Jerusalem excavation
An excavation in Jerusalem's Old City. Photo by Yuval Tebol
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A manhole cover is inconspicuously embedded in the road leading into Jaffa Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem. Every day, hundreds of drivers and pedestrians pass by this spot; one of the city's busiest sites. But only a few realize that this is not really a manhole, leading into the bowels of the municipal sewerage system, but rather a "gateway" to a different kind of underground world - in fact, to one of the most dramatic archaeological sites in this part of the city.

The manhole cover was installed in the road to allow access to an ancient aqueduct located four meters below street level. The subterranean aqueduct and fortification wall discovered nearby were at first thought to be simply more evidence of the vast construction projects undertaken by King Herod the Great (74-4 B.C.E. ) during the Second Temple period. However, their excavation has revealed not only the precise dimensions of the structures, and who built them - but, more significantly, the fact that hundreds of archaeologists and researchers have been mistaken for the past 150 years about this site.

This may explain why two Antiquities Authority workers - archaeologist Dr. Ofer Sion, 49, and architect Shahar Puni, 38 - agreed to navigate between innumerable cockroaches, through a putrid tunnel, and why they broke out a celebratory bottle of wine when they finally solved the riddle of the ancient aqueduct.

Jaffa Gate has been the main entry to the walled city of Jerusalem for centuries, but in contemporary times has been so overrun with tourists, merchants and residents that no serious excavation was ever conducted there. But thanks to nearby infrastructure-improvement work undertaken by the Jerusalem Development Authority, a scientific dig was initiated there January.

The excavations have thrown new light on Jerusalem's past, stirring a conceptual revolution about life in the city at the end of the Second Temple and Roman period (63 B.C.E.-324 C.E. ). They yielded two major structural discoveries - a fortification wall and an aqueduct, which intersect - but the more exciting revelation concerns the relationship between them.

To understand the significance of the findings, one has to go back 150 years, to the time when Conrad Schick, one of the great researchers of the city's past, was active. A German missionary, architect, archaeologist and cartographer, Schick lay the foundations for proper historical and archaeological study of Jerusalem in the second half of the 19th century. He was the first and the last researcher to focus on excavating the Jaffa Gate area, until now.

In his sketches and maps, Schick noted a large and impressive ancient wall at the site, which subsequent researchers assumed was the "second wall," built by Herod in order to expand Jerusalem's borders. The wall had three towers, referred to as Phasael, Hippicus and Miriam, and was part of the Antonia fortress at the gates to the holy city, now the site of the Tower of David museum.

According to the boundaries mapped out by Schick, which corresponded to descriptions by the great contemporary historian Josephus Flavius, most researchers hypothesized that the tower now part of the Tower of David, next to Jaffa Gate, was Hippicus - that is, until Sion, Puni and their Palestinian workers broke earth at the spot where Schick said the wall was located.

"We just kept digging and digging, and didn't reach anything. We just dug a big trench," recalls Puni.

"Schick made one of the biggest blunders in the history of Jerusalem," Sion claims.

Vermin and sewage

The excavation was a complicated, arduous affair. Jaffa Gate is now in the middle of the Old City's water, electricity, sewerage and communications grids, and thus the workers had to dig their way around pipes and cables. Unusually, the excavations were carried out at night, so as not to disrupt the flow of traffic in the area.

After two months, an Antiquities Authority inspector, Merav Gamlieli, noticed that a bulldozer at the site had hit some rocks, which she believed were an indication of an ancient wall. Schick's blunder actually turned out to be a deviation to the east of one and a half meters from the site he mentioned. But he was also mistaken in other respects, it emerged later.

The newly discovered wall turned out to be quite different from the structure mapped out by Schick. Instead of the straight, solid wall he sketched - which would have been characteristic of Herod's construction projects - the excavators unearthed a gradated wall. That sort of structure, along with other findings, proved indisputably that the wall in question was not Herod's handiwork, but was instead built later by the Roman Legion, around the second century C.E.

The archaeologists' discoveries had major implications. For one thing, they determined that the current Tower of David was not an extension of Hippicus , but rather of the Phasael tower.

"You have to understand that a 150-year mistake has finally been corrected," explains Sion, referring to the Hippicus hypothesis. Second, it seems that countless maps and drawings of the so-called second wall suddenly became irrelevant.

The aqueduct discovered a few meters away is the continuation of one that starts at Solomon's Pools in the Bethlehem area, continues through the Mamilla quarter in downtown Jerusalem and enters the Old City. Parts of this grand aqueduct are well-known to researchers, but nobody had previously seen the latter section. Indeed, its discovery was something akin to a scene out of "Indiana Jones." The researchers had to crawl through foul subterranean channels to do their work.

"Anywhere you looked, there were roaches. They aren't afraid of humans, and they stare at you, waiting for you to move," says Sion, adding excitedly, "I went down, crawling, and saw an amazing pool, flanked by two stone arches."

The next day, when leading Israeli archaeologists visited the site, they discovered that the pool was 3.6 meters in length, and one and a half meters wide.

After the pool, the aqueduct narrows and Sion, a well-built man, was unable to keep crawling. Puni, a skinny, determined character, took up the challenge. Since the entire area was filled with sewage runoff and vermin, he wrapped himself tightly in a plastic coat and took oxygen with him, to avoid breathing the fetid air.

Puni: "I crawled another 14 meters past the pool. Above my head I saw a new pipe, through which sewage flowed into the aqueduct."

Puni backtracked for a moment, throwing off his plastic coat in order to make some quick calculations about the site, using a compass.

Even then, researchers suspected that the aqueduct brought water to Hezekiah's Pool - a large, ancient reservoir, trapped today among the buildings of the Christian quarter. Puni's progress was halted about 20 meters away from that pool; the tunnel was clogged with debris and it was impossible to determine where it led.

Later, a water pipe that exploded one rainy winter day helped solve this mystery. A large quantity of leaking water flowed into the aqueduct, but it did not accumulate there . A few weeks later, Sion decided to have a look at Hezekiah's Pool.

"I went into one of the shops in the Christian quarter, and looked at the pool," he says. "Suddenly I saw a stain left by a plant [which was growing there due to the water]. We took a worker with us, and went into the pool. We asked the worker to clean up this plant area. I asked him, 'Is there a hole?' and he answered, 'Yes.' I felt like Archimedes in the bath."

Carrying a cheap bottle of wine, Antiquities Authority spokesperson Yoli Schwartz quickly arrived. A video taken at that moment shows Schwartz, Sion and Puni standing next to the hole in the pool, half-drunk.

Later a small robot was sent down to document the aqueduct's last stretch, which allowed the researchers to map the aqueduct's route definitively.

For researchers, the key finding involved the location and dating of the construction of the wall and aqueduct. The fact that the two structures intersect proves irrefutably that they were built concurrently - by the 10th Roman Legion. In one stroke, Herod lost his claim to be the builder of these Jaffa Gate projects.

Sion notes, however, that the newly discovered aqueduct was probably built atop another one that was constructed by Herod, and says the second wall is not far from where it was long thought to be. But, without doubt, the time has come to draw new maps, and update the books, he says, adding: "Unlike the future, the past is always changing."