As­cend­ing a 2,000-year-old Pil­grim­age Road

The City of David has al­ready changed Jerusalem. A new dis­cov­ery there open­ing soon will change the way Jews con­nect with their past in a way never seen be­fore

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • By YAAKOV KATZ

In 2004, a sewage pipe burst in the mid­dle of the neigh­bor­hood of Sil­wan in south­east Jerusalem. The mu­nic­i­pal­ity sent in a crew of con­struc­tion work­ers to fix the leak, and as is the case in Jerusalem and es­pe­cially in neighborho­ods ad­ja­cent to the Old City, they were ac­com­pa­nied by a team of arche­ol­o­gists.

As the re­pairs pro­gressed, the con­struc­tion work­ers stum­bled upon some long and wide stairs a few dozen me­ters from where the Shiloah – the an­cient pool Jewish pil­grims would dip in be­fore be­gin­ning the religious as­cent to the Tem­ple, un­til its de­struc­tion in 70 CE – was be­lieved to have once stood. The steps were just like the ones that lead to the Hulda Gates, a set of now blocked en­trances along the Tem­ple Mount’s South­ern Wall.

Dis­cov­ery of the Shiloah Pool led to an­other mon­u­men­tal find – the cen­tral wa­ter drainage chan­nel that had served an­cient Jerusalem. This chan­nel is the tun­nel that vis­i­tors to the City of David – known as Ir David – get to walk through to­day, start­ing at the bot­tom of the Shiloah and emerg­ing about 45 min­utes later next to the Western Wall.

As is of­ten the case with arche­ol­ogy, though, the first dis­cov­ery or two are just the be­gin­ning. That is how a few weeks ago I found my­self on an ex­clu­sive tour of an an­cient road dug out be­neath the vil­lage of Sil­wan and above the now well-known wa­ter chan­nel (also the place where Jewish rebels made a fi­nal stand against the Ro­man in­vaders).

The an­cient street is re­ferred to as “Pil­grim­age Road,” since arche­ol­o­gists are con­vinced that this is the path mil­lions of Jews took three times a year when per­form­ing the com­mand­ment of aliyah l’regel – go­ing up to the holy city of Jerusalem to bring sac­ri­fices to God dur­ing Ju­daism’s three key hol­i­days, Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot.

The Pil­grim­age Road goes all the way from the Shiloah Pool to the area ad­ja­cent to the Western Wall known as Robin­son’s Arch, where to­day you can still see rem­nants of the an­cient stair­way that led into the Jewish Tem­ple.

Ti­tus Flav­ius Jose­phus, the first-cen­tury Ro­man-Jewish his­to­rian, wrote that 2.7 mil­lion peo­ple used to visit Jerusalem dur­ing the var­i­ous Jewish hol­i­days, bring­ing with them some 256,000 sac­ri­fices.

Al­most all of the Jewish pil­grims, ac­cord­ing to Doron Spiel­man, vice pres­i­dent of the Ir David Foun­da­tion (Elad), would have en­tered

the city on this road. It is a road that Je­sus al­most cer­tainly used dur­ing the Sec­ond Tem­ple pe­riod, along­side many of the fa­mous Jewish schol­ars and lead­ers of that pe­riod.

“This place is the heart of the Jewish peo­ple, and is like the blood that cour­ses through our veins,” Spiel­man said.

Here is one ex­am­ple: Hil­lel and Sham­mai – the fa­mous first-cen­tury schol­ars who fig­ure promi­nently in the Mishna – de­bate at what stage in a child’s de­vel­op­ment his fa­ther is ob­li­gated to in­clude him in the pil­grim­age. Sham­mai, the strin­gent one, says that a child should be in­cluded as long as he can sit on his fa­ther’s shoul­ders. Hil­lel says only if the child is able to walk up the 750-me­ter road need he be in­cluded.

Walk­ing the road – as of now Ir David has ex­ca­vated about 250 me­ters of it – you can imag­ine the throngs of peo­ple parad­ing on it 2,000 years ago. Young boys walk­ing next to their par­ents. Girls on their fa­thers’ shoul­ders. So far, only some of the stores that once lined the road have been par­tially un­cov­ered, but with imag­i­na­tion you can hear the bar­ter­ing that took place here – peo­ple trad­ing leather for fur, seeds for honey, coins for wine.

For ex­am­ple, arche­ol­o­gists found a set of stairs in the mid­dle of the road along­side one of the an­cient shops. But the stair­case doesn’t go any­where. It ends in a plat­form. When Ir David checked, though, it found just one other sim­i­lar set of stairs – in Rome, where it was used as some­thing like a Hyde Park-style Speak­ers’ Cor­ner. Ba­si­cally, this was a place where peo­ple could make an­nounce­ments and de­liver speeches to the pil­grims as they climbed the road to the Tem­ple.

Then arche­ol­o­gists found be­side the stairs the burned re­mains of a male palm tree, one that doesn’t give fruit. Why would there be a non-fruit pro­duc­ing tree right there on the road? To pro­vide shade for the speak­ers.

“To un­der­stand Jerusalem, you need to stand here,” Spiel­man said. “We were ex­iled in 70 [CE] and prayed three times a day and es­tab­lished a state. The last breath of Jews was here, be­neath us.”

Spiel­man pointed at some black ash dis­cov­ered along the road and men­tioned the thou­sands of coins the arche­ol­o­gists un­cov­ered en­graved with the words “Free Zion.”

“This was the bat­tle cry dur­ing the fight against the Ro­mans,” he ex­plained. “They made coins and not ar­row­heads, be­cause they knew they could not beat Rome, but they made the coins so there would be some­thing left for the peo­ple who would one day come back.”

‘This place is the heart of the Jewish peo­ple and is like the blood that cour­ses through our veins’

IR DAVID has changed our un­der­stand­ing of his­tory. It is one thing to read the Mishna and imag­ine or vi­su­al­ize what life for Jews was once like. It is quite an­other to walk on the ex­act same road as they did.

For the last few months, Ir David has been work­ing around the clock to con­nect the ex­ca­vated part of the road with the Shiloah Pool. It is te­dious work that has to be done slowly. Ev­ery inch ex­ca­vated has to be re­in­forced with steel beams to pro­tect the modern city above.

The project has so far cost sev­eral hun­dred mil­lion dol­lars, and while the gov­ern­ment has pro­vided a por­tion of the bud­get, most has come from pri­vate donors, such as Shel­don and Miriam Adel­son, Or­a­cle founder Larry El­li­son and What­sApp co-founder Jan Koum.

Ir David hopes that when the road of­fi­cially opens in a few months, it will draw ap­prox­i­mately one mil­lion vis­i­tors a year.

Yis­rael Has­son, direc­tor of the Is­rael An­tiq­ui­ties Author­ity, noted: “The Road project is a part of the Shalem Plan, which was ap­proved in a gov­ern­ment cabi­net meet­ing, the pur­pose of which is to pre­serve and de­velop the area of an­cient Jerusalem. The plan re­lates to the sites of an­cient Jerusalem from a com­pre­hen­sive gov­ern­men­tal plan­ning and bud­getary per­spec­tive, which will cre­ate a holis­tic vis­i­tor ex­pe­ri­ence in this unique area. We are cur­rently in the sec­ond phase of the plan, which will dra­mat­i­cally im­prove this en­tire area.

“The Shalem Plan is part of the Is­rael An­tiq­ui­ties Author­ity’s new vi­sion to be­come an ini­tia­tive-based or­ga­ni­za­tion, based on its role as the na­tional guardian of her­itage and cul­tural sites in Is­rael.”

Con­sid­er­ing the anti-Is­rael res­o­lu­tions com­ing out of United Na­tions or­ga­ni­za­tions such as UNESCO that deny the Jewish con­nec­tion to Jerusalem, the Pil­grim­age Road has far greater sig­nif­i­cance for Is­rael than just the open­ing of a new im­pres­sive tourist site, said Ze’ev Oren­stein, direc­tor of in­ter­na­tional af­fairs for Ir David.

It proves the long and his­toric Jewish con­nec­tion to Jerusalem, Oren­stein stressed, not just the parts where Jews live to­day but across the city, even if it takes you un­der homes and streets in Arab neighborho­ods like Sil­wan.

US Ambassador David Fried­man agrees. “The City of David brings truth and science to a de­bate that has been marred for too long by myths and de­cep­tions,” he told the Mag­a­zine. “Its find­ings, in most cases by sec­u­lar arche­ol­o­gists, bring an end to the base­less ef­forts to deny the his­tor­i­cal fact of Jerusalem’s an­cient con­nec­tion to the Jewish peo­ple.”

I asked Fried­man why the dis­cov­ery of Pil­grim­age Road was im­por­tant for the US gov­ern­ment.

“There has been enor­mous sup­port for the City of David by the Amer­i­can public,” he said. “This is yet an­other ex­am­ple – and a great one – of the recog­ni­tion of the Judeo-Chris­tian val­ues upon which both na­tions were founded.”

Pil­grim­age Road, Fried­man said, is “stun­ning and tan­gi­ble ev­i­dence” of Jewish prayer dur­ing the time of the Sec­ond Tem­ple. “It brings to life the his­tor­i­cal truth of that mo­men­tous pe­riod in Jewish his­tory,” he added. “Peace be­tween Is­rael and the Pales­tini­ans must be based upon a foun­da­tion of truth. The City of David ad­vances our col­lec­tive goal of pur­su­ing a truth-based res­o­lu­tion. It is im­por­tant for all sides of the con­flict.”

For Spiel­man, Ir David is the “heart of the Jewish peo­ple” and “you can’t amputate the heart.”

I asked Fried­man what would hap­pen if a peace deal were to be con­cluded one day be­tween Is­rael and the Pales­tini­ans. Is it pos­si­ble that the Jewish state would be asked to give up Ir David or Sil­wan?

“I do not be­lieve that Is­rael would ever con­sider such a thought,” he said. “The City of David is an es­sen­tial com­po­nent of the na­tional her­itage of the State of Is­rael. It would be akin to Amer­ica re­turn­ing the Statue of Liberty.”

(Pho­tos: Marc Is­rael Sellem)

ON THE road: ‘To un­der­stand Jerusalem, you need to stand here.’

‘I FOUND my­self on an ex­clu­sive tour of an an­cient road dug out from be­neath the vil­lage of Sil­wan and the now well-known wa­ter chan­nel.’

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