In the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City – the centre of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and much of the Arab world at large – lie the Western Wall tunnels.
Located 15 metres underground and running the length of almost half a kilometre, the tunnels are adjacent to the ancient Noble Sanctuary, also known as the Temple Mount, and home to Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. It is considered one of the three holiest sites in Islam.
While Israeli tours visit the site daily, a Palestinian-led tour offered by the Centre for Jerusalem Studies may only visit the Western Wall tunnels once each month.
Israeli archaeologists maintain that the Noble Sanctuary stands on top of the remains of the Second Temple, a sacred site in Judaism, believed to be a figurative “footstool” for God’s presence.
Some Jewish people believe that the mission of Zionism will not be complete until a Third Temple has been built, and attempts have been made over the centuries to damage the Islamic sites. Excavations in the area have been carried out since digs were led by the British military in the 1970s, in a bid to find the Ark of the Covenant, a long-lost relic said to contain the Ten Commandments.
Some Palestinians view the archaeological claims, as well as the Jewish-led tours, as an excuse to bolster Israeli claims to the area and continue the segregation of the Palestinians.
At the depths of the tunnel lies the Western Stone, one of the largest stone blocks used for construction anywhere in the world. Israeli archaeologists say it is the rampart wall of the Second Temple, but tour guide Abu Shamsie claims there is no direct proof of this.
“The stone was never cited in any descriptions in ancient literature. It could have easily been a part of other giant structures known to exist at the time, like a hippodrome or amphitheatre,” he said.
According to the tour guide, no archaeological claim is certain in the tunnels. There are ancient pools said to have been used for ritual purification, and ancient archways thought to have supported an elevated road up to the Second Temple’s main entrance.
An elaborate model has been constructed to show visitors what Israeli archaeologists believe the Second Temple to have looked like.
Text written by James Knoop, a journalist with Palestine Monitor based in Ramallah, West Bank.
Lazar Simeonov is a freelance photographer based in Ramallah, West Bank. You can visit his website here.