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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
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The Forgotten Discovery: A First Temple Era Water Cistern near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem

Filed under: Jerusalem

The Forgotten Discovery:  A First Temple Era Water Cistern near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem
The underground reservoir dating back to the First Temple in Jerusalem found on the edge of the Temple Mount. (Israel Antiquities Authority, Vladimir Neychin)

At the southern corner of the Western Wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, a rare, preserved cistern from the First Temple period has been found, concealed from view and unknown to many. The Israel Antiquities Authority uncovered the cistern seven years ago, but difficult access to the site prevents public visits. The entranceway is locked and is not included in the various tour programs sponsored by the City of David and local tour guides, despite the enormous archaeological importance of the cistern, whose volume approaches that of a small reservoir.

The discovery of the cistern undermines the long-standing thesis that during the First Temple period, Jerusalem was sustained from the waters of the Gihon Spring alone. For five decades, archaeologists have searched in vain for archaeological evidence to confirm the biblical and historical testimony woven into a biblical speech of Rab-Shakeh, commander of Assyrian King Sennacherib’s army. Rab-Shakeh tried to convince Hezekiah, King of Judah, and the beleaguered inhabitants of Jerusalem to surrender, saying: “Come out to me; and eat ye every one of his vine, and every one of his fig-tree, and drink ye every one the waters of his own cistern [Isaiah 36].”

For many years, archaeologists searched in vain for the cisterns mentioned by Rab-Shakeh. Many reservoirs were discovered from the Second Temple period, but none from First Temple days were found. The prevailing assumption, therefore, was that during First Temple times, Jerusalem was sustained only by the waters of the Gihon Spring.

The Discovery of the Hidden Water Reservoir

Then in 2012, during the cleaning of the Herodian drainage channels (under the Herodian Pilgrims’ Road) which stretch from the Shiloah Pool to the southern wall of the Temple Mount, the hidden water reservoir was discovered. 

Archaeologist Eli Shukron and archaeology Prof. Ronny Reich, who were responsible for many of the discoveries in the City of David, were supervising a crew clearing two Second Temple period mikvas (ritual baths) that were transected by the Herodian drainage channel.  At one point, one of the workers noticed that one of the floor panels of the drainage channel was wobbling. A closer examination showed that under the wobbly floor panel was a large empty void.

They brought flashlights, the wobbly rock was moved, and the workers illuminated the dark emptiness. With a ladder, the workers and Shukron carefully descended to the floor of the void and found themselves inside a large public reservoir chiseled into the rock, which was much larger than any regular water cistern. The reservoir was sealed with brown-yellow plaster characteristic of the First Temple period. The discovery offered the first hint of how Jerusalem was provided with water during the First Temple period.

Today, seven years later, Shukron believes that if they continue searching, they will find other, similar cisterns from that period. The biblical descriptions from the Book of Kings about the construction of the Temple by Solomon describe the “Copper Sea” – a huge water tank made of copper placed in the Temple courtyard – and the ten basins that together had the capacity, in today’s terms, of approximately 120,000 liters (32,000 gallons, 120 cubic meters).

Archaeologist Dr. Tzvika Tzuk and Prof. Shmuel Avitsur, who separately dealt with ancient Jerusalem’s water needs, offered other calculations: The first Temple required several dozen cubic meters of water per day for various purposes or tens of thousands of liters per day. But the distance between the Gihon Spring and the Temple Mount is about 800 meters. To take one cubic meter of water (1,000 liters) would require 13 donkey trips, each carrying approximately 75 liters of water at a time. Thus, to fill a 100-cubic-meter cistern, 1,300 donkey loads would be necessary.

Thus, the age-old theory that the Gihon Spring “sustained Jerusalem alone” during the First Temple period does not stand the test of this calculation. But with no other findings, the theory lived on for many years until the discovery of the reservoir from the First Temple Period.

The underground reservoir dating back to the First Temple in Jerusalem
The underground reservoir dating back to the First Temple in Jerusalem found on the edge of the Temple Mount. (Israel Antiquities Authority, Vladimir Neychin)

Yet the discovery, published at the time by the Israel Antiquities Authority and the City of David, has been forgotten. Jerusalem is still awaiting the discovery of additional cisterns from the First Temple period to confirm that the city was not sustained “only by the Gihon Spring.”

I visited the reservoir recently. It is 4.5 meters high, 5.5 meters wide, and 12 meters in length. The reservoir roof has two openings. The main one served as the opening from which water was drawn. The second serves today as an entrance to the reservoir by means of a long iron ladder, descending to the base. Its capacity is about 250 cubic meters.

Painting of Charles Warren exploring beneath Robinson’s Arch
Charles Warren’s exploration: “Fallen Voussoirs of Robinson’s Arch. Jerusalem” (Palestine Exploration Fund, painting by W. Simpson, 1869)

Similar cisterns that enabled the dating of the reservoir at the foot of the Temple Mount were discovered in the 1990s in Tel Beer Sheva and Tel Beit Shemesh. The caverns in those other sites are not symmetrical, and from their main chamber there are additional branches and rooms. The reservoir at the foot of the Temple Mount also branches out, possibly to the east underneath today’s Temple Mount plaza and to an area below the Islamic Museum. However, this branch is blocked and cannot be reached.

Israel has no plans to dig on the Temple Mount, but it should be noted that the area was mapped and inventoried in the nineteenth century by Charles Warren, who found 49 cisterns and 42 aqueducts that conveyed water.1

Map of Mount Moria
Map prepared by Jerusalem engineer and explorer Ermete Pierotti and published in 1888 posthumously.2

The water reservoirs, cisterns, and aqueducts were also mapped by the Italian engineer Ermete Pierotti, who was appointed in 1858 as architect and engineer of Jerusalem by the Ottoman governor. The position allowed him to explore the city and the Temple Mount, and he published a controversial book Jerusalem Explored.

A few years ago the head of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, Sheikh Raed Salah, conceived of the idea to import water from the holy Zamzam well in Mecca as a way to elevate the status of the Temple Mount for Muslims and his own status. Israel and Jordan succeeded in canceling his plan.

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2 Ottoman Imperial Archives, collection of Lenny Ben-David