The History of a People Runs Deep
The ancient stone beneath my fingertips was cool and surprisingly smooth. Moving slowly over the surface, my fingers encountered other similar stones, held together by nothing other their own weight. This was a small section of the hidden portion of Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall, and its very existence in a city that has had more than its share of glory and grief was the first of many “WOW” utterances on that mild March morning.
My cousins, had purchased tickets for a family excursion through the tunnel excavation, during the visit Simon, Otto and I made to Israel in 2013. I was thrilled at the idea of the tour, having seen and touched the Wailing Wall in 1972, long before the excavation of the unexposed part of the wall was made accessible.
My two strongest memories of that experience was one of my uncles, sending a hasid packing for trying to hit us up for money, and my mother tucking a small piece of paper into one of the cracks in the wall. It is a long held tradition to place your most fervent wish in the wall. Although she would never admit it, I was willing to bet that her heart’s desire was for some poor schmuck to come along and marry her wild and crazy daughter before she got herself arrested or killed.
We, along with my cousins, waited in line while a group formed for the next tour. When our guide arrived to take us below ground, a feeling came over me that we were about to experience something extraordinary.
The tunnels were narrow, with only parts that were wheelchair accessible. Even so, it was obvious that great care had been taken to prepare the area to be as inclusive as possible. Otto and I were able to negotiate the terrain under our feet with no trouble.
Our first stop was an open area known as “The Large Hall, where the high ceiling allowed for a stunning view of the wall. There our guide invited us to sit on benches while she explained the various phases of the building of the Second Temple. As she spoke, a moving mechanical display, brought her words to life, showing the progression of the massive holy structure begun by the Roman King Herod in 19 B.C., completed in the middle of the 1st century A.D. and destroyed by Roman troops in 70 A.D..
Then we moved into the tunnel that led us down to archeological treasures that had been hidden for nearly 2,000 years. Among these was an ancient cistern that had been functioning back in the 1st century A.D., and a mammoth block, known as “The Western Stone”. The stone is 45 feet long , 9.8 feet high and is estimated to be between 11 and 15 feet wide. No one seems to be quite sure how the stone was moved into position in the wall without the help of machinery or a graduate of Georgia Tech.
We walked in ancient footsteps on a Herodian road that ran alongside the Temple Mount, which our guide referred to as ‘Wall Street”. There were no ghosts walking with us, but I could imagine the road teaming with worshipers, shoppers and merchants, as they went about their daily lives, totally unaware of the calamity that would one day destroy all but that one wall of the Second Temple.
The exposed portion of the Western Wall is 200 feet long, with another 1,591 feet having been accessed directly under the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem.
Archeologists began excavations in the mid 1800’s and are still reverently and patiently uncovering the secrets of the city’s distant past.
Definitely worthy of a “WOW” were the remarkable feats of science and structural engineering that stabilized the homes and buildings overhead, and made the tunnels safe for scientists and tourists alike.
Our guide told us that at one time, raw sewage from the houses above would regularly fall on the archeological teams before the completion of the engineers’ rerouting efforts. Until then, excavating the tunnels was probably the crappiest gig in the neighborhood.
Our tour guide was an American expatriate, whose love for the history she imparted was clearly visible in her presentation. She had our undivided attention from the time we entered the tunnel to our emergence near the first station of the Via Dolorosa.
For me, the hour we spent underground had been like a time tunnel, but “WOW” is appropriate any time. I didn’t place a wish in a crack In the Wailing Wall, but my heart’s desire is to one day return to Jerusalem to experience the magnitude of the discoveries that are still in the making.
For more information, visit http://english.thekotel.org and for a detailed description of the Western Tunnel excavations, go to http://www.biblewalks.com/sites/westernwalltunnels.html