Jerusalem’s Long-lost Ancient Roman Theater Revealed in Old City Excavations

Archeological dig under Wilson’s Arch also uncovers eight previously unknown layers of Western Wall stones

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Archaeologist Tehillah Lieberman walks atop stones during a media tour revealing a theater-like structure in the Western Wall tunnels, October 16, 2017.
Archaeologist Tehillah Lieberman walks atop stones during a media tour revealing a theater-like structure in the Western Wall tunnels, October 16, 2017.Credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Major new archeological excavations in Jerusalem have uncovered a long lost Roman theatre and eight more stone layers of the Western Wall, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced Monday.

The excavations took place over the past two years near Wilson’s Arch at the northern end of the Western Wall Plaza.

Wilson’s Arch is a massive stone structure that once supported a bridge leading to the Temple Mount during the Second Temple period, sometime between 530 B.C.E. and 70 C.E.

The original purpose of the excavations was to accurately date the arch and determine whether it was built in the time of King Herod, a Roman King of Judea who ruled from 37 B.C.E. until 4 B.C.E.

It has been a major open question in the history of Jerusalem. But what the archeologists found surprised them.

An ancient Roman theater is excavated in Jerusalem's old city, October 16, 2017.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Israel's Antiquities Authority's Dr. Joe Uziel works in an ancient Roman theater in Jerusalem's old city, October 16, 2017. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

“From a research perspective, this is a sensational find. The discovery was a real surprise. When we started excavating, our goal was to date Wilson’s Arch. We did not imagine that a window would open for us onto the mystery of Jerusalem’s lost theater ... The discovery of the theater-like structure is the real drama," Dr. Joe Uziel, Tehillah Lieberman and Dr. Avi Solomon, the archeologists in charge of the excavations, said in a statement.

The team expected to excavate down to a Second Temple period road, the same one that runs through the City of David, the original site of Jerusalem, and the archeological park south of the Western Wall Plaza. Instead, the archeologists found eight previously unknown layers, known as courses, of the Western Wall and the foundations of Wilson’s Arch. Underneath the arch was not the expected street, but the remnants of the Roman era theatre, a round structure with seating for 200, stairs and a stage.

The building was not a typical large Roman theater, such as the ones found in other sites in Israel in Beit She’an, Beit Guvrin and Caesarea, but a relatively small covered structure.

The archeologists suggest that this is a theater-like structure of the type known in the Roman world as an odeon. In most cases, such structures were used for acoustic performances. Alternatively, this may have been a structure known as a bouleuterion – the building where the city council met. In this case that would have been the council of the Roman colony of Aelia Capitolina, the name given to Roman Jerusalem.

The archaeologists believe the theater was never used. A number of findings at the site indicate this, including a staircase that was never completely hewn. It is clear that great effort was invested in the building’s construction, but oddly, it was abandoned before it was put to use.

Workers restore a ceiling of the Western Wall tunnels near the site where Israeli Antiquity Authority recently discovered an ancient roman theatre, Jerusalem, October 16, 2017.Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP

“The reasons for this are unknown, but they may have been connected to a significant historical event, perhaps the Bar Kokhba Revolt; construction of the building may have been started, but abandoned when the revolt broke out. Additional evidence of unfinished buildings from this period has been uncovered in the past in the excavations of the Eastern Cardo in the Western Wall Plaza,” said the archeologists.

For the past 150 years, since the very beginning of archaeological research in Jerusalem, scholars have been searching for the public buildings mentioned in historical sources. The theaters are mentioned in written sources from the Second Temple period, such as Josephus Flavius and in sources from the period following the destruction of the Second Temple. “Many theories were advanced as to the location of these complexes, but they were without archaeological foundation. That is, until this latest discovery,” the archeologists said.

Additional findings were unearthed in the excavations beneath Wilson’s Arch, some of which are unique, including pottery vessels, coins, architectural and architectural elements.

A new section of an underground sewer was uncovered as well that spans hundreds of meters. It is possible that when the new site is opened to the public, it will be possible to walk through it from the Siloam Pool all the way to the Western Wall Tunnels.

The Israel Antiquities Authority carried out the excavations in conjunction with the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.

At Monday's news conference, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi of the Western Wall, chose to focus his remarks on the uncovering of the new layers of Western Wall stones that were found, and not on the theater: “These stones are soaked in history. We are not here to uncover stones, we are here to uncover [our] roots Time after time the amazing archaeological findings allow our generation to actually touch the ancient history of our people and Jewish heritage and its deep connection to Jerusalem.”

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