Exposing the Western Wall Tunnels
In the nineteenth century, the most distinguished Jerusalem scholars were already trying to determine the precise measurements of the Western Wall and describe the methods used in its construction. However, their information was incomplete, mainly because they were unable to discover the wall's entire length. Nevertheless, British researchers Charles Wilson, in 1864 and Charles Warren, in 1867-1870, uncovered the northern extension of the Western Wall Prayer Plaza. The shafts that Charles Warren dug through Wilson's Arch can still be seen today.
Immediately after the Six Day War, the Ministry of Religious Affairs began the project of exposing the entire length of the Western Wall.
It was a difficult operation, which involved digging beneath residential neighborhoods that had been constructed on ancient structures from the Second Temple period and were built up against the Western Wall. Some residents used underground spaces as water holes or for sewage collection. The excavations required close supervision by experts in the fields of structural engineering, securing subterranean tunnels, archeology, and of course, Jewish Law.
After almost twenty years, and despite enormous difficulties, the Western Wall Tunnels were excavated. This lengthy project unearthed many archeological finds which can only be described as remarkable. These finds revealed new and unknown details about the history and the geography of the Temple Mount site.
When the Western Wall Heritage Foundation was established, it was given the responsibility of continuing the excavations, which revealed ancient Jerusalem in all its glory, and bringing them to the publicís attention by opening the tunnels to visitors.
Due to the great delicacy of the Western Wall and its environs and the complexity of the excavations, they were carried out with great caution and under constant rabbinic and scientific supervision. Thus, slowly but surely, a magnificent Jerusalem from over 2,000 years ago was rediscovered. The process of these complicated excavations was decided upon after much deliberation and care, while taking into consideration aspects that are not characteristic of other archeological excavations.
The excavators were faced with complicated engineering problems, such as maintaining the stability of the structures above them while ensuring that the courses of Western Wall stones that had been uncovered would not be damaged in any way. They also had to divert the sewage from the houses above them, which on occasion flushed down unexpectedly on top of the archeologists in the tunnels, into the general sewage system.
Advancing at a snail's pace, they uncovered genuine treasures. As time went on, the tunnels became a time tunnel, transporting anyone in them to the heyday of Jerusalem, in the first century c.e., the greatest days in the history of the city.
They found enormous courses of distinctively carved stone that were remarkably well preserved. There were also remains of the Herodian road which ran alongside the Temple Mount, ancient cisterns, impressive construction efforts from the Muslim era, and a Hasmonean period aqueduct that had been blocked by Herodís construction of the Western Wall.
All of these amazing portholes to the past can be seen at the Western Wall Tunnels, which is why visiting them is so thrilling. A visit to the Tunnels is not just an awe-inspiring journey through time, but also a fascinating lesson in Jewish history and in the archeology and topography of Jerusalem.
Opening the tunnels to the public required complicated and unique engineering and safety solutions to allow safe and enjoyable access. It was a long process, which included the development of walking paths, air conditioning, signs and lighting, and insuring that the site is wheelchair accessible and can accommodate visitors with disabilities. Audio/visual aids were developed and guides were trained to help visitors explore the mysteries of the Tunnels.
The work is far from completed. Much more still lies hidden than has been revealed at the foot of the Temple Mount.