The Western Wall PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
Article Index
The Western Wall
Archaeology of the Wall
Destruction of Temple

The Great Walls around the Temple:
Why and how Herod built them (but did he?)

In 2011, archaeologists Eli Shukron and Ronny Reich dug down to bedrock near the SW corner of the Temple Mount. They discovered various rock-cut installations that had belonged to buildings earlier than the temple Herod built. One of them was a ritual bath, miqveh. The builders had filled it, topped it with three large flat stones, and laid the wall's first course over part of it. The archaeologists of 2011 removed fill from the half of the mikveh that was not beneath the wall's foundation stones, rather west of them. They found three clay oil lamps that were typical of the 1st century AD. They also found coins, of which the latest four had been minted by the Roman prefect Valerius Gratus in 17 - 18 AD. (For an account by the Israel Antiquities Authority, see here.) The excavators concluded that this section of the Western Wall could not have been built under Herod, who died in 4 BC.

This conclusion, which received much publicity worldwide, would imply a post-Herodian date not only for the southern end of the Western Wall, but also for the royal portico, of which Josephus wrote, "this cloister deserves to be mentioned better than any other under the sun." With its 162 huge pillars, each having the girth of three men with extended arms, it stretched the length of the southern wall (920 feet). We would also have to redate the Hulda Gates and the grand staircase. All this redating would undermine Josephus' account, for he tells us that Herod celebrated the completion of the temple, including the royal portico. Finally, one may question whether so huge a structure could have been built during the rule of a procurator. And why, in such a case, would Josephus have called it "royal," given that Herod was Judaea's last king? If the portico's funder had been a Jewish ruler, namely, Herod Agrippas (40 - 43 AD) or his son Agrippas II, surely Josephus, born in 36 AD, would have known as much and would not have credited their forebear.

Admittedly, we read in John 2:20 that the construction of the temple, which began ca. 20 BC, took 46 years, and Josephus reports that it was completed only in 63 AD, when Agrippas II had the city repaved in order to provide jobs for the 18,000 workers whom the completion had left idle. (As often with Josephus, one suspects that a copyist added a zero to his demographic data.) But we have always had these passages, and they never stopped us from attributing the main structures to Herod, including the royal portico. The question is whether the coins of Gratus add enough to justify a redating.

These coins, as said, were not found under the wall's foundation stones. In a recent comment, Leen Ritmeyer notes: "Actually the coins prove nothing at all, as the mikveh only project[s] a few centimeters under the wall. The coins came probably from a later repair." For instance, the street beside the wall shows no sign of use, so it was probably one of those that were repaved by order of Agrippas II, seven years before the destruction.

Given the doubts about the proposed re-dating, I shall continue to assume that the temple's main structures were Herodian, including the royal portico and the outermost southwest corner. This assumption guides the following text.

When Herod persuaded the people to let him tear down and rebuild the Temple, starting around 20 BC, he designed an esplanade of 35 acres (144,000 square meters). Thus it could accommodate Jerusalemites and pilgrims by the hundreds of thousands. In recent times, during the month of Ramadan, 400,000 Muslims have been known to gather on the mount, which they name the Haram al-Sharif.

Herod's method was to erect huge retaining walls, fifteen feet thick, beyond the earlier ones. Between old walls and new, the workers stacked vaults, evening the surface with dirt and surmounting all with a platform. Because the new walls were so massive, the Temple enclosure could serve as a fortress, as it did during the first great revolt against Rome. Decades after the Romans destroyed it, some group - probably the Romans still - battered down the parts that stood above the platform. They set their rams inside, slamming outward. On reaching floor-level they stopped. In the excavation near the southwest corner of the western wall, the archaeologists have left a section of a street undisturbed. Here we can see the stones of the upper courses lying where they fell.


If we stand in the Western Wall plaza looking east, the seven lowest courses we see (including a fraction of one) belong to the same retaining wall as the one in the photo above, only further north. They are distinguishable by their margins (as you can see more clearly in the photo above). The top of the uppermost Herodian course corresponds to the level of the platform inside, where the batterers set their rams. The four courses above it, lacking margins (see picture below), date to repairs by the Arabs (Umayyads) in the 7th-8th centuries, when they built the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock . The smaller stones above these are from later repairs. 


In this act of looking, however, we are standing about 30 feet higher than the Herodian street. There are another 19 Herodian courses beneath the current plaza, 8 of them consisting of dressed stones down to the Herodian street level and beneath them, not meant to be seen, 11 courses of stones with lumpy bosses, extending down to bedrock (How do we know?) We are standing, that is, in the Cheesemakers Valley (Greek: tyropoeon), which has largely filled with debris through the centuries. Before the destruction of the wall, its total height (at this point) from bedrock to the top of the Temple's western porch was 125 feet.


The entire western wall, 1590 feet long, formed part of the irregular rectangle composing the Temple complex. The blocks are of limestone. Most weigh between two and five tons. In the southwest corner, where greater strength was needed, the blocks are 36 feet long, 7 feet thick and the usual 3 feet high (the height of the limestone strata in the nearby hills). These stones at the corner weigh about 50 tons each. They continue, in crisscross fashion, beneath the ancient street to bedrock. 

They are not the largest. North of the prayer space, the archaeologists have dug a tunnel along the entire length of the western wall. At eye-level with another Herodian gate, in what is called the "master course," they discovered a block that is 45 feet long and 11 feet high, with a thickness estimated at between 11.5 and 15 feet. They estimate its weight at 570 tons. Nearby is another almost as big.


07102002163453.jpgWe do not know how the ancients managed to move these stones or set them so precisely. They had pulleys and levers, but 50 tons (not to mention 570!) is more than most modern construction cranes can handle. Perhaps they arranged the work so that they never had to lift a stone: they began quarrying at the level of the building site, to which they built a ramp; oxen dragged the stone on the ramp, using rollers; after they had set the first course, they quarried from a higher point and raised the ramp. Yet this, no doubt, is easier said than done! Nor does it account for the remarkable precision.

Why did Herod call for such enormous stones? First, because he wanted to achieve stability without cement. The Romans had developed a high-grade mortar, using lime and volcanic ash. To get lime they had to burn limestone, and the fires required a great deal of wood. But wood is and was scarce in this country. People here had developed the craft of building dry walls. According to an estimate by Ben-Dov (p. 89), if Herod had chosen to use smaller stones bound by cement, he might have made it equally strong, but at the cost of a hundred square kilometers of forest. 

Herod had another reason, too, to use big stones. This western wall was a crucial factor in his hold on power. As king of the Jews, he had a great deal against him. He had usurped the power from the Hasmoneans . He was a collaborator with Rome, and so his dominion seemed to contradict the Jewish covenant faith. His Jewishness was greeted with skepticism by his subjects: his mother was a Nabataean Arab, and his Edomite paternal grandfather had converted to Judaism under pressure. Herod had, in other words, a problem of legitimacy. He had to cow his subjects into submission. This wall was part of the cowing. 

Josephus wrote: "... the city lay over against the temple in the manner of a theater" (Antiquities, XV 11.5). That is, by Herod's time most Jerusalemites lived on the western hill, which is higher than the Temple Mount and slopes down into the Cheesemakers' Valley. Whenever they looked toward the Temple, then, they would see the western wall -- and Herod's mighty stones. Meir Ben Dov describes the effect:

"Even though in objective terms you might be standing at a point level with or even higher than the Temple Mount esplanade, the towering walls created the optical illusion that the Temple compound was higher still. The further you descended toward the street bordering the Temple Mount, the greater the sensation of its height: as you walked down, the mountain seemed to grow higher before you." (Ben-Dov , p. 78.)

Approaching, you would have made out more clearly the enormous size of the stones. Here the margins would have played their part, enabling you to distinguish them. Herod needed you to feel this awe. Every time you looked toward the Temple, he wanted you to sense his might and the might of Rome behind him -- and to connect all this with your God. Having no divine right, he tried to construct it in stone.

In Mark (13:1-2) it is written:

As he went out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Teacher, see what kind of stones and what kind of buildings!”

Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone on another, which will not be thrown down.”