Early Jerusalem PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
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Early Jerusalem
Top of the Hill
Water systems
Spine of the City

Early Jerusalem's water systems

We have noted the vulnerability of Jerusalem's spring: an army on the Mt. of Olives, across the narrow Kidron Valley where the village of Silwan is today, could make things unpleasant for anyone going to fetch water. How did the first Jerusalemites come to grips with this problem? First, here is an overview looking southeast. The position of the spring is indicated on the lower left side.

In the Middle Bronze Age IIB, meaning roughly 1750-1650 BC, the Jerusalemites dug to the water from a point high up, inside their city wall. We shall now study their work in detail.

We head south from the Stepped Stone Structure until a staircase appears on our left. We descend it, passing the entrance to the underground water system ("Warren's shaft"), until, three-quarters of the way down the steps, we find an assemblage of stones on our left (north of us). For decades they have been understood as belonging to earlier city walls, as explained in the picture below. On studying the pottery in 1967, archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon was able to date the older to the Middle Bronze IIB. This period (again, 1750-1650 BC) will be coming up often in what follows, so we shall refer to it as "MB" for short. At "2" in the photo below, the MB wall angles westward, continuing under a wall ("5") from a thousand years later. The turn suggests that the northeast corner of MB Jerusalem may have been here (which would fit the surmise that the Stepped Stone Structure later extended the city northward). But the turn could have been part of a recess or part of a tower. (Fearing collapse, Kenyon could not follow the wall farther west to find out.) In the light of his recent excavations with Eli Shukron, however, Ronny Reich suggests that Kenyon's "city wall" seems rather minor compared with the very massive MB walls they found near the spring, walls they believe extended on an east-west line right up to the top of the hill. We'll discuss this later.

The stones in the MB wall are large, such as only a giant can move, one might think. Such construction is therefore called cyclopean, after a famous giant in Homer's Odyssey. We shall find many such stones after we pass through the underground water system, in the fortification that led to and guarded the spring.

We climb back up the steps to the opening of Warren's Shaft. People use this term today to mean the entire underground access system, not just the vertical opening near its end (which I shall distinguish by calling it "Warren's vertical shaft"). Charles Warren, an intrepid British explorer, discovered and cleared most of the system in 1867.

The MB Jerusalemites, we have seen, had a problem in reaching their spring during a siege. They solved this by gaining access to it from inside the city. The wall and the shaft were part of one plan. It may be that karstic processes had already done some of the work: there are many karstic fissures in this limestone hill. (On karst.) That is, rainwater picking up carbon dioxide forms carbonic acid, which over a long period dissolves some of the limestone.

We descend a staircase into the water system. The purpose of hewing so steep a decline was to stay far below the surface, thus ensuring that the shaft would not destabilize the heavy wall above.


When we reach the bottom of the steps, where the route becomes more horizontal, we are at the point where two teams of hewers met about 3700 years ago, one coming from above and one from the direction of the spring; maybe they poured colored water and followed it as it dripped through the fissures.
Continuing, we begin to notice that the height increases and that a difference appears in the shading of the bedrock on the sides. There is an upper layer of soft white limestone, called meleke (royal) because of its high quality, and there is a lower layer of harder, darker dolomite on which we are walking. Only during the excavation by Reich and Shukron, conducted since 1997, have we come to realize that the MB shaft was cut only through the soft white stone of the upper layer. In other words, when Jerusalemites went to fetch water 3700 years ago, they did not walk where we are walking: they were higher; the top of the dolomite layer served as their floor.


Ahead of us is a ladder. When we climb it, we shall enter a passage which was simply the continuation of the one from the 18th century BC. This passage led, we shall see, to a point above a rock-cut pool that collected the water of the spring. There you could cast your waterskins.

Before we climb the ladder, however, we face the question: who deepened the passage into the harder, darker stone, when, and why? As to when, the answer lay on the floor of the older MB passage we shall reach with the ladder. Here Reich and Shukron found a thick deposit of stone chips from the harder dolomite layer, but none from the soft white meleke. They also found sherds of three oil lamps which they dated to the 8th century BC. So the 8th-century inhabitants had dug the passage deeper but had not finished clearing out their dolomite chips. But why were they digging? Perhaps the MB system seemed vulnerable in the light of the military technology of their time. That system depended, we shall see, on the strength of an exposed tower that was attached by a massively built corridor to the rest of the city. Indeed, perhaps an earthquake had damaged it. In any case, the Jerusalemites would surely have preferred a seamless tunnel directly to the spring, like the ones at  Gibeon, Gezer, Megiddo, and Hazor. They could then bury the external access under so thick a mound of rubble that the spring would be unreachable. This is probably why they began to deepen the passage.

In the course of the work, a vertical karstic opening was revealed, a kind of natural chimney that descends 40 feet. A bit beyond it the hewers stopped working. Perhaps they figured that the karstic shaft could provide their emergency water supply. Or perhaps their colleagues successfully completed the Siloam Tunnel, of which we'll speak later, so they saw no need to continue deepening the passage.


It is possible to draw water from this shaft. While searching for the lost ark and Solomon's treasures, Montague Parker's team in 1909-11 used it to clear mud from their dig below. The problem in antiquity would have been to divert water from the spring to the small cave at the shaft's bottom, which is higher than the spring. To do so in a time of siege, it would have sufficed to dig a connecting passage and plug up all alternatives. The water would then have climbed up the shaft (as when a drainpipe beneath your apartment is clogged and water from below backs up into your sink). This was strictly an emergency measure: when there was no siege, the spring would be allowed to flow to a more convenient place, as we shall see, and Warren's vertical shaft would deliberately be left high and dry. That is why there are no deposits of siltstone or travertine (tufa) in the cave at its bottom. Clearly, such an emergency system would not have sufficed for a large population, and the Siloam Tunnel (aka "Hezekiah's" Tunnel) superseded it.

Before we discuss the Judahite water system further, let us continue with the one from the Middle Bronze Age. We climb the ladder and at once find, on our left, the opening into a fortified corridor 3700 years old. This corridor led out of the underground. Its parallel walls were 10 feet thick. Inside, on its stone floor, Reich and Shukron found sherds from the 18th and 17th centuries BC. (Reich and Shukron , p. 30.) They found similar sherds between the bedrock and the lowest course of stones. This corridor, then, was built at the same time as the wall that Kenyon had discovered: wall, shaft, and corridor were made to fulfill a single plan.


When you look at the photo of the corridor from outside (below), imagine that the walls on either side extend toward you as far as the tower that guards the spring, which begins a few yards behind the photographer. And now imagine the same double wall extending away from you, up the slope of the hill to the top. Although they have not yet excavated there, Reich and Shukron speculate that the fortification continued thus, forming the north wall of the city. As said, Kenyon's bit of wall seems minor when compared with this excavated portion. 


Nearby to the south, Reich and Shukron were astonished to discover a huge rectangular pool cut out of bedrock: 50 feet from east to west, 32 feet from north to south, and up to 46 feet high on its north end. It lines up perfectly with the MB fortification, and on this basis they date it to that time (1750-1650 BC). There must have been an opening in the south wall of the corridor above, from which people could walk onto a wooden platform over the pool and draw water. A wall on the pool's east side would have hidden the water drawers.


Why is the pool so big? Would the spring water ever have filled it? We recall that the output of the spring is extremely variable. On some days in some seasons, nowadays, it produces just 700 cubic meters, on others 4750. The MB inhabitants would not have wanted any to be lost. It received the spring water from a short tunnel numbered "III" by Father L. H. Vincent of the Parker expedition. Tunnel III got its water from Channel II, which in turn got its water from the spring itself. Here is a diagram with Vincent's numbers.


The floor of Channel II is several feet higher than the present spring and nearly 8 feet higher than the floor of the Siloam tunnel. If we assume that the spring has remained at about the same level, not sinking like the one at Megiddo, we may suppose that the spring water, having no other egress, rose to the level of Channel II.  

Furthermore, only part of Channel II's water went into Tunnel III and thence to the rock-cut pool. Channel II continued southward - in its MB version for at least 190 meters south of the spring (see the map below). Many used to say that this section was intended to irrigate the fields of the Kidron, but Reich casts doubt on that. (Among his arguments is this: The openings toward the Kidron are not human-made; they are karstic fissures, some of them too low to irrigate the valley, and there are no traces of further conduits branching from these fissures to distribute the water.) Reich speculates that Channel II led the water into a pool that would have been conveniently accessible as long as no siege was on. No one has yet searched for such a pool at or near the 190-meter point, partly because the valley is deeply silted here. At the 190-meter point, Channel II becomes a rock-hewn tunnel heading slightly southwest, to the area where the Hasmoneans later built the Pool of Siloam. There is no direct way of dating this southern section of Channel II, but it is thought to be an addition from the time of the Kingdom of Judah.

The main use of Channel II was not to supply water to the rock-cut pool: that was an emergency system, requiring an arduous trek through what we today call Warren's shaft, and only a few people at a time could have access. No, its main use was in peacetime: to bring the water to the people at a place where many could draw it at once. In a time of siege, the Jerusalemites would have blocked the peacetime channel, so that the enemy would not get water, and all the water would then flow through Tunnel III to the rock-cut pool. This may explain the two levels in the latter: the smaller, deeper basin was for peacetime use by those living in the north of the city, while most of the water went south; the bigger, rectangular pool was meant to store water for the entire population in a time of siege. 


Channel II, or "the Canaanite tunnel" as it is called on the signs at the site, is dry today, and we can walk it for 120 meters. It is quite narrow in places - perhaps for easier plugging when under siege. Indeed, some think it was the tzinnor of  2 Samuel 5: 6-10. Some think, too, that the massive MB fortification at the spring was the "Fortress of Zion" on which the Jebusites relied (if so, it would have been about 700 years old when David reached the nearby Mount of Olives to attack). On the other hand, if the Large Stone Structure was already in place when David came - as I am persuaded it was - then it, combined with the Stepped Stone Structure, would have been the Fortress of Zion.     

A few meters into Channel II, on the right, is Tunnel III, which led part of the spring's water into the deeper section of the rock-cut pool.   canaanite_reservoir_2_revised.jpg

Looking into the deeper part of the rock-cut pool (photo above), we can see the entry of Tunnel III on the right. But notice also the doorlike opening on the left. This would have had no function for the MB Jerusalemites. According to Reich, it was an initial and temporary opening (Tunnel IV), made as the starting point for hewing the Siloam Tunnel (VIII), long known as "Hezekiah's Tunnel." The Siloam Tunnel was hewn by teams coming from north and south, and they met near the middle (see map above). Reich holds that the doorlike opening in the rock-cut pool was the first thing cut by the northern team. He bases this on the following thoughts. The Siloam Tunnel was dug after Channel II. The first 190 meters of Channel II belong to the MB system (the big fortifications incorporate it). Not only does the Siloam Tunnel provide more security, but its floor is almost 8 feet lower than that of Channel II. After the Siloam Tunnel was complete, Channel II would have been left high and dry. Now, the northern team could not have started at the spring itself, says Reich. If they had, the water - instead of climbing to the level of Channel II - would have flowed into their dig, rising against the rock walls and drowning them. They could not have stopped it by building a wall, for in that case they would have immured themselves. The only way, therefore, was to start at a point that was separated by bedrock from the spring; only after the rest of the tunnel was finished could they safely connect to it. (Reich thinks that the last connecting bit was part of Tunnel VI, whose chisel marks go toward the spring.) Where then can we find a feasible starting point for this northern crew? The doorlike opening in the deep section of the rock-cut pool is a good candidate.

Furthermore, beside the doorlike opening is a surface that seems to have been prepared for an inscription, although there is none there. (Was it erased by a rival to the person whose name was on it?)

If we take the doorlike opening as the starting point, we become immersed in a debate about the date: Was the Siloam Tunnel a project of Hezekiah, who reigned from 729 (but some say as late as 716) until 687 BC? When complete, as said, it deprived the (higher) Channel II of water, and the rock-cut pool went dry. Reich and Shukron discovered that someone then used the sides of the pool as the outer walls of a house. The pool's bottom was too low to suit this person, so before building the house, he dumped in a thick fill, including great stones that were toppled from the MB fortification (maybe they had already fallen). The deeper part of the rock-cut pool, including the presumed starting point for the northern team that dug the Siloam Tunnel, was surely filled as part of the same operation, but here the debris was removed by Parker around 1909-1911. The rest of the pool remained hidden until Reich and Shukron arrived in the late 1990s. They found 6.5 tons of pottery both above and under the floors of the house, including thousands of sherds that could indicate dating (rims, handles, and bases). Alon De Groot and Atalya Fadida have made a preliminary study. They are confident that the house was abandoned at the end of the 8th century BC, the time when the Assyrian king Sennacherib swept into the land to quell a revolt by Hezekiah, King of Judah. But when was the house first built? When did the builder dump in the fill, which buried Tunnel IV? If we assume with Reich that Tunnel IV was the starting point for digging the Siloam Tunnel, the starting date must have preceded the dumping of the fill. De Groot and Fadida, seconded by Reich and other experts, date the latest pottery from under the house's floor to the end of the 9th century BC. If the doorlike opening to Tunnel IV was indeed the starting point for digging the Siloam Tunnel, and if it was covered with fill around the end of the 9th century, then the tunnel must have been hewn then - or at the latest, "in the early part of the 8th century BCE," long before Hezekiah.

Against this conclusion we may raise two points.
1. Among the kings of Judah, only Hezekiah is credited by the written sources with waterworks in Jerusalem.
2 Kings 20:20 - "Now the rest of Hezekiah's deeds, and all his might, and how he made the pool and the channel (t'alah) and brought the water to the city: are they not written in the annals of the kings of Judah?"
2 Chronicles 32:2-4 - "And when Hezekiah saw that Sennacherib had arrived and meant to make war on Jerusalem, he took counsel with his ministers and officers to block the water of the springs that were outside the city, and they helped him. Many joined together and plugged up all the springs, as well as the river flowing in the midst of the land, saying, "Why should the kings of Assyria come and find lots of water?"

2 Chronicles 32:30 - "And this was Hezekiah, he plugged the outflow of the water of the upper Gihon and led it straight down below westward to the City of David."

Ben Sira 48:17-18 (Skehan translation, 1987, modified by Grossberg: "Hezekiah strengthened his city by turning water into it. With bronze tools he cut through the rocks and sealed a mountain site for a reservoir. During his reign Sennacherib led an invasion..."

The defender of Reich's redating might answer this objection as follows. Chronicles was written about three centuries after Hezekiah's reign, probably between 350 and 300 BC, when Jerusalem had been reduced in size more or less to its original eastern hill. It may be that the only waterworks known in person by the Chronicler were those of that small city. The same would have been true for Ben Sira, writing in the early 2nd century BC. Both of these sources had 2 Kings 20:20 in front of them, which they interpreted in terms of the small Jerusalem they knew. There they would have been familiar with the marvelous Siloam Tunnel, and since no other king had been awarded credit for it, they may have assumed that it was the work intended by the lost annals quoted in 2 Kings 20:20. This verse, however, need not have applied to the Siloam Tunnel. We need to remember that the city of Hezekiah had long been an expanded Jerusalem, including the Western Hill. Jerusalem's population had grown considerably in the course of the 9th and 8th centuries BC, perhaps because years of relative peace had transformed it into a thriving urban center. (Nadav Na'aman has cogently opposed the notion that large numbers of refugees from the northern kingdom fled to Jerusalem after the conquest by Sargon II, swelling the city's population.) According to Avraham Faust, the number of inhabitants in the expanded city probably exceeded 20,000. Those on the Western Hill would have needed convenient access to water. It is conceivable, therefore, that the pool and canal mentioned in 2 Kings 20:20 were somewhere to the west. David Amit has suggested (in a personal communication to Shimon Gibson) that the remains of an Iron II water conduit uncovered west of the Jaffa Gate might be part of such a system, and that it might have fed water to the Upper Pool of Isaiah 7:3 (perhaps the so-called "Pool of Hezekiah" in the Old City near the Jaffa Gate).

2. Carbon-14 dating of organic materials in the original floor plaster of the Siloam tunnel yielded dates of "about 700 BC or slightly earlier." However, the defender of Reich's redating might reply to this that given the margins of error in such tests, "slightly earlier" could mean several decades earlier.

It is possible, then, that we shall have to stop saying "Hezekiah's Tunnel." But wait! 

In a recent article, Lily Singer-Avitz (one of the experts consulted by Reich) argues for a broader range of dates than that given by De Groot and Fadida. The fill beneath the house was a jumble. The builders dumped in debris that they got from the surroundings. Consequently, no strata could be distinguished. The only way to figure out the date of the dumping is to determine which sherds represent the latest pottery types. We can do that by comparing them to sherds that were found in well-stratified settings, if necessary in other cities, where we have an idea of the dates. Now, in the fill under the house floor, certain types were found that do not appear anywhere in strata from the 9th century BC, but that do appear in strata reflecting much of the 8th century in Lachish, the tell of Beershebaand in Jerusalem itself. These types consisted of flat open bowls, folded rim bowls, and wheel-burnished bowls. De Groot and Fadida supposed that they represent a transitional phase, but Singer-Avitz points out that since there were no strata in the fill, one cannot talk about phases. The fact that a typical 9th-century sherd turned up next to a typical 8th-century one does not indicate a transition, rather just haphazard dumping. The pieces of flat open bowls etc. are simply the latest pottery found in the mix. This means that the fill could have been dumped, and Tunnel IV nullified, during the reign of Hezekiah.

We get, then, the following picture. To dig the Siloam Tunnel, the northern crew started by opening Tunnel IV from the rock-cut pool, keeping 40 feet of bedrock between themselves and the spring in order not to be flooded. They then cut west (the left part of Tunnel VI), north, and west again. Here their work changed in style, becoming smooth and straight. After a long stretch they turned south, eventually meeting the other team. At this point the tunnel was complete except for about 20 meters between it and the spring. While the water still flowed into Channel II, they cut the right part of Tunnel VI, doing the last bit during one of the spring's off hours. The connection between spring and tunnel was at last complete. The original starting point -Tunnel IV - lost its function, as did the rock-cut pool and Channel II.

When we look at the diagram, a couple of things may bother us about the above account. Notice the nice straight Tunnel V branching off to the west from Tunnel IV and ending abruptly. Was this an early, abandoned attempt by the same workmen to cut the Siloam Tunnel? Leaving that question, notice that Tunnel VI is hewn in the same rough style throughout; it certainly looks like it was done in one piece - and by a different crew from the smooth team that did the Siloam Tunnel. Furthermore, if the Siloam hewers started at IV, why not cut westward from the end of IV, instead of (1) turning west and then north, in VI, toward Warren's vertical shaft and then (2) heading west again, suddenly changing the style of cutting, making the tunnel nice and straight? This question raises a new possibility, which I would put thus: Tunnels IV and VI were part of a system, whether in 800 BC or later, to lead the water from the spring to Warren's Shaft. After digging IV and part of VI as far as the shaft, the workers blocked IV and cut the rest of VI to the spring. Now the shaft and the spring were directly connected. In a time of siege, Channel II could be plugged at its start, leaving the water from the spring no recourse but to climb Warren's Shaft, from which it could be scooped out (again, as when a drain backs up and water gurgles from below into your kitchen sink). As long as there was no siege, Channel VI was plugged and Channel II was open. Such an emergency system, of course, is too limited for a large population. In the time of Hezekiah, therefore, before the Assyrians arrived, the dry vertical shaft could be used by workmen as an entry point for digging the nice, straight Siloam Tunnel, which starts right next to its bottom. This led to the Siloam Pool, to which many could have access from both the eastern and western hills. It was within the city wall.      

On either of the two scenarios just described - a later pottery dating for the fill in the rock-cut pool or the use of Warren's vertical shaft as entry point for digging the Siloam Tunnel - the name "Hezekiah's Tunnel" still applies. And so we can now describe the historical context. Starting in 735 BC, Assyria swept down upon the country and conquered the Kingdom of Israel. A second Assyrian conquest occurred in 720 under Sargon II, with devastating consequences. By that time many new Jerusalemites were living on the unfortified Western Hill. When Hezekiah planned his revolt (which began in 705), this hill got a massive wall, some of which can be seen today (by enlarging the picture on the right). Although the people on the Western Hill had water from cisterns that collected runoff, and perhaps a pool as well, they had no secure emergency system. If Warren's Shaft on the eastern hill was used for this, as I have speculated, it would not have sufficed for the city's population, which by then amounted to 20,000 or more. The goal, therefore, was to lead the spring water to a safe and accessible place within the walls of the expanded city. Obviously, the position of the tunnel's outlet would not have made strategic sense if Jerusalem's wall had not encompassed the Western Hill, because in that case an enemy could attack from the latter as easily as from the Mt. of Olives. (See map below.) Since we are pretty sure that the Western Hill got its wall in the time of Hezekiah, this is another reason to ascribe the tunnel to him.


In 2 Kings 18:27, we read that after the Assyrians have taken Lachish, their envoy comes to Jerusalem and proclaims to its people that unless they surrender they are "doomed to eat their own dung and to drink their own urine." (More) Apparently he did not know about the new tunnel.

The Assyrians failed to conquer Jerusalem. Hezekiah got off by paying a large tribute. Judea was devastated - essentially reduced to Jerusalem. Hezekiah's tunnel is one reason why the Assyrians failed. Suppose they had succeeded. They would have dealt with the Jerusalemites as they had with the northern tribes and the Judeans of the Shephelah, dispersing the surviving captives among their colonies. The Jerusalemites would probably have lost their national identity as the northerners did, assimilating to the new surroundings. There would then have been no one to preserve the texts that today make up the First Testament. (The Samaritans did not yet exist.) There would be, today, no Bible, no Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. This tunnel, therefore, has had a decisive role in making us who we are.

A side note: The lowest part of the fill in the rock-cut pool contained about 180 bullae that lacked Semitic letters but had images and decorations. The existence of such seals indicates that Jerusalem had a developed administrative system before the house was built. (Just to the south and east of the rock-cut pool, in layers corresponding to the upper parts of the fill beneath the house, Reich and Shukron found sherds from the late 8th century BC, as well as a few bullae with Hebrew writing on them.) Also, more than 10,000 fish bones turned up in the fill of the pool, mostly bream and mullet from the Mediterranean, but Nile perch too. 

We climb out of the rock-cut pool and find ourselves on a modern platform, facing the fortified corridor pictured earlier. We are now on the southern edge of the MB tower that guarded the spring. Almost a millennium after this tower was built, when David's son Adonijah had himself anointed king at a well to the south of the city called Ein Rogel, David countered by commanding that Solomon be placed on his royal mule and anointed "in Gihon." (Cf. Zechariah 9:9. ) Solomon probably had this old tower in front of him.

How the Siloam (Hezekiah's, after all!) Tunnel was made

From the fortified corridor, we descend into an inner section of the great MB Spring Tower, where we prepare to enter the Iron Age Siloam Tunnel. We shall need flashlights and footwear for walking in water, which will reach at a few places up to our thighs. The width of the tunnel remains a pretty consistent two feet, probably enough for Pooh.

After feeling the rush of the spring, we wade through a short, roughly-hewn section. This was Tunnel VI. It connects the Siloam Tunnel to the spring. After a few meters, we see on the right, a few feet above the floor, the opening into the cave at the bottom of Warren's vertical shaft. Then we find ourselves in the long straight section.

From the Siloam inscription, we know that there were two teams, one hewing from the south end and one from the north. Despite the big S-curve and the danger of passing too high or too low - and without the help of intervening shafts - they managed to meet near the middle. For the long straight stretch that we are now in, however, the tunnel does not head south, rather west, while the hill above gets ever higher. So far as I know, no one has been able to explain this odd westward beginning.

tunnel-higher-in-south.jpg We can speculate. Let us suppose that the original plan was not for the two teams to meet. Rather, there were two separate projects. This becomes plausible when we examine how the southern team began. For when we near the south end, we shall see that the ceiling is much higher than elsewhere in the tunnel - about 15 feet. The reason was not because the southern team was following a karstic fissure, as I and many others used to think. Except for a few meters here and there, including the short stretch within which the two teams met, the natural fractures run crosswise to the line of the tunnel, not with it or parallel to it. Why then is the ceiling so high on the south end? Ronny Reich thinks that the southern team began by hewing its floor precisely level with the floor of Channel II, the purpose being to connect to it. Channel II, on the original plan, would remain in use, but the new addition would bring its water to a less vulnerable point on the west side of the City of David (within the walls of the expanded city that included the Western Hill). The northern team was trying something else. They headed west, perhaps in the hope of intersecting with a large vertical fissure that was visible higher on the hill. The hope was that one of these two attempts would succeed, and then the other could be abandoned.

But something happened that caused a change of plans. We do not know what. The teams decided to try to meet. The reasoning might have gone like this:

Southern team: "We are making good progress toward intersecting the rock-hewn part of Channel II, but it's so close to the city's edge, so high up and vulnerable. Let us dig under it, therefore, to be at the same level as the northerners. Maybe we'll have enough time in this project to meet them. If not, we can always revert to the original plan and link up with Channel II in a jiffy: it will just be a matter of digging upward 2 feet at one of the points where we cross under it."

Northern team: "No sign of the fissure we're looking for! They're pouring colored water like mad up there, but we're not seeing it drip. There is too much rock between us and the surface - 100 cubits! We can't hear tapping. We are lost. Let's turn to the left and back to where there isn't so much overburden." 

Here again is the map, and you can enlarge it to see the logic. The southern team crossed 2.5 meters beneath Channel II at two points, but the distance between their ceiling and the floor of II was only a couple of feet. The northern team wound back to an area of less overburden, where they could be guided by acoustic hammering on the bedrock above them or by colored water poured through fissures - or both. In the stretch where the teams were 19 meters apart, there is an exceptional fracture lengthwise in the rock, and each was able to hear the other's chisel. (A rare word in the Siloam Inscription probably refers to this fracture.) They therefore began searching for each other nearby, and this accounts for the many trials and corrections near the meeting point.

twists-near-meeting-point.jpg Note how well the change of plans would fit the situation of 705 BC, when the revolt against Assyria began. At first Hezekiah had no idea how much time he would have for securing the water supply. Sennacherib might pounce at once, and so he began with the two short-term plans mentioned above, hoping one of them would work. But then word arrived that Sennacherib was busy putting down other uprisings in the eastern part of his realm, and so it was decided (1) to keep a connection with Channel II in reserve as insurance but (2) to attempt the bigger and longer project. It was not until 701 BC that the Assyrian king arrived in the land, and by then the longer project had succeeded.

We may wonder how both teams managed to preserve the same level, averting the risk that one group would pass above the other. Throughout the tunnel's 533 meters, the downward grade from north to south is only 30 centimeters. Reich proposes an interesting solution. He notes that Channel I, stretching beside the city through the Kidron Valley, was built in such a way that its floor is precisely level with that of the Siloam Tunnel. The workers could have let a little water from it into either end as they dug: as long as the water stood without flowing, the level would be preserved. This may have been the entire purpose of Channel I.
meeting-point-in-siloam-tunnel.jpg After we have sloshed through the tunnel for about 20 minutes, the passage begins to twist and turn, with occasional false starts and corrections. The hewers must have heard each other's chisels, as the Siloam Inscription indicates (see below). Until then a general direction had sufficed, but now they were honing in on each other.

Amid the twists, one can make out a change in ceiling height, like a shallow step. Up to this point, the chisel marks in the sides were made in the direction of our movement. Beyond this point, their direction is against us. This then was the meeting point.

The achievement was celebrated in an inscription, which was carved in the rock near the southern end, in the Hebrew letters of the time. A bather discovered it in 1880, when the land was under Ottoman rule. It is in the Istanbul Museum, but a copy appears in the original place on the tunnel wall (as well as in the Israel Museum). Its first part is missing (perhaps it had the name of Hezekiah and was erased by a successor):

[...when] (the tunnel) was finished. And this was the way in which it was cut through: - - while...] (were) still [...] axes, each man toward his fellow, and while there were still three cubits to be cut, [there was heard] the voice of a man calling to his fellow, for there was a crack [?] in the rock on the right [and on the left]. And when the tunnel was finished, the hewers hewed (the rock), each man toward his fellow, axe against axe; and the water flowed from the spring toward the pool for 1,200 cubits and the height of the rock above the head (s) of the hewers was 100 cubits.

We emerge from the tunnel into a pool. This was the Byzantine Pool of Siloam. Although we have no evidence for or against, it makes sense that the original pool of the Siloam Tunnel would have been here. The tunnel, after all, comes out at this point, which was protected by the wall of the expanded city.


This Byzantine pool's shape is unknown, but certainly it was bigger than what we see. It was not, however, the Pool of Siloam of which we read in the Gospel of John. To it we now turn.

The Pool of Siloam as Jesus knew it

In the spring of 2004, Jerusalem’s water company decided to replace an old concrete sewage main that ran on a line dividing the south cliff of early Jerusalem from a beautiful green orchard with figs and pomegranates, which is about where the "King’s Garden" of Nehemiah 3:15 would have been.. A bulldozer, while digging  a channel for the new sewer main, exposed a couple of stone steps. Thus began the discovery of the Pool of Siloam as Jesus knew it. For the story in full, see Reich. He and Shukron uncovered five steps and a landing, then another such grouping below it, and then yet another. Above there was just the cliff, so they understood that the steps could only have led downward. It was then that they suspected that they had found a pool. Reich remembered that earlier archaeologists, Bliss and Dickie, had dug here. Looking up their reports, he saw that they too had discovered steps – but theirs were perpendicular to the ones just found. He and Shukron returned to the spot and rediscovered these, unearthing the southeast corner:


At a couple of places, as you can see in the photo above, the stone steps were gone, revealing earlier steps built of gray cement and rubble with a covering of plaster. Reich remembered the steps of numerous miqva’ot, Jewish ritual baths, from the time of the Second Temple. A metal detector was brought, and in the gray steps they found coins – all from the mid-1st century BC, hence Hasmonean or Herodian.

We do not yet know the full dimensions or depth of the pool - or how many more sets of steps may turn up. A crucial section of the unexcavated part belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church, which has not yet permitted a dig.

By the time of Jesus' visits to Jerusalem, the Siloam system may no longer have been the city's chief source of water. The Pools of Bethesda were in place (the steps are similar there). Herod had brought more water from elsewhere. Yet the grandeur testifies to Siloam's continuing importance.

Below is a view to the northwest. Notice how the pool has silted up on the left. Silt must already have covered it in the Byzantine period, for if any of the pool had been exposed, the Byzantine Empress Eudocia would surely have chosen to build her Pool of Siloam (with church) right here. Seeing no trace, she must have assumed that it would have been in the logical place: at the exit of the Siloam Tunnel (where, indeed, the First Testament pool may have been).


On the northeast, a few yards to the right of the people in the photo above, is a much narrower pool that fed the water from the Siloam Tunnel into this one.

If we walk northwest, we shall find - beside what was a plaza and colonnade - the start of a beautifully paved, stepped Herodian street (with irregular steps like those at the temple itself) that led from the Pool of Siloam north to the temple. The street was much wider here than what we can see: Only a narrow strip on its eastern side is now exposed. The connection between pool and temple suggests that many, even most, of the Jewish pilgrims 2000 years ago would have done their ritual immersion in the pool before ascending to the temple. It didn't matter if you got there sweaty: the point was to be cleansed of impurities as defined by Jewish law, such as those originating in contact with a corpse, semen, or menstrual blood. Impurity, we should note, was quite distinct from sin. We may relate this distinction to John 9. On seeing a man who had been blind from birth, the disciples asked Jesus whose sin had caused the blindness. Jesus answered that no sin had caused it, rather it was so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. He then took some soil, turned it to mud with his saliva, and smeared it on the blind man's eyes, telling him to go wash in the Pool of Siloam.


A few steps to the west, beneath an unexcavated part of the same paved road, begins the canal that drained waste for 650 meters from the temple area down to the Kidron Valley. Today you can ascend through this canal. The paving stones of the street are above your head in the southern part, stone vaulting in the northern.


You need not go the whole distance, for there is an outlet after about ten minutes into a new excavation area called Givati. But if you do go the distance, you can pause in some First Temple cisterns on the way, complete with the ancient waterproof plaster. Early Jerusalem, we recall, was not wholly dependent on its spring for water. It had watersheds on the west, north, and east from which it could receive runoff - as these cisterns attest. You can also see the foundation stones of the Western Wall resting on bedrock. The exit is near the southwest corner of the temple platform.

In the drainage canal the archaeologists found many whole cooking pots. One hardly ever finds whole pots, except in tombs. But we know from Josephus (War VI, 9, 4) that when the Romans were about to conquer the city, many Jews hid in the sewers, hoping to live there undetected until the Romans left.

[T]he entire nation was now shut up by fate as in prison, and the Roman army encompassed the city when it was crowded with inhabitants. Accordingly, the multitude of those that therein perished exceeded all the destructions that either men or God ever brought upon the world; for, to speak only of what was publicly known, the Romans slew some of them, some they carried captives, and others they made a search for under ground, and when they found where they were, they broke up the ground and slew all they met with. There were also found slain there above two thousand persons, partly by their own hands, and partly by one another, but chiefly destroyed by the famine; but then the ill savor of the dead bodies was most offensive to those that lighted upon them, insomuch that some were obliged to get away immediately, while others were so greedy of gain, that they would go in among the dead bodies that lay on heaps, and tread upon them; for a great deal of treasure was found in these caverns, and the hope of gain made every way of getting it to be esteemed lawful.

The bodies have disappeared. Perhaps the Romans dragged them out and burned them. But occasionally, while one walks, one can see places where the pavement was opened - apparently by the Romans. In the canal there was also a Roman sword and its leather scabbard. And the pots. 

For claustrophobes the drainage canal is a challenge. The happy alternative is to leave the Siloam Pool through its eastern gate and ascend the spine of early Jerusalem. To this we now go.