A world of subterranean caves, tunnels, and chambers is hidden in Har Habayit, cloaked in mystery and surrounded by legend. Join the expedition as Rabbi Leibel Reznick leads an exploration of these secret passageways.
Our story of the secret chambers of the Temple Mount begins in the early 1860s. At that time, more than half of Jerusalem’s Jewish and Christian populations were suffering from the ill effects of the city’s polluted water supply. Jerusalem had no source of fresh water and the inhabitants had to rely on in-ground storage pools, called cisterns, which contained the winter’s rainfall. The municipal cisterns were often located next to cemeteries or garbage dumps that made the brackish water unfit for human consumption. (See Plate #1.)
On September 12, 1864, a team of six British surveyors began examining the polluted water supply of the Holy City. The request for the survey was made by a committee of English missionaries stationed in Jerusalem, with the cooperation of the Turkish officials. It should be noted that the cooperation of the Turks was not due to any health concern, but rather because of the constant flow of bribes from the missionaries. The surveying team was granted total access to all areas of the Holy City, including the Temple Mount.
The British philanthropist, Sir Moses Montefiore, was also instrumental in obtaining the necessary permission and cooperation of the local Jewish authorities and leading citizens. It is significant to realize that at this time, though Palestine was under Turkish rule, the Jews were the majority of Jerusalem’s population.1
The expedition was headed by Charles Wilson, a 28-year-old captain in the British Royal Engineer Corps. Wilson was chosen because of his intimate knowledge of ancient history, his familiarity with the infant science of archaeology, and his expertise in surveying. He realized the unique opportunity that was about to take place. In the past, the Turkish administrators had never allowed any type of scientific exploration or investigation of the holy sites. It was rare that non-Moslems were granted entrance onto the Temple Mount. (See Plate #2.)
The Wilson survey lasted eight months. At completion, he reported that the large cisterns of the municipality were not salvageable and should be abandoned at once, except for those cisterns atop the Temple Mount. After hearing Wilson’s report, the Turkish authorities decided to take no action. The cisterns of the Mount were already reserved for the exclusive use of the Moslem community. The non-Moslems, the Jews and the Christians, would have to fend for themselves.
The survey’s mission was ostensibly to examine the water supply of the city; however, they managed to do extensive archaeological work, mapping, recording, and photographing their finds. The most fascinating aspect of the expedition was the examination of the underground “cisterns” of the Temple Mount itself. Most of these were actually the converted remains of underground Second Temple structures. Some of these cisterns had been used by the Moslems as trash depositories, some were subterranean mosques and others were used to hold drinking water.
Captain Wilson’s report was published in a three-volume work entitled Ordinance Survey of Jerusalem. It was the first scientific publication on Jerusalem’s ancient sites and served as the basis for all future explorations.
Before we examine Wilson’s report, we must first take a quick look at the Holy Second Temple. Only by appreciating what structures stood then can we understand what remains today. (See Plate #3.)
The main area of the Second Temple was an elevated, rectangular courtyard that was surrounded by a high wall. This was called the Azarah. The four features inside the Azarah courtyard that will concern us now are: (1) the Altar, (2) the Heichal (Sanctuary), (3) the Channel (Amah), and (4) the Hearth (Beit Hamokad).
(1) The sacrificial Altar was located not far from the eastern Azarah wall. Though the floor of the Azarah was elevated and tiled in marble, the Altar had to rest firmly upon the actual ground. This was required by halachah, since the Torah refers to the Altar as the “Altar of the Ground.” The Altar weighed approximately 1,500 tons! In order to assure that the Altar’s great weight would not cause the ground to shift, it would be prudent to build the Altar in such a way that it would rest firmly on bedrock. Fortunately, the bedrock of the mountain rose to the surface in this eastern area.
Beneath the floor of the Azarah courtyard, near the southwestern corner of the Altar, was a cave. Access to the cave was by means of a 2-foot square hole that was covered by a marble slab. In the floor of the cave was a natural system of drains that led the blood of the sacrificial Altar out into the Kidron Valley below the Temple Mount. Once every 70 years or so, young Kohanim were sent through the hole into the cave to clean out the mouth of the drain.
(2) The main building of the Beit Hamikdash was the Heichal (Sanctuary). It contained the Holies (Kodesh) and the Holy of Holies (Kodesh Hakadashim). It was located in the western portion of the Azarah courtyard. During the First Temple Era, the Holy Ark had rested upon a rock, also a portion of protruding bedrock, which extended a few inches above the floor in the Holy of Holies. Shortly before the end of the First Temple Era, the prophet Jeremiah, fearing the impending invasion of Babylonia, hid the Ark and other national treasures, such as the Staff of Aaron and the Oil of Anointing (“Shemen Hamishchah“).
After the 70 years of Babylonian exile, the returning Jews rebuilt the Temple, but the Ark and other treasures were never found. It was the Divine Will that the Holy of Holies and its rock should remain bare during the 420 years of the Second Temple Era.
(3) Running through the Azarah was a Channel through which water flowed. The 2-foot wide Channel began near the northern Azarah wall. The water flowed under the north side of the Altar and into the drain beneath the southwestern corner of the Altar.
(4) North of the Altar was a large, domed building called the Hearth (Beit Hamokad). This was the only heated building in the Temple and served as sleeping quarters for the Kohanim who were on duty. Under the Hearth was a tunnel. Access to the tunnel was by way of a spiraling staircase which had niches carved into it to hold oil lamps to illuminate the dark cavern. From this tunnel the Kohanim could reach an underground mikvah. The tunnel continued due north and led out to the Tadi Gate, the northern gate of the Temple Mount.
For the curious of mind, the Temple “bathrooms” were also located in the area of the mikvah. A unique innovation for that time, they had separate cubicles with doors that could lock.
As we have seen, there were two areas on the Temple Mount where the bedrock reached the surface: in the Holy of Holies and at the site of the Altar. Today, only one rock can be seen, the rock contained within the Dome of the Rock.
The Crusaders assumed that this Rock and its cave was the Holy of Holies, and that tradition was later transmitted to the Arabs, who in turn passed it along to the Jewish population. Throughout history, the cave and the Rock have captured the imagination of people of all religions. The 13th century Crusaders carved away chips of the Rock and sold them abroad for an equal weight of gold. Moslems would collect the dust that settled on the Rock and sell it as a cure for eye diseases.
Yet, two questions persist. In actuality, which rock is under the Dome: the Holy of Holies or the Altar? And, where is the other rock?
During the course of the Wilson survey, he examined the Rock itself and found that the exposed rock was about 57 feet long and 41 feet wide. Its height above the floor level ranged from 1 foot to 4 feet 9 1/2 inches. Wilson found steps carved into the Rock that led into a cave below. (See Plate #4.) Here is how Wilson described the cave:
The entrance to the cave is by flight of steps on the south-east, passing under a doorway with a pointed arch, which looks like an addition of the Crusaders. The chamber is not very large, with an average height of 6 feet. Its sides are so covered with plaster and whitewash that it is impossible to see any chisel marks, but the surface appears to be rough and irregular. On tapping the sides, a hollow sound is produced… from defective plastering, the plaster having become separated from the rock… There may be a small opening in the side but certainly no large one, unless it is blocked up with masonry. The floor of the cave is paved with marble and produces a hollow sound when stamped upon. (See Plate #5.)
Wilson realized that the reason for the hollow sound rising from the tapping of the floor was that there was another cave below. He found a small opening in the floor, but was unable to reach the lower cave. Not all of Wilson’s discoveries were recorded in his book, as some were conveyed to Colonel Henry James, organizer of the Wilson expedition. James, who wrote the introduction to Wilson’s Ordinance Survey, comments:
Beneath the Sakhra (the Arabic name for the Rock) there is a cave that is entered by descending some steps on the south-east side. The cave itself is about 9 feet high in the highest part and 22 feet 6 inches square; a hole has been cut through from the upper surface of the rock into that chamber (namely, the cave) beneath, and there is a corresponding hole immediately under it, which leads to a drain down to the valley of Kedron.
Wilson had brought in vats of red-dyed water and poured it into the drain. He sent men all about the area outside the Temple Mount to see where the water came out. The dyed water flowed to the base of the mountain and out into the Kidron Valley.
With regard to the “hole” carved into the top of the Rock to which James referred, it is a 3-foot wide hole which leads down into the cave. The area from the surface of the Rock to the bottom of the hole, which would be the ceiling of the cave, measures about 5 1/2 feet.
With regard to the lower cave, Wilson could make no measurements, but merely detected its existence. The Arabs call this lower cave Bir al Aruah, or Well of Souls. Radvaz records a legend that Moslem infidels were cast into this chamber and left there to die. An old Crusader tale says that the Holy Ark and other Temple treasures were hidden there.
(In 1911, an illegal expedition headed by a British adventurer, Colonel Parker, tried to break into the Dome of the Rock. They were caught and expelled, but rumor had it that Parker found the Holy Ark, carted it off to England, and had it secreted in the basement of the British Museum. While the story was not true, it did cause quite a stir throughout the world for many months.)
At the conclusion of the survey, Wilson encouraged another young British surveyor, Captain Charles Warren, to continue the work of scientific exploration of the Temple Mount under the guise of pollution control. (See plates #6, 7, & 8.) Warren carefully examined the upper portion of the western side of the Rock. This is Warren’s entry in his diary:
Thursday, April 8, 1869
I visited the Dome of the Rock to visit two pieces of flagging [area paved with slabs of flat stone] which appeared to be lying on it [the Rock]. They are horizontal and extend in a northerly direction for about 5 feet… This gutter [the flag stones were covering a channel carved into the rock, and Warren refers to the channel as a gutter] is cut out of solid rock and leads from the western upper side [of the rock] to the northern and lower plateau [walkway around the rock]. The flagging was very heavy and was found to conceal an opening in the rock five feet long and two feet wide. It [the channel] continues due north for 11 feet more and is roofed in rock. The rock is cut down perpendicularly at both sides and also at the southern end where the gutter leads immediately into it. The pavement of the Sakhra [Dome of the Rock] cuts off this passage to the north. When I visited it was three feet deep but was filled up at the bottom with soft earth or rubbish and the real depth could not be ascertained. It was not easy to determine the object of this passageway.”
(See Plate #9.)
Warren describes a 2-foot wide channel on the western side of the rock. It began at the southwestern corner and went at least 16 feet due north. The remainder of the length could not be determined nor examined because the walkway inside the Dome of the Rock and the paved area outside the Dome covered the channel. Obviously, the Moslems were not going to allow Warren to dig up their holy site merely to satisfy his curiosity.
By this time, I assume, my astute readers are way ahead of me. The Rock has a cave which has a hole from the surface above leading into it. This cave has a drain in the bottom, a drain that flowed into the Kidron Valley. On the western side, the rock has a 2-foot wide channel that leads due north. Surely the Rock is the site of the Altar! I am inclined to agree.
This assumption — that the Rock is the site of the Altar, and not the Holy of Holies — can explain a long-puzzling fact. The rock in the Holy of Holies projected only a few inches above the floor, the width of three fingers. The Rock in the Dome of the Rock projects several feet above the floor level. All scientific evidence indicates that the present-day floor level of the Dome is the original floor level of the Temple. How, then, could this rock, which has been cut down considerably, be the rock of the Holy of Holies?
The solution is that this rock is not the site of the Holy of Holies, but rather it is the site of the Altar. The Altar’s rock could have projected in part many feet above the floor level. The sacrificial edifice could have been built around the rock, absorbing the height of the rock into its structure. That would not present any halachic problem, since the primary ingredient of the Altar’s composition was stone.
The original width of the hole in the Rock was about 2 feet, which could only accommodate the smaller, younger Kohanim who had the task of clearing the drain. The hole was later enlarged by the Crusaders to 3 feet to accommodate the adult warriors. The Crusaders eventually cut the stepped passageway into the cave.
Now that we have determined that the Rock is the site of the Altar, where is the other rock, the site of the Holy of Holies?
The Holy of Holies was about 158 feet west of the Altar. The Dome of the Rock is built on an elevated platform. Much of the platform is paved with stone tiles. The area 158 feet west of the Rock is near the western edge of the platform. When Charles Wilson was examining this area over 130 years ago, he noticed that this area was not paved with stone tiles, but the bedrock itself served as the surface flooring. The rock had been shaved smooth and lines had been cut into the rock to give the appearance of tiles. According to our reckoning, this bedrock is the site of the Holy of Holies. Perhaps the Moslems shaved the rock down and made it appear to be the part of the flooring so as to disguise the site of the Holy of Holies.
Radak [a Torah commentator] records an ancient Jewish tradition that gentiles will never construct a building over the site of the Heichal. If the Dome of the Rock is the site of the Holy of Holies — as commonly believed — it would be ludicrous for the Radak to record such a tradition, since the Dome had already stood for 800 years before his time. If the Holy of Holies was located 158 feet west of the Rock, then, in fact, no building has ever been constructed in that area.
At this point, it is important to reiterate that the gold-colored Dome of the Rock is built upon a large elevated platform about 545 feet square. There are flights of stairs on all sides leading up to the platform.
North of the Altar — which I now assume to be where the Rock in the Dome is located — was the Hearth. Under the Hearth was a large tunnel that connected to the mikvah of the Kohanim and led northward to the outer Tadi Gate. North of the Rock, Wilson discovered a tunnel whose roof was 12 feet below the surface of the Dome of the Rock platform. (See Plate #10.) The tunnel was only partially explored because much of it had been filled with rubbish and the stench was overpowering. The dark and dank tunnel was 24 feet wide and measured 18 feet from the floor to the barreled ceiling. Wilson measured 130 feet of its length, acknowledging that its course continued due north and also due south — but how far could not be determined. The floor of the Dome of the Rock platform, north of the Rock, produces a hollow sound when tapped, suggesting that the tunnel runs all the way to the northern side of the platform. Several years later, Warren confirmed Wilson’s measurements and observations. Warren reported that a local cleric, Signor Pierotti, claimed that the tunnel also continued due south to the Rock itself. Wilson’s mapped cross-section of the area also shows that the tunnel sloped downward to the north, suggesting that it led to the lower ground level outside the platform where the north Tadi Gateway of the Temple would have been located.
Several feet west of the tunnel, Wilson also found a complex of underground rooms. The rooms were 9 feet below the platform and measured 23 feet from floor to ceiling. They were connected by low-arched doorways. Again, because of the stifling heat and stench, an extensive exploration was impossible. Wilson assumed, and Warren agreed, that these rooms connected to the tunnel mentioned earlier at the northern end of the Dome platform. Could this be where the priestly mikvah was located? Quite possibly, but I have an even more intriguing suggestion.
The Talmud records that there was a tunnel going under the Heichal. Wilson claimed that the extent of the room complex was much greater than he could measure. If we extend the southerly direction of this complex, it would lead directly under the area where we placed the Heichal on the western side of the Dome platform. Could the room complex be part of that tunnel that led under the Heichal as well as the site of the mikvah?
Even more amazing, exactly in the spot where we place the Holy of Holies is another “cistern” discovered by Wilson and later briefly examined by Warren. All that we know about this musty, bottle-shaped cistern is that its floor is 37 feet below the flooring of the platform of the Dome, and that 11 feet below its top, on its side wall, is an opening leading into another, unexplored chamber. How we wish we knew more about this room! But, alas, it has not been visited since Warren was there in that spring of 1869. (See Plate #11.)
Since the days when Wilson and Warren first began mapping the subterranean chambers of the Temple Mount, we have all been intrigued by them — dark chambers that have never seen the light of day nor heard the footsteps of man for 2,000 years. Within the past few years, new chambers have been discovered through sonar detection. Though these new chambers have never been visited, they serve to enhance the mystery and majesty of the Temple Mount — for who knows what secrets they contain?
Interested readers may obtain a diagram of the Temple Mount, showing more than 30 subterranean chambers. Please send a standard letter-size self-addressed ($.32) stamped envelope to: Rabbi Leibel Reznick, 2 Treetop Lane, Monsey, New York 10952.
Citations for source materials used in the preparation of this article are available through Jewish Action, 333 7th Avenue, New York, N.Y., 10001.
Rabbi Reznick is a maggid shiur in the Beit Midrash of Shaarei Torah of Rockland. He is the author of The Holy Temple Revisited; Woe Jerusalem; A Time to Weep and The Mystery of Bar Kokhba. His most recent article for Jewish Action, The Riddle of the Shushan Gate, appeared in the Summer 1996 issue.