Jerusalem – archaeology

September, Israeli archaeologists searching for Yerushalayim’s main street of 2,000 years ago stumbled on a giant drainage channel high enough in places for a grown person to comfortably stroll down its length. Since this ten-foot high drain is more like a subterranean tunnel than a water channel, they claimed that this is the channel mentioned in Josephus’ War of the Jews when he describes Jews hiding underground and escaping the city through underground tunnels at the time of the Churban.

This is a slight distortion because although Josephus does mention subterranean escape routes, to claim that he is talking about the particular tunnel they just discovered is like going to the Valley of Elah where Dovid fought Golyas, picking up a rock at random, and claiming that this is the rock Dovid hurled at Golyas from his sling.

Furthermore, this is by no means the first such tunnel discovered in Yerushalayim. Similar tunnels were already unearthed during the nineteenth century and are described in the book Underground Jerusalem printed in London in 5638/1878.


Of course, the discovery of this tunnel brings to mind the two other famous underground excavations of Yerushalayim, Chizkiyahu’s Tunnel and Tzidkiyahu’s Cave.

As the Tanach (Divrei Hayamim II 32:2-4, 30) tells us, Chizkiyahu dug his tunnel during Sancheriv’s siege in 3035/636 BCE:

“After these things and truth, Sancheriv king of Ashur came and he entered Yehuda and camped against the fortified towns and said to breach them for himself. Chizkiyahu saw that Sancheriv had come and that his face was set to war against Yerushalayim. He took counsel with his ministers and warriors to close the waters of the springs that were outside the town and they helped him. A great crowd gathered and they closed all the springs and the river that flowed through the land saying, ‘Why should the kings of Ashur come and find a lot of water?’ …This same Chizkiyahu closed the exit of the waters of the upper Gichon and directed (vayashereim) them down west of the Town of Dovid, and Chizkiyahu was successful in all his deeds.”

Incidentally, although Rashi translates the word vayashereim as hinhigam derech yashar (he directed them by a straight route), Chizkiyahu’s tunnel actually twists and turns to avoid burrowing through tough rock. The Targum and Radak seem to understand that vayashereim means simply to direct, not necessarily by a straight route.

Nowadays, this tunnel emerges from the Old City walls next to the Arab village of Siloam (Silwan) and collects in the Siloam Pool. This is puzzling because if Chizkiyahu’s whole purpose in redirecting the spring was to deny its water to besieging armies, what purpose would there be in leading it to another place outside the city walls? The answer is that the location of Yerushalayim has changed since those times. Unlike today’s Old City that stops just short of the Siloam Pool, Yerushalayim of those times extended down the valley into the location of the Arab Siloam village and the new reservoir was well within its walls. This part of Yerushalayim is also called Ir Dovid (the Town of Dovid).

The tunnel was rediscovered in 5598/1838 by the American archeologist, Edward Robinson (after whom Robinson’s Arch near the Kossel is named). History was made in 5640/1880 when the young Arab boy Jacob Spafford discovered an ancient inscription carved into its wall by excavators stating as follows:

“The excavation, and this was the matter of the excavation…. …The picks, one [crew] to another. And when there were three amos left to excavate, the voices of the men calling out to each other [could be heard], since it got louder on the right [and lef]t. The day the opening was made, the stonecutters hacked towards each other, pick against pick. And the water flowed from the source to the pool, [twel]ve hundred amos, [even though] the height of the rock above the stonecutters’ heads was one hundred amos.

In other words, the diggers dug the 1,755 feet tunnel from both sides meeting exactly in the middle, an astounding engineering feat in those days.

In 5650/1890, someone hacked the inscription out of the wall; it was discovered later in pieces in the hands of someone who had bought it from an Arab. Because Eretz Yisroel was under Turkish sovereignty at the time, the Turks moved this longest surviving inscription from the time of the Tanach to an Istanbul museum where it can still be viewed.

Angry at the theft, the Israeli authorities have been attempting to secure its return for some time. Recently there was a sort of breakthrough after an agreement was reached between Yerushalayim Mayor Uri Lupolianski and Turkish ambassador Namik Tan that Turkey may agree to lend the tablet to Israel in return for Israel’s construction of a monument commemorating the Turkish soldiers who died in Palestine during World War I.

Although Chizkiyahu’s digging of this tunnel was ostensibly for a good reason, to keep Sancheriv from capturing Yerushalayim, Chazal say otherwise. As the Gemara (Pesachim 56b, Brachos 10b) says: “Chizkiyahu king of Yehuda did six things. To three of them they [the chachamim] agreed with and to three they did not agree with him…. He closed the upper waters of the Gichon and they did not agree with him…. ”

Rashi explains that it was wrong for Chizkiyahu to close the Gichon as he should have trusted Hashem who had promised, “I will defend this town to save it” (Melachim (II 19:34).

However, Rashi’s explanation is puzzling because in the very next verse (19:35) it says, “And on that night, the angel of Hashem went out and struck the camp of Ashur etc.” This intimates that Chizkiyahu dug the tunnel before Hashem made this promise, as it is hardly likely that his workers dug out the massive excavation in one day. Vetzarich iyun.

Avos d’Rabbi Nasan (2:4) disagrees with the above Gemara, stating: “Chizkiyahu the king of Yehuda did four things and the chachamim agreed with him…. He closed the waters of the Gichon as it says, ‘This same Chizkiyahu closed the exit of the waters of the upper Gichon and directed (vayashereim) them down west of the town of Dovid, and Chizkiyahu was successful in all his deeds’ (Divrei Hayamim II 32:30).

The Maharsha suggests that these two Chazals may be discussing two different events.


Another famous tunnel of Yerushalayim is the one Tzidkiyahu used to escape from Yerushalayim during the first Churban. Rashi (based on the Pesikta Rabasi end of parsha

26) comments on the verse (Melachim II 25:4-5), “The town was breached and all the warriors [fled] at night through the gate between two walls that were near the king’s garden. And there were Kasdim by the town all around. And he went by way of the Arava. And the army of the Kasdim pursued after the king and caught him in the plains of Yericho and all his soldiers scattered from him.”

Rashi explains: “There was a cave leading from his house to the plains of Yericho and he fled there through the cave. But the Holy One arranged that a buck came on top of the cave outside the town, and the Kasdim pursued the buck and when they came to the opening of the cave in the plains of Yericho, they saw him and captured him.” The Gemara (Eiruvin 61b) and Tanchuma (Bamidbar 1:9) also mention Tzidkiyahu’s cave. Nowadays, there is a giant cave of about 100,000 square feet between the Old City’s Damascus and Herod Gates referred to as Tzidkiyahu’s Cave, which extends about 760 feet under the Moslem Quarter in the direction of the Kosel. It is mentioned by Rav Yechiel of Paris who came to Eretz Yisroel about 750 years ago and by Rav Ashtori Haparchi, a talmid of the Rosh, in his sefer Kaftor Vaferach. Used as a stone quarry, possibly since the time of Shlomo Hamelech, it is estimated that over 12 million cubic feet of its beautiful white limestone rock (the whole of Yerushalayim is built on limestone hills) has been excavated from it over the ages. Hurdus used it to build a lot of his renovations to the Beis Hamikdash including the Kosel.

In addition to its beauty, this rock is also easy to work with as it is relatively soft and only hardens after being cut out and exposed to outside air.

Centuries ago, the cave’s entrance was sealed to prevent enemies from breaking into the city from underneath, and people forgot of its existence. Then, one day in 5614/1854, an American missionary, J.T. Barclay, was walking his dog when it ran off and disappeared in an opening near the Old City wall. That night, Barclay and his two sons entered the hole. He writes that they found ‘’a very deep and precipitous pit, in which we received the very salutary warning of caution from the dead – a human skeleton! supposed to be that of a person who, not being sufficiently supplied with lights, was precipitated headlong and broke his neck – or rather his skull I should judge from the fracture I noticed on picking it up.’’ Inside were huge groups of bats that ‘’flew away at our too near approach and for some time continued to flit and scream round and about our heads in rather disagreeable propinquity.’’

Later that century, a certain Rabbi Eliezer descended into the cave with ten companions “armed with weapons out of fear they might meet wild beast, snakes and scorpions. They also took ropes and torches. They ascended rises and descended terrible slopes until the measure of their rope (tied to the entrance) was finished. Suddenly, they heard the sound of multitudinous waters and had terrible fear. They immediately made haste and fled outside.”

The end of this report is puzzling because although the cave has a sort of spring that originates from water condensing on its cold rock, it is certainly does not compare with the phantasmagoria they describe!

Is this cave the beginning of Tzidkiyahu’s escape tunnel? The cave is blocked at the end and used to extend further, so there is no reason why it couldn’t be. If it isn’t, some other subterranean tunnel must be waiting to be unearthed by the archaeologist’s spade.

(Criticism of Israeli archaeologists – Norman Gold of the University of Chicago. Translation of Siloam Inscription based on Coote, Robert B. “Siloam Inscription,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. by David Noel Freedman, 6:23-24. New York: Doubleday, 1992. Report of R. Eliezer cited in Ariel Encyclopedia.)

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