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
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.”
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.’