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Tunnel to flee ransacking Romans found in Jerusalem

An Israeli archeologist walked in a tunnel discovered near Jerusalem's Old City. An Israeli archeologist walked in a tunnel discovered near Jerusalem's Old City. (emilio morenatti/associated press)

JERUSALEM - Under threat from Romans ransacking Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, many of the city's Jewish residents crowded into an underground drainage channel to hide and later flee the chaos through Jerusalem's southern end.

The ancient tunnel was recently discovered beneath rubble, a monument to one of the great dramatic scenes of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D.

The tunnel was dug beneath what would become the main road of Jerusalem, the archeology dig's directors, Ronny Reich of the University of Haifa and Eli Shukron of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said Sunday. Shukron said excavators looking for the road happened upon a small drainage channel that led them to the discovery two weeks ago of the massive tunnel.

The walls of the tunnel - made of ashlar stones 3 feet deep - reach a height of 10 feet in some places and are covered by heavy stone slabs that were the road's paving stones, Shukron said. Several manholes are visible, and portions of the original plastering remain, he said.

Pottery shards, vessel fragments, and coins from the end of the Second Temple period were discovered inside the tunnel, attesting to its age, Reich said.

The discovery of the drainage tunnel was momentous in itself, a sign of how the city's rulers looked out for the welfare of their citizens by developing an infrastructure that prevented flooding, Reich said.

The discovery "shows you planning on a grand scale, unlike other cities in the ancient Near East," said Joe Zias, a specialist on the Second Temple period who was not involved in the dig.

But what makes the tunnel doubly significant is its role as an escape hatch for Jews desperate to flee the conquering Romans, the dig's directors said.

The Second Temple was the center of Jewish worship during the second Jewish Commonwealth, which spanned the six centuries preceding the Roman invasion of Jerusalem. Its expansion was the most famous construction project of Herod, the Jewish proxy ruler of the Holy Land under imperial Roman occupation from 37 BC.

As the temple was being destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, people took shelter in the drainage tunnel and lived inside it until they fled Jerusalem through its southern end, according to Josephus Flavius, a first century historian who wrote "The War of the Jews."

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