Jerusalem Archaeological Park
The park opens Sunday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Friday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. It’s closed on Saturday.
Admission: Adults, $10; children and seniors, $7. Guided tours in Hebrew and English available with prior booking, $50 (group size not specified).
The Jerusalem Archaeological Park, one of the largest open museums and archaeological sites in the world, stretches from the east slope of the Mount of Olives to the walled Old City of Jerusalem in a swath that includes portions of the adjacent Kidron and Hinnom valleys. The acreage, which, remarkably, has not been built upon during the most recent centuries, has attracted excavation and research for the past 130 years, resulting in a trove of remains from Jerusalem’s long and tumultuous history.
Evidence of human settlement — spanning some 5,000 years — has been unearthed near the waters of Gihon Spring in the Kidron Valley where, as related in the Bible, King Solomon was anointed king. Not far from the spring, the earliest walls of the city have been dated to the early second millennium B.C. It was King David, in about 1000 B.C., who chose a once modest fortress town as the seat of his kingdom, renaming it Jerusalem, or “Dwelling of Peace.”
Knowing that I could not explore the entire park in one day, I began at the Mount of Olives observation point. Arriving in the early morning light, so as to have the sun at my back, I took in a breathtaking, panoramic view that put the entirety of the park, indeed all of Jerusalem, in perspective.
Important park landmarks are the golden Dome of the Rock and the silver-capped El-Aqsa Mosque on Temple Mount, the biblical Mount Moriah. From there, a maze of archaeological excavations lead to the Old City Wall and the aptly named Dung Gate, through which, in times past, the city’s refuse was hauled. Today, it offers the best access to Temple Mount and the recently opened Davidson Exhibition and Virtual Reconstruction Center, the official entrance to the park.
What was once an underground storage complex for a seventh-century palace constructed during the early years of Umayyad Muslim rule of Jerusalem, has been turned into a newer-than-tomorrow interpretive center for the park. A downward, winding ramp takes visitors past archaeological exhibits, augmented by cutting-edge visual, textual and audio information. Available at the center is The Jerusalem Archaeological Park by Ronny Reich, an indispensable guidebook that structures the entirety of the park into six tours highlighting 55 sites.
Almost half of the park’s key sites are located in the environs of the Davidson Center and the Temple Mount. Most notable is a long stretch of the Herodian Wall that marked a boundary where the First Jewish Temple, destroyed by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar in 586 A.D., and the Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D., once stood. The sheer dimensions of the wall are staggering, built with blocks of stone weighing more than 400 tons. Exhibited at the site are models of devices reconstructed from descriptions by a first-century Roman architect, with the supposition that similar ones were probably used.
Visitors are free to wander about the monumental ruins of the temple complex, most of which have been uncovered during the past three decades. When the First Temple was in existence, a broad staircase, mentioned in Talmudic writings, led to an esplanade. That staircase can be climbed today. Here, too, one can view remains of residential buildings dating from the Late Roman and Byzantine periods; walk a street paved with large stones and peer into the remains of shops where temple pilgrims purchased their sacrifices; and visit a ritual bath, cut into the rock and plastered.
While other areas of the archaeological park offer compelling sites, it is in this area that Jerusalem’s magnificent past has been most successfully exposed and documented. Encapsulated here are the enduring power and spiritual symbolism that continue to give Jerusalem the ability to stir the world’s emotions and imagination like no other city on earth.