Underground Battle for the Temple Mount

In today’s Makor Rishon (Hebrew) newspaper, Arnon Segal published an article, called Otiot porchot be-avir (letters blossom in the air). Based on the diary of the Rabbi of the Western Wall, Rabbi Meir Yehuda Getz, he retells the story of the underground excavations and the struggle that took place inside Warren’s Gate in 1981. Warren’s Gate is the northern-most of the four original Herodian gateways that gave access to the Temple Mount through the Western Wall.

This well-known reconstruction drawing of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem during the Second Temple period is based on historical information and the results of the Temple Mount excavations, which were led by the late Prof. Benjamin Mazar from 1968-’78.
Herod the Great enlarged the existing Temple Mount to double its size and built a new Temple. In the Western Wall (left) there were four gates. Warren’s Gate is the northern-most gate in the Western Wall (on the left). The Southern Wall (right) had two gates. Above this wall stood the Royal Stoa. The Antonia Fortress at the northwest corner (far left) guarded the Temple Mount from the north.

In April 1866, Captain Charles Wilson inspected this underground passageway which for several centuries had been used as a water reservoir. Three years later, Charles Warren examined the cistern (Cistern 30, see below) and noted that its western end pierced the Western Wall. It measures 25.6×5.50m and its floor is 10.50m below the level of the Temple Mount. This cistern was originally a Herodian underground passage, leading up from Warren’s Gate to the Temple Mount, possibly having an internal L-shaped stairway like at Barclay’s Gate. A relatively modern stairway descends from the west into the cistern. Wilson later named this gate after Warren.

This plan shows the cisterns (blue) and underground passageways (grey) of the Temple Mount. The numbering system was developed by Charles Warren, who, in the 1860’s, explored many of these underground structures. Some of these underground passageways were part of Herodian gates that gave access to the Temple Mount, i.e. Cistern 30 is the underground passageway of Warren’s Gate (see arrow), Cisterns 19 and 20 are part of the underground passageway of Barclay’s Gate, Cistern 1 is the underground passageway of the ancient Tadi Gate.
Some of the water cisterns, such as Cisterns 7 and 8 were enormous underground water reservoirs, capable of holding some 2 million gallons of water. Most of these cisterns were initially underground quarries from which building stones for the buildings of the Temple Mount were taken. After the quarrying activities were stopped, these caverns were plastered and became water reservoirs.

This underground tunnel was accidentally rediscovered in 1981 during excavations that took place along the Western Wall north of Wilson’s Arch. During the construction of an underground synagogue, workers broke through the wall that had blocked up the gate opening.

Rabbi Getz believed that this gate was used in the past by priests going up to the Temple. He also believed that this passage led to the lost Temple treasures and to the Ark of the Covenant. After working in secret for about a month, Arabs found out from a media report that the Israelis were excavating below the Temple Mount. They descended into the cistern through two manholes from above and closed off the gate with a very thick concrete wall.

The dream of Getz to reach the Temple Treasures, especially the Ark of the Covenant, was dashed. According to his diary, he sat down with ashes on his forehead, praying:    “O God, the nations have come into your inheritance; they have defiled your holy Temple.” (Psa. 79:1).

Despite the fact that this excavation was illegal, it nevertheless would have been exciting to find out more about how exactly this underground passage originally worked.

HT: Yisrael Medad

26 thoughts on “Underground Battle for the Temple Mount”

  1. שלום וברכה.
    ראיתי שקראת את דבריי במקור ראשון. אשמח מאוד אם תרצה לכתוב תגובה (בעברית, או שנשתדל לתרגמה) ולפרסמה בעיתון. דבריך אודות בורות המים בהר מעניינים מאוד. אשמח מאוד להיחשף לעבודותיך בנושא ההר ואולי אף לראיין אותך אם תרצה בכך. כל טוב ותודה רבה, בהערכה רבה, ארנון סגל – מקור ראשון (0547238108)

  2. Dear Prof Ritmeyer,
    It has been about 5 years since the publication of your seminal work the quest. Their is no reference book like this and I wonder if you will ever go back to do an update and add chapters on finding since then or may I ask, wound not the sight of the Samaritan Temple offer you a similar challenge. Amongst Jerusalem, Masada, Bet Shearim, Beitar and Herodium, it is the one site that at least in my searches about which very little is know, since we know it was destroyed twice. Surley a man of learning and a tape measure could not be turned down, especially at a time when the Samaritans are starting to revitalize themselves. A book on Mount Gerzim by Leen Ritmeyer can only educate as well as make focus more attention to the Samaritans, earning them more publicity and ergo more of an economy.
    Perhaps you did ask and were, due to theological reasons denied permission. But I do hope you might be able to accomplish this one day. Yours is the only book on Archeology that is not about Archaeology but putting things back where they historically belong.

    Wishing you well and Gods Favor

  3. Do you identify any of the cisterns with the mikveh associated with the Beit Hamokeid (identified in Middot 1:5 as one of three chambers on the north side of the Ezrat Kohanim or courtyard of the priests)? It’s described further at the very beginning of Tamid as having a passage (apparently of some length since it is described as a “mesibah,” which is used to describe the long, upward winding ramp around the heichal or Sanctuary itself later in Middot) to an underground mikveh, and it is further implied at the beginning of Tamid that the entrance and exit were both in the courtyard of the priests since a person who experienced an emission would “wait for the gates to open and then exit.” Further,this passage is described at the beginning of Tamid as having a lavatory, implying that there must have been some kind of drainage channel.

    Is any of the cisterns found by Warren compatible with this description? It looks at a glance like cistern 5 is the right shape and, according to Warren, had steps implying a mikveh. But if the Sakhra is identified with the holy of holies, this would place the cister approximately under the south side of the courtyard, not the north. Unless the passage extends further north to where the Beit Hamokeid was.

    Curious to hear your view.

  4. in koren book there is a similar picture from this gate, same time different angle

  5. Dear Dr. Ritmeyer;

    Is there an English version of the Rabbi’s diary available that you know of?
    Thanks, Mike

  6. It seems like u actually understand a good
    deal with regards to this topic and it all exhibits throughout
    this unique blog, given the name “Underground Battle for
    the Temple Mount | Ritmeyer Archaeological Design”.
    Thanks a lot ,Anita

  7. I noticed that according to your overlay of the Temple onto the Muslim platform, the eastern edge of the south wall of the platform directly corresponds with the southern wall of part of the Temple courtyard. Interestingly, Rabbi David ben Zimra in a responsum (691) dealing with where the courtyard was and thus where a Jew could not go, identifies the southeastern wall of the Muslim platform with the wall of the courtyard. He says:

    “It is apparent to the naked eye that the southern wall [of the courtyard] is in its original place, for one standing at the southwest corner [of the platform] can see that from there southward is the Valley of Yehoshafat, and the courtyard did not extend farther southward than that. Moreover, the stones of that foundation [i.e., the platform] are massive stones, indicating that they are of a very ancient construction.”

    He goes on to say that the “[northern] end of the building to the south called ‘madras salima’ (Solomon’s Stables?) corresponds with the southern end of the courtyard of the Temple” and is “to this day built vaults upon vaults. ” He must have meant Solomon’s stables, since that is the only part of the Temple Mount that was known at that time to have been constructed on pillars. And indeed, this part of the Temple Mount ends parallel with the southern wall of the platform.

    It sounds to me like he was identifying the eastern edge of the southern wall of the platform as featuring massive stones that were of ancient construction. Have you ever looked at this part of the platform? Could they be the ancient foundation of the southern wall of the courtyard, co-opted into the platform?

  8. Dov,
    That corner is most interesting and I commented on this in my book The Quest p.374, which also has a photograph of the eastern side. There is an empty chamber below this corner, which Warren called “The Cell of Bostam”. On investigated this part of the platform, Warren noted:
    It may be noted that the Cell of Bostam, according to Mejr ed Din, was under the platform on the east. A door, with a window to the north of it and another to the south, is visible on the east wall of the platform, north of No. 5 tank and south of the eastern steps. These three ap- ertures are now closed up, but the levels of the rock in No. 5 tank render it probable that the southeast part of the platform is supported on vaulting. The Cell of Bostam was, however, already closed in the time of Mejr ed Din. In 1881 an attempt was made to obtain permission to open this doorway and explore the unknown cells and vaults. This was not only refused, but a large heap of earth was soon piled in front of the closed doorway by or- der of the architect of the mosque, completely hiding the platform wall on this side. The known levels of the rock render it extremely important that the supposed vaults in this part of the platform should, if possible, be explored in the future.”
    Unfortunately, the triple opening leading into this Cell of Bostam, was blocked when Warren asked for permission to investigate, see photo on the same page.

  9. Warren wrote this as well about the area near the southeast corner:

    “Over the space covered by the Masjed-al-Aksa and between it and the platform there is much less rubbish than has generally been supposed; the irregularity of the ground seems to have been levelled by building up the southern part with massive masonry and filling in the inequalities; at one point only, near the south-east corner of the platform, the natural rock is seen, rising about 9 inches above the ground, and having its surface chiseled so as to be horizontal, and near this there are a number of large flat stones, probably the remains of some ancient pavement.”

  10. There’s support in the Mishnah for Cistern 3 being under the Beit Hamokeid. The Mishnah in Midot 1:9 records an argument regarding where a priest who had an emission would go. The first opinion says he would leave through “a tunnel that went under the Temple.” The second says he would go “in a tunnel which goes under the cheil (that is the part of the Temple Mount outside the courtyard)”. All agree he would leave the Temple Mount via the Tadi gate.

    It therefore seems that there were two tunnels: (1) allowed access to an underground mikveh under the courtyard and (2) headed due north and came to the surface in front of the Tadi gate, i.e. due north. Cistern 3 would be the mikveh; the entrance to Cistern 1 is close by and leads due north to where we think the Tadi gate was.

  11. Dear Dr. Ritmeyer

    Very interesting story here. Something that jives with what I’ve heard before when I lived in Jerusalem a few years ago. Several questions, perhaps you have some ideas:

    1. Rav Getz mentioned Avraham Hanan who he consulted for a location of the holy of holies. Hanan marked out a spot, and had previously been correct about an unknown tunnel in another area, which was later proven correct. Hence, Getz believed him. Where was this “location of the holy of holies” that they calculated, did anyone ever ask them?
    2. In terms of the secret room Getz claims that he came to, did Warren or others ever describe such a room? Is it possible such a room exists but has never been explored?
    3. Getz and his team are described as entering Cistern 30, and then tunneling east it would seem. Cistern 30 appears to end on it’s east side in a wall, did Getz and team dig through this wall and continue east?
    4. If Getz created a new tunnel at the end of cistern 30, was this sealed as well? The entrance near warrens gate was closed as you mentioned, but what about the rest of their digging…was that ever closed off?

  12. Yaakov,

    The location of the Holy of Holies was on The Rock inside the Dome of the Rock (see my book “The Quest, Revealing the Temple Mount in Jerusalem”, pp. 265-277). Rav Getz indeed entered Cistern 30 and reportedly dug into one of the side walls. He never reached a chamber he had hoped to uncover. I presume that his tunnel was sealed when the entrance to Warren’s Gate was sealed in 1981.

  13. Dear Dr. Ritmeyer

    Thank’s for your comments, very interesting. Several other questions I had were

    1. Are there any other tunnels or openings which are currently accessible that come close to the walls of cistern 30/abut it?
    2. Getz says that Hanan described a tunnel starting near western wall and running south east ending near solomons stables, do you have any idea of the identity of this tunnel?
    3. Josephus describes fort antonia being on a large rock similar to the one you’ve identified as the place of the kodosh kodoshim. Where is that rock further north west and is it as high as he described it?
    4. Getz claimed that Zinc would be found underneath the area of the main altar. If the rock is the Kodosh…then what is the location of the altar, and about how far down from the current surface would it be?
    5. Was the rock you mentioned, currently in the Dome, the site of the altar or the kodosh? My understanding was that it was the site of the sacrifices and the kodosh was further west?
    6. Getz and Goren claim to have seen the ark…supposedly through the tunnel they created to get to the secret room under the kodosh. Some interview videos show them saying they got within 40 feet and other that they actually saw it.
    7. Is there any record of which side wall Getz started into as his diary just says “eastward” we would assume due east from cistern 30s east end? Also, were any excavations done in this area Getz identified by Warren/Wilson or others? If so any idea why not?

    sorry for all the questions…thanks in advance.

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