Tourist Tip #127 / The Western Wall Tunnel

Beneath the well-known Kotel, a tunnel that is sacred in its own right reveals a continuation of the Western Wall and many layers of Jerusalem history.

The story of how one of Jerusalem’s prime tourist sites, the Western Wall Tunnel, ended up 30 feet underground is the Holy City’s saga in a nutshell. Everybody wanted it, everybody built it up, only to be outdone by the newest arrival on the block, or perhaps we should say – considering the nearby Temple Mount – the newest one on the rock.

The Western Wall Tunnel is the continuation of the well-known sacred portion of the Western Wall, the last major remnant of the outer walls of Herod’s Second Temple, built some 2,000 years ago. It burrows alongside the Kotel, revealing remnants of Jerusalem’s past, from the second-century BCE Hasmoneans to the medieval-era Mamluks and all the rulers sandwiched in between. They built their cities on vaults (broad arches) while leaving the massive western Temple wall intact on their eastern flank.

It was the 19th-century British explorer Charles Warren who first dreamed up the idea of tunneling under the Old City in search of antiquities. Today’s tunnel, which visitors stroll through comfortably to view dramatically lit ancient vestiges, was no more than a crawl space back in Warren’s day, which he wiggled through by flickering lamp-light until he reached the gigantic building blocks he correctly identified as the outer, western wall of Herod’s Temple.

You can take a tunnel tour and flirt with the vicissitudes of history, following in the footsteps of ancient kings and potentates. First, check out the wonderful model of the Temple, fitted with moving parts. Then it’s on to the actual underground portion of the wall itself. One of the most amazing sites here is the “girdle” of huge stones installed to bolster the arches of Herod’s expanded Temple Mount. One of these stones is a whopping 42 feet long, 11 feet high and 14 feet deep, and weighs in at some 570 tons. It’s the largest building stone ever found in Israel, and, as tour guides love to tell visitors, it's heavier than 200 elephants.

And just because you're underground doesn’t mean you aren't on holy ground. There are prayer notes stuffed into the cracks here, just as at the Western Wall aside. And the tunnel has its own super-sacred place – a niche, hung with oil lamps, marking the closest underground place on the wall to the rock of the Holy of Holies. Interestingly, this site has become an unofficial women-only prayer area.

Continue through the tunnel to a point where an ancient stone quarry was found, whose form helps answer the intriguing question of how the ancients quarried and installed these huge blocks. A short, whimsical cartoon shown here reveals the answer.

Next you’ll navigate a rock-hewn water tunnel to a reservoir, where your tunnel tour ends. Above, check out the massive vault over which Emperor Hadrian built a grand plaza adorned with a triumphal arch. He did so as part of his attempt to reinvent Jerusalem as a pagan city after the failed Bar Kokhba Revolt in 135 CE.

You can exit the Western Wall Tunnel right on to the Via Dolorosa to continue touring the Old City, or retrace your steps to the Western Wall Plaza.

Visits are by reservation only. Smaller parties can reserve space on a public tour: call 02-6271333.

Emil Salman
Bloomberg
Emil Salman