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Hezekiah’s Tunnel Dried Up (2007)

All photos © Danny Herman

About 2700 years ago King Hezekiah ordered his engineers to divert the water of the main spring of Jerusalem, the Gihon spring, to the southern side of the city, in order to ensure a supply of water. His actions were justified as he had rebelled against the Assyrians, and they were determined to conquer and destroy the capital of this Judaic rebel. Presumably within a few months his engineers had created an impressive tunnel. It was 533 meters in length, and drew the water of the spring to a pool on the southern, protected side of the city. To this day water continues to run in this tunnel, and it is considered one of the best attractions in touring the old city ofJerusalem.

I often guide visitors and students through this tunnel, walking in utter darkness in water up to our knees. But recently I heard the tunnel was dry. I could not believe it. After all, the water has no other outlet. It must run through the tunnel, or else the entrance would flood. I had to see it for myself.

This was no easy task, as the tunnel was dried up for maintenance and research and closed to the public. But I was not going to skip the opportunity, and so by smiling and saying the right words (“I am a journalist”) at the right places (the PR department, not the research department), I managed to get an approval to go through the dried-up tunnel. Upon entering it, I quickly discovered how the tunnel had been dried up. An electric pump had been used to draw the water through a pipe and out to the entrance.

At the bottom of the stairs leading to beginning of "Hezekiah's tunnel" a blue elecrtic pump takes the Gihon water out of the tunnel, enabling repairs along the 2700 year old tunnel.

At the bottom of the stairs leading to beginning of "Hezekiah's tunnel" a blue elecrtic pump takes the Gihon water out of the tunnel, enabling repairs along the 2700 year old tunnel.

At the bottom of the stairs leading to beginning of "Hezekiah's tunnel" a blue elecrtic pump takes the Gihon water out of the tunnel, enabling repairs along the 2700 year old tunnel.

At the bottom of the stairs leading to beginning of "Hezekiah's tunnel" a blue elecrtic pump takes the Gihon water out of the tunnel, enabling repairs along the 2700 year old tunnel.

It was an exciting feeling. I was about to walk through a tunnel that firstly, had never been dry since the day of its completion, and secondly, would be unlikely to be so again any time in the near future. This was a rare opportunity to document the floor and to walk through the tunnel whilst remaining dry!

I started taking photos, especially at interesting locations, like the junction where the tunnel feeds the “round pool”; or where it takes a left turn at the block against “Warren shaft”.

Reaching the middle of the tunnel was exciting, as always. On one side the chisel marks were in the direction I came from, but on the other side they were in the opposite direction. No doubt this is the spot where the two teams who created the tunnel met. On the floor I could trace fresh signs of repair, undoubtedly made by the maintenance team. Perhaps they were necessary due to the fact that the teams who made the tunnel 2700 years ago chiselled the floor too low at the meeting point.

A photo of "Hezekia's tunnel" at the meeting point of the two teams who dug it

A photo of "Hezekia's tunnel" at the meeting point of the two teams who dug it. On the left side the chisel marks are towards the front, while on the right they are in the opposite direction. On the floor clear fresh signs of repair are visible.

Approaching the end I met a measuring team of the Israel Antiquities Authority. They were taking exact measurements of the floor level along the tunnel. No doubt this data will enable us to get a better understanding of the process of creating the tunnel.

One of the men from the Israel Antiquities Authority taking measurements of the floor throughout the tunnel.

One of the men from the Israel Antiquities Authority taking measurements of the floor throughout the tunnel.

At the exit I met a few Arabs, who were in charge of the repairs. From them I learned how lucky I was. The day of my visit was supposed to be the day of the end of the work, but because they didn’t complete the repairs at the Siloam pool, the water would not be returned to the tunnel until the day after. I thanked them for being just a bit slow and left the site with great satisfaction.

– Post-visit research on Hezekiahs tunnel taught me that the

tunnel was actually dried up once before, in the early 20th

century, by P Vincent, who also wished to study the tunnel

The Arab workers, at the Siloam pool

The Arab workers, at the Siloam pool. The day after the photo was taken the Siloam pool was cleaned up, repaired, and the tunnel was filled with water again.


New Archaeological Work Near the Western Wall

While maintenance work is done at the city of David, real archaeological excavations are carried out around the praying zone of the Western Wall. My colleague, Mrs.Shlomit Vexler-Bedolah, is in charge of salvage excavations at the western end of the praying zone on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority. The Ministry of Religion wishes to open a small museum at the site, and the IAA was called in to excavate and ensure the location is clear of important finds, and if not, to document them. On the day of my visit the excavation at the site was near completion. Shlomit was very busy, but was kind enough to show me some highlights of the finds.

The site with the Western Wall in the background

The site with the Western Wall in the background

Shlomit and the site in the background.

Shlomit and the site in the background.

Most of the visible layers were from Muslim and Crusader periods. Most interesting to me was the find of a set of round vats, perhaps used for an industrial laundry or tannery. The location of such an industry, which involved much dirt and bad smell, seems in accord with the historical record of this area. During the middle ages the area around the Western Wall was neglected and used for waste. Accordingly, to this day, the name of the city gate near the Western Wall is “The Dung Gate”.

Only in modern times was this area cleaned up and developed again, both as a pilgrimage site for Jews, and as an Archaeological park.

The round vats. They are from the Crusaders period, probably from a laundry or a tannery.

The round vats. They are from the Crusaders period, probably from a laundry or a tannery.

Most readers are probably more aware of the salvage excavations of the IAA at the eastern end of the Western Wall, along the ramp leading to “Mograbee’s Gate”. This gate is the only entrance for tourists, yet the ramp leading to it collapsed because of heavy rains a few years ago. A temporary wooden bridge was created, but the ramp itself needs to be rebuilt, and since it contains ancient layers, the IAA had to excavate and clear it. This is all quite a common routine, but the work next to theTemple Mount ignited Muslim religious leaders to cry that the state of Israel is really excavating to undermine the foundation of the Temple Mount. This accusation was even the main subject of a recent meeting between the prime ministers of Israel and Turkey. As a result a decision was made to install live cameras that would show the site live via internet. I recently visited the site. The work had only just begun, and only the 19th-20th century layers have been exposed so far. The head of the excavation, Mrs. Fanni Vito, was quite nervous when I walked in. “We have so many visitors,” she said, “how can I run the dig this way?” I understood the hint, and did not stay for long. Fanni runs a team of 60 workers, and is responsible for a very sensitive site indeed. We agreed that I would return for a visit when and if Roman period layers are exposed. We also agreed that before I come for another visit, I will call in advance!

General view of the excavation site, with the Mograbee’s Gate on the right, and Dome of the Rock above the Western Wall on the left

General view of the excavation site, with the Mograbee’s Gate on the right, and Dome of the Rock above the Western Wall on the left. Though a cloudy day, hope is for a bright and peaceful end to the excavation at this sensitive site.