Jerusalem Water Systems

MINISTRY notes the one-hundredth anniversary of the discovery of Hezekiah's water-tunnel inscription.

Lawrence T. Geraty, Ph.D., is associate professor of archeology and history of antiquity, Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.


Exactly one hundred years ago, in 1880, some Jewish boys were playing in the vicinity of Jerusalem's Pool of Siloam, near the southern end of the hill called Ophel. One of their number—reportedly named Jacob—accidentally fell into the water. Once there, his curiosity led him to explore the mouth of an aqueduct that led into the pool. On its eastern wall, about fifteen feet from the pool, and three feet up, Jacob discovered an inscription in a peculiar script. He reported his find to his teacher, Conrad Schick. Schick called it to the attention of Professor Sayce, of Oxford, who published it with a hand copy and translation.

Soon after its discovery, a Greek who thought he could make some money wantonly cut the inscription out of the rock wall, breaking it up into six or seven pieces in the process. He was apprehended and punished by the Turkish authorities, who cemented together the broken inscription and shipped it to the Imperial Ottoman Museum in Istanbul, where it may still be seen. It is the only relatively-complete monumental He brew inscription found from the period of the Judaean monarch.

What does it say? W. F. Albright translated the inscription as follows: "[. . . when] (the tunnel) was driven through. And this was the way in which it was cut through:—While [. . .] (were) still [. . .] axe(s), each man toward his fellow, and while there were still three cubits to be cut through, [there was heard] the voice of a man calling to his fellow, for there was an overlap in the rock on the right [and on the left]. And when the tunnel was driven through, the quarrymen hewed (the rock), each man toward his fellow, axe against axe; and the water flowed from the spring toward the reservoir for 1,200 cubits, and the height of the rock above the head(s) of the quarrymen was 100 cubits" (ANET 321).

The Siloam tunnel inscription, as it is usually referred to, contains no direct evidence for a date, though a study of the form of the Hebrew letters establishes a general date about 700 B.C. Nevertheless, scholars are virtually certain that the dramatic project was accomplished in the days of Hezekiah, king of Judah, sometime between 715 and 686 B.C. This is also the period of the prophetic ministry of Isaiah, Hezekiah's contemporary. The assumption that Hezekiah constructed the tunnel commemorated by the inscription is based on Biblical references in Kings, Chronicles, and Isaiah, as well as in the apocryphal work of Ben Sira (Ecclus. 48:17).

The Biblical record states: "The rest of the deeds of Hezekiah, and all his might, and how he made the pool and the conduit and brought water into the city, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah?" (2 Kings 20:20, R.S.V.). Unfortunately, that work is no longer extant. A detail or two is added in 2 Chronicles 32:30 (R.S.V.). "This same Hezekiah closed the upper outlet of the waters of Gihon and directed them down to the west side of the city of David." Isaiah 22:8-11 probably alludes to the same accomplishment: "In that day you looked to the weapons of the house of the forest, and you saw that the breaches of the city of David were many, and you collected the waters of the lower pool, and you counted the houses of Jerusalem, and you broke down the houses to fortify the wall. You made a reservoir between the two walls for the water of the old pool" (R.S.V.).

The historical setting for this occasion cannot be established with certainty, but the making of "a reservoir between the two walls for the water of the old pool" is suggestive of the purpose mentioned in the inscription. Isaiah's oracle con tains obvious allusions to preparation for war. This may refer to some specific danger such as Sennacherib's invasion of Judah in 701 B.C. (implied perhaps by Ben Sira) or to the earlier campaign of Sargon to quell the revolt of Ashdod in 712 B.C.—a rebellion in which Judah played a role (the context of Isaiah 22). Or the construction of the tunnel may have been earlier in Hezekiah's reign a part of an overall plan to strengthen his defenses against Assyria whose attack was sure to come when he reversed the pro-Assyrian policies of his predecessor and father, Ahaz. Since he was familiar with the history of Assyria's relationship with Israel and Judah in the eighth century B.C., Hezekiah would have seen "the handwriting on the wall."

Whatever the immediate cause for the tunnel's construction, the goal was clearly to secure Jerusalem's water sup ply in time of siege. The only spring in the immediate vicinity of Jerusalem is En-Gihon, which flows forth in the Kidron bed at the foot of the southeastern spur of the city. The Gihon is a typical karst spring, and its waters gush intermittently, like Yellowstone Park's Old Faithful, albeit on a less spectacular scale!

It was undoubtedly this spring that led to the founding of the earliest settlement of Jerusalem, on the ridge above it known in ancient times as Ophel or Mount Zion. This Gihon spring served as the sole source of water for the population of Jerusalem for many generations—at least until means were devised to divert rainfall to open reservoirs and rock hewn cisterns.

For this reason, successive generations of Jerusalemites exerted them selves to ensure the spring's safe use, even in time of war and siege, as well as to convey its stream to places where it could most easily and effectively be exploited. The result was that in and around the spring cave a complicated system of waterworks gradually developed. Since 1867 these have been rediscovered and explored.

There appear to be at least four main systems connected with the Gihon spring.

1. The oldest may well be the shaft and tunnel discovered by Sir Charles Warren in 1867—the tunnel is entered from above the spring about halfway up the slope in what must have been a region of public buildings within the ancient city walls. The shaft comprises three elements: a stepped tunnel hewn into the rock 39 meters long and descending 12.7 meters deep, a vertical shaft some 11 meters deep, and a horizontal channel 20 meters long leading the spring waters into the interior of the hill to the base of the vertical shaft. So water was drawn from the horizontal channel up the vertical shaft by means of buckets and from there carried up the stepped tunnel into the walled city.

2. Two canals lead from the spring straight to the south. The more easterly canal is partly cut out in the rock and partly built of masonry. After beginning in a southerly direction, it rapidly descends toward the valley bottom but its course is not well known. Its purpose was probably to channel the runoff to irrigate gardens in the valley. Its date is unknown, though it could be very early and almost certainly predates the second of the two canals.

3. The second canal (named the Second Aqueduct by Wilson) begins two meters west of the preceding one, but in contrast with it at a level of several meters above the mouth of the spring. At least one of the purposes of this canal was also the irrigation of the western Kidron slope, with its cultivated terraces. For this reason it was planned as an open-air channel, although some parts were covered with flat stones and others had to pass beneath the surface through a tunnel because of high rock levels. The irrigation of the terraces was effected through a number of apertures in the eastern wall of the channel. Water could be drawn from the canal through these "windows," sometimes also from a small basin in front, and it could be made to flow over the sill of the "windows" by damming up the channel at any given point. When we are told that at the approach of the enemy Hezekiah "stopped all the fountains, and the brook that ran through the midst of the land" (2 Chron. 32:4) we feel justified in recognizing in "all the fountains" besides the exit from Gihon itself the "windows" of this canal, and in "the brook that ran through the midst of the land" the little stream at the bottom of Kidron made up of all the rivulets that descended from the slope.

4. And now we come to perhaps the most famous of the four water systems connected with Gihon—the 533-meterlong tunnel associated with the name of Hezekiah. As early as the seventeenth century we have accounts of its existence from European travelers, but the first person in modern times to traverse the tunnel was the great American Orientalist Edward Robinson. We can thank an imaginative and eccentric Finn named Walter Juvelius for the fact that the tunnel has been restored. He claimed that by means of cryptography he had extracted from the prophet Ezekiel the lo cation of a secret depository of Biblical treasures—including the Ark of the Covenant—hidden just before the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. It was on this basis that some wealthy English men funded the so-called archeological mission of Captain Montague Parker, who concentrated his search on the Gihon spring and surrounding area. During his mission he thoroughly explored the entire system of tunnels under Ophel and restored it to its present condition. Parker allowed Pere L. H. Vin cent, of the Ecole Biblique et Archaeologique Francaise, to follow the tunnel's course and measure and record the explorations—so thanks to Vincent we can consider the mission's results to have been fruitful scientifically.

The tunnel is considered to be the largest of the known ancient hydrotechnical projects in the country. Besides its military aspect, it reflects true townplanning. The project enabled the full exploitation of the flow of the spring by channeling the waters to a single large reservoir, providing absolute control over the water. The evidence in the Bible and the finely carved inscription, whose hundredth anniversary of discovery we celebrate, complement one another.

The broad S-curve of the tunnel, and the manner of the meeting of the two streams, have been the subject of a con siderable literature. The various theories can be grouped into the following categories:

1. Clermont-Ganneau and others have suggested that the curved course of the tunnel is due to the desire of the builders to avoid the royal necropolis in the City of David. This view hasn't met with too much support since the tombs of the kings have not been certainly identified in this location; furthermore, the course of the tunnel is far below them if the tombs are there.

2. Conder suggested that hard rock forced the excavators to alter their route—though geological observations do not appear to bear this out.

3. Another variation would be the view of Hecker who believes that the engineers and hewers followed a stratum in the rock which was of medium hardness, known as meleke. Again, however, there does not appear to be a consistent stratum of rock through which they dug.

4. In 1929, Sulley suggested that the curved course of the tunnel indicates the former existence of a natural subterranean stream, which ran from the spring of Gihon through the Ophel Hill, emerging at the bottom of the valley on the west of the Mount Zion spur. Ruth Amiran defends this view because it solves what she considers to have been the major problem in building the tunnel: ventilation. If the engineers actually followed such a stream, they were, of course, sure of success, for the two ends of the stream were known to meet (the source's gushing character would have helped) and all the hewers had to do was follow them. Such a suggestion would explain the use of the terms "Upper Gihon" and "Lower Gihon." But there are again geological objections to a natural circuitous route for the stream.

5. Naseeb Shaheen has lately offered yet another suggestion: The engineers directed the tunnel beneath one or more sites in the city so that shafts could be sunk to the tunnel from those sites should it be necessary. Once those points were reached in the northern curve especially, but perhaps in the south, too, the tunnel was routed to an area outside the eastern wall, where it was possible for surface crews to guide them since the rock there was not so thick. Though this newest view is thoughtful and avoids the disadvantages of some of the earlier suggestions—it is hard to test since, for instance, only one shaft was dug down to the tunnel.

6. There is always Conder's view that the engineers lost their way and just wandered around a bit! But perhaps it would be wiser to admit our own ignorance at this point, rather than putting the blame on Hezekiah's engineers! Whatever the explanation for the course of the aqueduct, the tunnel's construction was clearly an engineering feat worth commemorating by the cut ting of the stone inscription found a hundred years ago. The fact that the inscription was apparently incomplete despite adequate room for more letters may indicate its inscriber may have been interrupted by the very siege for which Hezekiah had prepared.


Amiran, R. "The Water Supply of Israelite Jerusalem," in Y. Yadin, ed., Jerusalem Revealed. New Haven: Yale,       1976.

Paul, S. M., and W. G. Dever. Biblical Archaeology. Jerusalem: Keter, 1973. Robinson, G. L. The Bearing of Archaeology on the Old Testament. New York City: American Tract Society, 1941.

Shaheen, Naseeb. "The Sinuous Shape of Hezekiah's Tunnel," Palestine Exploration Quarterly 3 (July-Dec., 1979): 103-108.

Shanks, Hershel. The City of David. Washington, D.C.: Biblical Archaeology Society, 1973.

Shiloh, Yigal. "City of David Excavation, 1978," Biblical Archaeologist 42 (Summer, 1979): 165-171.

Simons, J. Jerusalem in the Old Testament. Leiden: Brill, 1952.

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Lawrence T. Geraty, Ph.D., is associate professor of archeology and history of antiquity, Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

September 1980

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