This week on The Times of Israel Podcast, we’re going deep under Jerusalem’s Old City where we’re joining Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist Dr. Barak Monnickendam-Givon in a subterranean dig, seven meters (23 feet) and more underground.
The Times of Israel has recently reported on several of the exciting finds at the joint IAA-Western Wall Heritage Foundation excavation that is co-directed by Monnickendam-Givon and Tehila Sadiel. Their dig site is directly under the historic Beit Strauss building, adjacent to the Western Wall Plaza, which serves as a lobby for the tunnel tours.
When we first enter the excavation, we’re standing on a wooden platform near the ceiling of a huge, excavated chamber that was once filled with dirt and debris.
At a glance you can take in different periods of Jerusalem history, starting some 10 meters down with a unique find from 2,000 years ago — a mysterious set of three rooms that were chiseled out of bedrock. In a different corner of the room, the archaeologists recently uncovered a cache of modern ammunition used by Jordanian soldiers that were likely deposited in a British Mandate water system as they were fleeing during the 1967 Six Day War.
It’s frankly jaw-dropping.
From above you can see a white mosaic carpet upon which rests a vast Byzantine/Ummayad-era structure with stone pillars, high walls, and arches that was constructed about 1,400 years ago. Like the building that Monnickendam-Givon says stood there before it, this building was also clearly repurposed during successive iterations of Jerusalem history.
We’ll begin our conversation with Monnickendam-Givon under that Byzantine/Ummayad-era structure, deep down under bedrock, inside the bottom layer of a unique, terraced three-room system of rock-hewn chambers. It is the only one of its kind that has been discovered in Jerusalem’s Old City, and dates from 2,000 years ago, just prior to the fall of the Second Temple.
Hewn out of bedrock using hand tools, including iron hammers, the three rooms are rather spacious at circa 2.5 meters x 4 meters (8×13 feet), and two rooms at 2.5 meters x 2.5 meters. Monnickendam-Givon said this is the first example of what appears to be a living space, although there are numerous contemporary ritual baths and graves that were also hewn out of rock during this era. Inside the rooms, what look to be niches for shelves and storage, as well as doorjambs and lantern niches, were chiseled into the bedrock.
Back then, the workmen would have spent months chiseling into the bedrock, and today you can still clearly see where their hammers struck, two millennia ago. We still don’t really know what these rooms were used for, but in the podcast we’ll hear some more of Monnickendam-Givon’s thoughts.
Towards the end of the podcast, Monnickendam-Givon opens up the artifacts locker and shows us the rusty Jordanian ammunition his team uncovered last week. It was discovered in a British Mandate/late-Ottoman period water system and likely stashed there during the 1967 Six Day War as Amman battled Israel over the Old City. Based on the stamp found on some of the bullet casings, the IAA’s Assaf Peretz said the ammunition had been manufactured in Leeds in 1956, and was later provided to the Jordanian army.
During our subterranean conversation, Monnickendam-Givon also speaks about a Latin inscription that now serves as a Lego block, lets us hold a two millennia-old stone mug, and trusts The Times of Israel to not drop a rare complete 2,000-year-old oil lamp.