By December 3, 2015 Read More →

Meir Ben-Dov.“Herod’s Mighty Temple Mount.” Biblical Archaeology Review 12, 6 (1986).

Second Temple Archaeology vividly recreates bustle of pilgrims two thousand years ago

Solomon’s temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. when they conquered Jerusalem. A half century later, the returning exiles, under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, built the Second Temple, a modest structure that gradually fell into disrepair. This temple was remodeled and rebuilt during the last quarter of the last century before the Common Era by Herod the Great. So complete was this rebuilding that some scholars refer to Herod’s temple as the third temple. But in Jewish tradition it is the Second Temple, only rebuilt by Herod. When the Roman army conquered Jerusalem in 70 A.D., the Roman general Titus destroyed Herod’s rebuilt Second Temple, thus ending what scholars call the First Jewish Revolt. (Another Jewish revolt against Rome was to follow in 132 A.D.)

Perhaps the best way to appreciate the magnificence of Herod’s Temple and the reconstructed and enlarged esplanade on which it was built is to begin at the end, just before the Roman destruction. Titus’s siege of Jerusalem was at its height in 70 A.D., the culmination of a four-year war that had begun as a Jewish revolt against increasingly intolerable, and incompetent, Roman rule. The Romans conducted their siege operation slowly but surely. Within the city, frustration ate away at the beleaguered Jews as hunger stalked them and a pall of failure hovered over their strongholds. Even though it was clear that the fall of the city was only days away, a week at most, no one considered surrendering to the Romans. As the end approached, Titus summoned his General Staff, the commanders of the Legions, to discuss how to proceed once the Roman forces had broken into the city. Their consultation was apparently held on the Mount of Olives, with the Temple Mount, in all its glory, laid out at their feet.

An account of this discussion is preserved in the works of Tacitus, one of the greatest of Roman historians: “It is said that Titus, who called the council, declared that the first thing to decide is whether or not to destroy the Temple, one of man’s consummate building achievements. A few of [the officers] felt that it would not be right to destroy a holy building renowned as one of the greatest products of human endeavor. … ”

The fact that hardened army officers at the end of a brutal war were troubled by the question of how to proceed after their conquest is an eloquent tribute to the unparalleled majesty of the Temple and the Temple Mount. It was a custom of the age to punish rebellious nations by destroying their temples, and one would expect this rule to apply all the more so in the case of the Jews, whose defiance and obstinacy stemmed from a religion, philosophy, and national outlook in which the Temple and the Temple Mount played a central role. However, the Temple had earned itself a reputation as one of the greatest cultural attainments of all time, and such distinction had to be taken into account.

Testaments to the glory of Herod’s Temple and the Temple Mount he designed as its podium are naturally found in contemporaneous Jewish sources as well. The sages of Israel—who had seen many lavish edifices and were familiar with such cities as Rome, Alexandria, Antioch and Athens—had a saying: “Whoever has not seen Herod’s building has never seen a beautiful structure.”

Most of all, however, a sense of the Temple Mount’s magnificence emerges from the descriptions and impressions of Flavius Josephus, the Jewish historian of the war against Rome. Josephus lived at a time when the Temple was at the acme of its splendor, and he became a witness to its destruction. As a native of Jerusalem and the son of a priestly family, he knew the Temple and the Temple Mount down to the last detail and devoted whole chapters of his works to describing them. These accounts provide us with so astonishing and detailed a picture of the structure’s power and grandeur that in many cases they sometimes strike the reader as the product of an overactive imagination. In summing up a series of descriptions praising the Temple, for example, Josephus tells that “The external facade of the Temple had all that it takes to excite wonder in the eye and in the heart.” Some scholars were indisposed to accept his descriptions at face value, treating them instead as oriental flights of fancy or, at best, hyperbole. With a measure of condescension, one scholar attempted to defend these ostensible exaggerations by saying that Josephus undoubtedly suffered a lapse of memory as a result of his distance from the Temple and his being distracted by the hustle, bustle, and pleasures of life at the Roman emperor’s court where, after the Temple’s destruction, he lived while writing his books.

On the basis of finds uncovered in our archaeological investigations, we are able to say that the details given in Josephus’s works are not only far from exaggerations, they correspond amazingly to what has been uncovered in the field. As a matter of fact, the degree of precision in the factual information Josephus imparts to us is quite remarkable—though one may well take issue in some cases with his analyses and historical judgments.

Herod is often perceived as a hard-hearted despot who was more interested in immortalizing his name than in serving the best interests of his subjects. It was for this reason, scholars often contend, that he invested most of his kingdom’s resources into his monumental building project in Jerusalem, confident that it would bring him eternal fame. Jewish sages of the past reasoned that Herod felt the need to repent for his sins and built the Temple Mount as an act of contrition. In assessing the deeds of political figures, however, we must be wary of personalizing motives to arrive at simple answers. Herod’s motive for undertaking this ambitious construction project was far less personal—and more prosaic, if you will. It was an attempt to solve a constellation of problems created by the mass movement of pilgrims to and from the Temple Mount. Put simply, Herod needed to relieve his city of a monstrous traffic jam.

Ever since it was first built by Solomon, the Temple stood at the top of a hill that came to be known as the Temple Mount. The summit was a relatively small area that sloped off steeply on all sides except to the north. As a result of this topography, the masses that streamed to the Temple were forced to crowd into the small area of the summit, most of which was occupied by the Temple itself. The first builders of the Temple Mount dealt with this problem by constructing retaining walls on the slopes to support an esplanade around the Temple, thus making it possible for more people to take part in the events centering on it. This same solution was adopted by Herod and his engineers in enlarging the Temple Mount to its present dimensions.

In Herod’s day, although most Jews still lived in Judea, large and important Jewish communities existed throughout the civilized world—in the Parthian empire between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in Syria, Phoenicia, and Anatolia, in the lands bordering on the Mediterranean, such as Egypt and North Africa, in Spain, Italy, Greece, and in the islands in the Mediterranean Sea. Most renowned for its power and eminence was the Jewish community of Rome itself. The Jews of the Diasporaa held important positions in public administration, international trade, and other branches of economic life and surely left their mark on the cultures of their countries of residence.

Considering this unparalleled dichotomy, the Jews of Judea grappled with the question of how to relate to their co-religionists in the Diaspora. Should the Diaspora Jews be considered fellow Jews in every way, or were Jews to be defined only as people who lived in the land of Judea? Clearly, from both the emotional and the political and economic standpoints, the more a sense of national unity could be maintained among the dispersed communities, the better it would be for all concerned. The problem was how to translate this sentiment into action, and one answer was by placing stress on the absolute exclusivity of the center of Jewish ritual in Jerusalem: the Temple. All efforts, together with the longings of the people in dispersion, had to be channeled toward that site.

To this end, the pilgrimage to Jerusalem on the Jewish holidays and festivals was actively promoted and soon became the goal of Jews everywhere. This custom brought crowds of pilgrims from abroad and within the country as well. Some scholars have estimated the number of pilgrims during the Roman period at 80,000 to 100,000 people on each festival. This swarm of visitors turning up on the holidays presented the city fathers with a major logistical headache. Above all it was imperative that this huge congregation be able to visit the Temple Mount at one and the same time. Jerusalem was then one of the largest cities in the world, with a population of 150,000 to 200,000. Add to this number the tens of thousands of pilgrims from outside the city and you have a constituency of over 200,000 people massed together in one spot. An equivalent volume of traffic to a single site is rare even in our day. Herod designed his extension of the Temple Mount to host this formidable crowd on an esplanade so that it could witness the ritual ceremonies performed in the Temple courts.

When Herod decided to rebuild the Temple Mount to accommodate the mass pilgrimage to Jerusalem, he knew that he would have to overcome opposition from various quarters. This resistance was born of suspicions about the King’s real intentions. Considering that Herod was in the good-graces of the Roman emperors, it was only natural that such misgivings should arise. Herod therefore decided to address the leaders of the people and apprise them of the details of his plans. His speech is preserved for us by Josephus, who evidently copied it from the court archive. Here, in part, is what Herod told his subjects.

“That the enterprise which I now propose to undertake is the most pious and beautiful of our time I will now make clear. For this was the temple which our fathers built to the Most Great God after their return from Babylon, but it lacks 60 cubits in height, the amount by which the first temple, built by Solomon, exceeded it. And yet no one should condemn our fathers for neglecting their pious duty, for it was not their fault that this temple is smaller. Rather it was Cyrus and Darius, the son of Hystaspes, who prescribed these dimensions for building, and since our fathers were subject to them, and their descendants after them to the Macedonians, they had no opportunity to restore this first archetype of piety to its former size. But since, by the will of God, I am now ruler and there continues to be a long period of peace and an abundance of wealth and great revenues, and—what is of most importance—the Romans, who are, so to speak, the masters of the world are [my] loyal friends, I will try to remedy the oversight caused by the necessity and subjection of that earlier time, and by this act of piety make full return to God for the gift of this kingdom (Jewish Antiquities, XV, II. 382–387).”

This speech, following the stock formula of a ruler showing deference to his subjects, must have achieved its aim, because we do not hear of any pockets of resistance to Herod’s plan. On the contrary, enormous forces were rallied to execute the task. But local support was not enough. After taking care to defuse potential opposition at home, Herod still had to obtain a “building permit” from Rome.

Extending the area of the Temple Mount required the construction of massive retaining walls to bear the weight of the structures above them. Jewish religious law (halakhah) regarding the entrance to the Temple Mount demands that it contain only two gates, and this restriction on access accorded the area the appearance and properties of a fortification. The fact is that during the Jewish revolt that culminated in the destruction of the Temple, a group of Zealots barricaded themselves on the Temple Mount and held out there for quite a while. How was it, then, that the Roman authorities permitted Herod to build a complex that could conceivably become an obstacle to them in governing Jerusalem?

No known source contains Herod’s request for permission to rebuild the Temple Mount. Neither does any source suggest that the Romans made any attempt to foil the operation. But a talmudic legend based on the Baba Batra Tractate 4:71 tells that Herod had a healthy fear of the Romans and therefore consulted with a sage by the name of Bava, who advised him as follows:

“Send an envoy [to Rome to request permission for the project] and let him take a year on the way and stay in Rome and take a year coming back, and in the meantime you can pull down the Temple and rebuild it. [Herod] did so, and received the following message [from Rome]: If you have not yet pulled it down, do not do so, if you have pulled it down, do not rebuild it; and if you have pulled it down and already rebuilt it, you are one of those bad servants who do first and ask permission afterward.”

We cannot know whether or not this legend contains a kernel of historical truth but, in fact, the deed preceded the authorization. It is entirely possible that things happened just this way, though we could equally well assume that Herod’s keen political instincts guided him in “packaging” and “selling” his idea to the powers that be and that he knew how to worm his way into the hearts of the Roman rulers and extract their permission to build. In any event, there is no evidence that Rome interfered.

Herod’s Temple Mount is the largest site of its kind in the ancient world. The southern wall, the shortest of the four retaining walls, is 910 feet long (the northern wall is somewhat longer); the western wall, the longest, is 1,575 feet (the eastern wall is somewhat shorter). The Temple Mount is thus a trapezoid covering the equivalent of 12 soccer fields—bleachers included!

The retaining walls rose 98 feet above the paved avenues at the foot of the mount—to about the height of a ten-story building. The towers at the corners soared at least 115 feet above the street level. In some places the foundations of these retaining walls reached down as far as 65 feet below the street, making the walls there a total of more than 165 feet high. (All these measurements relate to the actual architectural finds.)

The size of the Temple itself was dictated by law and could not be altered so much as an inch. Although Solomon’s Temple was an imposing building in the age of the kings of Judah, in Herod’s day, 900 years later, its dimensions were closer to those of a standard house. One could try to improve the appearance of the Temple—plate it in gold and precious stones or otherwise adom it in splendor—and that was indeed done; but it had to remain exactly the size Solomon established when he first built it. Although Herod could not increase the size of the central jewel, he was unrestricted in providing its setting. And this he did in the retaining walls of the Temple Mount. These magnificent retaining walls not only supported the spacious plaza or esplanade built around the Temple, they also magnified the impression made by the Temple itself. Indeed, the very enormity of these retaining walls helped to balance the relatively modest proportions of the Temple itself. This was the great achievement of the Temple Mount’s architect: creating the setting of retaining walls with the precious stone—the Temple—crowning it all.

The construction of the new Temple Mount was certainly not the only project Herod undertook in the capital. On the contrary, the king embarked on an orgy of construction that included a new royal palace near today’s Jaffa Gate, the adjoining citadel with its three famous towers (Phasael, Hippicus, and Miriamne), the Antonia Fortress, the repair and restoration of the walls, cultural arenas such as a theater and a hippodrome, and a number of markets. What’s more, Herod did not restrict his building activities to Jerusalem; his entire kingdom underwent a striking architectural transformation. Caesarea changed from an anonymous fishing village into the largest port in the Mediterranean basin (larger even than Piraeus, the port of Athens), and Sebaste (Samaria) was enhanced by new walls, markets, a theater, and other imposing structures—to mention just two of these remodeling schemes. At the same time, Herod developed the Jordan Valley by establishing a vast agricultural farm there and built palaces and fortifications in Jericho, Cypros, Terrex, Geba, Heshbon, and Masada. He rebuilt and expanded the Hasmonean fortresses of Alexandrium, Hyrcania, and Macherus and carried out many other projects throughout the country.

Herod’s passion for building was not even restricted to his own kingdom; he donated funds to erect markets and other public structures in a number of cities in both the East and West, far from the borders of Judea. In short, the man just loved to build. But public building on such a grand scale took more than love to accomplish. Untold sums had to be produced to finance it, not to speak of the manpower—tens of thousands of laborers—to execute it.
The obvious question is where did Herod get the capital and manpower for all these building projects. Here again, the prejudice of earlier scholars held their minds in thrall: The capital, they believed, came mostly from the heavy taxes he imposed on the inhabitants of the country, and a good part of the manpower came from slave labor. A more penetrating investigation of the subject produces very different insights into the origin of those resources.

As Herod explained to his people in the address quoted by Josephus, “there continues to be … an abundance of wealth and great revenues,” and it was with the aid of these riches that he intended to execute his plans. If Herod’s income had derived solely from taxes, it is doubtful that he would have had either the backing of the masses for rebuilding the Temple Mount or the audacity to appear before his subjects and deliver the speech he did. Moreover, if we examine the country’s sources of income as an agrarian economy, even if we calculate all the income from agriculture as if it were a tax, there still wouldn’t have been nearly enough money to finance Herod’s building spree.

Logically, then, Herod must have had other sources of income. Foremost among them was his toll from controlling the international routes of what was known as the spice or luxury trade, which proved to be a lucrative source of profit for all associated with it. The main beneficiaries of this bounty were the Arab tribes and the Nabateans living on the marches of Judea. The Hasmoneans had tried unsuccessfully to cash in on this flourishing branch of commerce, but Herod succeeded where they had failed. The “spice trade” was undoubtedly the real motive behind Herod’s wars, the reason for regional friction and for his ties with the Nabateans. It also explains his territorial expansion into the districts of Batanean (Bashan) and Trachonitis to the north and east. This was also the reason for Herod’s penetration into Moab (Transjordan) and the fortification of Heshbon. As a matter of fact, the construction of the large harbor at Caesarea should also be seen in the same light, as the small harbors of Jaffa, Gaza, and Ashkelon were swamped by the volume of trade.

The second major source of income for Herod’s coffers was the development of special agricultural farms in the Jordan Valley. The entire area north and west of the Dead Sea (Jericho, Phasaelis, Archalais, and Ein Gedi) and east of the Jordan (Beit Haram and other sections) was transformed into a gigantic hothouse for the cultivation of spices, medicinal plants, and dates. Herod mobilized hydraulic engineers to get spring water flowing over many miles to these plantations. The dry, warm climate did its part, and the income from the yield proved to be enormous. Jericho dates, for example, were renowned for their quality throughout the Roman empire; one strain was even named after Nicholas of Damascus, the Greek historian who was Herod’s friend and a denizen of Augustus’s court. Dates were so valuable to the Judean economy because they served as the principal sweetener in those days before the lands of the Mediterranean discovered the pleasures of sugar cane. Nor was this elaborate operation kept secret. When Mark Antony wanted to give Cleopatra a special gift and told her to choose any place in the East (within the Roman empire), she asked for Herod’s farm in Jericho. Since she lacked the manpower to run it, however, she leased it back to Herod, who calculated that even with the added expense of rent, it would still be a lucrative operation for him. (Incidentally, Augustus subsequently returned the farm to Herod.)

As to where the second major element—labor—came from, we have noted that Palestine was essentially an agrarian country whose Jewish inhabitants made their livelihoods from working the land. Their encounter with the Roman world introduced them to new technologies, such as hydraulic engineering and metal forging, and the Jews were quick to apply these technologies to the sphere of agriculture. Hydraulics, which made it possible to conduct water over great distances in aqueducts, was originally developed in Rome to enhance urban architecture through the construction of public fountains and to heighten the emperor’s pleasure by the spectacle of water games. In Judea, however, water was harnessed to serve the needs of agriculture through irrigation.

Iron forging was developed in Rome to augment the power of the Roman army—the main prop of the empire—by equipping it with the best weaponry; the Jews learned the techniques from the Romans but used them to make such agricultural tools as plows, pruning hooks, and spades. These technologies, coupled with the cultural sophistication of the Jews of Judea, greatly boosted the level of agricultural productivity. In practical terms, these improvements meant that the individual farm required fewer working hands to generate an appreciable yield. Augustus’s long reign was an age of peace for the Roman empire. Natural population increase occurred as a matter of course, creating an excess of working hands and, consequently, pockets of unemployment.

It was a combination of the abundance of capital in the royal coffers and this surplus of working hands throughout the country that sparked the great surge in construction in Herod’s day. In fact, throughout history, whenever we come across an extraordinary spasm of building, these same two factors are found lurking in the background. Certainly they were salient economic features of Herod’s age.

Herod’s masons invested eight years in preparations alone—quarrying, dressing, and transporting stones to the building site—before the king gave the green light for actual construction work to begin. Another three years passed between the initiation of work and the dedication of the Temple, with lavish ceremonies that included the sacrifice of hundreds of offerings. The Temple itself was built by the priests over a period of 18 months.

Throughout those 11 years, Josephus informs us, it rained in Jerusalem only at night, so as not to interfere with the construction work. A talmudic legend that refers to this same phenomenon adds that at dawn “the wind blew and the clouds dispersed, the sun shone so that the people were able to go out to their work, and then they knew they were engaged in sacred work” (Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 1:8; Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 23:71). Before our dig this colorful description might well have appeared to be an exaggeration, but now, at the end of 14 years of excavation, with 13 winters behind us, we can confirm this detail as a realistic one. Throughout this period we lost an average of only five workdays a year because of rain and snow, as most of the precipitation fell at night.

The stone used for building the Temple Mount came from quarries near the building site. Jerusalem stone is found in natural strata about a meter high, and the Temple builders cut the stones full height for most of the courses of the Temple Mount’s walls. To free the stone from the bedrock, holes were drilled delineating the size of the blocks desired by the builder. Then the holes were plugged with wooden pegs and filled with water. When the wood absorbed the water, it expanded and cracked the stone, releasing it from the bedrock. Once the block of stone had broken away, it received its initial treatment in the quarry and was then transported to the building site over the dirt roads cut especially for that purpose. The usual transport vehicle was an ox-drawn wagon, though in some cases wagon wheels were attached directly to the block of stone, and it was rolled to the building site where the blocks were set in place on the walls.

In the course of the construction work, pulleys based on multiple gears were used to hoist and manipulate the building materials. The stones were hauled up to the topmost course over gently sloped earth embankments, then placed on rollers that moved over the thick walls. No adhesive was used. Each massive block was planed down and set flush against the next one with polished precision.

This construction venture demanded great physical effort and enormous energy but, even more, it required impeccable organization and planning, first-class engineers and construction technicians, talented foremen, and motivated workers of a high professional standard. And today, even knowing this, all who lay eyes on these monumental stones find it hard to credit the construction process of Herod’s time. Let us look more closely at how these monumental walls were built.

Two thousand years have passed since these retaining walls were built, yet they are still as solid and sturdy as if they had been built rather recently. All the more striking is the fact that they were built by the “dry” method of construction, meaning that no adhesive—concrete, cement, or mortar of any kind—was spread between the stones. Sometimes cracks are visible in the ashlars, but these are simply flaws in the Jerusalem stone. Unfortunately, Jerusalem stone is not particularly strong; it has many natural veins and cracks, and it is susceptible to changes in weather from dampness to dryness and back again. Yet if we examine the spots where these monumental walls meet, we can see that they have not moved at all in 2,000 years, not even so much as a millimeter. In fact, they are so stable that were it not for the dressing around the edges, we would sometimes be unable to distinguish between one stone and the next.

How can we account for this remarkable durability? There are three explanations: the way in which the foundations were laid and built, the weight of the stones, and the way the problem of fill on the inside of the retaining walls was handled.

The secret of the strength of these retaining walls lies first and foremost in their remarkable foundations, which were always built on bedrock. Sometimes the masons dug down only six feet before reaching bedrock, sometimes they had to go down 35 feet or more. But there was absolutely no exception to the rule that the wall’s foundations must be built on the natural rock. The face of the bedrock was planed down and prepared to take the stones of the first course, on which the subsequent layers were built.

The sturdiness of the Temple Mount’s retaining walls is also a function of the extraordinary weight of their stones. The smallest of these blocks—and the majority of the stones used in the walls—weighed 2 to 5 tons. Many others weighed 10 tons or more. Some stones (particularly at the corners) exceeded even that weight; the southwest corner of the Temple Mount contains ashlars that weigh about 50 tons apiece! These ashlars are 40 feet long, 3 feet high and 8 feet thick.

A number of massive stones in the western wall north of Wilson’s Arch are unequaled in size anywhere in the ancient world. One of these blocks is 40 feet long, 10 feet high, about 13 feet thick, and weighs close to 400 tons!
The use of such monumental stones solved the problem of stability and is responsible for the fact that the walls still stand in our own day, 2,000 years after being built.

Yet it is questionable whether stability was the sole reason for building with such mammoth blocks of stone. Sturdiness could have been achieved even if the walls had been built with small stones, but that would have ruled out the possibility of employing the “dry construction” method, making it necessary to use mortar or cement as an adhesive material. That was how buildings were constructed in Rome, for example.

High-grade mortar, however, was made out of a mixture of 50 percent lime and 50 percent river silt or gravel with the addition of soil. The production of lime required a considerable output of energy, and the main source of energy at the time came from burning wood. The amount of cement needed for building with small stones was equal to half the volume of a wall, making the necessary amount of lime equal to a quarter of the volume of a wall! Production of the lime necessitated running ovens for a full day and night, sometimes two full days and nights, as the process entailed burning blocks of limestone at high temperatures. There was no shortage of trees in Rome and the rest of the countries north of the Mediterranean. Indeed, the great struggle there was to turn forest land into agricultural land.

In the lands of the East, however, and particularly in Judea—which was a heavily populated country—the demand for wood proved to be a major problem in the Second Temple period. Wood was prized both as a source of energy and as the main raw material in construction, crafts, and industry. It was used to make tools, plows, sickles, furniture, scaffolding, doors, and ceilings, not to mention its common use as a fuel for running ovens and to produce the coals used for household cooking and heating. Wood therefore played a vital role in daily life.

The trees of Judea during that period were mostly pines, oaks and terebinths. Because of the warm climate and meager rainfall, it took many years to replace trees that had been cut down. Sensitive to this problem, the sages of the Mishnah and Talmud went so far as to forbid the raising of small cattle, particularly goats, which were (and continue to be) the scourge of the forest.

Whenever the country was dominated by foreign rulers, little consideration was given to the quality of life of its inhabitants, and it was then that the forests were exploited to the point of depletion, without any thought for the future. Anyone who wanted to build could simply hack down trees to his heart’s content, whether for quality timber or for the wood needed to produce lime. Obviously this led to the exhaustion of energy sources and, as a consequence, to an appreciable decline in the standard of living.

Any responsible regime was obliged to pursue an intelligent policy regarding both the felling of trees and the development of new approaches to saving on wood, including the use of alternative sources of energy, raw materials, and building techniques. The stone dome, for example—a construction technique imported from Rome—proved to be an excellent means of economizing on wood. Instead of building roofs and ceilings out of timber beams, as was then the custom, the houses were topped off with domes built of local stone. This solution called for expertise in stonecutting and a high level of construction skills, but it led to a saving of countless square meters of timber. Likewise “dry construction” spared the wood needed to produce mortared construction.

Lime was indeed produced in Judea, but it was used to make plaster, especially to waterproof cisterns, but also to cover walls. Wherever it was possible to economize on lime—and therefore on wood—the saving was welcomed.
Building walls without cement or mortar as an adhesive called for an immense investment in dressing the stones, planing them down, and meticulously working them into a shape that would enable them to adhere to the stones laid around them. Moreover, the construction of high, massive walls like those of the Temple Mount required not only hewing the stones and dressing them properly but starting off with huge blocks that had to be transported to the building site. The extra effort was worth it, however: an initial calculation shows that building the Temple Mount’s retaining walls by the dry construction method saved 100 square kilometers of forest that would otherwise have gone into the production of lime.

Building with large stones also made it possible for the project to proceed at an incredibly fast pace. When a 40-foot-long stone was set in place, the structure advanced by 40 feet in a single stroke! We can hazard a conjecture that by using large ashlars instead of conventional-size building blocks the building time was cut by more than half.

To these pragmatic reasons for using huge ashlars, we should add the majestic appearance they accorded the long, high walls of the Temple Mount and the strength and awe they bestowed upon their surroundings. The use of massive stones answered all the needs of the hour and the place.

Using retaining walls to support a plaza implies that they will be fully visible on the outside but covered on the inside by the earth fill that underlies the esplanade. Modern construction demands that the ratio between the height of a support wall and its thickness be 4:1 in order for it to withstand the pressure of the fill. The height of the Temple Mount’s retaining walls at its southeast corner is about 65 feet. If Herod’s masons had studied modern engineering, they would have built the walls to a thickness of about 16 feet. How thick were these walls? Fortunately, we found a spot in one of the upper courses of the eastern wall where a stone was missing, and it happened to be one of the original stones from the Second Temple period. With the approval of the Moslem authorities, we cleared away the detritus at that spot and penetrated the wall to discover that the wall at that point was built of three rows of stones that firmly adhere to each other. Even though Herod’s engineers did not have access to the textbooks we consulted, they had built this wall precisely 16.25 feet thick!

The irony of our discovery was that although Herod’s engineers followed the rules of advanced architectural doctrine, they did not have to build the walls that thick at all. For these support walls were not subject to the pressure of earth behind them; the inside of the retaining walls faced onto a void. Instead of filling the area within the support walls with earth and building the esplanade above it, Herod’s architects constructed layers of vaults in the open space between the mountain’s natural slope and the projected plaza. At the outer end, adjoining the retaining walls, there were three stories of vaults; at the other end, close to the mountain’s summit, the gradient dictated a reduction to one story. Above the upper story of vaults, a paved plaza was constructed.

In effect, then, the Temple Mount was constructed of vaults covered, at the desired height, by an open plaza. The vaults provided ample space for storage and other needs.

The architect of the Temple Mount wanted to distinguish visually between the lower part of the walls, which served for support, and their upper part, which comprised the exterior wall of the porticoes on top of the Temple Mount. He did so by building the retaining wall flat and adorning the portico wall with stone projections that resembled pilasters. In the seventh century A.D., the Temple Mount’s walls were destroyed down to the point where the pilasters began. So how do we know they were built that way? First of all, at the northern end of the western wall (today within the confines of a building), we found a section of the original wall that contains part of the pilasters in situ. Second, in order to fashion the pilasters, masons dressed the stones in a special way. We uncovered examples of this unique dressing among the debris at the foot of the western and southern walls. Some of these stones turned up in the rubble created by Titus’s soldiers in 70 A.D.; others were found among the ruins from the late Byzantine era, when Jerusalem was recaptured from the Persians by the Emperor Heraclius in 628 A.D.

Each corner of the Temple Mount was graced with a tower from which guards could monitor what was going on in the Temple’s precincts and head off the build-up of crowds. The northwest corner even boasted a military fortress, called the Antonia Fortress, which served Herod’s troops (and, in days to come, would serve the soldiers of the Roman Legions). The other three corners of the Temple Mount had standard towers manned by lookouts and guards of the priestly class, who were responsible for the Temple’s security and personnel. (We should also note that the state treasury was kept in the Temple, as was customary in temples throughout the ancient world.) In addition, the considerable length of the eastern and western walls required the construction of additional towers somewhere around the middle of these walls.

When our dig reached the level of the paved street that skirted the Temple Mount at the southwest corner, we came upon a stone that could well have been the cornerstone of the tower above. It was dressed on three sides—on two sides and the top—which indicates that it was not only a cornerstone in the literal sense of the term but the topmost stone of that corner.

Ron Gardiner, one of our archaeologists, was examining the stone when suddenly we heard shouts of joy coming from his direction. Ron is a level-headed Welshman who first came to Palestine as a policeman in the mid-1940s, toward the end of the British Mandate, and has since returned from time to time to join archaeological expeditions. It’s not every day that you can see him succumb to excitement, and shouts were a sure sign that he had discovered something. And a delectable something it was. “There’s a Hebrew inscription engraved on the stone!” he called up to us. The inscription was easily deciphered because its letters were clear and deeply engraved, and we soon realized that it was incomplete. It read: “To the trumpet-call building to pr … ” At that point the stone was broken, and the rest of it could not be found. “What a pity!” was the universal response. I suppose it’s human nature to moan over what we lack rather than to rejoice over what we have.

After we recovered from the excitement, we set our minds to figuring out the missing part of the inscription and establishing the significance of the stone being found at that particular spot. One suggestion was that the inscription originally read: “To the trumpet-call building to pr[oclaim].” But what would have been proclaimed there? None of the sources at our disposal—neither Josephus’s description of the Temple Mount nor the mishnaic sources—seemed to touch upon this subject. Then I recalled a passage by Josephus that mentioned the Temple Mount towers in a completely different context:

“They, moreover, improved this advantage of position by erecting four huge towers in order to increase the elevation from which their missiles were discharged: one at the northeast corner, the second above the Xystus, the third at another corner opposite the lower town. The last was erected above the roof of the priests’ chambers, at the point where it was the custom for one of the priests to stand and to give notice, by sound of trumpet, in the afternoon of the approach, and on the following evening of the close, of every seventh day, announcing to the people the respective hours for ceasing work and for resuming their labors. (The Jewish War, IV. 580–583).”

Josephus assumed that anyone familiar with Jerusalem would be able to identify the towers easily, so he stressed that the outermost tower was the one from which the trumpets proclaimed the start and the end of the Sabbath. The southwestern corner was the most suitable one for this purpose, since it rose above the Lower Market, Jerusalem’s main commercial center.

What did the inscription mean? The Hebrew prefix consisting of the letter lamed (l) can mean “to” or “toward,” indicating direction as in “to Jerusalem.” In the case before us, an inscription beginning with the word “to” could have graced a sign post directing the priest to the place where he was to blow his trumpet. On the other hand, the inscription was engraved at the top of the tower, so that by the time the priest got up there he no longer needed directions. Another possibility is that the letter lamed connoted association or possession, as in “belongs to” the trumpet-call building. It took three years to build the Temple Mount’s walls and eight before them to prepare the stones and other raw materials for the operation. Perhaps during that time certain stones were keyed with inscriptions or markings indicating to the foremen where they should be placed in accordance with the architect’s blueprint. This is a common practice in construction, but the problem with the theory is that such markings were usually abbreviations or initials, never so elaborate a rendition as we have here.

The final possibility is that we had before us a dedication stone. While the Temple Mount was being built, many people made donations to the project. The standard contribution was apparently a building stone—not the actual stone, of course, but a sum equal to the cost of one stone or a portion thereof. An ancient legend tells that one of the sages of the period was so wretchedly poor that he couldn’t afford a donation to the holy enterprise. But he was aided by Heaven, took heart, and carried a stone on his back all the way from the Judean Desert. This tale alludes to the custom of “donating stones” to the Temple Mount. The system apparently worked like a contemporary custom of planting trees in Israel, whereby the donor doesn’t actually furnish or purchase a specific tree but contributes the cost of having a tree planted for him. If someone has the means and the desire to donate an entire forest, he or she will surely want to have a sign or plaque posted at the entrance acknowledging that generosity or perhaps even have the forest named in his or her honor. Our cornerstone may have represented a similar convention: a person of means had donated a tidy sum for the entire wing of the trumpet-call building, and his generosity was duly immortalized by a dedication stone. If indeed that was the case, the full inscription probably read: “For the Trumpet-Call Building, to Proclaim the Sabbath, Donated by John Doe”—or, rather, the Hebrew equivalent of his time. Similar instances are known to us from dedicatory inscriptions found in ancient synagogues throughout the country. We even have a precedent from the Temple itself: The Nicanor Gates were donated by a man named Nicanor. Beyond offering this conjecture, however, we can only hope that the broken part of this stone will turn up in the future so that the puzzle will be solved. (For a different interpretation of this inscription, see “When the Priests Trumpeted the Onset of the Sabbath,” BAR 12:06 by Aaron Demsky.)

The dressing of the stones used in the Temple Mount’s walls was of the highest quality, with the ashlars being worked to a smooth surface on five of their sides (all except the vertical face opposite the front surface). The consummate construction of stones placed next to and above one another in perfect alignment coupled with the smooth surface of the stones, created the look of a massive stone wall whose individual components were invisible to the naked eye. Each wall appeared to be an evenly textured, consistently white, plastered surface. At the same time, the architects’ intent was to create the sensation that the walls were a composite of stones—and they succeeded in that, too. For anyone who views the Temple Mount from a distance is able to see that its walls are built of distinctively individual blocks. The walls are not a monolithic surface but a patchwork that is manifest because of the stones’ special dressing. Scholars call it marginal dressing, and its purpose is to create a frame, or margin, around the block. After the stone’s outer face was smoothed down, masons chiseled a frame one or two centimeters deep around its edge. The length of the margin is of course identical to that of the stone; its width varies from 9 to 18 centimeters, a variance that obtains not only between one stone and the next but on the same block and does not seem to be guided by any method or consistency. The area of the stone’s surface enclosed by the margins is called the boss and is also completely smooth; yet the fact that it stands out some two centimeters more than the margins is sufficient to make each stone distinguishable from those around it.

This method of dressing stones was obviously meant only for the visible parts of a wall. The margins served as a guide for setting the stones in place with precision and were therefore required on all the stones of a wall. But the bosses of those ashlars destined to be used in the foundations, and consequently covered with earth, did not have to be dressed. Indeed, when we uncovered the foundations of the southern wall we found that the bosses of the ashlars set below street level were left rough. The architects were undoubtedly interested in saving both time and money on the dressing work, and we can better appreciate their reasoning when we recall that the foundations sometimes extended 65 feet below street level.

We have already noted that despite this method of highlighting the individual stones, the support walls retained something of a flat appearance. But the same cannot be said of the upper section of the walls, or the exterior of the porticoes, which were adorned with pilasters. Further to avoid the possibility of this upper section appearing flat, highly prominent square bosses were worked into the centers of a number of stones. The dimensions of these protrusions were 7.8 × 7.8 inches in length and height, and they extended about 8 to 10 inches outward, like cubes attached to the center of the stones. Each of them cast a deep shadow on the area around it, creating a play of light and shade that de-emphasized the flatness of the wall. The stones bearing these cube-like bosses were scattered throughout the wall at random: sometimes they are found on two adjoining stones, sometimes considerably further away from each other.

One final note concerning the high degree of technical precision exhibited in the construction of the Temple Mount’s walls and the detailed engineering calculations invested in them. Every course of the retaining wall is set about an inch further in than the one below it. Calculated over a stretch of 65 feet, this brings the top of the wall to a position some two feet further back than its bottom. This method of laying the courses was not adopted to make the walls stronger or sturdier but solely for aesthetic reasons: From a distance, the walls of the Temple Mount looked like a pyramid with its top lopped off. The meticulous attention to detail in such a monumental project is one of the factors that made the Temple Mount one of the most renowned wonders of the Roman world.

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