A Path Back to the Judaic Past

Western Wall, Jerusalem

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Jerusalem—Inside the dimly lit tunnels, voices are hushed, muffled by the weight of ages past. It's a few steps but a far cry from the whirlwind just outside, where tourists snap photos as Jews bob back and forth in prayer at the Western Wall, what remains of the Second Jewish Temple built by King Herod two millenniums ago. This is Judaism's most sacred spot, sometimes called the Wailing Wall, for those who mourn the Roman destruction of the temple in the first century.

Just 170 feet of that ancient wall is accessible in the outdoor plaza. But an additional 1,050 feet runs deep beneath the Muslim quarter's bustling marketplaces and stone homes. Vaulted ceilings, rather than open sky, mark the top of the wall in these tunnels, and a musty "damp basement" smell pervades; in previous centuries, sections were closed off and used as cisterns to supply water to inhabitants above.

Soon after gaining Jerusalem's Old City in the 1967 Six-Day War, the Israeli government began excavating the tunnels alongside the wall—discovering pottery vessels dating as far back as 3,000 years to the First Temple period. The opening of a new exit in 1996, allowing visitors to empty into the Arab quarter rather than retrace their steps through the narrow tunnel, has expanded public access (though it initially sparked Arab riots fueled by unfounded accusations that aboveground Muslim holy sites were being threatened).

"Scientifically, it's an extremely important site because it gives us a real background into the history of Jerusalem," says Dan Bahat, a University of Toronto archaeology professor who previously led the excavations. "All the periods are represented here."

Craftmanship. Indeed, descending into the tunnel is like stepping backward in time. "Try to feel how ancient this place is," exhorts tour guide Yehoshua Horenman as he guides 30 visitors along a preserved Herodian street with Roman columns on one side and the wall on the other. "Nearly everyone who came to the temple for the Jewish pilgrimage holidays would have walked along this street."

Signs of Herod's demand for artistic magnificence can be seen in the wall's stones, each expertly chiseled with an inset rectangular border, forming a perfect fit at the joints. "It's the most beautiful stonework ever done in history," exclaims Aharon Grebelsky, a fourth-generation Jerusalem stonecutter, as he gently caresses the wall. "We cannot do today what they did 2,000 years ago." The pièce de résistance is the 40-foot-long, 12-foot-high, 500-ton "huge stone" used to stabilize the wall; many experts consider it to be the largest building stone ever used.

But a more modest section farther down the tunnel elicits the strongest emotions. Just 320 feet behind this area is said to have been the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctuary that, in the First Temple, held the ark of the covenant with the stone tablets setting forth the Ten Commandments.

In the soft light from nearby candles, two women wearing knitted berets press their bodies against the sacred spot, kissing it as they whisper Hebrew blessings. Below the low arch that frames these stones, damp streaks can be seen, a sign, some believe, that God gently weeps among those who pray here.