What can an unfinished Roman theater tell us about a tumultuous period in ancient Jerusalem? Quite a lot, say archaeologists.
The Israeli Antiquities Authority recently chipped away at understanding the region's distant past by announcing this week that recent excavations uncovered the remains of what they believe was once a small theater or public space. The discovery was made as archaeologists were excavating parts of the Western Wall, one of the most revered structures in the Jewish faith.
The ancient wall encases what the Jewish people refer to as the Temple Mount and what Muslims refer to as Haram esh-Sharif. Today, the religious site has major significance for Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths.
Archaeologists began excavations in the hopes of dating the Wilson's Arch, an ancient stone bridge that led to the Temple Mount site. Bits and pieces of relics, such as pottery and coins, have been found under the arch before, but archaeologists were surprised when excavations revealed an entire Roman theater. It's the first Roman public structure of its kind to have been found in the city.
"We did not imagine that a window would open for us onto the mystery of Jerusalem’s lost theater," the IAA said in a release. "There is no doubt that the exposure of the courses of the Western Wall and the components of Wilson’s Arch are thrilling discoveries that contribute to our understanding of Jerusalem. But the discovery of the theater-like structure is the real drama.”
"It's in this completely enclosed space. It's a very small, but very fine theater," said Jodi Magness, an archaeologist and professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She was visiting the city with a tour group and was coincidentally able to view the structure shortly after it was announced.
The remains were unearthed from more than 26 feet of rubble, which covered stones that hadn't seen the light of day in nearly 2,000 years. Initial dating of the Roman stones suggests the site was likely built during the second century A.D. Archaeologists concluded the structure would have been able to seat about 200 people, a relatively small number. By comparison, the Colosseum in Rome can seat an estimated 50,000 people.
Due to its small size, archaeologists theorized the structure may have been used as an odeon, a small concert venue, or a bouleuterion, an assembly house used by public figures.
The find provides physical evidence of what was written in ancient records about life in Jerusalem under the Roman Empire's rule. That era was a pivotal political time for Jerusalem. In 70 A.D. the city was sieged by the Roman Empire, and then it was rebuilt as the Roman colony of Aelia Capitolina.
Magness said the theater is associated with the period during which the city was steeped in Roman control and built as a pagan city that payed homage to the Roman god Jupiter.
"We have found some forums that [Roman Emperor] Hadrian built in the city. Until now, we haven't found theaters," she said.
While archaeologists have some idea about the structure's intended purpose, they also believe it was likely abandoned before it was ever used. That's because some stones show marks where workers carved where they intended to cut, but never did, and some staircases in the arena were never hewn.
Magness noted that the Roman Emperor Hadrian banished the Jewish people from living in Aelia Capitolina. The IAA says the theater may have been unfinished because resources were diverted to suppress the Bar Kokhba Revolt, during which time the Jewish people attempted an uprising.
The IAA plans to continue excavating the site to find physical evidence of written Jewish history in the region, a move that has at times ignited controversy with Palestinian groups that also claim these holy sites.