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Tradition forbade the Temple's enlargement beyond Solomon's original dimensions. So Herod expressed his egomania by adding a 35-acre platform--"the greatest ever heard of," writes Josephus--on which the Temple could sit. The Western Wall where Jews pray today is a small slice of the platform's 16-ft.-thick western side. Some of the stones are 30 ft. long and weigh up to 50 tons. ("Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!" exclaims a disciple in the Gospel of Mark.) As Herod built out over the adjacent valleys, the outline of the mountain on which the compound sat gradually disappeared. The great stone featured in the Dome of the Rock, the Muslim shrine that now occupies Herod's immense pedestal, may be the mountain's peak.
At the time, the platform (Jews call it the Temple Mount) had up to seven entrances. Most experts believe the remains of an expansive, carved-stone stairway on the south side of the mount, perpendicular to the Roman street, were once the main entry for common pilgrims. At the foot of the stairs are the ruins of a series of baths, for ritual purification, and small shops, some of which still have hitches for animals.
Temple worship revolved around sacrifice: a lamb for Passover, a bull for Yom Kippur, two doves--"the poor woman's sacrifice"--to celebrate a child's birth. Before buying an animal, visitors changed their Roman denarii (the dollar of the day) for shekels, or Temple coins, that had no portraits on them and so did not violate the Jewish prohibition of graven images. Herod appears to have allowed the money changers onto the Temple platform, which may have spurred Jesus' scourging of them in "my father's house." Joshua Schwartz, a professor of historical geography at Israel's Bar Ilan University, styles the stairway as a Judean version of London's Hyde Park Corner. There would be "beggars and upper-class Jews and Gentiles from all over," he says. "Scholars would be teaching, and would-be prophets would be preaching. The steps were the experience in Jerusalem."
After the Temple itself, perhaps. Scholars have hypothesized that the southern steps led pilgrims into a tunnel under an administrative building and out again amid a series of courtyards. The outermost was open to curious Gentiles. The remaining enclosures were for Jews only, as indicated by another of the Temple's remaining relics--a sign, in Greek, warning that any non-Jew passing farther "is answerable himself for his ensuing death."
Next came the Court of Women, followed by the Court of Israelites, the Court of the Priests and, above all, the massive sacrificial altar. The Temple's innermost shrine, featuring the holy room that the Bible said had been occupied by the Ark of the Covenant in Solomon's Temple, loomed 80 ft. high, a glistening tower.
The scene must have been spectacular. Whether that spectacle is understood as deeply felt or empty depends on later interpretation. "The place was as vast as a small city. There were literally thousands of priests, attendants, temple soldiers and minions," writes historian Paul Johnson. "Dignity was quite lost amid the smoke of the pyres, the bellows of terrified beasts, the sluices of blood, the abattoir stench, the unconcealed and unconcealable machinery of tribal religion inflated by modern wealth to an industrial scale."