THE KOTEL CINEPLEX - NOW SHOWING!
by Barnea Levi Selavan
Tishrei 26 5778
October 16 2017
A 200-seat Roman theater built up against courses of the Herodian Temple Mount enclosure was announced to the press today – but discussions more of import were held after reporters rushed off to post their stories; and those without the historical and archaeological background may have left this dramatic underground scene unaware of significant understandings. Dr. Joe Uziel's excavations here, along with his IAA colleagues Tehillah Lieberman and Dr. Avi Solomon, uncovered 8 courses of Herodian stone of the Temple Mount, and this theater hidden for 1700 years. Digging so far to a depth of 8 meters below the prayer floor, this is an attempt to once and for all date the famous Wilson's Arch by its foundations. Actually they have uncovered a nexus of interlocking pieces to other historical traces in the vicinity of the Temple Mount and ancient Jerusalem, which shed light on formative episodes and historical texts.
Foundation Stone CoDirector David Willner was present for the early news conference in English, and posted recorded media on the Facebook LandMinds page, while I attended the later Hebrew session. Both us of were able to talk to Dr. Uziel and get his personal take on issues. At the end, reporters like Segula Magazine editor Sara Jo Ben-Zvi were able to ask more in-depth questions without the pressure of the major news services needing their visuals and sound-bite length interviews. Joe's learned explanations on and off camera connecting the dots are what I seek to share with you here.
There is clear evidence here that this post-Temple theater was never completed, which Dr. Uziel suggests was a result of the Bar Cochba revolt. The dating is well-anchored by the pottery and other finds extracted for within and around the structure, including from incisions made into the fill it was built with; along with how the theater abuts the wall and sits under "Wilson's Arch" (see below), over a water channel linked to the Second Temple period at first look, and its foundations over earlier structures known from other points in nearby excavations. Carbon-14 and other advanced tests are in process which should provide more precise dating.
While it cannot be proved without a text, Dr. Uziel feels the Romans in this period may have deliberately covered the structure important to the Jews with a celebration of Roman life; though he feels the main reason for its precise location here is the protection and the advantage of the covered arch. David Willner suggests that the acoustic needs of the theater were also a factor in that the arch would enhance sound.
The craftsmanship of the stone work is striking, while its layout is along the classical lines of a Second Century CE odeum or bouleuterion, as confirmed by Dr. Arthur Segal, who wrote the book on these structures in Israel (Sussita excavator, U of Haifa). Evidence such as partially chiseled steps and other incomplete stone work that are clearly unfinished rather than damaged as the result of destruction, along with the striking absence of elements standard to such structures, all testify to the halt of construction.
The archaeologists expected to find the main road along the Temple Mount- and it was not here, only the channel. In Joe's estimation the water channel running through and under the orchestra floor of the theater is the continuation of the Second Temple period channel running to the south of the Western Wall plaza area, under a street that runs the length - or so it was expected - the Temple Mount, and continues along the southeastern slope all the way down to where the Tyropean Valley meets the Kidron Valley. That street is currently dated to the time of Pontius Pilate, in the first third of the First Century CE, based on recent finds. Joe pointed out a Hasmonean-style dressed stone in secondary use in the channel wall, and said that the distance of the channel from the Herodian wall, as well as the type of construction with large stones was the same as further south in the City of David National Park (Joe excavated the street above its channel, along with colleagues). Four meters of its length were excavated southwards and it is hoped that more will be exposed in the future. It seems that the Second Temple period paving stones that lay over it were pulled up here to allow for the theater construction, and that these stones were placed into the higher fill intended for supporting rows of never-completed theater seats.
The circle of rounded stone outlining the orchestra is very clear. The northern passageway of the aditus maximus, enabling access to the theater, is well outlined; while the edge of the southern access-way is visible but not yet excavated. An attendant would stand in the access hall to send people with cheaper tickets upstairs, while allowing wealthier patrons to enter the orchestra area and climb up steps to the their front row seats – which never happened here because the theater never held a show. The steps on the way in and from the center of the theater upwards have unfinished work, as I mentioned.
There is no stage built opposite the orchestra, which is suggested as a sign of incomplete work. The theater's stone half-circle faces a line of five openings, higher up, which Dr. Uziel contends are part of the Second Temple period façade of shops. Furthermore, over one of the stores, above several beams inserted for support, there is a space between courses of stones which he feels matches other signs of earthquake activity, such as that which split a nearby Herodian stone in a lintel, after the next arch to the west. From the context of the fill around these rooms covering the theater from the Fourth Century CE and the other finds here Dr. Uziel feels this can now be safely dated as evidence of the great earthquake of 363 CE, which now in turn dates the damaged sections in the nearby areas as well. As the stability of these structures was damaged they were covered over, and later Byzantine period walls and structures were built over this fill.
Joe discussed the various opinions dating Wilson's Arch which supports and access-way leading onto the Temple Mount (minute 2:02 in the video posted on the LandMinds website addressing this topic). The historical question is if these arches destroyed and Wilson's Arch came later, rebuilt after the destruction, or are they all contemporary from the Second Temple period. Dan Bahat contends this arch is early Islamic; Amos Kloner, Avi Solomon and others hold that is Late Roman- Aelia Capitolina, with a question of what was then on the Temple Mount. Dr Uziel agrees with those who say it is intact from the end of the Second Temple period, after Herod. It became part of the Great Bridge rebuilt in Hadrianic Aelia Capitolina. He suggests it is one of the arches which are definitely from the Second Temple period, on the other side of the wall to the west of this dig, as they are built along with ritual baths, which are clear Second Temple period markers. While the arch does not look like Robinson's arch, yet the line of openings in the western façade have no exit. So it seems they are the stores aligning the Second Temple street that was dismantled for the theater.
A theater is discussed in Josephus, and Joe and his team feel that after 150 years of academic discussion, here it is.
From an incision into the theater seats material was found dating from the Second-Third Centuries CE. Further tests should tighten thus dating, such as C-14 and newer tests. This is part of an area-wide dating effort of the IAA, Tel Aviv University, and other digs to build an absolute chronology of Jerusalem. For example, on the well-known historical question of which came first, the Bar Cochba revolt, or Aelia Capitolina with the revolt in response, this dig may bear evidence when more tests are complete.
On the exposed part of the Western Wall to the south, three horizontal incisions are seen, about which scholars argue whether they are for water piping or flooring. Here what is visible is the middle one, and plastering was found in it. To Dr Uziel's mind this proves that it is for water piping, not flooring, and this question should be considered resolved now. It is not clear if or how it connected to earlier water systems in the area.
Dr Uziel traced a series of dynamic changes, Herod covering First Temple period remains such as the huge cisterns found by Eli Shukron further south, not yet open to the public; and Herod's unfinished work which those who came later during the time of the Temple and after it changed and overhauled, then Christianity, and the Muslim period. We see that dynamic process here as well. On the south side is a Byzantine period wall, perhaps Seventh Century CE, that left a gap between it and the Herodian western wall, for what purpose unknown; later filled by a Late Muslim period wall. The vertical lines are very clear between them. He commented that as a city we see Jerusalem functioning for 4000 years; which is taking a position in an academic discussion.
The western wall of this excavation area is from a huge pool, visible to the north in another excavation area, where excavation for building a synagogue is now taking place. Joe dates it to the Byzantine period, though this is a discussion. Below the foundations of the rounded theater is a built formation called opus caementicium, poured Roman concrete, predating the Herodian Temple Mount, based on its orientation. Scholars debate if it is from the First Wall, or a dam, or a dam with a path above it. Eight meters are exposed so far here. Warren Hamilton, Alexander Onn and others show it is 14 meters thick. New techniques will be applied to this feature to understand the nature of the material and its origin. It is definitely Second Temple period with Roman technology. A nearby structure with capitals with pipes for flowing water, considered by Dr. Guy Stiebel of Tau to be a nymphaeum and by others to be a triclinium dining area, what Warren called the Freemason Hall, may be later than this feature or contemporary. The structure and the opus caementicium definitely both predate Herod, and the academic opinion that the nymphaeum is post-Second Temple, Hadrianic, is conclusively wrong, Joe says. Indeed, the arch above it uses the walls, part of the Great Bridge which is later, but these walls are earlier. Perhaps the tests on the opus caementicium will resolve whether it is contemporary with the nearby structure or earlier, and even provide evidence as to its function.
The excavators suggest that perhaps in deepening the excavation, part of Israel celebrating 50 years of Jerusalem and 70 years of the state, exposing ancient Jerusalem, the First Temple period will be reached.
In conclusion, as both one of the excavators and David Willner pointed out, the theater in and of itself is fascinating and very visual but is not a major find, and the plethora of news services that came to cover it is out of proportion with other significant historical finds which do not garner that attention. But scholars now have much more to work with from the overall dig here to weave with other pieces and achieve new understanding.
Further details will be revealed at the 11th annual archaeological conference of Jerusalem region finds hosted by the Israel Antiquities Authority, Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University, taking place this Wednesday and Thursday at Hebrew University, with site tours on Friday. Speakers are coming from around the world and an annual conference volume will be published.