Uncovering the Western Wall Tunnels

The size of the Western Wall (known as the Kotel) and the method of its construction have occupied Jerusalem researchers from as far back as the 19th century. In 1864, an engineer and archeologist by the name of Charles Wilson arrived in the Land of Israel; his first task was mapping the city of Jerusalem. In early 1867, about two years after Wilson’s discoveries, another British researcher arrived in Jerusalem as an emissary of the British Foundation for the Research of the Holy Land. This researcher, Charles Warren, dug shafts at Wilson’s Arch (one of them is found in the prayer hall inside Wilson’s Arch) and reached down to the original bedrock infrastructure. During his mission to Jerusalem, Warren also uncovered one of the four entrance gates to the Temple Mount that were in the Western Wall during the Second Temple period that would later be named Warren’s Gate. Wilson and Warren were among the first to uncover the northern continuation of the Western Wall, but had difficulty continuing organized excavations and their mission was never completed due to difficulties caused by the Ottoman government. They uncovered remnants of buildings but were not able to figure out what they were and were unable to explain their connection to each other.

For 50 years, from the outbreak of WWI until the Six Day War (1967), no research excavations were conducted in the area of the Western Wall. Only after the Six Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem were the excavations of the Western Wall Tunnels renewed with the goal of uncovering the entire length of the Western Wall. This project was assigned to the Ministry of Religion and was led by the Rabbi of the Western Wall, the late Rabbi Meir Yehuda Getz, with great dedication and concern for the smallest of engineering and managerial details. The excavations continued for almost 20 years, accompanied by many difficulties and challenges. With the establishment of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation in 1988, the responsibility for the excavations was passed on to them and they continue with this project to the present day, along with opening the Tunnels to the public.

The Western Wall Tunnel excavation project, conducted with great thoroughness under careful Halachic (Jewish Law) and scientific supervision, has revealed to the public the Jerusalem during its glory days, from 2,000 years ago. During the excavations, new details were uncovered, some of them previously unknown, about the history and geography of the Temple Mount compound through the generations. Previously unknown facts about construction methods, hidden sites, and important archeological finds were uncovered. Little by little, the Great Bridge from the Second Temple period was uncovered, along with ritual baths that served Jerusalem residents and pilgrims, a street that, based on coins and earthenware found on the site, was estimated to date from the Second Temple period, and of course the Western Wall along practically its entire length. The excavations also revealed immense stone courses of the Wall – carefully carved and incredibly well preserved, ancient water pits and an ancient water tunnel from the Hasmonean period that was blocked by Herod when he expanded the site of the Temple Mount, along with impressive Muslim construction projects from the Middle Ages that to a great extent preserved the Wall through the years. All these finds have made the Western Wall Tunnels a phenomenal historic and archeological treasure and still, there is so much more that is hidden than has already been uncovered at the foot of the Temple Mount, so the excavation work in the Tunnels continues.

Great efforts have been made by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation to prepare the Tunnels for the public and to enable safe, secure and enjoyable passage for visitors. Restoration of the ancient arches, stabilizing of the stones that were damaged by earthquakes and repairing water damage demanded unique engineering and safety solutions. New air-conditioning, lighting, signage and sewage systems were installed, and walkways were constructed that are also appropriate for the handicapped. In order to complete the visitor’s experience at the site, a professional guiding and explanatory network was established that is used by all visitors to the Tunnels, exposing them all to the fascinating details involved in building the Western Wall and the Temple, and about day-to-day life in ancient Jerusalem. Guiding in the Western Wall Tunnels is offered in a variety of languages and to a wide range of audiences: worshippers, school groups, IDF soldiers, families, organized groups, and tourists from Israel and around the world.

Millions of visitors from around the world have visited the Western Wall Tunnels from the day they were opened to the public, and it quickly became one of the most popular tourist sites in the Old City. There is an entrance fee to the Tunnels, and because of the huge demand for visits throughout the year, advance reservations are highly recommended.

The Western Wall Tunnels are a sort of ‘time tunnel’ to ancient Jerusalem and every visitor is swept back directly to Jerusalem’s glory days as they were during the 1st century CE. However, the visit is not only a trip through time, but also a powerful lesson in Jewish history, and the archeology and topography of the city.