The Western Wall Tunnel is a narrow underground passage north of the holy site, The Western Wall (Wailing Wall or Kotel). The visible portion of the Western wall is only about only 200 ft (60 m) long, while the most part of it is hidden underground. The remaining (and largest) portion of the wall is located underneath the buildings in the Old City, mostly under the Moslem Quarter. Following the excavations in the 19th century, access was obtained to the rest of the Wall which is about 1591 ft (485 m).
From the time of King Solomon through the Hasmonean Period (10th to 1st century BC), the magnificent Temple rested upon a platform built on top of Mount Moriah (I Kings 6-7). During the reign of King Herod (historically referred to as The Great) 37 BC to 4, the Temple was reconstructed, expanded and the plaza was enlarged. This ambitious construction project began in 20 BC and was completed 46 years later.
King Herod leveled the nearby northwestern hill and filled in parts of the surrounding valleys which doubled the size of the Temple Mount plaza . Gated walls were built around it. The Temple was raised, expanded and a white stone façade was applied.
Retaining walls were built to provide stability and protected the holy area. Today, the walls are a vivid remnant of the former glory of the Temple and serve as a focal point for millions of believers from all over the world.
Major General Sir Charles Wilson was an English Army officer and topographer who arrived in Israel in 1864 to direct a survey of Jerusalem and created the first exact map which continues to serve as the topographical basis of the Old City today. He was also interested in exploring clean water supplies for the region. Excavation began and he discovered an arch which was named for him, The Wilson Arch, which is 12.8 m (42 ft) and believed to have been a support for a bridge which connected the Temple Mount to the city.
The excavation was continued 1867-70 by General Sir Charles Warren, also a British army officer, who began digging at the Wilson Arch and uncovered a series of underground tunnels. Discoveries of both men are visible today. Following the 6 Day War, the Ministry of Religious Affairs continued excavating for another 20 years.
In 1996, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu allowed the Jews to open the northern end of this Western Wall tunnel which opened onto Ummariya Madrasah, which is the street adjacent to the Via Dolorosa. On September 24, 1996, a riot erupted because Moslems believed the Jews were attempting to lay claim to territory in the Moslem Quarter. Over a three day period of unrest, fourteen people were killed. A wall was built across the north end of the tunnel which remains in place today.
In 1998, The Western Wall Heritage Foundation was formed and the tunnel was opened to the public.
In the Tunnel, there is a stunning example of the “dry method” construction methods during the Herodian period with no use of cement or adhesives to build the walls. This area is known as the Master Course (Nidbach Raba in Hebrew) and the huge boulders and chiseled edges are clearly visible.
The largest stone in the Master Course is called the Western Stone and thought to be one of the heaviest objects lifted by human beings without aid of powered machinery. The stone’s dimensions are 13.6m (45ft) long with an estimated width of 3.5 to 4.5m (11 to 15ft). The weight is conservatively placed at a stunning 570 tons!
The purpose of this collection of stones may have been to provide a solid foundation for the Western wall and provide protection against earthquakes.
Other areas of interest in the Western Tunnel include Warren’s Gate near the Western Wall which was named for Sir Warren who discovered it while exploring the water shaft under the Temple Mount. There was evidently a synagogue called The Cave, used by Jews until the Crusader conquest in 1099. Today, it is a small prayer area for women.
In the Narrow Passageway, there is a glass floor through which scattered stones can be seen where they lay after being hurled by the Romans during the destruction of the Temple.
Also in the Tunnel is a length of street from the Second Temple Period which originated from the lower city, The City of David. It continues nearly to the far end of the wall. Construction was apparently halted during the Great Revolt and never completed. Nearby is a small quarry with prepared stones that were never laid.
The Strouthion Pool was a reservoir which provided Jerusalem residents and pilgrims with drinking water. Although it is 53m long (175ft), it was the smallest pool in Jerusalem during the Second Temple period and was named after the small bird, the Strotiyon (in Greek). About one third of the pool can be seen under the Western Wall Tunnel with the remainder under the Sisters of Zion Monastary.