kotel. There they found artifacts from the time of the wall's construction, and a mystery.
A handful of coins discovered inside a mikveh that had been blocked up ahead of building the Western Wall cast doubt on the story that King Herod built the walls of the Temple Mount. The coins were from the years 15 and 16 CE, about 20 years after Herod's death.
Reich and Shukron believe the inevitable conclusion is that it was heirs of the famous king, not himself, who completed the vast Temple Mount construction project.
The excavations halted after about 50 meters, before reaching the women's section at the Western Wall plaza.
Antiquities Authority staff members tell anyone who'll lend an ear that they never cross the Western Wall towards the Temple mount. But archaeologist Gideon Sulimani, a former senior official and today an activist in the archaeologists' organization Emek Shaveh, is skeptical. "Due to the nature of the excavation, underground and near the Kotel, at any time one might find a water cistern, a quarried space, that descends beneath the Temple Mount. What then? They won't enter?"
Yuval Baruch, the Jerusalem region archaeologist for the IAA, says it's possible to continue to crawl through the drainage tunnel from the end of the dig, almost to the northern edge of the Western Wall Plaza.
One day it may be possible to walk underground from Siloam Pool, deep inside Silwan, beneath the Kotel to the heart of the Muslim Quarter.
Another grandiose plan involving large-scale excavation at the Western Wall Plaza would have created another subterranean prayer area, but has been suspended. Still alive and kicking is a plan to dig an underground parking lot beneath the Jewish Quarter.
In the eastern section of the Western Wall plaza, Shlomit Wexler Bedolah excavated a Roman street, as part of a rescue dig prior to building Beit Haliba - a controversial office building belonging to the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. There too, as in the Givati parking lot, there will be a subterranean archaeological level and a subterranean entrance from the Dung Gate, via the Roman street to the center of the Western Wall plaza.
The most popular subterranean spaces in Jerusalem are "the Western Wall tunnels".
This is a network of tunnels carved into the rock and domed halls extending from the Western Wall plaza in the south, passing beneath the Muslim Quarter, and up Via Dolorosa Street in the north. Hundreds of thousands of tourists pass along this route each year.
Attractions along the way include an underground synagogue in the place closest to the Holy of Holies, the largest stone in the Kotel; a blocked gate that once led to the Temple Mount; an ancient quarry; canals, water cisterns and more. Though expanded in the past 10 years, much of this area remains to be opened to the public.
The area features sometimes surprising cooperation between government authorities and right-wing organizations in bypassing laws and regulations for the purpose of creating subterranean spaces. It's not clear to whom they belong and by dint of which law.
In 1993, Irving Moskowitz - an American Jewish philanthropist and supporter of settler organizations - purchased the Ohel Yitzhak synagogue. The synagogue was built in the early 20th century and is located on Hagai Street, near the Kotel.
While renovating the synagogue (with the help of the Ateret Cohanim association) the floor of the synagogue was dug up. The small excavation turned into a vast one, revealing a bathhouse from the Mamluk period, a large khan hall from the same period, the vestiges of the large bridge leading to the Temple Mount during the period of Aelia Capitolina (the late Roman period) and a magnificent Herodian building.
The buildings, Muslim for the most part, were "Judaized" and transferred to the Western Wall Heritage Foundation authority. Nobody addressed such issues as: to whom does the land belong; by dint of which law is it being excavated; and how exactly did Ateret Cohanim become the owner of a space that did not exist until now?
Take the hall dubbed "Ahar Kotlenu" (Behind our Wall), actually a large vaulted hall from the Mamluk period, which was discovered by the diggers as they descended from the synagogue and continued northward. Like many subterranean spaces in the Old City, it was partly filled with smelly sludge, after decades of channeling sewage into illegal cesspools. The sludge was pumped out and the hall was cleaned.
"People worked here with masks, archaeologists fled," says Yuval Baruch. Later, says the Antiquities Authority, the hall had to be reinforced so that the houses above it wouldn't collapse. A new concrete floor was poured and filler was injected into the ceiling at high pressure. In one instance the material burst through the floor tiles of the home of Palestinians who live above the hall.
At the end of the process, which included archaeology, plumbing and construction using advanced technologies, a new hall was created - 300 square meters in size – inestimably precious real estate that was created ex nihilo in the heart of the Muslim Quarter, near the Western Wall. The hall was connected with tunnels to the Western Wall tunnels complex and given to the management of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. Jerusalem had grown a bit more.
In principle, the hall is designed to be used for educational purposes rather than being rented out for private events, but there are exceptions. According to the hall regulations - it can be rented out for private events only for major donors to the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.
How major? Only those who have donated at least $36,000 can hold a bar mitzvah there. Official groups can also hold events there, and recently there was a ceremony for the change of commanders in the Jerusalem District Police.
If there is such a thing as "the subterranean city of Jerusalem," then Yuval Baruch is its mayor. During the tour with him he defends the project.
"I'm not just saying, I'm asserting, that had we not reinforced this hall the houses on top would have collapsed," he insists. "I'm not hiding and I'm not devolving responsibility, we're promoting these projects, it's part of our work to develop tourism sites. When an opportunity arises, when it turned out that there's a large space that can be connected to the Western Wall tunnels and to conduct serious research there along with tourism development, we went for it."
Sulimani sees things differently. "A huge excavation project is taking place here, hidden from the public eye, using outdated excavation methods. This is an excavation without boundaries and without any clear category, it's not a research dig and not a rescue dig, it has no limit of time or place and no professional objectives."
He accuses Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz of using the Antiquities Authority as a means of bypassing the planning committees – "They've built an entire city without any construction permits."
In the middle of the hall, several large excavations have revealed interesting finds, mainly from the city's Roman period. The most important is the façade of a large public building from the Second Temple period, with water systems, a fountain and a pool.
Given that any remains from the magnificent Second Temple buildings once gracing the Temple Mount cannot be excavated in the foreseeable future, the edifice discovered here is the most impressive public building of that period. It was excavated several years ago, but is closed to the public, for safety reasons, and due to the difficulty of managing visitor traffic at great depths.
From here one can reach the popular Western Wall tunnels via what the so-called "secret crossing", most of which was excavated in unofficial digs in the 1980s. The attractions include a hall named after gas tycoon Yitzhak Tshuva, from which a tunnel hundreds of meters long emerges, leading to the Via Dolorosa. At the exit there are two security guards. Another reminder of the differences between the subterranean world and the reality above.
As Yom Kippur rolled to a close in 1996, Ehud Olmert, then the mayor of Jerusalem, and Mati Dan, the head of the Ateret Cohanim association, Irving Moskowitz and defense officers met in exactly the spot where the security guards are standing. The occasion was the opening of the Western Wall tunnel – the demolition of a wall that would make it possible to exit from the tunnel to the street. The following day over 100 people died in clashes, including 17 Israeli soldiers.
The Western Wall tunnels end in the small, shallow Struthion pool, which is divided by a concrete wall. The pool continues on the other side, but there it is under the control of the Catholic Sisters of Zion convent.
Further down is the Ecce Homo arch, an important Christian holy site. Theoretically, a single vast subterranean system traversing the Old City from south to north could be created by tearing down this wall that divides the pool. But there is no plan to do any such thing. The monastery would probably not agree anyway.
So again, we emerge to the surface. Not far away, right beneath our feet, is the immense Zedekiah's Cave, but to enter it, you have to leave the Old City via the Damascus Gate, turn right and look for a small door beneath the walls.
Carved out over thousands of years, Zedekiah's Cave - also known as Solomon's Quarries - is a vast underground limestone quarry underneath the Muslim Quarter of the Old City.
The tiny access door doesn't hint at the yawning chasm created by generations of cutting out stone to build the city above.
Jewish tradition says the cave is the one through which King Zedekiah fled Jerusalem during the final days of the First Temple, which is the origin of the belief that the cave continues until Jericho. Muslim tradition considers it the place where Korach and his followers were swallowed up. Freemasons tradition says it's where stone for Solomon's Temple was quarried. Pretty much everybody is convinced that somewhere lie treasures.
Just two months ago an American tourist hid there after closing time and spending an entire night there searching for treasure. He filled his bag with stones but was caught in the morning and taken for questioning, and from there to the airport.
The archaeological facts about the cave are limited to the fact that it certainly served as a quarry during the Second Temple period and afterwards – and possibly earlier as well. The last rocks removed from here were used to build the clock tower that was located at Jaffa Gate during the Ottoman period, which was torn down by the British.
When the Old City walls were rebuilt in the 16th century, Zedekiah's Cave was sealed and forgotten, until in 1854 the dog of American missionary and scholar James Barclay found its way into a small hole near Damascus Gate, and that's how the cave was rediscovered. The Jerusalem branch of the Freemasons now uses it as a meeting place. Recently it began hosting private events and performances as well, including performances by singers Yoni Rechter, Harel Skaat and Yishai Lapidot.
We are given helmets and flashlights to explore spaces closed to the public. An excavation three years ago by IAA archaeologist Yechiel Zelinger in the cave revealed another mystery – a small structure that was apparently a place for the quarriers to rest. There are two windows in the wall of the structure, but what's the sense of installing a window in a wall inside a totally dark cave?
Meanwhile, note that not only Israeli groups are enlarging underground Jerusalem. The most dramatic expansion in the past decade was carried out by the Muslim Waqf (religious trust) on the Temple Mount. In an event many bewail as "archaeological catastrophe," in 1999 the Waqf dug a huge pit the size of the Temple Mount, without archaeological supervision, causing tremendous damage to archaeological remains on the mount. The pit was dug to create another entrance to the Marwan mosque, in Hebrew called Solomon's Stables - a huge subterranean mosque that fills with worshipers on Fridays and holidays.
Several more sites must be added to the map of subterranean Jerusalem: With the assistance of members of the IAA we also visit the ancient and deserted winery beneath the San Salvador monastery, next to the New Gate; a huge water cistern is located beneath the Coptic complex in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher - big enough to sail a small boat; not far from there a 20-year-old legal battle between the Copts and a Palestinian merchant over a shared and spacious cellar has ended; in the Jewish Quarter there are three subterranean museums and a street (the Cardo); in the Christian and Muslim quarters more and more cellars are being turned into houses, with advanced electronic systems installed in order to circulate the air in a windowless space; and so on.
Israel Antiquities Authority
In a conversation with Haaretz, IAA director general Israel Hasson says he gave instructions to prepare an overall plan for Jerusalem. "I find it unacceptable that there are six different plans, each independent of the others. In May I'm supposed to receive the initial document. There is no conspiratorial plan for the excavations, the moment there's a plan we'll publicize it, nothing will be kept in the dark. I invite those who are leveling criticism – come, see, ask, we are not hiding anything."
Regarding criticism of the digging in the tunnels, Hasson says: "For every meter of excavation we invest 10 or 15 times as much as in any other place, in order to provide protection and to preserve the archaeological values. I think that these excavations have a worthy objective and are being done with great care and in cooperation with institutes and experts from all over the world."
The Western Wall Heritage Foundation
The Western Wall Heritage Foundation said that the plan to build an underground floor at the Kotel is not advancing and that at this stage there is no plan to connect the drainage tunnel to the Western Wall tunnels.
Regarding the excavations at Ohel Yitzhak: "At this stage we are completing preservation work while displaying the archaeological remains and offering proper representation to each of the periods. At the conclusion of the preservation work a 'Journey to Jerusalem' program will be initiated there. The Ahar Kotlenu hall is open to the public according to the rules of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation as they appear on the foundation's website. These rules were approved by the attorney general."
Elad stated: "All the excavations are being carried out in accordance with the instructions of the IAA and the Nature and Parks Authority, and with the close supervision of their own professionals and experts. The City of David is the most excavated site in Israel, and for the past 150 years almost 20 different excavation delegations have come from Israel and abroad. The excavations have revealed a wealth of findings from the Canaanite, First Temple and Second Temple periods (mainly the Bronze Age and the Iron Age).
"At the same time, in excavations of the Givati parking lot in the City of David – the largest dig in Jerusalem – we discovered strata from later periods as well, including the Persian, Hellenistic, Hasmonean, Roman, Byzantine and Abbasid periods." The association also said that the signs and the guidance materials at the site faithfully reflect the dominant periods revealed at the site, and added, "As in every national park, in the City of David too, any tourist may bring his own guide or act as guide."