At 1 p.m. on July 22, 1981, the rabbi in charge of Judaism’s most sacred place of worship received a phone call from his construction manager.
“He told me about an amazing discovery of a big hall behind the Western Wall,” wrote Rabbi Yehuda Getz in his diary. Excited, Getz rushed from his office by the Western Wall Plaza to a nearby metal door. Unlocking the gate, he walked briskly through ancient, vaulted rooms originally excavated by British archaeologist Charles Warren more than a century before. Then he entered the well-lit but perpetually damp passage leading north. Begun in secret by Israeli rabbis after the Six Day War in 1967, the tunnel was intended to expose the foundations of the massive wall that lay concealed beneath the city’s Muslim Quarter.
The passage was, on average, five feet wide and seven feet high, bored through the stone of medieval foundations and floored with wooden boards that covered yawning cisterns. The lower courses of the Western Wall were on his right. Beyond them, to the east, lay the honeycombed interior beneath what Jews call the Temple Mount, the site of the Jewish temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. For Muslims, it is the Noble Sanctuary, a platform supporting the Dome of the Rock marking the spot where the prophet Mohammad was said to have embarked on a mystical journey to heaven.
Near the tunnel’s end, Getz reached an ancient gate uncovered by Warren that once led into the interior of the sacred platform but had been walled up centuries before. There he found what he later said was a two-foot-wide hole puncturing the long-sealed entrance leading into the sacred platform’s bowels. Under the prevailing status quo, no one was permitted to broach this border. The rabbi’s diary does not explain who made the opening or why.
“A long hour I sat there, helpless, with boiling-hot tears running down from my eyes,” wrote Getz. “Eventually, I gathered courage and with awe and compassion I entered.” The rabbi seated himself on the stairs leading into the chamber and said the Tikkun Chatzot, the midnight prayer expressing mourning for the destruction of the temple.
Then he stood. A set of stone stairs led down from the inside of the gate into a vaulted hall. Twenty-six feet wide, thirty-three feet high, and nearly one hundred feet long, it was partially submerged in the typical underground Jerusalem cocktail of water, mud, and sewage.
Getz suspected the passageway was used by priests to access the Jewish temple before it had been blocked on both the eastern and western ends to create the cistern. He consulted with his excavation engineer. The two agreed that the first step was to remove the water and muck. Then he ordered the hole to be temporarily sealed “for security reasons” and called Israel’s chief rabbis: Shlomo Goren, the leader of the faith’s Ashkenazim, and Ovadia Yosef, the leader of the Sephardim. Getz also called the minister of religions, Aharon Abuhatzira, nephew to a famous Kabbalah sage from Morocco.
By 6 p.m., the four men were examining the interior of the cistern. Goren chanted a few Psalms—somewhat theatrically, according to Getz—and assured him that no one would stop his excavation team. He walked Getz to his Jewish Quarter home, saying mysteriously, “Now we will know the whole truth. I’m blessed that I got that privilege.”
The next morning, Getz ordered the project electrician to install lights in a corner of the cistern. The water pump, however, proved ineffective at draining the cistern. The following day, he called the director of Jerusalem’s fire department, who agreed to provide a more efficient electric pump and suggested sending a crew of Arab workers to help. “We refused, of course,” the rabbi wrote.
On the afternoon of July 30, Rabbi Yosef and several rabbinical judges arrived to discuss turning the drained cistern into a synagogue. Entering the Noble Sanctuary was a Jewish religious taboo. Since the location of the Holy of Holies—the innermost part of the vanished temple–was not known, it might be tread upon by accident. The rabbis, however, believed that it was acceptable to worship beneath the Temple Mount.
But word of the rabbinic discovery leaked. At 8:00 a.m. on August 27, the hourly bulletin on Israel National Radio opened with a report on the tunnel. Early that same afternoon, Arab workers sent by administrators of the waqf, the Islamic charitable trust charged with managing the Noble Sanctuary, entered the cistern from two manholes in the ceiling and began carrying building materials into the space to seal up the wall. Alerted to the news, Getz rushed from his home in the nearby Jewish Quarter. His alarmed wife followed and was shaken to find him standing in the cistern, now filled with Arabs holding tools. She ran out of the tunnel to the plaza and called on worshippers to protect the rabbi from what she thought was certain death.
“I stood alone in front of them,” he said later. “I was not about to go down quietly.” He shone a bright construction light on the workers to intimidate them, and then left to call Goren on a nearby phone to beg for help.
Getz went back to the cistern to face the Muslims by himself. “I found that the Arabs had entered the synagogue intending to block the entry and allow their men to build a wall,” he wrote in his diary. “Backed alone in the corner, I could not stop them.” One report had him pulling a gun on the Arabs. When Goren arrived at the Western Wall, he saw what he described as “hundreds” of police, including the chief of police, and hurried to the opened underground gate. He claimed there were also “hundreds of Arabs” in the cistern “coming in from all sides—and crying and shouting.” Goren said he called for help from students from a nearby yeshiva, a Jewish religious school, “and a few hundred came with weapons.”
Isam Awwad, the waqf’s chief architect, told a less dramatic tale. He and his colleagues had been closely monitoring the Israeli incursion and decided it was time to stop the invaders. “We sent ten of our Arab workers into the cistern with bricks and mortar to seal up the wall,” he said in an interview. “I was there inside with them.”
Whatever the precise numbers, Jewish worshippers broke into the space and began to fight with the Arab workers, one of whom was injured by a broken bottle. “A border policeman had to be restrained from opening fire with an M-16 automatic rifle, and the two sides were persuaded to withdraw,” according to the Guardian. Two people were slightly injured in the brief scuffle, and the police arrested several Jews and at least one Arab. A bloodbath was narrowly prevented. The waqf’s decision to quickly seal the gate and an immediate Israeli government denial of any role in the penetration of the sacred platform prevented what might have sparked a regional war.
That night, before going to sleep, Getz wrote bitterly, “I have never felt the humiliation of Jews like today—and in our own sovereign state!” Police later questioned the rabbi, noting that witnesses claimed he “gave orders to kill Arabs,” which he dismissed as a lie. He was never charged with any crime and maintained his important position until his death in 1995.
In his diaries, Rabbi Getz comes across as a deeply pious man, one who simply wanted to create a prayer space as close to the Holy of Holies as possible. Yet his writings don’t tell the full story. What exactly was the mysterious “inheritance” that he longed for on the night of September 4, as he stood beside the now-sealed gate? And what was “the whole truth” that Goren had alluded to?
It was only much later that the true goal of Getz, and the secret participation of senior Israeli government officials in the effort, came to light. They had been seeking the Ark of the Covenant, the sacred box that the Hebrew Bible said contained the Ten Commandments and which had sat in the Holy of Holies in the temple built by King Solomon. They were guided in part by Maimonides, the twelfth-century Jewish philosopher—known by some as the Ark of God—who wrote that Solomon anticipated the temple’s destruction and “built a structure in which to hide the Ark, down below in deep and twisting concealed places.” That belief persisted.
Getz’s daughter, Lily Horowitz, confirmed the quest. “Dad was striving to find the Ark of the Covenant buried beneath the Temple Mount by King Josiah of Judah,” she said. “He wanted to find the Ark of the Covenant to bring salvation closer. Because of its sacredness, my father was willing to risk his life. This was part of the redemption that comes with resurrection.”
One of the rabbi’s grandsons, Adiel Getz, added that his grandfather had long been convinced that the cistern “could lead to the chamber where the Ark is concealed, and above it, on ground level, to the place of the altar.” Another grandson, Yiftach Getz, said that “the dig for him had a messianic meaning. With the discovery of the place of the altar, he hoped, the righteous Messiah could reveal himself. He wanted to find the Ark of the Covenant. He hoped it would be found in the tunnels.”
Decades later, a more detailed version of Getz’s incursion implicated one of Israel’s most notorious intelligence agents in the operation’s planning and execution. That man was Rafi Eitan, best known for leading the team that captured Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi official who helped devise the Holocaust. In 1960, Eitan brought him from Argentina for trial in Jerusalem, where Eichmann was hanged.
“As the excavation of the tunnels progressed, I met with Rabbi Getz almost daily,” he told author Hila Volberstein. “Together with him, I studied the structure of the Holy Temple and its dimensions. We drew conclusions as to the location of the Holy Temple and the Holy of Holies.” He was eager to explore beyond Warren’s Gate, which they both believed had been used by the temple priests to access the sanctuary. “We assumed that if we made an opening in the wall to the east, we could move forward and eventually reach the Holy of Holies.” This was where they expected to find the ark, along with other valuable temple treasures. “But we waited for the right time to make the opening.”
Eitan was not the only senior official aware of the search for the Ark. The incident alarmed the U.S. ambassador to Israel, who was already fuming at the country’s recent bombing of an Iraqi nuclear facility and an attack on Beirut that killed hundreds of civilians. Under pressure from the Americans, the Israeli government set up a panel to investigate the Temple Mount penetration. The committee determined that the hole made in the gate was no accident, and that Defense Minister Ariel Sharon had personally given the green light. A surviving member of the panel, Israeli archaeologist Meir Ben-Dov, later said that the minister of religious affairs ordered that conclusion stricken, and the blame instead put on a botched attempt to fix a water leak. “How could we otherwise show our faces to the Americans?” Ben-Dov recalls him saying.
Until shortly before his death, Getz remained publicly silent on the true goal of the excavators. In the early 1990s, however, he insisted that he had seen the Ark with his own eyes before being foiled in his effort to recover the sacred artifact. “I can confirm to you that we know the exact location of the Ark,” he wrote in response to a 1993 query. It is a claim that archaeologists consider to be as fantastical as the Harrison Ford movie. Yet Muslim officials on the Noble Sanctuary remain on alert. Twice a day, their guards measure the water levels in the many cisterns beneath the platform, to see if the Israelis have drained water to access the subterranean world beneath their feet. Forty years later, Ark fever still exerts a grip on the imagination—and a threat to world peace.
Adapted with permission from Under Jerusalem: The Buried History of the World’s Most Contested City by Andrew Lawler. Courtesy of Doubleday.