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Archeology/Jerusalem: J. King - Recent Discoveries on the Temple Hill at Jerusalem (1884 PDF)
Stone Piles that Memorialize Jerusalem's Destruction
By Abraham Rabinovich
Monday, January 13, 1997
(August 30) - It looks like an attempt at environmental art -- a random heap of monumental stones in the middle of a deserted street, lined by empty shopping cubicles.
It is in fact probably the most powerful historical remnant to be exposed to view in this land since archeologists began their probes more than a century ago.
The tableau is a 2,000-year-old scream frozen in stone at its moment of issue -- the fall of Jerusalem. It is the scream of Roman triumph as Legionnaires demolish their enemy's sanctuary and the scream of the defeated Jewish nation as it exchanges a millennia of sovereignty for exile.
This week the public was given access for the first time to this charged scene which marked the most dramatic turning point in Jewish history.
"Here you can see the power of what the Jews had built and the depth of their tragedy," said archeologist Ya'acov Billig of the Israel Antiquities Authority, as he surveyed the scene following a ceremony, dedicating the area as an archeological park. The site, just south of the Western Wall, consists of a 70-meter-long stretch of Jerusalem's main street in the Second Temple period. Abutting the foot of the Temple Mount, the street extended for more than a kilometer. It was a broad, impressive, thoroughfare -- 9.5 meters wide -- lined on both sides with shops. "This was Jerusalem's downtown," said Billig, "its shopping mall."
Since the exposure of one small section after the Six Day War, it has been referred to as "the Herodian street" although recent finds bring that designation into some question.
The grand vision and engineering ingenuity invested in the Temple Mount were invested as well in the street at its foot. Beneath the stone pavement are two drainage systems, one above the other. The topmost, accessed by drains and stone manholes still visible on the surface of the street, carried off rain that fell in the immediate environs. Beneath it, nine meters below the level of the street, was a much larger drainage tunnel, high enough in places for a man to stand on another's shoulders. Located at the lowest point in the city -- the bottom of Cheesemaker's Valley, that separated the Temple Mount from today's Jewish Quarter -- this lower system drained the rest of Jerusalem.
When in 70 CE the Romans finally penetrated Jerusalem's walls after a gruelling, four-month battle they burned the temple and dismantled the walls enclosing the Temple Mount compound. The stones were pushed over the edge of the Mount and sent crashing onto the street, some 15 meters below, in an attempt to erase the grandeur of Jerusalem and perhaps its memory.
Nowhere is this destruction seen more vividly than on the stretch of street that has now been opened to view. It was here that the street was spanned by a monumental, 15- meter-wide staircase borne on what is known today as Robinson's Arch. The staircase brought visitors up from the street to one of the main gateways to the Temple Mount. The Romans, in their methodical fashion, succeeded in collapsing the arch onto the street, creating a massive rock pile whose weight would add up to hundreds, if not thousands, of tons.
The pile was indeed so intimidating that when Prof. Binyamin Mazar launched his excavations at the foot of the Temple Mount after the Six Day War, he only skirted it. Two years ago, veteran archeologist Ronnie Reich and Billig undertook the task of making the "the Herodian street" accessible to the public and comprehensible as part of an archeological park.
The street was cleared for most of its length but it was decided to leave about half of the fallen stones in place as permanent testimony to the calamitous final moments of Jewish Jerusalem in antiquity.
As impressive as the fallen stones are the craters left in the broken paving where stones have been cleared away, reminders of the tremendous impact of that collapse. In the course of excavations, the archeologists were struck by the freshness of the stonework of the street paving. Fine chisel marks could clearly be made out. The steps which had ascended Robinson's Arch, on the other hand, showed the wear imposed by decades of use.
It was a curious contrast since the street and stairway had been built at the same time, but Reich did not attribute special significance to it until he probed beneath the street paving. There he found oil lamps and pottery that he recognized from his years of excavating in the Jewish Quarter as dating to the First Century CE -- that is, after Herod, who died in 4 BCE. If the street were built by Herod how did ceramics that post-dated his death become sealed beneath it?
The answer, suggests Reich, is that the paving stones we see today are post-Herodian. While Herod's engineers indeed designed the street and the subterranean infrastructure and had paving laid, the paving stones were replaced after more than half a century of wear -- at some point close to the Jewish revolt against the Romans -- by one of Herod's successors.
Jospehus mentions that Herod's great-grandson, Agrippas II, had undertaken public works projects, including street paving, in order to supply work to some of the 18,000 unemployed in the city. So while the street remains Herodian in its form, it was not upon these paving stones that Jesus walked, as pilgrims have hitherto had reason to believe.
For the present, the public has access only to a wooden platform overlooking the street. Because of the uneven nature of the impacted paving, there is a danger that visitors might fall and injure themselves -- belated victims, at it were, of the destruction of Jerusalem. A safe corridor will probably be cordoned off in the near future, said Reich, for visitors who wish to descend to the street. Even from the platform, however, one gets a momentous view of history turning a corner.
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Date: 24 Aug 2009
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