The Kishle: A Look at Jerusalem’s Past

Excavation of Herod’s Palace under the Kishle.
photo (c) Oded Antman

One of the fascinating things about living in Jerusalem is watching history unfold in front of me. I do not mean current events which rapidly become history, although that happens too, but the discovery of our history through archaeological findings. Many of these are changing our view of the history of the city and of the country. This week we visited the Kishle, a place that has been in plain sight for hundreds of years. Its significance, however, was only revealed recently.

The Kishle sits not far from the Jaffa Gate, just past the Tower of David museum. Anyone coming into the city through Jaffa Gate walks or drives past it. And most of us don’t pay any attention to it. But underneath, it contains some remarkable structures which are causing historians to redraw maps of Jerusalem from both the First Temple and Roman periods.

It was originally built as a Turkish army barracks. The British also used it as a jail and police station, and since the early 1970s it has been used as the Old City police station. In 1999, the Tower of David Museum decided to renovate the unoccupied section of the complex to use for public events. This section was connected to the Crusader moat around the museum, which would make access to it easy for museum goers. Since, by law, in Israel one must check under any building site for antiquities, a salvage dig was performed. Everyone expected a quick excavation that would find nothing. So responsibility for it was given to Amit Re’em, a young archaeologist. What he found surprised him.

It also surprised us when we visited it this week, on a tour sponsored by the Tower of David Museum. Most of the people in the group were members of an extended family, with the addition of a few others like Allen and me.

From the Crusader moat, we climbed stone stairs to the top of the 16th century city wall. From there, metal stairs wind and climb up to the ramparts around the Kishle complex. We turned away from the city wall and climbed a few more steps to a wooden door, which Rickie, our guide for the morning, unlocked.

I had seen pictures of the room in the newspaper; it looked very long and deep. But, as usual, the photos do not have near the impact of seeing the site in person.

Descending the stairs into Herod’s palace under the Kishle

We stood on the metal balcony at one end of the room, looking towards the far wall, about how many 160 feet away. The arched ceiling is at least 60 feet above the floor. The upper walls have a golden glow from the reflection of the electric lights on their stones. The ceiling is vaulted, and there are two rows of brown spots along its length. Metal stairs and walkways lead down into the room. It was huge, a fitting palace for Herod.

We descended to the far south end of the room where Rickie explained what had been found. Why had Re’em concluded he had found Herod’s palace?

What he found were huge stones under the Ottoman walls, stones cut in the Roman Herodian style, placed on or around stones cut as in Hasmonean times. The lowest layers of stone were imperfectly cut; the sides not absolutely straight, some of the angles not true, some with defects in the surface. These were the foundation stones, stones that would not show when the structure was completed. The wall was packed with earth to support a heavy structure. Higher up, the walls are constructed of classic Herodian stones, up to ten feet or more long. The palace wall served as the Western wall of the city. This is not the only place we have seen remains of a Hasmonean city wall or building, with a Herodian wall or structure on top of or outside it. In Jerusalem at least, Herod seemed determined to rebuild what the Hasmoneans had left, to show physically that he had taken their place.

We walked back to the entrance slowly, while Rickie pointed out interesting findings. At one point we looked down on the intersection of the bases of several walls. The uppermost wall was Herodian, around a Hasmonean wall.

The wall is pierced by a hole, the entrance to a tunnel. This was part of the sewage system, which ran east-west, to drain into Gai Ben Hinnom, the Hinnom Valley. During the excavations, many coins were found in this tunnel, including a ceramic jar full of Roman coins. It supports the story about a certain priest, Channan, who escaped from Jerusalem during the Roman siege of the city by crawling through the sewers into the valley, taking his money with him.

Next to these walls is one from the First Temple Period. This seems to be a continuation of the city wall built by King Hezekiah to protect Jerusalem from capture when it was threatened by Sennacherib of Assyria. The plaster on this wall is almost identical to that used on the interior of Hezekiah’s water tunnel. A long section of Hezekiah’s broad wall was uncovered near the Cardo in the Jewish Quarter in the 1970s, confirming the size of Jerusalem in his time. But if this wall, near the Jaffa Gate, is part of that wall, then First Temple Jerusalem was larger than has been thought. Archaeologists are now busy looking for more evidence of First Temple life in more parts of the city.

Ceiling of Herod’s palace, with rust spots from British prison bars

Closer to the entrance, on the other side of the walkway, is a series of eight holes. These round basins were carved into the floor during the Crusader period, and when excavated still held bits cloth fibers and red pigment. They had been used for dying.

About two-thirds of the way up the stairs, we stopped at what at one time was the building floor. The floor, removed during the excavation, had been the floor of the Turkish and British prison. The brown spots on the ceiling are all that is left of the bars of cells which had held prisoners. Carved higher on the right hand wall is the symbol of Etzel. Also know as the Irgun, Etzel was a group dedicated to the overthrow of British rule

Etzel insignia scratched onto Kishle prison wall

in the Palestinian Mandate territory. The symbol was carved into the wall by Shmuel Matza, an Etzel member, while he was imprisoned here for terrorist activities.

Baedeker’s Guide, Jerusalem and its Surroundings: Handbook for Travelers, says in the 1876 edition, that south of David’s Citadel is “an open space with barracks.” Today we know the barracks covered history of Jerusalem from First Temple times to the current day. If only he had known what lay beneath, he could have written so much more.