Ancient Jerusalem's Water Systems

Holy Land Revealed

This post is about Ancient Jerusalem’s water systems. The main water supply in biblical Jerusalem was the Gihon spring which comes out of the eastern foot at the City of David. Just below the area G; there were three water systems built in the Bronze Age and in the Iron Age to deal with the fact that the main water supply; meaning the Gihon spring was actually located outside the walls of the city. In times of peace, this fact did not matter. But in time of war that was a huge problem and they were various systems built along the periods in order to cope with this problem. The three systems are: Warren’s shaft; The Siloam Channel; And the 3rd and the latest of all three is called Hezekiah’s Tunnel.

Ancient Jerusalem’s Water systems: Warren’s Shaft

The water shaft is named after the man who discovered it Charles Warren. The explorer who discovered it. And when we look at a cross-section of Warren’s shaft is a series of underground tunnels that go underneath the city wall; which is located halfway up the slope of the hill. The idea of the warren shaft is to provide access to the water in the spring without going outside the walls of the city and therefore we have this intricate series of underground tunnels.

For a very long time, we thought it operated in the following way. You went through the shaft. Partway up the slope inside the wall of the city. Threw an underground tunnel that leads you down through a stepped passage.  And then into a horizontal tunnel. And at the end, there was a tall vertical shaft that went straight down to yet another horizontal tunnel. That would have brought water from the spring to the base of the vertical shaft.

Recent Excavations Changed Our Understanding

The idea was you would have walked through the horizontal tunnel to the top of the vertical shaft reached some wooden platform there. Then be able to drop down your bucket down that vertical shaft to the water that flowed to the base of it. And pull the water up and draw the water and go back to the city. But excavations in the 10-15 years had revolutionized our understanding of the way this water system originally worked.

Who built the First Temple?

Today that vertical shaft called warren’s shaft that use to be thought of as such an integral part of warren’s shaft system is now known not to be part of the system at all. Apparently, it is a natural shaft in the bedrock that was eaten away at some point. And has nothing to do with the water system at all. So how did this system originally work? The Warren’s Shaft System; as it appears today; was carved in two stages.

In the Middle Bronze Age II (18th to 17th century B.C.E.); the original system was carved only in the soft Meleke limestone; which forms the top layer of bedrock throughout the City of David. Only centuries later (perhaps in the eighth century B.C.E.) was the horizontal tunnel deepened. Perhaps to create a different route to the spring; by cutting into the lower layer of hard Mizzi Ahmar dolomite (as shown in the top drawing).

Ancient Jerusalem’s Water Systems: Some Conclusions

Warren’s Shaft was accidentally reached at this point, and the top of the shaft was widened. But the shaft was not the goal of the diggers. The shaft has too many protrusions for a bucket to be easily lowered down it. And the water that gathers at the bottom is too shallow to be captured efficiently in a bucket. These later tunnelers continued to deepen the tunnel even beyond the entrance to Warren’s Shaft. Further evidence that this was not their goal.

Their work stops short a few feet east of the shaft entrance. perhaps they quit when Hezekiah’s Tunnel, which brought water into the city; was cut in preparation for the Assyrian siege of 701 B.C.E. Now in addition there is a controversy about this identification of this water system relative to a passage that is described in the Hebrew Bible and specifically the conquest of Jerusalem by David. The passage is very interesting by it might have included a reference to this water system:

What Does 2 Samuel Tell Us?

“The king and his men marched to Jerusalem to attack the Jebusites, who lived there. The Jebusites said to David, “You will not get in here; even the blind and the lame can ward you off.” They thought, “David cannot get in here.”7 Nevertheless, David captured the fortress of Zion—which is the City of David. 8 On that day David had said, “Anyone who conquers the Jebusites will have to use the water shaft to reach those ‘lame and blind’ who are David’s enemies.” That is why they say, “The ‘blind and lame’ will not enter the palace.” 9 David then took up residence in the fortress and called it the City of David. He built up the area around it, from the terraces inward.

2 Samuel 5:6-9

Some scholars had suggested that this water shaft is Warren’s shaft system where King David and his troops climbed up this shaft entered the city and opened the gates to the Israelite army. The second system is the Siloam Channel: is a channel that starts at the Gihon Spring and runs outside the walls of the city at the foot of the Kidron valley to a big pool at the southern tip of the City of David.

Ancient Jerusalem’s Water Systems: Hezekiah’s Tunnel

Why there was a need for another channel and another pool? That channel was an outlet for the excess water that came from the Gihon spring and was led to the Siloam Pool. Both the Siloam channel and Warren’s shaft are today dated by most scholars to the middle bronze age. the last water system that was a part of biblical Jerusalem is Hezekiah’s Tunnel.

Hezekiah’s was the king of Judah at the end of the 8th century B.C.E. in preparation for the Assyrian invasion and the siege of Jerusalem at 701 B.C.E. Hezekiah built this water system (the water system still functions today) beginning in the Gihon spring and ending at the southern side of the City David.

The tunnel was cut by two teams of men. One team starting at the Gihon Spring and the other team starting at the outlet end. And both those teams cut through solid bedrock underneath the city and someway met somewhere in the middle. How they joined up we don’t know. Some scholars suggested they maybe were following a natural crack in the bedrock through which water was already flowing. The question is why did Hezekiah need to build a new water system while Warren’s Shaft and the Siloam channel were still working? the Hebrew Bible actually tells us why!

What Does 2 Chronicles Tell Us?

“2 And when Hezekiah saw that Sennacherib was come, and that he was purposed to fight against Jerusalem, 3 He took counsel with his princes and his mighty men to stop the waters of the fountains which were without the city: and they did help him. 4 So there was gathered much people together, who stopped all the fountains, and the brook that ran through the midst of the land, saying, Why should the kings of Assyria come, and find much water? 30 This same Hezekiah also stopped the upper watercourse of Gihon, and brought it straight down to the west side of the city of David. And Hezekiah prospered in all his works.”

2 Chronicles 32:2-4, 30

The Advantage of the Tunnel

The problem was the Siloam channel that was a non-defensive system located outside the walls of the city. When the Assyrians came and besieged the city; then they would have had access to water from the spring that was flowing thru the Siloam channel.

Hezekiah did not want them to have access to that channel. So they stopped the Siloam Channel. But still, you need to provide access to the excess water coming from the spring. So they built a new tunnel that goes completely underground. And one that led to a pool that was inside the walls of the city; so when Assyrians came and besieged the city they would not have access to the water of the spring.

In the 1880s a little Arab villager was playing at outlet end that is called today the pool of Siloam. And just inside looked up and saw an inscription on the wall. And it was removed and taken to Istanbul and put on display at the archaeological museum of Istanbul where it remains on display until today. This inscription dates to the time of Hezekiah. it is written in biblical Hebrew script and biblical Hebrew language and describes the completion of the Hezekiah tunnel. The inscription reads:

The Inscription of the Siloam Inscription

“The axes were against each other and while three cubits were left to cut? […] the voice of a man […] called to his counterpart, (for) there was ZADA in the rock, on the right […] and on the day of the tunnel (being finished) the stonecutters struck each man towards his counterpart, ax against ax and flowed water from the source to the pool for 1200 cubits. and 100 cubits was the height over the head of the stonecutters […]”

The Siloam Inscription

Ongoing excavations in the area of the City of David are bringing to light another part of the ancient Jerusalem water system. Because the outlet today of Hezekiah’s tunnel is called the pool of Siloam. But that pool as you see it today; which many visitors of Jerusalem see when they visit; that pool dates to the Byzantine period 5th and 6th century A.D. Centuries later to the time of Hezekiah. What did the original pool of Siloam look like?

The Pool From the Time of Jesus

The excavations that are done in the city of David in the last 15 years are bringing to light a monumental pool. That is an earlier version of the pool of Siloam not from the Byzantine period. But from the late Second Temple Period. specifically what they found was a gigantic pool a lot larger than the byzantine pool.  The pool was surrounded by rows of steps. The rows of steps indicate that it was not just a usual pool used for storing water; or drinking or general purposes. But that this was also used as a Jewish Ritual Bath.

Ancient Jerusalem's Water Systems - Bullae
In This Photo: The Bulla “(Belonging) To Nathan-Melech, Servant of the King,” Discovered March 31st, 2019
(Credit: Eliyahu Yanai/City of David)

What is so amazing is that this pool of Siloam was discovered. Is a pool that dates to the time of Jesus. In other words, this is the pool of Siloam that existed in the time of Jesus when he visited Jerusalem. And this is so important because we have a passage in the gospel John that talks about Jesus performing miraculous healing at the pool of Siloam:

John 9: Jesus Heals a Man Born Blind

 When He [Jesus] had said this, He spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and applied the clay to his eyes, and said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam. So he went away and washed, and came back seeing. Therefore the neighbors, and those who previously saw him as a beggar, were saying, “Is not this the one who used to sit and beg?”


Hi! My name is Arik Haglili, an Israeli native who decided to dedicate his life to share my knowledge about the Holy Land to those that are interested to know more about this amazing piece of land. My career as a private tour guide started at the International School For the Studying of the Holocaust and the rest is history. 

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