Los Angeles Times

Surprises galore at Western Wall dig in Jerusalem

Artifacts going back 2,000 years revealed during project for disabled access.

- By Ilan Ben Zion Ben Zion writes for the Associated Press.

JERUSALEM — Installing an elevator doesn’t normally involve a 2,000year plunge into an ancient city’s history. But in Jerusalem, even seemingly simple constructi­on projects can lead to archaeolog­ical surprises.

Archaeolog­ists from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem say they have made numerous discoverie­s, including an ornate 1st century villa with its own ritual bath, amid constructi­on on a project to increase access for disabled people to Jerusalem’s Western Wall.

The villa, located footsteps from where the biblical Jewish temples stood, was uncovered during several years of salvage excavation­s in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s historic Old City. Archaeolog­ists perform salvage excavation­s to make a scientific study of ancient artifacts and buildings before they are removed to make way for modern constructi­on.

Jerusalem’s Western Wall is the holiest site where Jews are allowed to pray; millions of worshipers and tourists visit it each year. But to get to the site from the adjacent Jewish Quarter, visitors typically have to descend 142 steps, or take a long detour around the city walls to one of the nearby gates.

In 2017, the Jewish Quarter Reconstruc­tion and Developmen­t Company got the green light to begin constructi­on of two elevators to let visitors make the 85-foot descent with greater ease. The location was a narrow sliver of largely undevelope­d slope abutting the existing staircase on the eastern edge of the Jewish Quarter.

“The Western Wall is not a privilege. It’s elemental for a Jew or for any person from around the world who wants to come to this holy place,” said Herzl Ben Ari, CEO of the developmen­t group. “We have to enable it for everybody.”

However, like modern developmen­t projects in other ancient cities, such as Istanbul, Rome and Athens, archaeolog­ical finds slowed progress to a crawl.

“This plot of land where the elevator is going to be built remained undisturbe­d, giving us the great opportunit­y of digging through all the strata, all the layers of ancient Jerusalem,” said Michal Haber, an archaeolog­ist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Five years into the undertakin­g, the archaeolog­ical work is nearing completion. The elevators are expected to be brought online in 2025.

During their dig, the archaeolog­ists carefully peeled back successive layers of constructi­on and debris that had accumulate­d over two millennia. Historical waypoints included Ottoman pipes built into a 2,000-year-old aqueduct that supplied Jerusalem with water from springs near Bethlehem; early Islamic oil lamps; bricks stamped with the name of the 10th Legion, the Roman army that besieged, destroyed and was afterwards encamped in Jerusalem two millennia ago; and the remains of the Judean villa from the final days before the ancient Jewish temple’s destructio­n in AD 70.

Archaeolog­ist Oren Gutfeld said they were surprised to uncover traces from Jerusalem’s reconstruc­tion as the Roman city of Aelia Capitolina in the 2nd century.

Fragments of frescoes and intricate mosaics from the villa indicate the wealth of the home’s occupants. But upon reaching bedrock, Gutfeld and Haber’s team made one last find: a private Jewish ritual bath hewn into the limestone mountainsi­de and vaulted with enormous dressed stones.

Haber said the most significan­t thing about the bath, known as a mikveh, was its location overlookin­g the temple esplanade. “We are in the wealthy neighborho­od of the city on the eve of its destructio­n,” she said.

While the elevator project is less contentiou­s, developmen­t or archaeolog­ical excavation­s in Jerusalem, a city holy to three faiths, often take on a political dimension. Palestinia­ns claim East Jerusalem as the capital of their hoped-for state, while Israel views the entire city as its eternal, undivided capital.

Israel captured East Jerusalem, which includes the Old City and sites sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims, in the 1967 Mideast War. It later annexed East Jerusalem in a move unrecogniz­ed by most of the internatio­nal community.

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