The Bridge That Never Was

The inspiration for this post is an image I was pointed to — several months ago now — by Rachel Lev of MuseumWorks, the lady who has been overseeing development of an on-site archive at Jerusalem’s American Colony Hotel. The materials involved are things that were passed down through the Vester and Whiting families, many of which became available following the death several years ago of Ms. Valentine Vester, the last family member to live on the hotel property. When fully up and running, the archive will be a properly curated and catalogued resource for researchers.

The image that caught my attention is an imagined reconstruction of a Robinson’s Arch bridge rendered by Ernest F. Beaumont, who was connected with the American Colony community for over four decades.

Relief model of Jerusalem from Beaumont's workshop. CLICK for LARGER

Relief model of Jerusalem from Beaumont’s workshop. CLICK for LARGER

Beaumont is known also as the builder of relief maps of Jerusalem reflecting its topography and urban landscape, both ancient and modern. He actually seems to have overseen an entire workshop that created highly detailed relief-models of Jerusalem, in various scales, formats and detailing, for different purposes and various specific clients. At least one model was produced in quantity and marketed through the American Colony store; a few of these still exist, showing up occasionally in auction catalogues (see photo).

He appears in Colony photos as early as 1898, as a young adult, and served as the Colony’s dentist for many years. Later, he and his wife, the former Huldah Larsson, are shown in an image of “The Orphanage“, which it seems they helped oversee ca. 1918-1922. Beaumont is known to have taken part in some photographic work with Eric Matson in the mid-1920s. The Beaumonts also appear in a ship-board photo leaving Palestine for the last time, in 1938 (they had actually separated from the Colony several years earlier):



Mr. & Mrs. Beaumont (left) leaving Palestine in 1938 (pictured with the Yantiss family).

Besides all that, Ernest Beaumont was well known as an artist. He was particularly fond of doing artistic renderings based on American Colony photographs, but he produced many original scenes as well.  In recent years a number of his works have been donated to the University of Chicago — Beaumont had early ties to Chicago, and later to the university’s Oriental Institute. The University has celebrated the gift by publishing a fine profile of the man and his work (PDF file), which points out that, among Beaumont’s amazing array of interests and involvements, archaeology held a place of some importance. 

With that as background, Beaumont’s original drawing of “Robinson’s Arch (restored)” — the focus of this post — is an imagined, reconstructed scene from antiquity, according to the popular understanding of his day. The view is looking northward up Jerusalem’s central (Tyroepoean) valley, from the vicinity of today’s Dung Gate, 2,000 years ago. At the right edge is the southwestern corner of the Herodian Temple Mount.

Reproduced as a postcard, the rendering would have been offered for sale at the American Colony Store inside Jaffa Gate; it was from a surviving example of the postcard that the present scan was made. 

The image is found on-line here:

A photographic reproduction of the drawing also resides in the Matson Collection, but in that case the glass negative has been damaged.

Beaumont’s original drawing, which dates to 1903, resides in the American Colony Archive Collections in Jerusalem.

* * *

What’s quite amazing is how persistent this notion of a “Robinson’s Arch Bridge” was. It was an understandable mistake, but one that endured far longer than it should have. To unravel this, we will glean the reports of some of Jerusalem’s 19th century explorers — be forewarned: we are wading into the minutiae of historical geography.

Here are the basic strands of this misconception: First, Josephus does in fact mention a “bridge” several times in his descriptions of 1st century Jerusalem (Antiquities 14:58, 61; Jewish Wars 1:143; 2:344; 6:325, 377), a structure which served to connect the upper city (western hill) with the Temple Mount. Secondly, by the 19th century the remaining elements of this actual ancient bridge had been mostly obscured under the impact of multiple destructions and rebuildings, until they lay mostly unnoticed amid the jumble of later structures built over, around and within them, in the Muslim and Mughrabi Quarters of the Old City. More on this real bridge in a moment.

Robinson's Arch, early 20th century (American Colony photo)

Robinson’s Arch, early 20th century (American Colony photo)

The key, however, lies with Edward Robinson himself, the eminent American biblical scholar and explorer. It was indeed Robinson who first recognized that the great stones jutting out from the southern end of the western wall  had not been displaced by an earthquake, as some supposed, but instead formed the spring of a monumental arch. By the 1860s, among scholars and commentators, the arch already bore his name.

It is worth remembering that in Robinson’s day, and even well into the 20th century, the stones were at ground level, whereas today they tower far above a deep excavation area whose centerpiece is the exposed Herodian street below.

Here is how Robinson described his early encounters with these impressive architectural remnants, in 1838:

The courses of these immense stones, which seemed at first to have sprung out from their places in the wall in consequence of some enormous violence, occupy nevertheless their original position; their external surface is hewn to a regular curve; and being fitted one upon another, they form the commencement or foot of an immense arch, which once sprung out from this western wall in a direction toward Mount Zion, across the valley of the Tyropoeon. This arch could only have belonged to ‘The Bridge’, which according to Josephus led from this part of the temple to the Xystus on Zion … (Biblical Researches in Palestine, 1841)

Warren's section through Robinson's Arch (looking north), showing western pier

Warren’s section through Robinson’s Arch (looking north), showing the western pier

Then in the 1860s explorer Charles Warren of the Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF) set out to test the bridge hypothesis — which by then had already been attached to Robinson’s Arch, quite firmly, for a quarter century. Based purely on the geometry of what remained, Warren determined the span of the long-destroyed arch, dug a shaft at the indicated spot, and soon located the arch’s massive western pier, founded on bedrock.

He then dug a further series of shafts and galleries across the valley, looking for additional piers — the westward continuation of the presumed “bridge”:

Seven shafts were sunk in a line east and west across the Tyropœon Valley, opposite to Robinson’s Arch, in order to ascertain the nature of the valley and search for remains of the ancient viaduct. (Wilson and Warren, Recovery of Jerusalem, 95)

Warren describes the spaces he explored — all of which lay deep underground — in some detail (Recovery, 95-104).  In the immediate area of Robinson’s Arch, they dug around the perimeter of the one huge pier (12×50 ft.), and even took refuge in the recessed “shop” spaces, familiar to visitors today, on its eastern face. They explored the buckled Herodian street at the foot of the western wall, and the great arch-stones that lay upon it, a snapshot of the destruction of 70 AD. They went beneath the pavement, through a layer of fill, and into a system of rock-hewn, vaulted drainage channels, following this system for a considerable distance in both directions. (Warren found two great arch-stones wedged in the channel at this lowest level, well below the Herodian street [see diagram]. As a result, he erroneously posited an earlier arch here in the time of Solomon, but we now believe we know how the stones got there.)

In the valley, west of the pier, Warren sank an additional six shafts proceeding from west to east and numbering each one in turn. In each shaft he went down to bedrock and recorded a spot elevation of the rock surface. From the shafts, he drove his characteristic horizontal galleries.

As a result of these explorations Warren found many additional architectural remains. For example, in his western-most shaft (No. 1, 285 ft. from the western wall) it is clear that he encountered the pavement of the Lower Cardo (or a connecting street), went through it, and entered the drainage channel beneath.

Further to the east (shaft No. 2, 250 feet from the “sanctuary wall”) he first encountered a colonnade which he would follow eastward for quite a distance. Its modest piers, masonry construction measuring 2 by 3 feet, were founded on bedrock and spaced 12.5 feet apart, with the remains of fallen arches in between; associated with the colonnade was a stone pavement. Warren’s interpretation: the remains “appear to have formed either a covered way or else to have supported the viaduct reaching over to Robinson’s Arch” (Recovery, p. 97; emphasis supplied) — this, despite the small size of the piers and what were clearly arches versus vaulting.

Proceeding eastward, at shafts Nos. 3 and 4 (216 and 182 feet respectively from the western wall), Warren found what he believed was more of the same colonnade. With the benefit of the wide-area excavations of recent decades, we can now see that Warren here was almost certainly burrowing through the remnants of one of the 7th-8th century AD Omayyad palaces (or pilgrim hospices) which surrounded the southwest corner of the Haram/Temple Mount.

In his shaft No. 6 (92 feet from the sanctuary wall) Warren entered a vaulted cistern (“tank”) whose western wall, behind the plaster, proved to be a worked bedrock scarp. Of this, Warren writes: “as it is exactly the correct distance from the pier found subsequently, it probably is the east side of the second pier from the Sanctuary wall; no drafted stones, however, were found on it, neither were any fallen voussoirs found underneath” (Recovery, p. 99). It is interesting to hear Warren make a certain interpretation — “the second pier” — and then back away from it, based on the lack of any other evidence!

In any event, Warren — despite his detailed documentation and the absence of any “smoking gun” in favor of a bridge — was quite tentative in his published conclusions. As a result, Robinson’s original notion, the idea of an extended bridge here connecting the Temple Mount to the upper city, was not put to rest as it might have been.

The real “bridge”.  Now, at about the same time and only a few hundred yards to the north, Warren and his fellow PEF explorer Charles Wilson were also documenting the great vault that even then bore the latter’s name: Wilson’s Arch. We are now 99% sure (my favorite phrase!) that this is the real “bridge” of Josephus. But, what did they think they had found? Wilson writes:

PEF explorers at Wilson's Arch, Nov. 1867. The view is looking SOUTH; the western wall of the Herodian Temple Mount is on the LEFT. This walled-off space was an abandoned pool known as "al-Burak".

PEF explorers at Wilson’s Arch, Nov. 1867. The view is looking SOUTH; the western wall of the Herodian Temple Mount is on the LEFT. This walled-off and cement-floored space was then an abandoned pool known in Arabic as “al-Burak” (after Mohammed’s mystical steed of the Night Journey). The two shafts depicted here (left and right) still exist, visible to visitors beneath glass covers in the synagogue space off the Western Wall.

On visiting the pool and lighting it up with magnesium wire, I found that it was partly covered by an arch, built with stones of great size, but without mortar, and having a span of 42 feet. The arch, which Sir Henry James has called after my name, is one of the most perfect and magnificent remains in Jerusalem, and its age is probably the same as that of the Sanctuary Wall at the Wailing Place. I was at the time under the impression that the arch connected the Sanctuary with a causeway across the Tyropœon Valley, but Captain Warren’s excavations have since shown that there were a series of arches forming a viaduct which led up towards the palace of Herod on the western hill. (Recovery of Jerusalem, p.16)

The remnants of these structures are known to us today: Wilson’s Arch itself is now part of a busy synagogue space opening off the men’s section of the Western Wall plaza. To the west, medieval vaults, now underground, replace or augment the ancient ones and are shown on the Western Wall Tunnels tour. Further west still is the vaulted “tunnel”, leading northward to el-Wad/ha-Gai Street, a passage traversed by thousands of people every day; one section of it is intact Herodian masonry. Actually, high above Wilson’s Arch, outside the Gate of the Chain off the Haram al-Sharif, bits of the Herodian street that ran on top of the bridge 2,000 years ago are still visible.

Here is what I find quite interesting in the passage quoted above: Wilson understood instinctively that “his” Arch was part of a “causeway” (or bridge) connecting the Temple Mount with the western hill. He even correctly guessed (elsewhere) that this structure had carried Jerusalem’s ancient aqueduct over the central valley. Still, something kept him — at least officially, in print — from relating these structures to the “bridge” of Josephus. Was he dissuaded only by Warren’s “series of arches” discovered further south, as he says, or was another factor perhaps in play?

Indeed, Wilson and Warren state directly, in the same work, that “Robinson’s Arch leading over to the upper city … appears undoubtedly to be the bridge over which Titus parleyed with the Jews after he had taken the Temple [Josephus, War 6:325]” (Recovery of Jerusalem, p.310).

Even in the late 20th century, Israeli archaeologists, from their extensive excavations around the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount, claimed to have “disproved” the bridge theory. Well, no, it was really Warren, a hundred years earlier! It’s just that the notion became so entrenched in people’s thinking — and maybe that of Warren himself! — that nobody was paying enough attention to the actual evidence.

To give the Israeli excavators their due, they have now given us a picture of the true function of Robinson’s Arch: it was part of a monumental staircase that connected a gate in the Temple Mount’s outer precincts with the Herodian street far below. It’s undoubtedly what Josephus had in mind in another place, Antiquities 15:410, where he states that one of the western gates of the Temple cloisters “… led to the other city, where the road descended down into the valley by a great number of steps…” The “other city” we would understand as the Lower City. The “road” descending by “many steps”, then, seems to be a description of the great staircase itself or the long, stepped street proceeding down the central valley toward Siloam, or both. Together, they gave the most direct access to the Lower City from the Temple Mount.

Temple Mount-SW_Corner_ART crop

To sum up, it would appear that Robinson’s stature was such that his original interpretation of an extended bridge at the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount — in spite of all the other accumulating evidence — simply held sway, unchallenged. Hence, the elaborate drawing of Beaumont which appeared several decades later: The Bridge that Never Was.

This entry was posted in American Colony, Antiquities, Archaeology, Haram/ Temple Mount, Herod the Great, Jerusalem Antiquities, Jerusalem People, Jerusalem Places, Josephus, Roman Period and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Bridge That Never Was

  1. Joe Anderson says:

    Great to have something like this from you again,Tom. I have learned much! Fascinating stuff. — Joe

    • Outremer says:

      Joe, hi: Thanks for your comment. As you’ve obviously noticed, the web-log has gone mostly dormant since my return to the States last fall. A drastic change of scenery will do that to you…
      This particular post was languishing, unfinished, in my “Drafts” folder since way last year, then a surprise contact from the great-grand-daughter (!) of Ernest Beaumont spurred me to dust it off for final polishing. Glad you found it of interest. (tp)

  2. Kat says:

    Fascinating! Thank you for all the American Colony research you share, Mr. Powers. You are a fount of knowledge.

    • Outremer says:

      Kat, hello… Many thanks for your comment. I received an email mentioning your name just today from Maggie Green, the great grand-daughter of Ernest Beaumont. How interesting that her great grandparents and yours, the Yantiss family, left Palestine for good on the same ship in 1938! (I would not know that were it not for the shipboard photo posted on your Colony Heritage Society web-site, so I applaud your work maintaining that resource — I have made use of it countless times.) I will try to contact you via the CHS site. As you have noted, I am quite engrossed in Colony history and connections.

      TOM POWERS / Waynesville, NC

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