In a surprising find by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), archaeologists have unearthed an ancient theater, the first ever found in Jerusalem, which proves Jewish heritage reaches back thousands of years. Dating back to the Roman period, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation and the Western Wall rabbi have deemed the finding to be affirmation of the eternal bond between the Jewish people to Jerusalem and the Western Wall, which predates the Roman structure.
Yohanna Bisroar of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation told Breaking Israel News that the Roman structure, which is found near the Western Wall, or Kotel, is “another testimony of the deep connection of the Jewish people to Jerusalem and to the Western Wall.”
“The Roman structure is found near the Western Wall. So when we see that the Western Wall was first here and then the Roman structure arrived, for us that’s the most exciting part,” she explained.
Similarly, the rabbi of the Western Wall, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, lauded the archeological findings that “allow our generation to actually touch the ancient history of our people and Jewish heritage and its deep connection to Jerusalem.” He continued, “I am certain that the deeper we dig, the earlier the periods we will reach, further anchoring the profound connection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel and to Jerusalem.”
Monday’s press conference was conducted with the participation of IAA director Israel Hasson, Western Wall Heritage Foundation director Mr. Mordechai (Suli) Eliav, IAA district archaeologist Dr. Yuval Baruch, and the excavation directors.
In collaboration with The Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the IAA excavated the Roman theater-like structure under Wilson’s arch in the Western Wall Tunnels beneath the Kotel. The excavations have exposed a large, preserved portion of the Western Wall stone courses that has been hidden for 1,700 years.
According to site excavators Dr. Joe Uziel, Tehillah Lieberman, and Dr. Avi Solomon, from a research perspective, this is a “sensational” and “emotional” finding, as it confirms historical writings from the Second Temple period and after, such as the writings of Romano-Jewish scholar Flavius Josephus, which describe theater-like structures near the Temple Mount.
“The discovery was a real surprise. When we started excavating, our goal was to date Wilson’s Arch. We did not imagine that a window would open for us onto the mystery of Jerusalem’s lost theater.
“There is no doubt that the exposure of the courses of the Western Wall and the components of Wilson’s Arch are thrilling discoveries that contribute to our understanding of Jerusalem,” said the site excavators.
Eliav spoke of the “living historical mosaic of Jerusalem” that this discovery creates, saying, “There is no doubt as to the immeasurably rich scientific value of the discoveries in this area. The findings symbolize the guests from past empires that were here and have been here ever since and always.”
The excavated area measures eight meters deep, 15 meters wide, and contains the foundations of approximately 200 seats. Dating of pottery and coins in the area indicate that the theater is from the late Roman period in the second and the third centuries CE, when Jerusalem became the Roman colony of Aelia Capitolina.
The location of the excavations, Wilson’s Arch, is the only intact, observable edifice remaining from the Temple Mount compound of the Second Temple period. The arch was once part of an enormous bridge leading to the Temple Mount from the west and served as a passageway for people entering the Temple. Until now, the location of the Roman public buildings that were described in historical sources was unknown.
According to the excavation directors, a final analysis and carbon-14 dating of the structure conducted by the Weizmann Institute will be released in approximately six months. However, archaeologists hypothesize that the structure is an unfinished and unused odeon used for acoustic performances from the Roman colony of Aelia Capitolina. Alternatively, the structure may have been a bouleuterion, the building where the city council met.
Archaeologists note that the staircase found at the site was never completely hewn, indicating that the building was likely abandoned before it was used, perhaps because of the Bar Kokhba Revolt.