Aelia Capitolina has sprung to life in a significant way through no less than four extensive excavations that have taken place in the Old City area, and in a number of other digs in other parts of Jerusalem. Most of these digs have been rescue excavations by the Antiquities Authority, salvage digs carried out before new construction and development goes ahead. In a few more years, Aelia Capitolina could again be covered over by new buildings.
In the rear section of the Western Wall plaza, in the spot where the Western Wall Heritage Foundation intends to erect a large building that it calls "the Core House," Antiquities Authority researcher Shlomit Wexler-Bedolah discovered an ornate and broad Roman street, complete with shops on each side. This is the eastern cardo, along whose path Hagai Street would later be paved.
Three hundred meters to the south, another Antiquities Authority researcher, Dr. Doron Ben-Ami, discovered the place where the Roman street apparently ended. The corner of the street is adjacent to the Givati parking lot at the top of the Silwan valley - the spot where the Elad organization intends to build a large visitors center. In a large rescue excavation at this location in recent years, Ben-Ami exposed a large, fancy Roman villa unlike any other structure from its time in the entire country. He estimates that the villa he uncovered was the home of the regional governor or some other central authority.
In another excavation, in the tunnel under the Western Wall, Wexler-Bedolah and archaeologist Alexander Onn re-estimated the dating of a large bridge leading to the Temple Mount. As with other ancient monuments this too turned out to be of Roman origin and not from the Second Temple period. Another example is the Roman bathhouse and swimming pool discovered by Sion a year and a half ago. "It's a tremendous spa, a country club," Sion says, comparing the bathhouse to similar facilities found in other parts of the Roman Empire.
This increasing number of Roman-era discoveries strengthens the notion that the Temple Mount, even after its destruction, did not lie totally barren, but was used for pagan worship rites.
But not only the Old City and its immediate surroundings have turned up new findings from Aelia Capitolina. Excavations made a few years ago in the area near the Binyanei Ha'uma international convention center, carried out in preparation for the expansion of the Crowne Plaza Hotel, uncovered a large pottery-workers village that served as the legion's central clayware manufacturing plant. Along the route of Jerusalem's new light-rail, remains of a large water facility serving the legionnaires were discovered, and in the area of Shuafat, a Jewish settlement from the same period was discovered.
The latest excavations give archaeologists much greater insight into Aelia Capitolina than was possible even a decade earlier. Experts agree the city was planned extraordinarily well, based as it was on designs of other cities in the empire and according to orders that came directly from the emperor. It included broad streets, numerous and magnificent entrance gates, temples and infrastructure, and it even housed a new elite of army officers and free soldiers who turned Aelia Capitolina into a thriving city.
"When I began to study the history of the Roman city, it was a barren field," says Prof. Yoram Zafrir, one of Israel's most veteran archaeologists. "Today, it is clear that the basic structure of Jerusalem is that of Aelia Capitolina." Zafrir describes the process by which, after the Roman period, beasts of burden replaced wagons, the central government became weak and streets became "privatized." This process led to the city that we know today.