New parts of what seems to have been a luxurious banqueting hall featuring a spectacular wall of fountains, erected west of the Temple Mount about 2,000 years ago, were unveiled to the public on Thursday.
The structure dates to the Second Temple period, but the question is, which part of that period, which touches on who built not only the edifice but the Temple Mount compound next door.
This monumental edifice was revealed in stages. In fact, part of it – the eastern hall later dubbed the “Freemasons Hall” and even later the “Herodian Hall” – had been discovered in 1867. Further exploration was pursued in 1966; then, after the Six-Day War, debris from centuries on the site was cleared, revealing some more.
Decades later, from 2007 to 2012, archaeologists frustrated by the contemporary realities hampering archaeological investigation of ancient Jerusalem started digging a tunnel along the length of the Western Wall and by Wilson’s Arch, beneath present-day buildings. Much of the tunnel runs beneath the Old City’s Muslim Quarter. The purpose: to investigate the subterranean parts of the Western Wall and its vicinity.
In the course of this tunneling project on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, in 2007 the late Alexander Onn discovered the building’s western hall. It was identical to the eastern hall.
Further exploration in the following years found the central portion of the building: a spectacular space going the full length of the building, with the two halls on either side – and featuring a water reservoir, in front of which was a 1.4-meter-thick (4.5-foot) inner wall through which water was fed by lead pipes, and spouted through Corinthian capitals into the room. The water drained through a channel cut into the paving stones, though its final destination is not known.
So what have we? A rectangular building 24.5 meters by 11 meters, built on a foundation of the famed Roman concrete. The two identical halls, eastern and western, were each 7 meters wide by 5.7 meters long, connected by that extraordinary hallway with the water tank and water-streaming wall. The entrances the archaeologists have found so far have been in grand style too.
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“This is, without a doubt, the most magnificent public building from the Second Temple period that has been uncovered to this day in Jerusalem outside the walls of the Temple Mount,” said lead archaeologist Shlomit Weksler-Bdolah of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
The walls and fountain were decorated with a sculpted cornice bearing pilasters (flat supporting pillars) topped with Corinthian capitals. The decorative style of the building is typical of opulent Second Temple-period architecture, the IAA says.
What purpose was served by the mammoth building with its two identical halls and fancy fountainry is hard to know 2,000 years later. Since it lies about 25 meters west of the Temple Mount in the area of Wilson’s Arch, the archaeologists surmise it had been on the main road to the temple compound, and may have served a function for dignitaries en route to the temple.
Despite the water-spouting wall, the archaeologists don’t think this was a nymphaeum. Traces of wooden couches were found along the walls of the two side halls, leading the researchers to speculate that the building was an ancient banqueting hall – the ancient Greeks and, following them, the Romans would feast while reclining on wooden sofas, a practice that would continue as late as the fourth century. Dining semi-prone is mentioned as early as the Book of Amos, in the early eighth century B.C.E., in the context of the prophet chiding the people of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel for their iniquities.
But the structure begs a question about the construction of the Temple Mount compound. In recent years, a theory has been gaining traction that King Herod may have begun the monumental Temple Mount project but didn’t live to complete it.
Not King Herod
King Herod, the vassal king on Rome’s behalf from 37 to 4 B.C.E., is credited with numerous examples of monumental construction around his kingdom, including reconstruction of the Temple itself; the port at Caesarea; the palace at Masada; a magnificent basilica in Ashkelon, and much more – and expansion of the Temple Mount compound.
One source of the belief that Herod built the Second Temple and expanded the compound is none other than Josephus, who says the king built on a project by King Solomon: Creating the platform on which the temple sat, by expanding the upper face of the mountain. “Solomon made all these things for the honor of God, with great variety and magnificence” (Antiquities 8:95).
The new wrinkle is that this “Herodian Hall” building had to have been built before the Western Wall and Wilson’s Arch, which is perfectly integrated into the Western Wall, the archaeologists now say. It was recently realized that the “Herodian Hall” had apparently been erected a decade or two after Herod’s death, Weksler-Bdolah tells Haaretz.
That supports the theory that Herod began the monumental expansion of the Temple Mount compound, but didn’t live to finish it. The compound project seems to have been completed sometime between the years 30 and 70, when the Romans tore down the temple.
“Coins, pottery and oil lamps discovered in a Jewish ritual bath underneath the Western Wall recently, report archeologists from Israel, date the completion of the Western Wall surrounding the Second Temple to a later time, maybe even 50 C.E.,” the Foreign Ministry itself admits – which would be decades after the vassal king had died.
“It has become indicated in recent years that the expansion of the Temple Mount took longer than had been realized and hadn’t been completed in Herod’s day,” Weksler-Bdolah confirms to Haaretz.
But she adds that the building only served for a short period. A quake shook Jerusalem in about 33 C.E., damaging the building and causing the upper parts of Wilson’s Arch to collapse. Later, apparently in about 59 C.E., construction in the vicinity of the building resumed but the building itself was restructured and its inner space was divided into three separate vaulted halls, with water reservoirs installed in the western and central halls, the archaeologists say.
Today, all that remains above ground of the Second Temple complex is the Western Wall, whose monumental first course has been revealed in the tunnel. That almost 70-meter stretch is part of the monumental four walls that the king had built around the temple courtyard. Originally, this retaining western wall had been almost half a kilometer long, archaeologists estimate. The rest of the compound was destroyed or covered up by later and modern construction – which is where the Western Wall tunnel entered our story.
Squeezing through the tunnel’s rather narrow passages, one can glimpse segments of the original Herodian and Roman streets; part of the 2,200-year-old Hasmonean-era conduit that had once supplied water to the city (from a source not known to this day); and monumental foundations, including one stone block 13.6 meters long by 3 meters high and 3.5 meters wide, which is estimated to weigh 517 tons.
That is a hefty construction block and how it was moved is anybody’s guess, as is who exactly finished building the Second Temple compound. But, says the Israel Antiquities Authority, visitors will soon be able to visit, ahead of the Selihot in Elul, and decide for themselves.