For many years, the prevalent belief in archaeological circles was that during the First Temple era, Jerusalem’s water supply came only from the Gihon spring • Many cisterns and reservoirs from the time of the Second Temple have been discovered, but the ones from the First Temple era seem to have been swallowed by the earth • Several weeks ago, for the first time, the Antiquities Authority discovered a large water cistern from the First Temple era at the foot of the Temple Mount – which poses a challenge to the existing theory • “This reservoir opens the way to more discoveries,” says Eli Shukron, the archaeologist who discovered it. He admits: “We were lucky.”
07 September '12..
During one of the most dramatic moments of the siege of Jerusalem some 2,700 years ago, Rabshakeh, the commander-in-chief of the army of Sanherib, king of Assyria, tries to convince the king of Jerusalem, Hezekiah, and its inhabitants to surrender. He gives a long speech in Hebrew so that his audience will understand what he says. He speaks in a threatening manner, mocks the power of God, Hezekiah and Egypt, describing them as a “staff made of a broken reed.” But at the same time, he entices, promising the beleaguered inhabitants that if they surrender, "then eat ye every man of his own vine, and every one of his fig tree, and drink ye every one the waters of his cistern."
Archaeologists in Jerusalem have been searching for the cisterns mentioned by Rabshakeh for many years, but never found them. While many cisterns and reservoirs from the Second Temple era have been found, no trace was found of their counterparts from the First Temple era – as if the earth had swallowed them.
This enigma is all the more powerful when we consider how much water Jerusalem, and the Temple in particular, needed during the First Temple era. The descriptions from the Book of Kings about the construction of the Temple by King Solomon speak of a “copper sea,” a large container of water made of copper and ten “basins” with a combined capacity of about 120,000 liters in today’s measurements.
Dr. Zvika Zuk, the archaeologist who made that calculation, estimated in one of his articles that the First Temple required several dozen cubic meters of water per day for cleaning, drinking, washing the blood of sacrificed animals, refilling the reservoirs and more. But from where did the water for the Temple come?
For many years, researchers believed that the Gihon spring was the main and almost exclusive source of water for ancient Jerusalem, and that both the inhabitants of the upper city and the Temple used its water. But there was one small problem with this theory: the relatively large distance of about 800 meters between the spring and the Temple Mount.
Professor Shmuel Avitzur once calculated that bringing one cubic meter of water to Jerusalem would have required 13 trips by donkey, since a donkey can carry about 75 liters of water. In order to fill a cistern of 100 cubic meters, 1,300 trips by donkey would have been necessary. However, since there were no archaeological finds in Jerusalem in general, or the Temple Mount in particular, that could attest to reservoirs and cisterns from the First Temple era, the theory that Jerusalem lived exclusively on water from the Gihon spring prevailed.
But all that changed just a few weeks ago. Like many major discoveries, this one came about through pure luck.
Archaeologist Eli Shukron has been excavating Jerusalem and discovering its hidden treasures for 25 years. He has been working in the City of David since 1995. In recent years, he concentrated on the Herodian drainage canal that climbs for about 600 meters from the Siloam Pool in the City of David to the foot of the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. This canal, which has yielded many surprises over the years, is beneath a beautiful Herodian-era street with stairs, at the north end of which the Antiquities Authority discovered just over a year ago, the foundations of the Western Wall.
The drainage channel itself, where today people can walk freely, was discovered by accident while Shukron and his colleagues were digging in order to examine the Hayovel compound in the City of David in an attempt to locate a section of the Herodian street. Suddenly, Shukron slipped into a secondary drainage canal, and found himself in the main channel.
Beneath a swaying floor
What happened several weeks ago at the northern end of the same drainage channel was a very similar experience. There, too, it was total chance. Employees of the Elad Association and the Antiquities Authority were busy cleaning two ritual baths (mikva) from the Second Temple era that are crossed by the channel, gathering shards and sewage from the bottom of the channel's northern end, near the dropoff from the Mugrabi Gate.
Suddenly, one of the workers felt one of the canal’s paving stones move. A closer look revealed that beneath the paving stone was empty space. Shukron asked for flashlights. The stone was removed from its place and the workers shone their flashlights inside. They saw a dark empty space. They fetched a ladder, and they carefully went down into the space and lit it up. An enormous surprise awaited them: a public reservoir (several times larger than an ordinary water cistern) from the First Temple era, hewn of rock and covered with a yellowish-brown plaster as a sealant, which is characteristic of the First Temple era. This was the first ever answer to the riddle of Jerusalem’s water supply during the First Temple era.
It appears that the city’s inhabitants of about 3,000 years ago did not solely rely on the Gihon’s waters: they used public reservoirs hewn from stone that collected rainwater, like the one that the Antiquities Authority and Shukron had just uncovered. “If we found one, there must be others. We need to keep looking,” Shukron says.
We visited this impressive site this week. The walls are covered with several layers of yellowish-brown plaster that is smooth, unlike the walls. Any whisper or speech gives back a deep, rolling echo from the depths of the earth.
In one corner is an opening sealed with stones. The archaeologists surmise that this was where the drainage canal connected with the Tyropoeon Stream, which ran east of the reservoir. The Tyropoeon Valley, which is hard to see today because of all the construction and sediment, once crossed Jerusalem’s Old City from north to south, and as a natural barrier, served as the city’s western border for many years. A puddle of water remains at the foot of the sealed opening. The reservoir’s estimated capacity is about 250 cubic meters of water.
Sheikh Salah’s failure
The reason experts believe this reservoir dates back to the First Temple era is due not just to the kind of plaster used at the site, which is characteristic of that time period, but also by comparing similar reservoirs from the First Temple era that were discovered during the 1990s in Tel Beersheba and Tel Beit Shemesh. The reservoirs in those cities are asymmetrical, and additional cells and rooms branch off from their centers. The reservoir at the foot of the Temple Mount is constructed in a similar way, particularly to the east as one proceeds toward the Western Wall, and possibly further eastward, underneath the Temple Mount compound.
On the Temple Mount itself, in the area where Israel is prevented from excavating, 49 cisterns and 42 canals that brought water to them have been identified (mostly by Charles Warren during the 19th century, but also by others).
Several years ago, Sheikh Raed Salah, the head of the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, began an effort to clean the cisterns, as part of his plan to bring the water of the sacred Zamzam spring from Mecca there in order to elevate the status of the Temple Mount – or Haram al-Sharif in Arabic – even further, along with his own status as well. Had Salah succeeded, he would have acquired the title “saki,” one who gives the world holy water to drink, and “sadan” (sun) – titles traditionally reserved for descendants of the Prophet Muhammad at the pilgrimage site in Mecca.
But Salah’s plan did not succeed, and the few cisterns that were still full were not mixed with the water of the sacred Zamzam spring. Dr. Zvika Zuk, the chief archaeologist of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and a renowned expert on Israeli water projects, recently published his book, Water at the End of the Tunnel (published in Hebrew by Yad Ben Zvi). He believes that at least several of the cisterns on the Temple Mount may date to the First Temple era.
But this is only a guess. Zuk, who has gathered information about the water sources of the First Temple on the Mount, refers specifically to Cistern 28, which is also called the “Rimon cistern” or the “Roman cistern” in the study. The Jews call it the “cistern of exile.” “It is reasonable to assume that this cistern, Cistern 28, ‘the cistern of exile,’ dates back to the First Temple.”
As stated above, unlike the cistern that Shukron recently discovered, the cistern-reservoir in the depths of the mount cannot be examined and documented. So the large reservoir from the First Temple era that the Antiquities Authority and Shukron uncovered along the route of the Hasmonean-era drainage canal has become a hot topic of conversation in the archaeological community.
"A cistern that cannot be destroyed”
Dr. Gabi Barkai, an archaeologist responsible for several important discoveries in Jerusalem, notes that the cistern that was just discovered is near the area where palaces stood during the First Temple era, south of the Temple. “I believe that the water was used by homes – flood waters from the Tyreopoeon stream that channeled into the reservoir,” Barkai says.
Shukron admits that at first he did not realize what he had discovered. It was only after he had seen the reservoir that he realized that the theory that the Gihon spring had been the sole source of water for Jerusalem’s inhabitants was now a thing of the past. “I was very lucky,” he told us this week. “After all, we went over that route dozens of times and never found a thing. This reservoir paves the way for the discovery of more reservoirs since, after all, it’s clear from a comparison with identical reservoirs in Beit Shemesh and Beersheba that this was a common method.”
Zuk says, “There is nothing like this in Jerusalem. This is the first time that we can date a reservoir in
Jerusalem, and two small cisterns beside it, to the First Temple era. We have never found anything like this in all the digs in Jerusalem, since the 19th century.”
Dr. Yuval Baruch, the Jerusalem regional archaeologist of the Antiquities Authority, says that the remains of buildings from the First Temple era were discovered near the reservoir. “It’s possible that First Temple-era findings in Jerusalem are poor because Herod, the great builder of the Second Temple era, wiped out a good deal of what preceded his time. But a reservoir of this kind that was hewn from stone could not be wiped out.”
Dr. Baruch adds, “Together with Shlomit Wexler’s discoveries in the area of the Western Wall plaza – a large building from the First Temple era underneath the Cardo – we’re opening up a world of possibilities for researchers who study the history of Jerusalem.”
Discovery after discovery
The Herodian-era drainage channel, which was excavated by Shukron of the Antiquities Authority with funding from the Elad Association (Professor Ronny Reich of the University of Haifa was also an initial partner in the excavation), has yielded abundant findings. The reservoir from the First Temple era is just the latest of them.
The tunnel's appearance, the holes in its ceiling, the paving stones of the Herodian street above it, are an exact match of the descriptions by Flavius Josephus, who wrote about how the Romans broke the paving stones, went into the drainage canal and killed the last of the rebels hiding there. In the tunnel, cooking pots and eating utensils, evidently used by the rebels, were found, together with a large collection of coins, most of them from the second, third and fourth years of the rebellion. A sword belonging to a Roman legionnaire was also found there and may have been used to kill the last groups of rebels hiding in the drainage tunnel. A stone tool bearing a rare engraving of what looks like the golden menorah of the Temple with a small loop at one end was also found there.
One of the many fascinating discoveries made in the tunnel were the foundations of the Western Wall. The drainage tunnel provided access to the foundations. At the foot of the southwestern corner of the wall of the Temple Mount, the diggers turned slightly eastward and uncovered, for the first time in 2,000 years, the foundations of the Western Wall at their lowest point. At the bottom of the ancient layers, the archaeologists were surprised yet again to discover coins from the years 16 and 17 CE, which led them to conclude that the first layer of the Western Wall had been laid about 20 years after Herod’s death. Herod, the initiator of the project and the one who pushed for its construction, evidently lived to see only ten years of the Temple’s construction, and the project continued many years after him.
The drainage tunnel is now exposed, and people can walk through it from the Siloam Pool in the City of David to the Jerusalem Archaeological Park near the Davidson Center, at the foot of the southern portion of the Western Wall (where archaeological excavations are under way). The tunnel stops near the supporting wall that was built at the southern side of the Mugrabi ascent, but on the other side of the Mugrabi ascent, where everything is underground, it continues underneath the men’s section of the Western Wall, with a bend to the west.
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