Here’s a question: What major site in Jerusalem can a visitor see without wasting daylight but that still requires men to wear a hat?
(Okay, so you could wear a yarmulke instead of a hat. And really, most men remove the hat after ten minutes anyway.)
Answer: The Western Wall tunnel. Our group absolutely loved walking through this place! We toured the tunnel after the sun went down.
When you say the words “Western Wall,” most folks think of the Western Wall plaza, the place where bar- and bat-mitzvahs regularly occur and where soldiers are inducted. It’s the spot where ultra- and orthodox Jews come to pray—as well as many tourists—and the place of national prayer gatherings. It’s Judaism’s most sacred site.
Solomon built the original temple, and the Babylonians destroyed it in 586 BC. After the Jews’ return from exile, Zerubbabel helped rebuild the temple. Herod the Great greatly expanded it in the first century BC—though the construction continued into the first century—decades after Herod’s death. The stones visible in the tunnel tour date from Herod’s time and represent the western section of the massive retaining wall that supported the base of the Second Temple. But these treasures weren’t always visible.
Nineteenth century scholars struggled to understand the dimensions of the Western Wall. Between 1864 and 1870, British explorers Charles Wilson and Charles Warren discovered the area just north of today’s prayer plaza; an arch and a gate were named after each of them, respectively. Wilson’s Arch looms twenty-five feet above the ground—though the original height was closer to seventy-five feet. The arch covers a large room where Jewish men can study and pray beside the Western Wall.
As our group made its way in the Tunnel Tour, along the full length of the Wall—a total of 1500 feet—we observed bits of archaeology from the first century. Descending some steps we came to a massive stone that represents part of the “master course” of stones. One of these stones measures forty-four feet long, ten feet high, and more than twelve feet deep. Weighing in at 570 tons, it remains the largest of its kind in the Middle East. Every first-timer’s jaw drops when he or she sees it. Mine still drops.
A brief video presentation explained how first-century workers maneuvered the massive stones into place through a system of pulleys. Simply a marvel of engineering.
Traveling parallel with the Western Wall, hands rubbed the stones that bore Herod’s signature relief along its edges. Plexiglas flooring allowed us a peek at the aqueduct that ran underground, with the ceiling of the tunnel now high above us. The tour dead-ended at the Strouthian Pool, beneath the site of the Antonia Fortress. The pool’s name means “lark,” because, like the tiny bird, the pool(s) represented the smallest public pools in Jerusalem at that time.
I can’t imagine a better use of time after the sun goes down.