Today, the holiday of Sukkot—a seven-day festival that began last Monday evening—is characterized primarily by building outdoor booths, or sukkot, and the ritual waving of palm fronds, myrtle and willow branches, and citrons. But prior to the Romans’ destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, it was also a time of mass pilgrimage to the Jerusalem Temple. Rossella Tercatin explains what archaeological and historical evidence have demonstrated about the practice:
The 1st-century CE Roman-Jewish historian Titus Flavius Josephus says that millions of people took part in the pilgrimage, bringing tens of thousands of sacrifices to the Temple. The Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria also speaks about the occasion in his work. The [pilgrims’] itinerary was designed in such a way that people would experience what [the archaeologist] Guy Stiebel described as a “wow effect,” similar to that felt by someone visiting a majestic cathedral.
“At the time of Herod, [circa 37-4 BCE], the Temple Mount was known as one of the biggest religious compounds in the Roman world,” he said.
Archaeological excavations have revealed the gate the pilgrims crossed [on their way into Jerusalem at the beginning of the first millennium]. “They would purify themselves in the Siloam Pool and then go straight up to the Temple Mount, through a stepped street which was previously believed to have been built at the time of King Herod,” Stiebel noted. “Now we know that the project was actually carried out under the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, [in the 20s or 30s CE].”
While no traces survive of the ancient booths those Jews probably built to celebrate the holiday, archaeology provides other important evidence of the centrality of the festival of Sukkot. . . . A palm tree bound with some leafy branches—likely the willows and the myrtle—and one or two citrus fruits appear on artifacts that were symbols of freedom and independence from the Romans [during the Jewish revolt of 66-70 CE].