Excavation sites often get buried by all the religious and cultural things to see in Jerusalem, but you don’t have to be an archaeologist to fall in love with piles of old rocks. Here are my five favorite excavation sites that I visited in Jerusalem.
1. Western Wall Excavations
Also called the “Davidson Archaeological Park.” Found on the southern and western areas of the Temple Mount, this excavation site contains a lot of what would have been public areas around the Temple mount when the Temple was fully operational.
On the west side of the Temple Mount, you can find remnants of arches that held up large staircases leading up to the temple platform. You can also see large stones that were pushed off of the Temple Mount when the Romans came and thoroughly destroyed the Temple in 70 CE. As Christ prophesied, not one stone was left upon another, and you can see evidence of the absolute destruction of the Temple.
One of the stones lying on the ground bears an inscription in Hebrew indicating that it marked the “trumpeting place.” Archaeologists concluded that this stone marked where the priests would blow their shofars, and it is a probably location for where Christ stood when the devil tempted Christ to publicly display His power by casting Himself down and letting angels protect Him.
On the south side of the Temple Mount, you can find an archaeological dig exposing a bunch of mikvaot. These were ritual baths that the Jews used to cleanse themselves, which would have been critical before doing anything in the Temple.
Just above these mikvaot is the Double Gate and a set of stairs. Christ would certainly have used those stairs, even the exact stones currently in the ground, to go up and enter the temple mount. When Niel Armstrong–the first man on the moon–visited this spot, he’s quoted as saying “I am more excited about stepping on these stones than I was stepping on the moon.” If you’re interested in walking where Jesus walked, this is a great place to get a guarantee.
Although I was most interested in the excavations themselves, this site also has a short explanatory film and a few artifacts on display. The artifacts are mostly from the dig site, and include some crude stone carvings of a ram that date to one of the stone ages (I can’t remember which). I’m always in awe of really old things, and the ram carvings more than qualified.
2. City of David/Hezekiah’s Tunnel
A small portion of Jerusalem is surrounded by rock walls and is usually referred to as the “Old City.” The walls were built back in 1538, which certainly qualifies as “old,” but these walls don’t actually enclose the original Jerusalem. To find the original Jersualem–the one inhabited since 3500 BCE, led by Melchizedek, and conquered by King David–you have to look just south of the Temple mount. There lies the “City of David.”
This site also has an explanatory movie (one that gets fairly political at the end). After the movie you can go and see parts of the foundation from David’s palace, as well as the “Millo” or “stepped stone structure” that was built to reinforce the palace structure. These structures played a significant role in Israelite history not only due to the people these structures housed, but for the cost of building them. Constructing and reconstructing the Millo, palace, and some city walls required heavy taxes, angering people like Jeroboam. As a result, when King Solomon died, Jeroboam was able to provoke the northern tribes into leaving the Israelite kingdom to avoid continual payment of heavy taxes to Rehoboam. The remains of this stepped stone structure stand as a reminder of when the house of Jacob parted ways.
There are also some large stones from the era of Melchizedek, around 2,000 BCE. It’s even a plausible claim that Melchizedek himself had the stones put in place, but we’ll probably never know for sure.
The main attraction of the City of David is the Gihon Spring and Hezekiah’s tunnel. The Gihon spring is a water source coming from the base of the city in the Kidron Valley. This water source is the reason Jerusalem exists at all. To survive, cities need water, defensibility, and access to trade. Although some other peaks in the area could have offered greater defensibility, the Gihon spring provided life.
The Gihon spring also enabled David to conquer Jerusalem from the Jebusites. His men came up through some sort of system related to the Gihon spring to bypass the walled defenses of the Jebusites. After conquering them, David made the city his own capital.
A few centuries later, Hezekiah made some additional fortifications around this water supply to prepare to defend against the Assyrian invasion. Part of this fortification meant building a long, windy tunnel through solid rock. One of my favorite Jerusalem experiences was walking through this tunnel, ankle deep in water, with no light besides whatever you bring with you. It’s amazing how long the tunnel goes, and to know that they had to build the twisted tunnel from both directions at once, meeting together with the help of some happy luck and impressive engineering.
3. Western Wall Tunnel
You can see a portion of the Western Wall just by coming up through Dung Gate. However, there’s even more to see underground.
Taking a tour through the western wall tunnel will expose you to some of the largest structural rocks you’ve ever seen. One ashlar (a fancy word for “really big rock for construction”) weighs over 570 tons. We still don’t have a clear idea of how Herod’s workers got this one unbroken stone into place.
The tunnel will also take you by some worship areas for Jewish people, some of which are the closest that observant Jews will get to the former location of the Holy of Holies in the Temple. These areas are restored fairly well, and some areas include some restoration of the plaster that would have covered the walls, giving you a better picture of how things would have looked in their prime. In their prime, most of this old stuff were not bunches of exposed rocks piled on top of each other, they typically looked smooth and nice.
4. Burnt House
At first, the Burnt House looks like a relatively small exhibit–just the walls from one exposed house, as well as some pottery and assorted artifacts. This excavation earns its way onto the list with a fairly cheesy movie and attempts at great theatrics.
When you get into the exhibit area, a movie starts that makes use of multiple semi-transparent screens, automatic spotlights, smoke, and strobe-light fire effects. The acting in the movie seems a bit juvenile at times, and the English dubbed voices don’t help, but the movie does a great job describing some of the events surrounding the destruction of the Temple and some of the politics involved. The cheesy acting almost makes the experience more endearing, almost like your friends managed to get enough budget to make a movie with some serious tech, but had to do the acting themselves.
The exhibit’s overall attention to detail and clear summary of the destruction of the temple in less than 30 minutes make this worth attending. If you’re not familiar with Biblical history, make a point to hit this place early to get a better sense of what the other excavation sites will flesh out in greater detail.
5. Wohl Museum
The Wohl Museum displays the remains of several priestly homes that were destroyed with the second temple in 70 CE. This is a great place to go after getting some background from the Burnt House to see more details on how aristocratic priests were living prior to the destruction.
Some of the houses include nice mosaics that are still clear and visible. Many walls have vivid frescoes. Lots of pottery (especially stone pottery that doesn’t become ritually unclean) and coinage from the area are on display as well. They even have ash on display that was found during excavations, evidence that these houses were burned in the destructive frenzy.
Keep seeking truth.
You may also be interested in: