Researchers: Jerusalem Structure Was Dining Room of Ancient City Council

Archaeologist Alexander Onn compares the Second Temple era hall with Israel's parliamentary cafeteria, a modern meeting place of the ruling elite.

The Second Temple era structure discovered near Western Wall.
Assaf Peretz / the Israel Antiquities Authority

About five years ago, near the Western Wall plaza in Jerusalem, archaeologist Alexander Onn discovered remnants of an unusual building from the Second Temple period that has been dated to the end of the 1st century B.C.E.

The structure consists of two large rooms connected by a water system that featured a decorative fountain.

Archeologists have been in agreement that this was a large, opulent building from the Herodian period, perhaps the most opulent beyond the confines of the Temple Mount, but what it was used for had not been clear. The accepted assumption up until recently was that it was a large public fountain of the kind familiar from public squares in Roman cities at the time.

Now, however, Prof. Joseph Patrich of Hebrew University and Dr. Shlomit Wexler-Bedolah of the Israel Antiquities Authority say this was the triclinium, the site of the dining halls and reception areas of the city council of Jerusalem at the time. In some respects, that would make it like today’s Knesset cafeteria, the ultimate meeting place of the ruling elite.

A portion of the structure has been known to Jerusalem scholars since the end of the 19th century, when one of the two large rooms was studied by British researcher Charles Warren. It was known as the Freemason’s Hall, even though as far as is known, unlike some underground sites in Jerusalem, the Freemasons did not use it. The second large hall was only discovered in 2012 during additional excavations of the Western Wall tunnels. A sophisticated water system was discovered between the rooms that includes a reservoir, piping and six openings for fountains.

The structure discovered in the course of the tunnel excavations is the largest and most impressive Herodian structure ever discovered in Jerusalem.

There had been researchers who thought that the city council of the time convened here. The ancient historian Josephus Flavius, who left behind a detailed description of the city at the end of the Second Temple period (which ended in 70 C.E. with the Temple’s destruction by the Romans), wrote that there were two structures in the area, the council building and a square with columns.

But no evidence has been found on the walls or floors of the past presence of benches arranged in a U-shaped configuration, which might have shown it to be a council chamber. And a reexamination of the structure revealed that indentations in the walls suggested that sofa seating had been installed on them, which could have been used for dining and rest.

A public square, not a hall

Patrich came to this conclusion after comparing the indentations in the walls to similar finds in Israel and elsewhere in the Roman world from the period. “It wasn’t a hall in a palace, but rather a public space,” said Patrich.

“It was built for the city,” he continued. “The city was controlled by a municipal council that dealt with sewage, with providing food and water, similar to Hellenistic cities.”

It was apparently built a short time after the year 30 B.C.E. and served the city for 60 years, until it was destroyed in an earthquake in the year 30 or 33 C.E. And when Joseph Flavius described the city about 40 years later, the complete structure was no longer there. As a result, he mentioned only the council building, which continued to function in the area.