Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

20 Ellul 5766 - September 13, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








The Kotel Tunnels—The Decision, the Riots, the Meaning, the Beauty and the Hidden Glory

by R. Collin

Part II

Ten years ago the Hasmonean tunnel was opened to serve as the exit door leading out of the Western Wall tunnels. The opening of the tunnel triggered a wave of widespread riots in the occupied territories. The opening, which began as a local ceremony, quickly sprung onto headlines worldwide. Despite the thorny events, the Hasmonean tunnel has remained open, and thousands visit the Western Wall tunnels every year. The sights revealed during the tour to the tunnels are an instructive and thrilling proof of what is no more, and what will one day be restored — besiyata deShmaya in the Geula that is to come, speedily.

The first part discussed the immediate political background to the opening, including an interview with Ehud Olmert who was then the mayor of Yerushalayim and in that capacity participated in the government decision to open the Hasmonean tunnel extension to the Kotel tunnels.


What are the `Kotel Tunnels?'

There is a story of a Moslem caliph who treated the Jews well in his country. Hashem made him prosper in his undertakings, and he managed to conquer Yerushalayim from the Romans, who had desecrated the Holy Place and the Sanctuary.

A few days after his entry to the city, the caliph saw an old woman throwing her bag of garbage on a heap piled high with garbage which had accumulated not far from his residence. The caliph was enraged with the woman for showing contempt for his royal court, and ordered that she be brought before him.

The woman apologized to the chalif, but told him that "it is customary in the city to pile garbage on that heap." The caliph's guards placed the woman in jail at their ruler's command, and they stationed themselves by the huge mound to guard it from other such incidents occurring in the future.

The caliph, who wanted to thoroughly investigate the affair, commanded that gold dinars be scattered over the heap and announced that anyone who found any money on that mound, could keep it.

Crowds of destitute people gathered around the area and began digging through the mound, picking out the golden coins from the king's treasury. And all this time, the king's men kept on tossing more and more dinars on the heap.

After a few days the diggers caught sight of the edge of a stone wall. They removed more garbage, and discovered a huge and ancient stone wall. After investigating the matter, they discovered that the wall was a remnant of the walls which had encompassed the Temple Mount, the site of the Beis Hamikdash, which was destroyed due to our many sins.

Now, since the Romans had not succeeded in destroying the western wall of the Temple Mount, they had hoped to destroy any trace of it by burying it in a garbage heap. The Moslem caliph ordered that the whole wall be uncovered, cleaned, and handed over to the Jews.

That wall in the story is the Kosel Hama'arovi, the remnant of our Beis Hamikdash. The Western Wall was one of the four walls that encompassed the Beis Hamikdash.

The Western Wall that we know, where we pray, is 67 meters long. But the full length of the Kotel is 488 meters. Where, then, are the 421 remaining meters of the Kotel?

Eight-hundred-and-fifty years ago, the Mamelukes conquered Yerushalayim, and ruled there for about 250 years. The Mamelukes wanted to live as close as possible to the Temple Mount area.

However, adjacent to the Temple Mount was a valley, and they had no desire to live in a valley, which was a weak location from a strategic standpoint.

Therefore, they raised the entire area of the valley by means of arches. Then they constructed a large city square above the arches and built their houses on top of it.

Today, these houses are used by the Moslem Quarter settlers. In other words, the Moslem Quarter houses are built above, and parallel to, the continuation of the Kotel Hama'arovi. The 421 hidden meters of the Western Wall are used as a wall for some of the houses in the Moslem Quarter, which are adjacent to the Wall.

The tunnels which are located underneath the Moslem Quarter are known to us as "the Kotel tunnels." They actually comprise a significant section of the Kotel Hama'arovi. What really prevents us from seeing the rest of the Kotel Hama'arovi are the Arab houses in the Moslem Quarter.

The Discovery of the Tunnels

"After the `67 war (5727), they started to expose the Kotel tunnels. The discovery of the tunnels began in accordance with a government decision under the initiative of the then Minister of Religion, Zerach Warhaftig," explained Professor Ron Bahat, who was in charge of excavations in the tunnels from the scientific perspective. The work of uncovering the tunnels has been going on for a number of years, bringing to light some exciting and moving revelations.

In 1968 the excavators discovered a paved street from the period of King Herod, as well as a paved square from the same period. Among the debris of the ruins they discovered some earthenware vessels, stone candlesticks, stone vessels and the shattered remnants of sundials. In addition, they found a stone vessel on which was engraved the word: korbon - - in Hebrew handwriting. Around the handwriting were two ornamental images of birds impressed in the stone.

The excavations in the site were often accompanied by sharp tensions with the Moslem Waqf. One of the fiery confrontations between the Waqf and the Jewish excavators took place in 1981. In those days the excavators unearthed a huge cavern which led in an eastern direction, to beneath the Dome of the Rock building.

Word of there being excavations next to the Dome of the Rock rapidly reached the Waqf's ears. In the ceiling of the hall which had been uncovered by the excavators, a few holes were pierced, through which the Waqf's men saw what was being done beneath the place they were standing.

Rabbi Getz, who served as the rav of the Kotel at the time, instructed the excavators to stop up the holes with scaffolding, to prevent Arab attacks on Jews working below.

During the days that followed, a struggle ensued between the excavators on the site and the Waqf's men, who claimed that the excavations on the site were an attempt to demolish the foundations of the mosques, and build the Temple in their place. (They used the same argument again with the opening of the Hasmonean tunnel ten years ago).

The Arabs began to throw stones across the area of the excavations, and to spray massive water hoses through the holes in the ceiling. The Waqf's men managed to insert extremely powerful searchlights through the ceiling in order to keep a close watch on what was being done in the dark vault, and thereby prevent any excavation work.

The then-prime minister, Menachem Begin, and the mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, decided to set up a guard on the site, and to close the cavern temporarily by means of a thin wall which could be broken down when things had calmed down.

However, one night, a group of young Arabs broke through the holes in the direction of the Warren tunnel, utilizing the scaffolding that had served Rabbi Getz and the excavators a week before. The excavators' tools, the cement, bricks and glass water bottles became weapons in the hands of the Arabs.

At 4:30 in the morning, under the supervision of the Waqf, they began to set up a new stone partition between the Kotel entrance to the hall and the cavern that had been discovered. At 7:00 in the morning, the staff of the Ministry of Religions who came to the site discovered what the Arabs had done, after hearing strange noises in the area of the excavations.

For quite a few hours there was no Israeli reaction to the construction, to prevent, as far as possible, any confrontations with the Arabs. Only in the afternoon hours did Ministry of Religions personnel enter the site — and they were met with a hail of stones and curses.

Rumors of the riot quickly spread, and dozens of bochurim from the nearby Yeshivat HaKotel and Ateret Cohanim arrived at the site. The Moslems attacked the bochurim with stones and glass debris.

The wall which they had built was almost entirely destroyed. The violent conflict almost led to bloodshed. It was only after an incorrect rumor reached the police about two Arabs having been killed, that the police arrived at the site and separate the fighters.

Towards evening, workers from the municipality and the Jerusalem Religious Council again erected the brick wall which had been built by the Arabs and destroyed a few hours earlier in the riot that had erupted.

In exchange for sealing up the entrance, the police demanded that the Waqf calm its people down.

"In 1985 during the excavations, the Hasmonean channel was discovered," Professor Dan Bahat said. "The height of the channel was above the level of the tunnel which had by then been dug up, and a lot of rocks and earth had to be uncovered in order to get to it." The Hasmonean channel is the famous Hasmonean tunnel which was opened up to visitors 11 years later.

"Today there are no organized excavations on the site," concludes Professor Bahat. "Sometimes local excavations are carried out for some need or another, but the site of the Kotel tunnels remains as it is, without any great changes."

The Tunnels—An Amazing Journey Back in Time

From the moment we enter into the Kotel Tunnel, the hands of the clock seem to turn back. In an instant, we are enveloped in other scents, sights and sounds. Even the voice of the tour guide, whose echoes bump into the ancient walls, sounds different and special.

The dark, dim lighting takes the imagination backwards, to the time when people walked here, carrying burning torches. The ceiling, above which stand the Arab houses in the Moslem Quarter, erupts in the power of the imagination, and a dark, star-spangled sky smiles from above.

At the beginning of the tour, we arrive at a large arch which is attached to the Temple Mount. This is the `Wilson Arch,' named after the explorer Charles Wilson, who discovered it in 1864 (5624). Above the Wilson Arch is the Chain Gate, and beside it is the Gate of the Shechinah.

Further on, a double system of domes extends itself which ends in the Hasmonean Hall. In the hall, which is also used for a gorgeous light and sound production, steps going up to a hall from a street from the period of the Second Temple can be seen.

In the Kotel Hama'arovi, in the section opposite the hall, several massive stones are fixed, the largest of which is 13.6 meters long, 3.3 meters high, 4.6 meters deep, and which weighs 570 tons (!). It is comparable in size to a bus.

How did they manage to fix the stones in the Kotel? Today we do not really know. There is a conjecture that stones were rolled from Damascus Gate on wooden poles and, with the aid of 18,000 workers employed by King Herod in the Beis Hamikdosh, they were apparently lifted over an embankment that was constructed, by rolling them on poles.

Due to the frequent earthquakes that hit Jerusalem about 1200 years ago, there was a need to renovate parts of the Kotel over and over again, and for this reason stones of a different type were also set in, giving it a rather uneven appearance.

Right after we pass the Warren Gate and the Cave, which is the nickname for the main Jewish synagogue of about a thousand years ago, we find ourselves standing at the entrance of the Minhara Tzara (narrow tunnel).

In the Minhara Tzara, which runs the entire length of the Kotel Hama'arovi, the Kotel stones display interesting carvings. Each stone has three different kinds of borders. The tremendous accuracy which was invested in their hewing makes each a perfect work of art. This beauty, which is concealed in the depths, hidden from the light of day, is only scant evidence of the glory and splendor which reigned in the Beis Hamikdash. It is the silent monument to the golus—lustrous and beautiful in its grief.

It is written in the gemora, maseches Succah: Mi shelo ro'oh es Yerushalayim betifarto lo ro'oh krach nechmod mei'olom, umi shelo ro'oh Beis Hamikdash bevinyono, lo ro'oh binyan mefu'ar mei'olom (Whoever never saw Jerusalem in her glory has never seen a beautiful sight before, and whoever never saw the Beis Hamikdash when it was built, has never seen a glorious building).

The sole remnant of this glory, in its brilliance and splendor, reveals a fraction of that magnificence which was destroyed, and conceals twice as much.

In the continuation of the narrow cave there is a natural rock, upon which the layers of the Kotel rest. The rock is part of Har Hamoriah. At the site of the rock are the remnants of a street from the period of the Second Temple.

The rounded pillars and still, paved stones of the street appear as if filled with life. It is as if one can hear voices, and see long coats, braided straw baskets, and the permanent blazing torches of fire at the sides of the openings . . . Modern glass panels upon which are written, in luminous green letters, explanations for the tourists, bring us back to reality in an instant and we continue with the tour.

Further ahead, we see deep channels of water underneath the layers of stones. Deep inside those channels, large stones can be seen which had fallen from the Kotel at the time of the Churban, in the same position as they were situated when the flames were burning in the Beis Hamikdash.

North of the water channels, the remains of a well which was hewn in the period of King Herod can be seen. Several meters further, we find ourselves strolling in a street from Herodian times. The paving stones of the street are impressive in their size. Some of them are a meter and a half long.

The surfaces of the stones are scaled off, so that people passing to and fro should not slip. The street boulevard is encompassed by circular pillars, adorned with writings. According to historical evidence, this street served as a workshop and for markets.

Here ends the quarrying of the Kotel. Some relate its end to the death of King Herod. From here on, the Kotel gradually disappears, the more one advances northward. In its place was left a stone quarry that was definitely one of the sources for the stone used to construct the walls of the Har Habayis.

Before disappearing, the Kotel makes a turn to the west, creating a kind of tower. In the area of the tower a few stones have been preserved, which have on them the marks of the first stone-cuttings that were done in the nearby quarry. A few meters further on, the Kotel ends, and it bisects a large aqueduct, which is the well-known Hasmonean tunnel.

The aqueduct was discovered about 140 years ago by Charles Warren the explorer. It was then filled with water, about 1.80 meters deep. Today, it has a fair amount of dampness from the water which permeated to it through its walls which are hewn in the rock. The water canal was covered over in certain sections, and thereby became a tunnel.

Here ends the tour of the Hasmonean Tunnel. We step across the tunnel which was built by employees of the Ministry of Religion, and then out to the Moslem Quarter. The evil stares of the Arabs, which are thrown at us as we passed, boding no good, are further testimony to the golus in which we live.

When we arrived back at the Kotel Hama'arovi plaza, a prayer was on everyone's lips: "Uvnei Yerushalayim ir Hakodesh bimheiroh beyomeinu."" Omen.

"The Wall of Tears"

In the Kotel tunnels there is a certain place which, according to conjecture, is only about 60 meters away from the Even Hashesiya (Foundation Stone)—the site of the Holy of Holies. This place is named "the Wall of Tears."

Many people come to this site to daven and recite chapters of Tehillim. The Wall of Tears is lit with a special lighting by two small lamps, slanted, which cast a soft light on the wall.

Little notes sprout out between the large stones, filled with requests in tight handwriting. Yahrtzeit candles which are placed there regularly of late, add a special luster to the site.

Those who take the tour are permitted to visit the Wall of Tears. During the tour, the visitors are given a few minutes to stay there, to daven and bask in its holiness. The Wall of Tears has become a symbol of the Kotel tunnels.

At the time of the riots ten years ago, photographs of it were published all over the world, with worshipers clinging to its stones and weeping.

This wall, perhaps more than anything else, symbolizes the golus. It is close to the site of the Holy of Holies. But, due to our many sins, just close, not more than that. Behind it are the high walls of churban, pain and sorrow.

The harshness of the golus, we all pray, should end very speedily, and in our days we should see the coming of Moshiach Tzidkeinu, and the construction of the third Beis Hamikdosh. May it be His Will!

Refurbished Prayer Areas

The large enclosed space under the Wilson Arch and adjacent to it was recently reopened after undergoing extensive work.

New furnishings for the entire prayer hall were bought, as well as a proper air conditioning system and ample lighting, so that this sanctuary is now both attractive and comfortable to sit in and pray. A new women's section for the prayer hall was constructed on a loft-balcony in the room.

A new floor was put in over some areas, and the shafts that were dug down to the pavement at the time of the second Beis Hamikdash, that used to be encircled by railings, are now covered over with a clear plastic floor and floodlit from below so that visitors can easily see all the way down. Several other sites have clear floors so that exposed ruins beneath them can be seen.

Also, a room to contain the various Holy Arks that store the many Torah scrolls used on Mondays and Thursdays, Shabbosim and Festivals at the Western Wall was built in one of the halls adjacent to the main prayer hall. New shelves were also installed and many new seforim were purchased.

Some months earlier, the lower part of the outside plaza, where most of the prayer is, was expanded at the expense of the higher part that overlooked it. The ramps and the side rooms in which siddurim are kept were also redone.

The improvements are part of a multi-year plan to redo many things in the area, including changes to the main point of entry to the Kosel Maarovi, new traffic arrangements and a new building to house the police station, emergency and rescue services and other services.


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