Living underground before the Romans? 2,000-year-old rooms found by Western Wall
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ArchaeologyWhy were huge resources invested in underground chambers?

Living underground before the Romans? 2,000-year-old rooms found by Western Wall

Purpose of unique ancient complex still unclear, but indicates possible subterranean Second Temple-era life in Jerusalem’s Old City prior to the Roman conquest in 70 CE

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

  • Dr. Barak Monnickendam-Givon at the excavations under Beit Straus in Jerusalem's Old City, near the Western Wall, May 2020. (Yaniv Berman/Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Dr. Barak Monnickendam-Givon at the excavations under Beit Straus in Jerusalem's Old City, near the Western Wall, May 2020. (Yaniv Berman/Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Excavation and conversation work under the Jerusalem Old City's 'Beit Straus' complex, May 2020. (Shai HaLevi/Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Excavation and conversation work under the Jerusalem Old City's 'Beit Straus' complex, May 2020. (Shai HaLevi/Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Excavation co-director Tehila Saldiel showing some of the artifacts from the excavations under Beit Straus in Jerusalem's Old City, near the Western Wall, May 2020. (Shai HaLevi/Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Excavation co-director Tehila Saldiel showing some of the artifacts from the excavations under Beit Straus in Jerusalem's Old City, near the Western Wall, May 2020. (Shai HaLevi/Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Excavation co-director Tehila Saldiel shows two oil lanterns, some of the artifacts from the excavations under Beit Straus in Jerusalem's Old City, near the Western Wall, May 2020. (Shai HaLevi/Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Excavation co-director Tehila Saldiel shows two oil lanterns, some of the artifacts from the excavations under Beit Straus in Jerusalem's Old City, near the Western Wall, May 2020. (Shai HaLevi/Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Old City of Jerusalem's Western Wall, May 2020. (Yaniv Berman/Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Old City of Jerusalem's Western Wall, May 2020. (Yaniv Berman/Israel Antiquities Authority)

A singular two-millennia-old subterranean system of three rooms has been uncovered near the Western Wall. The three-room complex — painstakingly chiseled by hand out of bedrock prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE — is the first evidence of everyday life gone underground in the ancient city.

“This is a unique finding. This is the first time a subterranean system has been uncovered adjacent to the Western Wall,” said Israel Antiquity Authority co-directors Dr. Barak Monnickendam-Givon and Tehila Sadiel in a press release Tuesday.

“You must understand that 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem, like today, it was customary to build out of stone [blocks]. The question is, why were such efforts and resources invested in hewing rooms underground in the hard bedrock?” said the archaeologists.

The purpose of the three-room complex, hidden for centuries under a large 1,400-year-old Byzantine/Umayyad structure’s white mosaic floor, is still being investigated, but it may have served as a basement pantry, living space, or even a place to hide during raids, excavation co-director Dr. Barak Monnickendam-Givon told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

Dr. Barak Monnickendam-Givon at the excavations under Beit Straus in Jerusalem’s Old City, near the Western Wall, May 2020. (Yaniv Berman/Israel Antiquities Authority)

The rooms, uncovered by students of a pre-military preparatory program in Jerusalem working in cooperation with the IAA, are located under the “Beit Strauss” complex, a historical ancient building purchased by philanthropist Nathan Strauss, which was once a soup kitchen and today houses beautiful public toilets and serves as an entrance lobby to the Western Wall Tunnels.

The underground excavations there were renewed a year ago under the recently renovated and enlarged Beit Strauss building to connect the building to a new segment of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation’s Western Wall Tunnels tour, according to an IAA press release.

While the complex’s purpose is “still a mystery,” said Monnickendam-Givon, during the Second Temple era (and today), the placement of the subterranean system was considered a “prime location.” He does not rule out the idea that it may have been part of a much larger public structure that has since been obliterated.

Hewn out of bedrock using hand tools, including iron hammers, the three rooms are rather spacious at circa 2.5 meters x 4 meters, 2.5 meters x 2.5 meters, and a third room that is still being excavated but appears to be circa 2.5 meters x 2.5 meters, said Monnickendam-Givon. The rooms occupy different floors and were connected by stairs, he said.

Excavation and conversation work under the Jerusalem Old City’s ‘Beit Strauss’ complex, May 2020. (Shai HaLevi/Israel Antiquities Authority)

Asked how long it would have taken to create this large hand-hewn system, Monnickendam-Givon laughed and said he honestly had no idea, but that it was a “very impressive investment” of both time and resources.

Monnickendam-Givon emphasized that while there are numerous contemporary ritual baths and graves that were also hewn out of rock during this era, this is the first example of what appears to be a living space. Inside the rooms, what looks to be niches for shelves and storage, as well as doorjambs and lantern niches, were chiseled into the bedrock.

Excavation co-director Tehila Saldiel showing some of the artifacts from the excavations under Beit Straus in Jerusalem’s Old City, near the Western Wall, May 2020. (Shai HaLevi/Israel Antiquities Authority)

“Among other things, we found clay cooking vessels, cores of oil lamps used for light, a stone mug unique to Second Temple Period Jewish sites, and a fragment of a qalal – a large stone basin used to hold water, thought to be linked to Jewish practices of ritual purity,” said Monnickendam-Givon and Sadiel in the IAA press release.

While at first glance the niches hewn into the rock appear similar to those found in contemporary graves, Monnickendam-Givon said that it is unlikely that this was their use, as this area was already part of ancient Jerusalem during this era and custom would forbid burial within city limits.

Excavation and conversation work under the Jerusalem Old City’s ‘Beit Strauss’ complex, May 2020. (Shai HaLevi/Israel Antiquities Authority)

As the archaeologists continue to ponder the complex’s use, they are also continuing excavations. “It is very much a work in progress,” said Monnickendam-Givon.

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