What did Jerusalem look like when Jesus was alive?
During the Israeli War of Independence (1948), the Jewish Quarter of the Old City was largely destroyed. During the renovation of the Jewish Quarter in the 1970s, an ancient site from the Second Temple period (destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D.) that had been buried for nearly two millennia was uncovered. Archeologists revealed a luxurious residential quarter from the Second Temple period in the Upper City of Jerusalem. Because of its grandeur and opulence, it was renamed the Herodian Quarter, also known today as the Wohl Museum of Archeology.
The wealthy aristocratic and priestly families in the time of Jesus lived in the magnificent houses of the Herodian Quarter. It is easy to see why this area on a hillside overlooking the nearby Temple Mount would have been particularly attractive to priests who ministered in the Temple.
Today, this is the largest and most important site from Second Temple times in the Jewish Quarter. Perhaps even some of the priests and Sadducees who disputed with Jesus, as recalled in the Gospels, lived in these houses.
Descending three meters below ground, we go back 2,000 years in time. The archeological remains of the cellars of six luxurious homes provide a vivid picture of the inhabitants’ wealth. Numerous storage rooms, reservoirs, bathhouses, ovens, colorful mosaics, frescoes, elegant household items, and a seven-branched menorah carved on one of the walls indicate that the residents enjoyed a high standard of living.
The presence of several ritual baths and many stone vessels indicate that the residents were priests who strictly adhered to the Jewish laws of ritual purity, because stone does not become ritually impure.
A row of columns that belonged to a “peristyle” – a colonnade surrounding an open court – formed part of an especially fine mansion built in the popular Greco-Roman style of the time. From here the residents would have had a splendid view of the Temple esplanade where Jesus spent much of his time while in Jerusalem.
Further down, we come to the “palatial mansion,” the largest and most splendid of the houses uncovered at the site, probably inhabited by one of the families of the High Priest.
As one nears the end of the tour, a burnt room provides a glimpse of the tragic and violent end of the neighborhood and its inhabitants: the charred wooden beams that collapsed from the ceiling and the burnt mosaic stones testify to the great fire that ravaged the city and the destruction wrought by the Romans –the last moments of Jerusalem in its glory.