Twenty years ago, a fellow college student showed me a Roman coin stamped with the head of the emperor Hadrian. The coin was dated around 130 AD, during the time when the Romans occupied Jerusalem. It is common knowledge that the Romans sacked Jerusalem in 10 AD, leveling the city to rubble. However, many people including myself were unaware that Hadrian later built a beautiful Roman city over the ruins during the period 130 – 140 AD. He named the city Aelia Capitolina, and it was laid out with beautiful marble roads, pillars, shops, large villas, roman baths, swimming pools, cisterns fed by an aqueduct, massive engraved gates, and a temple dedicated to the worship of Jupiter.
This beautiful city aroused my interest, and finding the city of Aelia Capitolina became my quest!
A few months later, I arrived in the old city of Jerusalem and was greeted by a labyrinth of winding alleyways, narrow streets, aged buildings, churches, and market bazaars surrounded by an atmosphere of frenetic energy.
The city was surrounded by very high ramparts, but I found a winding staircase that took me to the top of the massive walls where I walked around for about an hour, enjoying a bird’s eye view of the city. I saw courtyards, housetops, steeples, minarets, domes, but virtually no evidence of any ancient Roman city.
Subsequent Muslim, Christian, and Jewish rule over the years had obliterated the Roman presence and instilled a kasbah flavor to the city.
Aelia Capitolina had vanished or so it seemed. My inquiries led me to the Institute of Archaeology in Tel Aviv where I met an interesting and intriguing contact. He showed up at 5 A.M. on a cold, misty morning at my hotel door, hurriedly bundled me into a waiting car, and drove to the Jewish Quarter without any explanation. We entered an archway close to the western wall (wailing wall) into a dark tunnel lit by a single, naked, dangling light bulb. On one side of the tunnel wall there was a small door guarded by two heavily armed soldiers. The guards opened the door and hustled us into a small room, locking us inside. I remember glancing up at the dim light bulb and frantically wondering if I was being brought into an interrogation room.
My nervousness dissipated when I saw a few smiling faces, and I was given a yarmulke to wear. I was told we were going into sacred ground, and my excitement mounted when I saw a small elevator shaft, and a lift supported by chains and pulleys. I realized I was being taken down into my first archaeological dig!
The lift took us slowly down the deep, narrow shaft and came to rest into a large room with an ornate marbled floor. I was elated! We were in the living room of some wealthy Roman in the lost city of Aelia Capitolina! The room was in remarkable shape, with perfectly formed pillars, decorated walls, mosaic tiles and a fireplace. We stepped outside the room into a corridor that led to a marbled street, flanked on both sides by well preserved stone columns. The large paving stones on the street were in perfect condition, and led to an arched bridge with the remnants of shops on both sides. I toured the excavated portions of the underground city excitedly, amazed by the longevity of the solid stone structures. The public baths and drinking water reservoir were in very good condition, filled with water from some hidden aqueduct or seeping rainfall. Excavation of Aelia Capitolina was still in progress, but viewing the underground city was a novel experience for me. My quest had been fulfilled!
Today, excavation is still continuing, and a portion has been exposed and made visible to the public. Visitors to Jerusalem can now stroll down part of a Roman street in Aelia Capitolina.
Interestingly, I came across an article in the Israeli Haaretz newspaper written a year ago on Aelia Capitolina. This is an excerpt from the article: “Following the latest wave of excavations, which began in the mid-1990s, more and more archaeologists have become convinced that Aelia Capitolina was a much larger and more important city than was once thought, and its influence on the later development of modern Jerusalem was dramatic”.
I am happy to think that I was convinced of that when I decided on my trek 🙂