The Royal Stoa of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem

During the Herodian period, a colonnaded hall, known as the Royal Stoa, graced the whole length of the Southern Wall. Constructed in the shape of a basilica with four rows of forty columns each, it formed a central nave in the east end and two side aisles. The central apse was the place of meeting for the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish Council. The main part of this building was used for the changing of money and purchase of sacrificial animals.

In 19 BC King Herod the Great, began the most ambitious building project of his life, the rebuilding of the Temple in lavish style. To facilitate this, he undertook a further expansion of the Hasmonean Temple Mount by extending it on three sides, to the north, west and south. The Royal Stoa stood above the Southern Wall, on the left of the drawing.

Although the existence and location of this magnificent building was never doubted, questions remain about its plan and decoration. I was pleased therefore to hear of Dr. Orit Peleg-Barkat’s new publication, “Herodian Architectural Decoration and King Herod’s Royal Portico,” that appears in Qedem 57, edited by Eilat Mazar, The Temple Mount Excavations in Jerusalem, 1968–1978 Directed by Benjamin Mazar Final Reports Volume V.

The present volume publishes a rich corpus of 500 architectural decorative fragments from the Second Temple period found in the excavations. The stylistic, technological and historical study of these fragments clarifies issues concerning the architecture, decoration and date of some of the structures built in the southern part of the enclosure, mainly the Royal Portico, one of most elaborate buildings in Judea of this period, and the Double Gate vestibule.

It will be interesting to examine the publication of these decorative elements that were excavated during the time I worked as architect on the Temple Mount Excavations. I am, of course, intimately familiar with most of these elements, but it is good to see them all together. Orit also writes about the plan of the Royal Stoa.

To understand the layout of the Royal Stoa, she had to choose between two conflicting statements by the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius:

Josephus admiringly describes a massive edifice that was a “stadium” long. That Roman unit of measure means that it was from 180 to 200 meters (roughly 600 to 650 feet) long. On the other hand, Josephus also wrote that it stretched the length of the Temple Mount’s southern wall, “from the eastern valley [Kidron] to the western valley [Tyropoeon],” which is about 280 meters.

 The historian also wrote that rows of massive columns divided the building into a wide central hall with two side halls: 162 columns in four rows, one built into the wall:

 “This cloister had pillars that stood in four rows one over against the other all along, for the fourth row was interwoven into the wall, which [also was built of stone]; and the thickness of each pillar was such, that three men might, with their arms extended, fathom it round, and join their hands again, while its length was twenty-seven feet, with a double spiral at its basis” (Jewish Antiquities 15.413-4)

Orit’s reconstruction of the Royal Stoa. Credit: Sheila Winograd, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Based on her study of these elements, Orit concluded that the intercolumniation (that is the space between the columns) of the Royal Stoa was 3.25 m. Secondly, as 162 (columns) cannot be divided by four, she concluded that, despite Josephus’ mention of four rows, this number refers to the three free-standing rows of columns only, i.e. three rows of 54 each. According to her, the Stoa was therefore one stadium long and didn’t stretch from the Western Wall to the Eastern Wall of the Temple Mount. On the other hand, Josephus mentions four rows of forty, while the two remaining ones could have stood in an entrance porch inside Robinson’s Arch (see plan below).

In theory Orit’s suggestion sounds plausible, but the problem is that she relies on text and decorative elements only and doesn’t fully take the architectural remains of the Temple Mount into consideration.

Plan of the Royal Stoa. © Leen Ritmeyer

The Royal Stoa was built partly over the 33m (110 feet) deep Tyropoeon Valley and the equally steep western slope of the Kedron Valley.

The Southern Wall of the Temple Mount showing the Tyropoeon and Kedron Valleys in section.

A solid substructure would have been necessary to support the heavy columns of this vast Royal Stoa. As I have shown (The Quest, pp. 60-101), remains of this substructure can be seen in the Double and Triple Gate passageways.

Plan of the Herodian remains in the undergound passageway of the Double Gate. © Leen Ritmeyer

The gate pier, a central pier and one monolithic column with a diameter of 1.45m (4 feet 9 inches) has survived in situ. The Herodian underground passageways are 5.48m (18 feet) wide. The 5.48m reflects therefore the in situ preserved east-west intercolumniation of the Royal Stoa. 40 columns and 39 intercolumniations make approx. 270m, which is the length of the Southern Wall, minus the thickness of the Western and Eastern Walls of the Temple Mount. This makes a perfect fit for Josephus’ description that the “it stretched the length of the Temple Mount’s southern wall”.

At present, the Early Islamic and Crusader buildings of the Islamic Museum, the al-Aqsa Mosque and Solomon’s Stables are aligned along the Southern Wall.

Early Islamic and Crusader buildings along the Southern Wall of the Temple Mount

All of these buildings are supported by columns, which, of necessity, must rest on a substructure. It is inconceivable to think that they would have dug down to the bottom of the Tyropoeon Valley to built new foundation walls, while the Herodian substructure was still intact. There are 39 spaces between the columns of these present buildings, which correspond perfectly with the 39 intercolumniations of the Royal Stoa.

The study of ancient buildings needs to be based on four elements:

  1. The in situ architectural remains
  2. Comparative architectural styles
  3. Excavated elements that have belonged to that building
  4. Historical information

Fortunately, enough information on all of the four requirements is available to reach a satisfactory solution to the plan of the Royal Stoa.

This section of the Final Reports on the Temple Mount Excavations will be a very useful tool for every student of the Temple Mount. We look forward to its insights into the architecture of King Herod, Israel’s Master Builder.

HT: Joe Lauer, Agade




This entry was posted in Jerusalem, Research, Temple Mount. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Royal Stoa of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem

  1. Bob Rognlien says:

    Wow! As usual Mr Ritmeyer, you have brilliantly connected the Temple Mount remains to the historical record to give us an accurate picture of Herod’s original design. Well done, once again!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.