Archaeologists have unearthed an ancient complex of underground chambers carved into the bedrock beneath Jerusalem’s Western Wall plaza, reports the Associated Press.
The mysterious subterranean rooms are located roughly 120 feet away from a site holy to both Jews and Muslims, who call it the Temple Mount and Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary), respectively. Today, the compound is known best as the home of the Dome of the Rock, the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Western Wall.
Per a statement from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the newly discovered complex—consisting of a courtyard and two rooms—was hidden beneath the white mosaic floor of a large Byzantine-era building for roughly 1,400 years. Connected by carved staircases, the rooms are cut into the bedrock at differing depths.
Niches chipped into the structures’ walls likely served as shelves, storage spaces, door jambs and lantern holders, reports Amanda Borschel-Dan for the Times of Israel.
Artifacts found in the chambers allowed archaeologists to date the underground system to roughly 2,000 years ago, according to the AP.
“Among other things, we found clay cooking vessels, cores of oil lamps used for light, a stone mug unique to Second Temple Period Jewish sites, and a fragment of a qalal—a large stone basin used to hold water, thought to be linked to Jewish practices of ritual purity,” say archaeologists Barak Monnickendam-Givon and Tehila Sadiel in the statement.
Speaking with Rossella Tercatin of the Jerusalem Post, Monnickendam-Givon notes that the underground network is located in what was, at the time of its construction, the city’s civic center.
“We think that the public street passed just a few meters from here, and we are standing next to what we archaeologists call the ‘big bridge’ that connected the upper city to the Temple itself,” the archaeologist adds.
Temple Mount’s religious significance has motivated a diverse array of civilizations—including the Jebusites, Israelites, Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, early Muslims, Crusaders, Mamluks, Ottomans and English—to conquer and occupy its 35 acres, wrote Joshua Hammer for Smithsonian magazine in 2011.
The newly unearthed structure is one of the few surviving remnants of ancient Jerusalem. In 70 A.D., Roman forces tasked with putting down the First Jewish Revolt “burned and devastated [the city], and all the Jewish people were exiled,” says Monnickendam-Givon to the Jerusalem Post. “A few decades later, the Romans started rebuilding it from scratch.”
For now, the researchers remain uncertain of the underground chambers’ purpose, as well as their creators’ rationale for expending the considerable amount of effort needed to carve living spaces out of solid stone.
“Besides from burials, we have rarely found any complete rock-cut rooms from that era,” says Monnickendam-Givon. “Most people in ancient Jerusalem lived in stone-built houses. What was the function of this hewn system just under the street level? Was it a house, a storage unit? Something else?”
The archaeologists are also hoping to learn more about the Byzantine building that sat atop of these puzzling, rock-cut rooms.
“We do not know whether it was a religious or a civil building,” IAA archaeologist Michael Chernin tells the Jerusalem Post. “We do know it collapsed during an earthquake at the beginning of the 11th century.”
The AP reports that the researchers plan on using the artifacts discovered during the excavation to paint a more complete picture of daily life in Jerusalem prior to the Roman siege of 70 A.D.
As Chernin notes, more subterranean rooms may emerge as the excavation continues.