An incomplete Roman theatre unearthed deep below the Western Wall has fascinated archaeologists and given new insight into the disdain that Roman authorities had for Judaism two thousand years ago.
The dig, which revealed a stretch of the Kotel eight metres below ground, caused great excitement in Jerusalem, especially among the rabbis who run the site.
“Each finding thrills me to new and powerful heights,” said Western Wall rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch.
The archaeologists half expected to find new Kotel stones when they started digging, but were staggered when they also discovered a theatre that the Romans appear to have built soon after they destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE.
“We did not imagine that a window would open for us on to the mystery of Jerusalem’s lost theatre,” said the scholars, Joe Uziel, Tehillah Lieberman and Avi Solomon. The stone structure is instantly recognisable as a theatre.
There are many archaeological discoveries in Jerusalem, but finds from the time straight after the destruction of the Second Temple are rare, and researchers often say they are hazy on exactly what happened then.
The historian Jeffrey Woolf believes that finding a theatre, constructed by the Romans where they had just destroyed the Jewish Temple, is an important glimpse in to the Roman mindset of the time. It shows how the Romans wanted to make their culture dominant precisely where the centre of the Jewish religion stood.
“There’s a statement in the fact that the theatre was put smack next to Temple Mount,” said Dr Woolf, a professor at Bar Ilan University who was not involved in the excavations. “Plays were dedicated to various Roman gods, so they were putting institutions dedicated to their religion in what Jews considered the most symbolic place at a time.
“To add to the significance, this was happening at a time when Jews were banned from Jerusalem. There was a competition going on between the two faiths and there was a lot of bad blood, and the theatre seems to have been one of the ways the Romans expressed this.”
As well as finding the Kotel stones and the theatre, archaeologists discovered pottery vessels, coins, and architectural elements. They used advanced research methods to uncover remains invisible to the naked eye, but only viewable through a microscope, leading to what the Israel Antiquities Authority called “pioneering, cutting-edge micro-archaeological research.”
The archaeologists have been left pondering a mystery: why did the Romans go to the trouble of building the theatre, only to never finish it and apparently never use it? Builders had failed to put the finishing touches to the place, and a staircase was incomplete.
One suggestion is that the Romans halted construction at the theatre during the Jewish rebellion against them, the Bar Kochba Revolt of 132 CE to 136 CE, and never continued.
This makes sense to Dr Woolf, who thinks that the authorities may have chosen different ways to Romanise the city after stamping out the revolt.
Whatever the exact story behind the theatre, the groups that help preserve the Old City are excited by its discovery and the unearthing of Kotel stones.
“This is one of the most important findings in all my 30 years at the Western Wall Heritage Foundation,” said the organisation’s director Mordechai Eliav.