Saturday, 3 April 2010

Pilgrimage 2009: Western Wall Tunnels

Charles Wilson and Charles Warren were archeologists who excavated the outside of the Western Wall, under the existing streets of Jerusalem. This work started in the 19th century and was continued in the second half of the twentieth century.

In the last couple of years the site has been opened as a visitor site for pre-booked groups. We visited it on day 2 of our pilgrimage, and were able to see a completely different view of the city - from underground.

The entrance is next to the currently exposed part of the Western Wall (security checks are potentially rigorous here and our bags were checked), and the exit is to the north at the Via Dolorosa, in the Muslim Quarter. Guards escort visitors from the exit back to the entrance, and of course, through the security checks.

Our guide for the tour was Jewish, and he started with a model of the temple mount that showed us where the foundation stone sits in relation to the rest of the site, and talked about its importance for Jewish people (and others).

One of the fellow pilgrims initiated a discussion that evening about how the foundation stone can be that if it is made of limestone.  I think highlights one of the problems with seeking a literalist surface reading of the bible, and imagine God smiling as we struggle with some of the challenges in our path. I can almost hear the voice saying, "Think, study, look. The answers are there but you have to want to find them. Seek and you will find." So often our reply is couched in terms of what we can measure, rather than awe when we realise that God doesnlt fit into a box of our making.
The idea of the foundation stone isn't one that has percolated into my consciousness before, but it struck a chord, and when I read ""For the foundations of the earth are the LORD's; upon them he has set the world." 1Samuel 2:8, and ""Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand."Job 38:4 (one of my favourite parts of the Bible) it now reminds me that place.  Morning Prayer has additional resonance now too.

We then moved into the tunnels themselves. They smelled...damp and earthy with a faint mildew-spore effect, but not enough to trigger my asthma, so cleaner that I thought it would be.

The first point was a small 'cave' where our guide talked about all the treasures that people had hoped to find during the excavations, mainly things like gold from the temple and various holy artefacts. If they have been found everyone is keeping very quiet about them, and there isn't any gold on display. However the real treasures has turned out to be knowledge, and access to a point on the wall that is closer to the foundation stone than is currently accessible outside.

We were able to see stones form the original wall, including this  at the bottom - the rectangular holes are where subsequent Roman wooden beams were put to support the weight of (did I imagine this?) a swimming pool.

During our tour we saw an amazing electronic robotic model of Jersualem with scenery that moved to show how the city changed over time. We women were also able to go into a viewing room that overlooks the library, where the men go to get closer to the stone when they pray. Sadly there wan't time for the men to visit that, and they weren't allowed in the women's gallery, so they missed out. P had been in the library on a previous visit, so didn't mind too much.

I found it moving that as we went through the tunnels, there were papers with prayers on slotted into the gaps between the stones, and several women were in the tunnels praying. Actually they were able to get even closer to the foundation stone than the men outside, and we walked past them quietly and quickly so as not to disturb their prayers.

Our underground tour took us to the intersection with Hezekiah's tunnel and an undergound pool, one of the many water cisterns. (I understood that to be the Pool of Siloam, but subsequent study shows this might not be the case) The cistern contained water, and had been blocked off with a wall, and the story about this isn't one I've found elsewhere. It involved an archeologist called Charles, who discovered the cistern and then spotted a door in the wall on the other side. He made a raft, paddled across the cistern and knocked on the door. The door was opened by a surprised nun, who had been unaware of the excavations on the other side of their underground water supply. The stone wall was commissioned by the convent some years later to preserve their privacy. (See Ecce Homo convent.)

At the end of our tour we came out of the works into the Muslim quarter of Jerualem, and were escorted back by a soldier. It seemd over-dramatic to be escorted where we had walked previously, unaware of danger. However, our guide said that becasue we had come out of that particular door, people would know where we had started, and that some visitors to the Western Walls were stabbed there last year. Such is Jerulasem it seems - and another reminder that tension isn't far below the surface.

he advantage of shepherding us back through security was that we moved as one group and could be counted in and out.

There is more information and photographs at this web-site.

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