Archaeological findings from an excavation at the base of the Western Wall in Jerusalem show that contrary to presumptions, King Herod did not build the wall.
The dig, conducted by Dr. Ronny Reich of the University of Haifa and Eli Shukron of the Israel Antiquities Authority, in conjunction with the Elad Association and the Nature and Parks Authority, involved expanding a drainage channel that led from the Shiloah Pool, now beneath the village of Silwan, to the Temple Mount.
Researchers also dug alongside the drainage channel along the base of the Western Wall, at the southern side far from the prayer area. This is the first modern scientific excavation of the lowest level of the wall.
The Western Wall was built as a retaining wall for the Temple Mount. Reich believes it was designed to increase the surface area of the Mount so that it could better hold the tens of thousands of pilgrims and their animal sacrifices on the three pilgrimage festivals, Shavuot, Sukkot and particularly Passover.
Until now, most researchers assumed that the Western Wall, like the other walls surrounding the Temple Mount, had been built amid Herod's massive wave of construction in Jerusalem, which included renovating the Second Temple itself.
But in an underground ritual bath that had been filled to allow the base of the Western Wall to be laid, researchers found several coins, the newest of which was from the year 17 C.E. This means that construction began no earlier than that year, and probably occurred even later.
Herod, who began refurbishing the Temple in 22 B.C.E., died in 4 C.E.
"This means that for 20 years after his death, they were still busy with the groundwork, not the higher parts but down below," said Reich.
These new assessments still support the theory that Herod renovated the Temple and built other structures on the Temple Mount, and may well have built parts of the other walls that surround the Mount.
But the Western Wall and Robinson's Arch, which was a flight of stairs that led to the Mount from the west, were definitely built at the end of the Temple Mount project.
Reich says that because of the complexity of the construction and the need for large engineering tools to lift and place the huge stones on the surrounding walls, the walls were built individually, one after the other, rather than in simultaneous layers.
Thus, it is logical to assume that the Western Wall was not built by Herod, but by his heirs, Agrippa I and Agrippa II, his grandson and great-grandson.
These new conclusions correlate with historical sources. Josephus wrote that the Temple Mount construction project was completed in the time of Agrippa II, in the middle of the first century C.E.
Once the project was completed, Josephus wrote, some 18,000 expert masonry workers were out of work. As a result, Agrippa decided to use them to pave the streets of Jerusalem.
The completion of that work again left thousands unemployed, and according to Josephus, this was a factor contributing to the tensions in the city in the run-up to the Great Revolt, during which the Temple was destroyed, in 70 C.E.
Thus, the Jews enjoyed their renovated Temple and newly paved streets for less than 20 years.