Megiddo PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
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Water System

Megiddo: The Water System

There were two major springs at Megiddo, as well as many smaller ones. These were "the waters of Megiddo" mentioned in Judges 5:19. . Of the big springs, one was on the left just inside the driveway leading to the Visitors' Center, but it is covered today. The other must once have been just northwest of the upper mound. The first people to settle Megiddo must have seen it on the surface. Over the centuries, as the water table dropped, they kept having to dig down after it. In the Middle Bronze Age (2000 - 1550 BC), in order to reach  the spring, they had to descend the slope and cut back beneath the mound. Such a system was untenable in a state of siege.

At some point - it is not clear when - the people of Megiddo dug a shaft to the spring from inside the city. (See the diagram below.) Because the spring was under the slope, a shaft that began directly over it would not have been safe. A place was chosen at a point inside the wall but as close to the source as possible. At first the workers dug through previous layers of civilizations. They had to put up retaining walls (still visible) to keep these layers from crumbling into the shaft. After 15 meters they hit bedrock. From here they hewed downward in such a way as to leave a winding rock staircase that hugged the sides of the shaft. Each segment of the staircase had to be - compared to the parallel segment above it - farther in toward the center of the shaft. (They could not dig a segment directly beneath the segment above it, for the latter would collapse.) They could not continue thus, however, because the shaft would narrow to nothing before reaching the level of the spring. They therefore tried to dig at an angle directly to the spring. This seemed too wild a venture, however - that is, it would likely miss the mark (we can see this attempt in the ceiling) - so they changed the tactic and dug down at a 45 degree angle, hoping to stop at the proper depth. In fact, they stopped about a meter  too high. (Source )



Now the workers needed to hew a horizontal tunnel, but the question was, in which direction?

They planted someone on the slope above the spring, and then they stretched a rope from that person across the top of the shaft they had already dug. Two plumblines hanging from this rope - more exactly, a straight line joining the plumblines - would function like an arrow showing them the direction toward the spring. They must have had workers posted on the staircase looking up at the plumblines and directing the hewers below. 




Another team worked from the spring. They had no help from plumblines here. When we stand at the spring and look back through the tunnel, we can see that they went too far to the left. After they had hewn for about 8 meters, however, they must have heard the chisels of the team from the shaft-end (still about 15 meters away) and they made a correction to the right.


Below is the point of meeting on the right (east). Those from the shaft-end must have started earlier, for they cut through 37 meters. Those from the spring-end cut through 13. They widened the tunnel on the spring-end in order to get rid of the wiggle. Then the whole tunnel was deepened to allow easy passage. The old entrance from outside the mound was blocked with a wall.


In a second phase, workers removed the rock-cut staircase and angled the floor of the tunnel so that the water would flow to a point directly beneath the shaft, whence it could be hauled as from a well. At the third and last phase, however, a masonry staircase was built roughly where the original had been.   

This kind of water system was common to many of the larger cities. We find variations of it at Hazor, Ibleam, Gezer, Gibeon, Beersheba and elsewhere. Jerusalem's system goes back to the 18th century BC. Indeed, one site, called Khirbet ez-Zeraqun, has a rock-cut water system dating to the third millennium BC. But the Megiddo shaft is one of the few that today are easily accessible, and it is astonishing to see what the ancients could do.

Which ancients? There is currently no way of knowing when the system was first created. It may have been in use when the city's inhabitants held out for seven months while besieged by Pharaoh Thutmosis III.

A sign at the shaft, now wisely removed, once informed us that it was hewn in the 9th century BC when Ahab was king. This dating was based on Yadin's conclusions concerning an artificial passage called the Gallery, a section of which was found on the upper edge of the tell. This Gallery seems to have been a covered passage, 2 meters high, leading down the slope toward the spring. Yadin dated it to Solomon's time. Over it ran a solid wall. The theory went like this: before the shaft was dug, water drawers used the Gallery in time of siege to reach the spring without being seen. After the shaft was dug, there was no longer a need for it. Since the Gallery was thought to have been used in Solomon's time, the shaft and wall were attributed to the next great builder-king in the north, Ahab.

In attributing the Gallery to Solomon, Yadin depended on one of its dressed stones, which he identified as Solomonic. But Megiddo excavator Norma Franklin, (p. 517) has pointed out that the stone in question may have been recycled, as were similar ashlars in the wall above. She notes, also, that the Gallery was built more strongly precisely at the points where it had to bear the weight of the wall above. Conclusion: Gallery and wall were built as a single unit. The Gallery served as a postern, that is, a rear gate through which the city's defenders could make sorties against a besieging enemy, especially if the latter were trying to penetrate to the covered spring.   

On this reasoning, the shaft may have preceded the Gallery! In other words, if the Gallery was intended as a postern, it could have been added later, so we cannot date the original shaft on the basis of it. There is, as Franklin says, no chronological anchor.

To visit the water shaft requires a descent of 183 modern steps. After passing through the tunnel, one reaches the spring. It hardly resembles a spring today, because the aquifer is drained by current users before its water reaches the spot. During a hefty rain, however, the water again gurgles forth in proper springlike fashion.

Climbing up and out, using the pre-shaft access - an ascent of 80 steps or so - we emerge outside the mound. From here we can look back and see the Gallery above us. Our bus may be waiting nearby. If not, we turn right just before the fence (we don't go through the turnstile) and follow the signs to the entrance.