"We were here. There should be no question about it."
A 2,100-year-old section of the wall surrounding Jerusalem, dating from Hasmonean times, has been unearthed on Mount Zion, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced Wednesday. The excavations have revealed part of the expanded southern city wall, from the Second Temple period, when ancient Jerusalem was at its largest.
Photo: Klara Amit, I.A.A.
The new findings, described by the Antiquities Authority as “exciting” and “extraordinary,” were announced during a press conference held at the excavation site on Mount Zion.
In addition to the Hasmonean wall dating to the second century B.C.E., archeologists discovered remains of a later wall, built on top of the older wall in Byzantine times (342-640 C.E.), after the older wall was mostly destroyed during the Great Revolt of the Jews against Rome in 66-70 C.E. Together, the two walls offered a rare glimpse into the boundaries of an enlarged Jerusalem, which was bigger than the Old City is today, as delineated by the Ottoman walls still standing.
The original Hasmonean wall reached at height of over 3 meters (10.5 feet) and was part of a 3.5 mile-long fortified perimeter - much longer than the 2.5 miles of today’s wall. Like many monumental structures from that period, it was built without mortar or any other adhesive. The newly unearthed wall predates the structures of Herod, including the Western Wall and the other walls surrounding the Temple Mount.
Klara Amit, I.A.A.
The extensive excavation has been in progress for the past year and a half, under the direction of archaeologist Yechiel Zelinger of the Israel Antiquities Authority (I.A.A.), in cooperation with the Nature and Parks Authority and with financial support provided by the Ir David (City of David) Foundation.
According to an I.A.A. press release, the project is part of the master plan for the Jerusalem City Walls National Park, aimed at preserving and exhibiting the region around the Old City of Jerusalem as an open area for tourism. The National Parks Authority plans for the remains of the ancient city walls to be incorporated into a promenade that will encircle the southern side of Mount Zion, continue along the northern bank of Gai Ben Hinnom (Valley of Hinnom), and terminate in the City of David to the south of the present-day Old City walls.
The lines of the wall that delineate Mount Zion from the west and the south were first discovered and excavated at the end of the 19th century (1894-1897) by the Palestine Exploration Fund, under the direction of the archaeologist Frederick Jones Bliss and his assistant, architect Archibald Dickie. For the excavation, the team excavated vertical shafts linked by subterranean tunnels running along the outer face of the city walls.
In the years that passed since the century-old excavations, the shafts and tunnels had filled up with soil; a year and a half ago when archaeologists were asked to determine the location of the areas that were excavated, they were unsuccessful in doing so. However, by cross-referencing the plans of the old excavations with current updated maps of the area, Yehiel Zelinger was able to locate the tunnels which the British expedition had dug.
Klara Amit, I.A.A.
Among the items discovered in the recent excavation were “souvenirs” left behind by the British excavators, including one of the laborer’s shoes, the top of a gas light which was used to illuminate the tunnels, and fragments of beer and wine bottles from 120 years ago. One of the beer bottle fragments was marked with the word “Jerusalem,” and, in addition to the artifacts from the British, a bowl shard was found dating from the 3rd-4th century C.E.
Yechiel Zelinger commented on the recent findings at the conference. “Having located the two city walls on Mount Zion corroborates our theory regarding the expansion of the city toward the south during these two periods, when Jerusalem reached its largest size.
“In the Second Temple period the city, with the Temple at its center, was a focal point for Jewish pilgrimage from all over the ancient world, and in the Byzantine period it attracted Christian pilgrims who came in the footsteps of the story of the life and death of their messiah. The exposure of the Hasmonean city wall and the line of fortifications from the Byzantine period, which is dated 400 years later and is right on top of the former, prove that this is the most advantageous topographic location for the defense of the city.
“The artifacts indicate that in spite of the fact that the builders of the Byzantine wall were unaware of the existence of the wall from the time of the Second Temple, they constructed their wall precisely along the same route.” Zelinger added, “the fact that after 2,100 years the remains of the first city wall were preserved to a height of three meters is amazing. This is one of the most beautiful and complete sections of construction in the Hasmonean building style to be found in Jerusalem.”
When asked about the implications of the findings for Jewish historians, Zelinger said that it was more evidence of what he considers to be an undisputable fact: "We were here. There should be no question about it."