Wilson's Arch (Jerusalem)
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Western Wall, with view of Wilson's Arch (at left)
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Wilson's Arch is the modern name for the ancient stone arch whose top is still visible today, where it is supported against the Northeast corner of Jerusalem's Western Wall, so that it appears on the left to visitors facing the Wall. It once spanned 42 feet (13 m), supporting a road that continued for 75 feet (23 m) and allowed access to a gate that was level with the surface of the Temple Mount during the time of Jesus.
The arch was identified in 1864 by 19th-century explorer and surveyor Charles William Wilson, for whom it is now named. Wilson had joined the Ordnance Survey of Jerusalem in 1864, continuing to participate in the city surveying project that was established to improve the city's water system. The Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF) later commissioned him to survey Western Palestine, as well.
While the arch is named for Wilson, there is a claim that Swiss physician Titus Tobler had earlier discovered and identified the structure as part of the bridge between the Temple Mount and the Upper City in his 1845/46 writings. According to some, Tobler passed on information about the arch to Wilson, whose name was linked to the arch because he was the one who publicized the find.
Construction and purpose
The Arch was "rediscovered" in 1963 by Duke University archeologist Dr. D. F. Stinespring, Professor of Old Testament and Semitics at the Duke Divinity School, who continued his exploration of the "hidden tunnels" associated with the ancient Temple during the university's summer breaks.
The date of its original construction is disputed, as some scholars date it to before the destruction of Herod's temple in AD 70, while others place it much later, to the Arab Umayyad Period, 651–750. Stinesbring believed that the Arch had not been rebuilt, believing that the way it was bonded to the wall around the Temple indicated it was part of the plan during Herod's time: "a definitive part of the ancient Temple structure." Today, scholars do agree that the site of this current arch was the beginning of a series of arches that spanned the central valley, connecting the Temple Mount to Jerusalem's western hills. It is believed by those who date the arch to the later period that it was a replacement for an earlier arch erected during the Second Temple period.
Some scholars who now date the arch's construction to the period under Arab rule during the seventh and eighth centuries AD base their conclusions on what they see as evidence from the period of excavation after the Six Day War, when Israel's Ministry of Religious Affairs began to excavate the area of the Western Wall still unexposed, and dig a tunnel beneath the existing structures above. During much of the time of these excavations, which went on 1968–82 and was restarted in 1985, the Israel Antiquities Authority's (IAA) District Archeologist for Jerusalem was Dan Bahat, who became the archaeologist of the site after resigning from IAA. In his book, Jerusalem Down Under: Tunneling Along Herod's Temple Mount Wall, he writes that the evidence found was enough to convince him that despite earlier beliefs that the arch was built during Herod's time, the later dating is correct.
Based on the evidence of the excavations, the arch once spanned 42 feet (13 m), and although it once was 75 feet (23 m) high, carrying a road over the valley and the pavement constructed during the time of Herod's rule, only a 20-foot (6.1 m) portion is visible today. While the exact dimensions of the bridge over the arch that was heavily used during the Second Temple Period are impossible to determine, it is believed that it was destroyed by Jewish rebels during the revolt against the Romans, to help prevent their taking of the Temple Mount. After the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem, the walls surrounding the mountain were renovated and the arches of the "Great Bridge" were rebuilt.
According to the writings of Josephus, the arch was a part of a bridge that connected the Temple Mount to the Upper City on the Western Hill, and carried water by aqueduct from Solomon's Pools to the Temple Mount. His writings include mention of the bridge during the 63 BC attack by Pompey, "Aristobulus's party was worsted, and retired into the Temple, and cut off the communication between the Temple and the city, by breaking down the bridge that joined them together," and during Titus's attack in 70 AD, "...a bridge that connected the Upper City to the Temple."
Along with Robinson's Arch (the arch on the opposite side of that portion of the Western Wall used for Jewish prayers today, named for Edward Robinson, the explorer who identified it in the 19th century), it was one of the largest free-standing masonry arches in the world during the time it was constructed and utilized. The "majestic size and the enormous stones testify to Herod's magnificent aspirations."
The arch is located below the Chain Road leading to today's Chain Gate, and a square shaft cut down under the arch allows sighting of the wall's original massive foundations, "with fourteen courses of dressed stone below the present ground level." Over the prayer hall area within the Arch is the large building known as the "Makhkama" or "Tankiziah," that includes a porch looking over the Temple Mount. Former Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren used to use that porch to recite special "Kinot" prayers on the night of Tisha B'Av.
The Western Stone
The Western Stone, located in the north section of the Arch, is a monolithic stone block forming part of the lower level of the Western Wall. Weighing 570 tonnes (628 tons), it is one of the largest building blocks in the world. The stone is 13.6 meters (44.6 ft) long, 4.5 meters (15 ft) wide and has an estimated height of 3.5 meters (11.5 ft). It is considered to be one of the heaviest objects ever lifted by human beings without powered machines. It is the largest building stone found in Israel and second in the world. It is only partially intact, the rest was destroyed in 70 CE during the Roman siege of Jerusalem.
Excavation and restoration
In 1968, only a few months after the Six Day War, Israel began excavations to uncover the portion of the Western Wall that was not exposed. As the excavations continued, the opening to the arch was uncovered, and rubble began to be removed. It would take 17 years, until 1985, until the entire length of the wall would be cleared.
In 2005, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation initiated a major renovation effort under Rabbi Rabinovich, then-rabbi of the wall ("Rabbi of the Kotel," as the title is usually referenced, using the Hebrew word for the Wall).
Israeli workers renovated and restored the area for three years, strengthening the arch in preparation for access for visitors and use for prayer. Scaffolding remained in place for over a year to allow workers to remove cement that had been applied as patches over the stone.
The restoration included additions to the men's section included a Torah ark that can house over one hundred Torah scrolls, in addition to new bookshelves, a library, and heating for the winter and air conditioning for the summer. There is also a new room built for the scribes who maintain and preserve the Torah scrolls used at the Wall.
Speakers at the March 12, 2006 dedication ceremony included: President of Israel, Mr. Moshe Katzav, Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis, Rabbi Yona Metzger and Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the mayor of Jerusalem, Rabbi Uri Lupolianski, the chief rabbi of the Kotel, Rabbi Rabinovich, and the director of The Western Wall Heritage Foundation, Rabbi Mordechai (Suli) Eliav.
New construction also included a women's section and gallery, which was dedicated on May 25, 2006, a little more than two months after the March dedication ceremony. This addition creates a woman's section to allow separate seating during worship services and special events conducted within the Wilson's Arch prayer area, including Bar Mitzvah ceremonies, and advertisements for special programs such as the middle-of-the-night prayers climaxing the six-week "Shoavim" period have made a point of reminding women that this new area exists. According to the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, this new construction allows women for the first time to "take part in the services held inside under the Arch." On May 14, 2008, United States First Lady Laura Bush visited the new women's section during her visit to Israel.
On July 25, 2010, a Ner Tamid, an oil-burning "eternal light," was installed within the prayer hall within Wilson's Arch, the first eternal light installed in the area of the Western Wall. According to the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, requests have been made for many years that "an olive oil lamp be placed in the prayer hall of the Western Wall Plaza, as is the custom in Jewish synagogues, to represent the menorah of the Temple in Jerusalem as well as the continuously burning fire on the altar of burnt offerings in front of the Temple, especially in the closest place to where they used to stand."
In 1983, a highly unusual interfaith service was conducted in the area under Wilson's Arch—the first interfaith service ever to be conducted at the Western Wall since it came under Israeli control. Attended by both men and women who were allowed to sit together, it was conducted under the supervision of the Israel Ministry of Religious Affairs, and led by U.S. Navy Chaplain (Rabbi) Arnold Resnicoff. Ministry of Affairs representative Yonatan Yuval was present, responding to press queries that this service was authorized as part of a special welcome for the U.S. Sixth Fleet.
Since the restoration, a growing number of worship events have been scheduled in the area, to take advantage of the cover and temperature control, especially for services at night that are traditionally recited at the Wall. For example, "Tikkun Chatzot," a kabbalistic midnight prayer for redemption has been conducted there, with a number of public figures in attendance.
The area has also been utilized during times when security concerns make it difficult to allow the use of the outdoor prayer plaza, such as the March 19, 2009 visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the Wall and Temple Mount. Despite the fact that the Pope's visit coincided with the Jewish festival of Lag B'Omer, the decision had been made to close the Wall and not allow services, but at the request of the Wall's rabbi, Shmuel Rabinowitz, the government allowed worship to be conducted in the area within the Arch. The original decision to close the entire prayer area to Jewish worship had begun to elicit negative reaction as soon as the decision was announced, between one and two months before the visit. Rabbi Rabinowitz, protesting the decision, was quoted as saying that "It's inconceivable that the pope's visit would hurt worshippers at the Western Wall, some of whom have been praying there daily." Part of the reaction was a threat to assemble and protest on the part of some Israelis, saying the police would have to "drag" them out of the area. News articles quoted one comment that, "Just like the visit of a chief rabbi at the Vatican doesn't cause the Vatican to shut down, we expect the same approach when the pope visits a place holy to the Jewish people." The decision to utilize the prayer area within Wilson's Arch, allowing worship during the Pope's visit, was eventually announced by the Israel Police and the Israel Security Agency (ISA/Shin Bet). Worshippers were allowed into the main plaza during the hours prior to the Pope's scheduled arrival, but moved into the enclosed Wilson's Arch prayer before his actual arrival.
Video and audio streaming of some special events are available online from the "Wilson's Arch camera" (webcam). It does not operate on Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, or on those Jewish holy days when photography is prohibited by Jewish religious law.
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- Photos: Wilson's Arch today and photographic renderings of its original form.
- Modern photos.
- Wilson's Arch photo gallery, Western Hall Heritage Foundation.
- Wilson's Arch, identified on map/diagram of old city.
- Map of ancient water route, including Wilson's Arch aqueduct.
- 19th Century Charles Warren and Charles Wilson Jerusalem maps.
- Wilson's Arch live webcam.
- The Jerusalem Archaeological Park
- Charles Wilson's 1886 "Ordnance Survey of Jerusalem"
- YouTube Video: Western Stone (Hebrew, with some English written translation)