Beneath the houses of Old Jerusalem’s Cotton Market neighborhood, a massive series of ancient buildings excavated by Israeli archaeologists is set to open to the public. Connected to the Western Wall tunnels by a warren of former cisterns, the jewel in the crown is a recently refurbished 14th century caravansary just 20 meters from the Temple Mount.
The complex, named “Ahar Kotlenu” — Hebrew for behind our wall, a reference to Song of Songs 2:9 — by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, features a grand hall roughly 3,500 square feet (325 square meters) in size whose cross-vaulted stone roof is held aloft by six reinforced pillars. The limestone walls include spolia — material pilfered from old ruins for construction — such as Crusader capitals. It once served as the storerooms and stables of the Mamluk caravansary, or inn for caravans, built in 1337, abutting the Cotton Merchants Market.
The inn was part of the Mamluks’ massive reconstruction of Jerusalem, which had fallen into disrepair by the mid-13th century and was in a state of “urban disarray,” as historian Nimrod Luz wrote. The slave kings of Egypt built schools, caravansaries, public baths, hostels and markets in a city suffering from years of economic decline.
“When we started excavating [the khan, or caravansary, in 2008], the fill was almost up to the ceiling,” Hervé Barbé, a research archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority who headed the dig, told The Times of Israel. “There was about a meter; we had to huddle in.” In the six years since, the archaeologists dug about 6 meters (19 feet) of dirt and rubbish out of the khan. An engineer was brought in to assess the 600-year-old building’s integrity and reinforce it to prevent collapse.
The Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which administers the site, as well as the Western Wall tunnels connected to it, said that the entire complex — both the excavations and the Ahar Kotlenu hall — was being tested with “a number of pilots” to determine the best use of the space. It’s not certain whether it will be designed as a museum to showcase the Muslim, Christian, pagan and Jewish histories of the city, or for religious purposes. While this reporter was there, the hall was being used to deliver a lecture ahead of Yom Kippur.
On the street level above are the ruins of a Jewish house of prayer. A community of Hungarian Orthodox Jews built the Ohel Yitzchak Synagogue meters from the Temple Mount in the 1870s. In 1938, amid the Arab uprising in British Mandate Palestine, the synagogue was abandoned, and during Jordanian rule between 1948 and 1967 it fell to ruins.
In 2004, the IAA began excavating beneath the synagogue, slicing deeply into the layer cake of Jerusalem’s history.
Adjoining the khan, beneath the synagogue’s ruins, are the remains of a Mamluk hamam, a traditional three-roomed bathhouse. The first chamber, a towering dome with a skylight used as a changing room, features a magnificent arched entryway flanked by stone benches in typical Mamluk style. It was repurposed at some point during the Ottoman era as a water cistern, its thick limestone walls plastered over. Three windows looking into the khan were filled in and waterproofed. By the 20th century, the room was filled in with dirt and rubbish. Barbé and his team found Jordanian mortar shells and plastic sandals at the top of what had become the neighborhood trash heap, before they dug deeper.
The two other chambers, a dry and wet sauna, were preserved over the centuries. The channels and pipes that brought water in from a spring near Bethlehem and into the steam rooms are fragmented but clearly visible in places.
Descending a meter deeper beneath the streets of the Old City, one hits the late Roman street known as the second Cardo, a north-south paved avenue forming a major artery in the Byzantine city. The street remained in use until the Crusaders arrived in the 12th century, said Barbé. During the Crusades, this area of the city was an industrial zone, he said, home to textile factories.
A bit lower down, 20 feet beneath today’s Old City streets, five monumental limestone steps from Herod’s Jerusalem plunge into the earth. The tantalizing stairs, a mere fragment of which has been exposed, lead eastward, beneath the Cotton Merchants Market, but their northern and southern extent have yet to be determined.
The Herodian level, exposed during excavations conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority in 2007, sits beneath a massive, crudely hewn wall whose purpose is not certain, but may have been part of a Roman military encampment built after 70 CE and the destruction of the Second Temple.
Barbé posited that the Herodian steps may have been built as part of the project to fill in the Tyropoeon Valley that once ran along the west side of the Temple Mount. The steps may have channeled pilgrims to one of the grand entrances of the Temple Mount. Unless further excavation is done, there’s no way to ascertain his hypothesis.
As Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist Yuval Baruch told Channel 10 this week, “It’s one of the [most] impressive, beautiful and grand places found recently in Jerusalem.”
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