Up to the Temple Mount: Newly-Opened Section of Jerusalem’s Ancient Sewer — NEW PHOTOS

For the “big picture” on this entire underground route, please refer to my previous post from several weeks ago, which documented the section of the same system beginning at the Siloam Pool and running northward to the Givati Parking Lot excavation area outside Dung Gate. Now, visitors can continue from Givati right under the walls of the Old City and emerge through the buckled Herodian street beneath Robinson’s Arch, at the southwest corner of the Haram al-Sharif/ Temple Mount. I had occasion to traverse this new segment for the first time a few weeks ago.

The basics: Just to be clear, what you’re walking through is a drainage channel — a sewer — from 2,000 years ago and more. Its sheer size testifies that it was the main drainage channel of ancient Jerusalem, generally following the city’s central valley, the Tyropoeon, and draining everything within the city walls (the Temple Mount seems to have had its own drainage system). Thus many smaller channels, which ran underneath connecting streets, are seen coming in from the sides. This system would have carried the waste-water — rainwater run-off and, well… sewage — first down to the central valley and then southward (Jerusalem’s entire topography slopes down from north to south) and finally outside the city. Josephus reminds us that these sewers played a significant if inglorious role in the Roman siege and conquest of Jerusalem during the Great Revolt — as an escape route or simply a hiding place for those trapped in the city as the end approached. In modern times, this channel was rediscovered and traced through much of its length, as was the street that runs above it, by many different explorers and archaeologists starting in the late 19th century.

BELOW:  The newly-opened channel segment proceeds northward (left). The exit stairway (right) leads up to the Givati excavation area. Visitors without a special ticket from the City of David “national park” must exit here (where there is an attendant stationed); those with a ticket may either continue on directly OR ascend to view the Givati dig area first and then resume their journey underground.

BELOW:   One of the workers who was “passing dirt” down the channel from ongoing digging. A couple of times we had to crouch down or otherwise avoid these bags of excavated earth being transported via an overhead rail to a storage area. So, conditions are still a bit primitive — a work in progress.

BELOW:  The beginning of the impressive (especially for a sewer!) Herodian vaulting that covers the northern part of the channel. This would be at the “joint” where the older Hasmonean channel (which you’ve been walking through thus far) had to be cut off and joined to this new vaulted “by-pass” section in Herodian times (see diagram below).

BELOW:  Here, the channel is hewn quite deeply into the bedrock, since the Herodian detour veered westward and took the channel across the lower slopes of the western hill.

BELOW:  A ground plan of the area where the channel skirts the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount. The source is Leen Ritmeyer’s excellent book The Quest, p. 234; I have marked with red arrows the present visitors’ route, particularly at the very end where it departs from the channel, runs along the wall, then goes up to the surface (star).  Ritmeyer’s diagram shows clearly how the older, slab-covered Hasmonean drain was cut off by Herod’s expansion of the Temple Mount enclosure, and the new, vaulted Herodian section was designed to bypass the corner of this enlarged “box”. Note especially the “joints” between the old and new sections (marked with a box) and the detailed plans and cross-sections of those areas. [Click on the image to enlarge]

BELOW:  A rock-hewn chamber which the archaeologists say began life as an Iron Age tomb (see diagram). Note the hole in the bedrock ceiling, which the archaeologists interpret as a nefesh (Heb., “soul” or “spirit”) related to notions of the afterlife. [UPDATE: A scholar friend of mine says that nefesh has the additional meaning of “throat”, which is quite descriptive of the hole itself.] Any tomb here would have gone out of use by the time of Hezekiah (ca. 700 BC), who we think first enclosed this area within a city wall.  The floor of this space is lower than that of the channel, which flowed into this chamber and then out the other side. Thus, I suspect it functioned as a kind of settling tank and/or clean-out point (see below).

BELOW:   Looking straight up through the nefesh hole, which was extended upwards via a stone-built chimney to connect with the Herodian street. It probably served a dual function, providing drainage directly from the street above and also an access shaft – a manhole – for “public works” employees! (The strange blue flare in the image – whatever its source – may lend a hint as to what a nefesh was all about!)

BELOW:  Charles Warren of the PEF produced this longitudinal (north-south) section through the sewer at the southwest corner of the Haram/Temple Mount, looking east. Note the tomb chamber with its nefesh/chimney going up to the surface of the Herodian street, plus the two fallen arch-stones wedged in the channel (see below).

Charles Warren’s longitudinal section through the sewer structures. [Courtesy (and labels by) Leen Ritmeyer

BELOW:  The final few meters of the present visitors’ route leaves the drain channel, taking a jog to the east, and runs along this exposed stretch of Herodian masonry — the Western Wall. It’s the Temple Mount’s foundations, though, beneath street level even in Herod’s day: Note the great stones’ protruding, rough bosses — They were never meant to be seen! (The view is looking south.)

BELOW:  In case you were wondering: Yes, there are already prayers inserted between the stones — even here!

BELOW:  Here we can see exactly how Herod’s builders fitted the foundation stones expertly into the prepared bedrock surface. This is just the sort of thing Charles Warren observed and so meticulously documented some 150 years ago, except he did it at the bottom of a deep shaft or crawling along a cramped horizontal gallery framed with boards, and by the dim, flickering light of lamps or candles.

BELOW:  Just before ascending to daylight, we note that workers continue to dig northward along the Western Wall. For what purpose and to what end, we shall have to see. Of such things – in Jerusalem – controversy, and even conflict, are too often born…

Photo: Courtesy of Patrick Russell, Milwaukee WI, USA

BELOW:  The stairway to the surface passes directly over this fallen Herodian building stone wedged in the top of the rock-hewn channel below. It is in fact a wedge-shaped voussior (arch-stone) that once — if briefly — belonged to Robinson’s Arch. It is also the stone immortalized in the watercolor by William Simpson who accompanied Charles Warren and his team exploring these spaces in the 1860s for the Palestine Exploration Fund. (The web-log of my friend Shmuel Browns, a local tour guide, has additional information and graphics: a photo looking northward up the channel (note the stone), Simpson’s painting of the scene, and a cross-section diagram based on Warren.) The Simpson painting is one of my favorites, and until recently I assumed that it showed a stone the Romans toppled in 70 AD, piercing both the street and the drain below. After all, the street above was found covered with such stones, and many of the thick pavers fearfully buckled under their impact! But, no. In fact, in this particular location at least a couple of meters of earthen fill lie between the street and drain — so my imagined scenario was not even physically posssible.

Here’s what actually happened, according to the experts: The drain channel and Robinson’s Arch, high overhead, were both under construction at the same time when two of the arch-stones got loose, fell, and wedged in the open, rock-hewn channel. I suppose the voussoirs were so badly damaged they were not worth retrieving. (I can almost hear the stonemasons, who had cut and dressed them to specification — not to mention the foreman — uttering a few choice words!) In any event, the fallen arch-stones were simply incorporated into the vaulting which soon covered the drain — that’s how we’ve pieced together what happened — it all wound up buried beneath the street, and nobody was the wiser. So, evidence of a “construction accident” 2,000 years ago! It’s a reminder, perhaps, how Herod’s building projects were often “pushing the envelope” of Roman engineering!

Photo: Courtesy of Patrick Russell, Milwaukee WI, USA

BELOW:  The exit stairway up to the Herodian street, and the turnstiled exit beneath Robinson’s Arch.

HOW IT WORKS:  As mentioned, access to this new stretch of the channel (Givati to the Temple Mount) requires an additional ticket of NIS 21 from the City of David. This allows visitors, after emerging beneath Robinson’s Arch, to also visit the Jerusalem Archaeological Park and the Davison Center at no additional charge. (Another hint: I’m told that late in the day you can enter the Davidson Center for a reduced fee and that there is no “closing time” on the excavated areas outdoors — you can let yourself out through a turnstile!)

MY TAKE on the experience:  It’s hard to see this underground route turning into a major tourist draw on the order of Hezekiah’s Tunnel. I see it being more for the hard-core afficionado (like me). For one thing, after the initial novelty of traversing an ancient sewer wears off, it gets a bit, well… tedious — it’s 650 meters from Siloam up to the Davidson exit! Moreover, the low overhead which requires one to stoop over for an extended stretch is problematic, as is one brief narrow passage where I at least had to turn sideways and also remove my backpack in order to squeeze through. There are places too where sandbags or planks cover the muddy floor (and it’s not even winter yet). So, it’s still in a crude state in spots, as mentioned, and some of this may improve with time. It’s extremely interesting — there’s no doubt about it, but perhaps not everyone’s ‘cup of tea’.

I anticipated entitling this post “Final Section…” but it turns out there is obviously more to come in terms of opening these underground spaces. First, where the present route makes its final jog to the east to run along the foundation courses of the Temple Mount, the cleared drain channel continues straight ahead, northward, but is still blocked/gated. However, a friend of mine (who shall remain nameless) said he found the way open a few weeks ago — and follwed it. He went quite a ways, he said, until there was no more lighting and he had to turn around; he estimated he might have been under the Western Wall prayer area. Secondly, right where the present route exits to the surface, as mentioned, people were still digging, proceeding northward along the Herodian masonry. So, we’ll have to stay tuned…

This entry was posted in Archaeology, Haram/ Temple Mount, JERUSALEM, Jerusalem Antiquities and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Up to the Temple Mount: Newly-Opened Section of Jerusalem’s Ancient Sewer — NEW PHOTOS

  1. Cam says:

    For those of us residing in Chicago, these photos are a real eye-opener into what is going on in Jerusalem archaeology. Thanks so much!!
    Cam von Wahlde

  2. preciousoils says:

    I’ve been watching the progress of these excavations since 2008. Last year I had the privilege to partially walk up the “new” tunnel while still under construction. This past Weds I did Hezikiah’s Tunnel, again, and then walked the newly opened Herodian walkway that the writer describes. I didn’t realize that it was 650 meters, I remember looking up (or ducking down and glancing up) when the marker said 400 meters. May I suggest that you go with as little as possible in your hands or on your back through these passageways. The City of David has lockers to rent, wish I would have seen them before I schlepped my backpack through some of the “suck in your stomach” places along the route. Also, wear really good walking/water shoes and clothes that you really don’t care about cuz parts of the walk is messy.

  3. Wayne Stiles says:

    Thank you, Tom, for these pictures and descriptions. I can’t wait to see it.

  4. Joe A. says:

    Wow, Tom. Another great article. It would be fun to walk through this with you.

    Two questions:

    1. In the third photo, it looks like the Herodian detour dead-ends into bedrock. Why would that be?
    2. The photo just below the map shows the tomb and it looks like there is modern staircase ascending to the surface just past the tomb. But the map suggests that the tunnel goes to the Temple Wall and then back before ascending. Am I misinterpreting this?



    • Tom Powers says:

      Joe, thanks for your comments! Both questions are good ones — which I actually wondered about myself, after the fact, and do not have a good answer for. I suspect your first point has to do with differing levels between the Hasmonean and Herodian sections, particularly the depth of bedrock through which they were cut down from the surface, and how the Herodian engineers finessed the linking of the two. On Ritmeyer’s diagram, it looks as though they might have left a bridge or ceiling of bedrock at the point of the joint, perhaps to strengthen it. I do recall that I took two photos in the vicinity of the “joint”: the first one here is looking south and the second looking north, I’m 99% sure. But I must go back sometime and study the area in more detail. Also, Charles Warren drew a longitudinal (north-south) section through the channel in that area; I have now added it to the post (above), so maybe it will shed a bit more light on these questions.
      [Added OCT 2012]: Re: your question #2: The staircase shown simply takes you to a slightly higher level. At that point, via a jog to the right (not visible in the photo), then left, the route goes along the foundation courses, then to the surface (the ascending staircase passes over the channel). Two things I’m not sure of: how the floor levels of the channel north and south of the tomb/sump relate to each other AND whether the northward extension of the route has been cleared down to its floor level.

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