It has started 15 years ago with launching a plan of extension of the historical museum ‘The Tower of David’. But things took unusual twist when the archeologists started taking off the layers of soil under the floor in the old abandoned building adjacent to the museum in Jerusalem Old city. Archeologists knew that in this building it was a prison in the time of Turkish-Ottomans power and later during British power. But as the scientists carefully went down, they recovered something unusual: alleged ruins of the palace where one of the most known stories of the New Testament occurred – the Christ trial.
Nowadays, after a few years of excavations and the pause followed as a result of wars and lack of funds, an invaluable discovery was presented to public – since then the excursions were organized by the museum.
‘A prison constitutes the biggest part of the old mosaic of Jerusalem and is a very unusual artifact that brings understanding of the city history’, - says Amit Re’em, Jerusalem archeologist who leads the excavations for more than 10 years. It became a treasure trove that has been preserved under the building during a few centuries. Here many things were discovered – the inscriptions on the walls of the old prison written during European resistance of prisoners who were struggling to create a new state of Israel in 1940s. There were found the vats for dyeing fabrics since the times of crusaders, the walls of foundation and the underground drainage that was apparently laid down under the huge palace built by the Herod the Great, the eccentric tsar of Judea, the part of Roman Empire.
If not taking into account more than one million Christian pilgrims visiting Jerusalem annually, the place is of a particular importance because at this place exactly the most important event in the Christ’s life could have happened. ‘For those Christians who need preciseness in the historical facts, this finding is very convincing, - says the Christianity history and pilgrimage to the Holy Land specialist Yisca Harani. –Indeed for some people, especially for those who visit Jerusalem in a search for lasting impressions from their visit of Jerusalem it is not important if they finish their excursion on the Calvary where Christ was crucified.’
Today many visiting pilgrims of Jerusalem follow the Way of the Cross or Via Dolorosa, with the start from the place where according to the legend the Rome Procurator Pontius Pilate conducted the trial of Christ and sentenced him to death and the end where Christ was crucified and buried.
As of Harani, since the first pilgrims came to visit Jerusalem hundred years ago, the procession route has changed few times depending on the authorities of the city and what was considered important. For instance, in the Byzantine period Via Dolorosa was starting close to the place of the current museum location in the western part of the city. Only since 13 century the starting point of the route was moved to the Antonia fortress where the Roman military barracks were located; nowadays there are a school, Al-Aqsa Mosque and the golden Dome of the Rock. Christian clergy, historians and archeologists still discuss where the Jesus trial site was. Issues on the site come from the different interpretation of the part of the Gospel that describes how Jesus from Nazareth was delivered to Pilate to the ‘praetorium’ – this Latin term means a tent camp of a Commander of the Roman army. Some people believe that the praetorium of Pilate was located in the military barracks, while others consider that the Roman Governor most probably had to stay as a Guest of honor in the palace built by Herod. Today historians and archeologists are confident that the palace of Herod was in the western part of the city in the same place where the museum ‘The Tower of David’ and the prison of the Ottoman Empire’s time were.
Shimon Gibson teaching Archeology at the university of North Carolina at Charlotte has no doubts that trial happened somewhere on the territory of the Herod palace. As of the Gospel of John, the trial took place near the gates leading to the bumpy cobble-stone roadway – this description fully matches previous archeological findings near the prison. ‘Naturally, the notes indicating this place are not there, but all the documents and chronicles – archeological, historical and the text of the Gospel – they all match this place and it is quite logical that it is there’, - says Gibson.
Reverend David Pileggi, the rector of the Anglican Church of Christ the premises of which include a hotel and a cultural-historical centre near the museum, argues that the opening in the building of the prison is a confirmation of ‘what everyone always guessed, and that the trial happened in a place near ‘The Tower of David’. So, now that these findings are publicly displayed could the prison become a new holy sight for Christian pilgrims, or even a reason to change the route of the procession? ‘I don't think it will happen soon, - says Pileggi, - the place becomes holy after people visited it for centuries, prayed there, shed their tears and even celebrated their holidays. Therefore, I think that the route will be not changed soon. But the prison gives us a better picture of the history of Jerusalem.’
Eilat Lieber, the Director of the museum ‘The Tower of David’ that was named after the medieval fortress located at this site, hopes that the prison will eventually become a usual excursion object for the Christian pilgrims. Museum’s employees have already started compiling the program together with guides who are knowledgeable in history and who will explain the role of the preserved ruins of walls and hardly carved underground galleries. ‘We will continue the works on creating an excursion object at the prison location for admitting visitors,’ - says Lieber. Previously, she was responsible for educational work of the Museum; 15 years ago she wanted to expand the Museum and create on its basis a Learning Center for children. And although her dreams have not come true yet, Lieber is pleased that due to the finding of the archaeologists the premise of the prison with its underground historical treasures will provide a better understanding of history.
‘This building is like a layered cake, - she says, - here you can see all the layers of Jerusalem.’