A budget has not yet been found to implement an in-depth conservation plan for the egalitarian area of the Western Wall, where a massive boulder crashed next to a worshiper in July, The Times of Israel has learned.
In a dramatic July 23 incident, a piece of an ancient boulder crashed in the section of the egalitarian prayer pavilion abutting the Western Wall, in the Robinson’s Arch portion of the Davidson’s Archaeological Park. The boulder, weighing some 100 kilos (220 pounds), fell next to 79-year-old Daniella Goldberg, who was the sole worshiper at the early morning hour.
The site of the fall, a small 12-meter-wide platform adjacent to the Western Wall built in 2003 for egalitarian worship, will remain closed to visitors until conservation work is completed, said the IAA. A second, non-adjacent, 450-square-meter (4,800-square-foot) platform section is still accessible, but does not allow direct access to the Western Wall.
In July, following the stone’s fall from one of the original Herodian courses of the Western Wall, a team of IAA experts, including archaeologists, engineers and conservationists, began a careful examination of the affected area. However, the IAA confirmed, a budget has yet to be found to implement the resultant recommendations.
“The Israel Antiquities Authority submitted to the Prime Minister’s Office an estimate of the costs for the required treatment for the section of the Kotel [Western Wall] in which the stone fell, as well as for the entire area surrounding the Temple Mount,” IAA spokesperson Yoli Schwartz told The Times of Israel on Wednesday. The IAA would not reveal when the recommendations were submitted, nor the estimated costs of implementing them.
Schwartz said that at a meeting at an undisclosed date between “the relevant government ministries,” it was decided that budgetary resources should be pooled to complete the first stage of the necessary treatment: an in-depth survey and conservation treatment for the southern section of the Western Wall, in the Davidson Archaeological Park.
“The IAA is ready to get to work as soon as it receives the budget,” said Schwartz.
Meanwhile, at the main Western Wall prayer pavilion, on Tuesday the Israel Antiquities Authority carried out regular twice-yearly maintenance checks. The IAA reported the survey found no indication of significant change in its condition.
Those tests were completed at the behest of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which oversees the mainstream, sex-segregated prayer pavilion where millions of worshipers and tourists visit every year.
That’s the way the Western Wall crumbles
The Western Wall is revered by Jews as a remnant of a wall supporting the Second Temple complex, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. Because prayer on the Temple Mount itself is forbidden for Jews by the State of Israel, aside from the subterranean Temple Tunnels, the Western Wall (or Kotel, in Hebrew) is the closest Jews can worship.
The egalitarian pavilion, also known as Ezrat Yisrael, is in an area of the Western Wall that is administered by the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter, which was formed by the government in 1968. It is owned by the State of Israel via the Finance and Construction ministries, which appoint the company’s board of directors, according to its website, and is not overseen by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation or the Israeli chief rabbinate.
Those who visit the egalitarian platform enjoy a remarkable view of remnants of the Roman’s razing of the ancient city, including massive pieces of the wall pried loose during the Second Temple’s destruction 2,000 years ago, laying exactly where they fell.
For over a decade, there has been regular maintenance in the well-visited mainstream prayer plaza. In 2009, the IAA completed a three-month preservation project in the main Western Wall plaza, which concentrated on 16 of the upper stone courses that date from the Ottoman period. Unlike the original Herodian courses, these stones are held in place with mortar, which is eroded by water damage over time.
During the 2009 project, the mortar was replaced and many of the caper plants were removed from the wall. According to an IAA report, the team’s work was circumscribed at the guidance of the Western Wall rabbi, but it was satisfied that danger was averted.
The IAA has also commissioned lidar scans and other high-tech survey methods in the prayer pavilion. In July 2014, Hebrew University Earth Sciences Prof. Simon Emmanuel published an article in the peer-reviewed journal Geology based on laser-driven data taken from the Western Wall Plaza, called “Limestone weathering rates accelerated by micron-scale grain detachment.”
Speaking with The Times of Israel in July in the wake of the incident, Emmanuel emphasized that rocks crumbling from the Western Wall were “very rare.” But there is need for serious and continuous checks around the wall’s perimeter, he said.
Another immediate rock fall is not so likely, as erosion “is a slow process. It doesn’t usually happen catastrophically like this,” he said.
The last well-publicized instance of a rock falling from the Western Wall came in 2004.
“The fact that now and then a rock falls off of it — well, that’s the nature of weathering in buildings,” he said.
Emmanuel suggested the implementation of a high-tech early warning system using relatively cheap and non-intrusive high-resolution cameras and computer algorithms to analyze visual input in real time to sense the slightest movement.
“If you look at the footage, there was a bulge before the fall. Had there been a proper warning system, it could have picked it up in time,” he said.
Stymied by lack of budget
Emmanuel said that further checks and data sets for his 2014 study were stymied due to a lack of funding for a more complete survey of the Western Wall and the other ancient retaining walls of the Second Temple. The IAA, said Emmanuel, had planned a scan of the southern and eastern sections of the Temple Mount walls, but it was not completed. Likewise, the area of the Western Wall where the rock fell was not scanned.
In a statement in July, the IAA said there were a number of possibilities that may have led to the stone’s fall, such as vegetation growing in the wall’s cracks, or entrapped moisture that may have worn the stone. There is also the possibility of a still-unknown engineering failure.
Another possible explanation was touched on by both Emmanuel and Hebrew University archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar: Hundreds of years ago, during the Byzantine period, a horizontal line about 30 centimeters (one foot) deep was dug into the wall. “The line would have weakened stability and made the rock more prone to falling off,” said Emmanuel.
Noted Mazar, the piece of the stone that chipped off the Herodian block was about 30 centimeters deep.
“It surely helped cause the damage,” said Mazar, who edited and compiled the archaeological reports from the original excavations of the Western Wall following the Six Day War, which were directed by her grandfather, Prof. Benjamin Mazar. “The whole stone course [row] above and below this line should be carefully monitored,” she said.
Mazar also offered a further potential explanation: renovations and projects on the Temple Mount itself.
“We need to find out what is happening on the other side” of the wall, she said. While the use of tractors, trucks and heavy machinery is forbidden there, “every time they use an industrial tool — even for drilling — it influences the wall below,” Mazar said.
Two days after the stone fell, as it was lifted from the egalitarian pavilion, Amit Ram, an archaeologist from the Jerusalem division of the IAA, said, “The IAA sees the event as a wake-up call, and even an opportunity. Tomorrow another stone can fall in any site in the Old City, and we think it is time to carry out a thorough treatment of all the archaeological sites in the city.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.