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Excavations reveal destruction of Second Temple

RTX8D5FPeople stand at an excavation site in Jerusalem’s Old City, Sept. 3, 2008. The wall, on Mount Zion at the southern edge of Jerusalem’s Old City, dates back to the Second Jewish Temple, which was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70. (photo by REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)

After 20 years of excavating in the City of David, archaeologist Eli Shukrun quickly realized one day what an important find he had made. It was 2011, and he was digging at an Israel Antiquities Authority site — to be exact, a drainage tunnel of several hundred meters, running from the Siloam Pool, a rock-cut pool on the slopes of the ancient city of King David, to the foot of Robinson’s Arch, a stone staircase in the Old City’s market area. It was a rare find, well preserved amid all the mud.

Shukrun had unearthed a Roman “gladius,” or sword, waiting 2,000 years to be found. It apparently belonged to a Roman soldier who dropped it when he climbed into the tunnel to search for Jewish rebels who had fled there in a panic after realizing their revolt had failed. Jerusalem had just been taken, and the Second Temple destroyed.

At the time, Shukrun recalled what is practically the only contemporary source describing the battle for Jerusalem, “​The War of the Jews against the Romans,” by Josephus Flavius. The text reads, “After the Romans killed some of the people that rose against them and took the remainder captive, they sought out the people hiding in the tunnels, and ripped up the ground over them. Everyone they captured was put to the sword.” It continues, “There were some men there, who were driven by avarice to descend into the tunnels and force their way through the piles of corpses. Many precious objects had been hidden there, and no way of obtaining them was considered excessive to the greedy.”

Avi Solomon, archaeologist for the Western Wall tunnels on the Temple Mount, told Al-Monitor that the sword “is archaeological evidence of descriptions of the final days of the battle over Jerusalem, right after it was put to the torch and the Upper City fell. Jewish fighters entered the fetid drainage tunnels, filled with the feces and sewage of Jerusalem, in an attempt to flee for their lives. Some of them took valuables, including gold coins and jewelry. Roman legionnaires chased after them. They lifted the stone manhole covers, slaughtered the fighters, and seized their valuables.”

According to Shukrun, “Nothing can be compared to finding that sword and finding other pottery shards in that drainage canal. You are experiencing history, touching history. The last of the rebels descend into the sewers, which reaches to the Kidron Valley [on the eastern side of Jerusalem’s Old City] and the Pool of Siloam, so they could escape into the Judean Desert. What were they feeling? They had no food. They had no water. It was pitch dark. While our finds show that they had clay lamps, their use must have been minimal because of a shortage of oil. It was the month of Av [in the summer]. It was very hot. The situation was very harsh. And what do they hear right above them? The sounds of destruction and the footsteps of Roman soldiers marching along the street right above them. What do they smell? The smoke coming from the burning of the temple. It is a terrifying situation. The more you dig, the more you find, the better you understand what you just touched.”

The sword was just one of the finds discovered in the past few years during excavations at the foot of the Temple Mount ongoing since 2006. They are part of the Antiquities Authority’s efforts in the area. When Israel marked the Fast of the Ninth of Av on July 26, commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples, thousands upon thousands of the Jewish faithful made their way to the Western Wall and the sacred sites on the Temple Mount, which was destroyed a second time in A.D. 70. They visited sites that confirm a Jewish presence in Jerusalem at the time, as the city stood on the cusp of inevitable destruction.

The artifacts that have been found tell more than just the story of the destruction of Jerusalem. They also tell about life in the city before it was destroyed. One discovery was a vast network of public ritual baths for pilgrims.


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