Through a Dark Tunnel into the Past!
THE light you carry lets you see for only a short distance, emphasizing the darkness in the tunnel ahead. On each side and above are rough stone walls. Water is flowing up to your knees, so you must move carefully. Does this sound frightening—or fascinating?
You would have every reason to be fascinated by a trip through this dark tunnel in Jerusalem, under the ancient City of David. Why so? Because in wading through this stream you would be wading in a part of history that remarkably confirms the Bible record.
The long rock tunnel is commonly called Hezekiah’s Tunnel or the Siloam Tunnel. (2 Ki. 20:20) For your trip through it you probably would find sneakers and shorts to be practical dress. With flashlight in hand you could in less than an hour confirm an account written in the Bible nearly three thousand years ago. But before doing so, whether in the actual flowing water or here on the printed page, briefly consider this impressive tunnel’s past.
When Hezekiah became king of Judah back in 745 B.C.E. the powerful nation of Assyria was oppressing the people of Israel and Judah. By 740 B.C.E. the Assyrian hordes had conquered and desolated the northern kingdom of Israel and then began invading Judah. One after another the fortified cities fell to the brutal Assyrians. (2 Ki. 18:9-11, 13) Then came Jerusalem’s turn. How could the city survive the invincible armies of the second world power of Bible history?
King Sennacherib of Assyria sent a high official entitled Rabshakeh to intimidate the Jews. Shouting out in Hebrew to the people on the walls, Rabshakeh tried to destroy the Jews’ morale and their will to resist. Considering the heat of the Middle Eastern climate, you can imagine the frightening implications of his threat that the Jews would “die by famine and by thirst.” (2 Chron. 32:11) But was it really to be—‘surrender or die of thirst’?
No, since King Hezekiah had earlier arranged for his men “to stop up the waters of the springs that were outside the city.” (2 Chron. 32:2-4) Thus the besieging Assyrians would be hard pressed to find enough water for themselves. Then what possible water would the Jews have, with Hezekiah and the people confined “like a bird in a cage,” as Sennacherib boasted? Yes, the Jews knew that there was water aplenty in the cave of the Gihon spring on the eastern slope of the city. That spring was “stopped up” or hidden so the Assyrians would not know of it. Still, Gihon was outside Jerusalem’s walls. So how could it keep the Jews alive?
The Bible tells us. It says that Hezekiah “stopped up the upper source of the waters of Gihon and kept them directed straight along down to the west to the city of David.” (2 Chron. 32:30; 2 Ki. 20:20) How did he do that? By a water tunnel cut out of solid rock. That tunnel is still there. Experts view it as “one of the great engineering feats of antiquity.” And you as a visitor can wade through it.
It seems that the spring of Gihon (sometimes now called the Virgin’s Fountain) on the lower slope of the Kidron Valley was in a cave. So the ancient Jebusite inhabitants of the city dug out some of the rock at the back and sunk a shaft down from inside the nearby wall. They could thus obtain some water by letting buckets down to the water channel. David’s men may well have sneaked into the city through this shaft. (2 Sam. 5:8) Yet in Hezekiah’s time the city’s population was much larger. Hence, he undertook the cutting out of a long tunnel that would divert ample water to a pool (Siloam) on the western side of the city inside the protection of the walls. (See the small map.)
What an undertaking that was! One team of workers dug from the south, from the pool of Siloam. Another team came from the north, from Gihon. Think of the work involved in chipping—with hand tools, not with pneumatic drills or modern explosives—out of solid rock a tunnel averaging about six feet (1.8 meters) high and about two feet (.6 meters) wide. But what is more staggering is its length, 1,749 feet (533 meters). Imagine, through solid rock for almost a third of a mile!
In that confined area only one man at a time could chip at the tunnel face. So even with ‘round the clock’ crews, it was likely six to eight months before the crews met. Though you cannot speak with any of those dedicated workers to get their impressions of the job, you can come close to that. How so?
Well, back in 1880 a lad playing near the Siloam outlet of the tunnel fell into the water. As he got up he discovered an inscription in the wall. It was carved in early Hebrew and is an invaluable example of the Hebrew writing style of the period, a style such as the prophet Isaiah himself may have used. The space cleared for the inscription was never completely filled, but in part the six lines that were written said:
“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.”
Just think of yourself as one of those workers chipping away deep inside the long, dark tunnel. How would you know in which direction to head? Dig to the right? To the left? Higher? Lower? And yet after many hundreds of feet the workers met—what an accomplishment!
Come along, as it were, and see what the tunnel is like, keeping an eye on the accompanying plan. Descending the steps to Gihon (point 1), you find the spring itself (point 2). Then you pass through part of the channel dug by the Jebusites (point 3). If you examine the walls carefully here, you will see that the upper walls and ceiling reflect better craftsmanship. Evidently Hezekiah’s workers reworked some of this section, doing a better job than the earlier Jebusites.
Soon we take a sharp left turn (point 4), where Hezekiah’s tunnel begins. You can move along quite easily. Now you do not have to crawl in a cramped passage with as little as four inches of airspace above the water, as did nineteenth-century archaeologists who explored the tunnel. The deep layer of mud silt that they had to crawl on has now been removed. So you can wade upright, though stooping low in some places. And wade you will, because the gurgling water may be up to your knees or even up to your waist, for it varies in general depth at different times during the day and during different seasons.
As you move ahead you can tell that you are not following a straight line. No one today knows exactly why the tunnel was dug in an S shape instead of the shorter straight route, but it was. Looping around we come to point 5. Why the abrupt change in direction? Evidently at this point, when the ends were about 100 feet (30 meters) apart, the workers coming from the north first heard the sound of ax blows made by the southern crew. And those coming from the south heard the faint sound of blows when they were at point 12. You can determine this from the tunnel. Both crews began a succession of twists and corrections. Imagine the rising excitement as the men realized that they were approaching one another. Sometimes false echoes may have caused tunneling in a certain direction. But then probably a Hebrew engineer would discern the error and redirect the workers’ efforts. It seems that the crew coming northeast toward Gihon had the greater difficulty, for they made three false starts that had to be abandoned (points 11, 10, 9).
Reconstructing the scene in your mind’s eye, you can see the worker at the tunnel face chipping away in the dim light. Hearing the chipping blows from the other tunnel, he is tense, excited and now oblivious to the smoke and poor air. Behind him the engineer may crouch, holding a torch and occasionally saying, “More to the left,” or, “In this direction, toward the sound.”
Closer and closer the lead workers come. The poorer workmanship of the walls tells you of the workmen’s excitement and impatience. They abandon some of the quality displayed earlier in their tunneling.
When you get to point 6 you are standing about where the northern crew was when someone heard “the voice of a man calling to his fellow,” as the Siloam inscription relates. Anxious cries must have been exchanged, and then the workers attacked the rock with renewed vigor. The two ends were now only three cubits apart, about four and a half feet (1.4 meters). Look at the slight zigzagging of the walls as the men raced toward one another. Even the floor gives evidence of the mounting tension, for from points 6 and 8 the floor begins to rise, the workers not cutting as deep.
The voices get louder and louder. Then finally, at point 7, the tip of an ax breaks through. There is a light, and a face! Yes, remarkable as it seems in view of the simple equipment available at the time, the two tunnel projects met as one life-sustaining passageway deep under the City of David. By examining the change of direction in the chipping patterns, you can determine the exact spot of the meeting. And the inscription carved about twenty feet (6 meters) from the Siloam entrance memorializes that feat (point 13). The original stone inscription is now kept in an Istanbul museum. But you can see a plaster copy of it in Jerusalem’s Israel Museum.
For the cool water to flow from Gihon to the Pool of Siloam, the tunnelers had to make some adjustments in the tunnel floor level at the Siloam end. You can see this, for there the tunnel’s height is more than in the other sections. But once that was done, the water could flow smoothly, with a drop of about seven feet (2.1 meters) over the course of the tunnel’s length. The book The City of David speaks of the “perfectly graduated downward slope from the Spring Gihon to the Pool of Siloam” as “another miracle of ancient technology.”
Completing your trip at Siloam, where women wash their clothes in now somewhat more brackish water, you can reflect on the history involved in what you have just experienced. Though the Bible’s mention of Hezekiah’s tunnel was recorded thousands of years ago, you today can bear witness to the historical accuracy of that record. The tunnel through which visitors to Jerusalem can wade testifies to the foresight and diligent work of Hezekiah and the Jews in Jerusalem, when faced with the Assyrian threat.
Still, even though this tunnel was dug to provide an abundance of water to withstand any long enemy siege, King Hezekiah did not rest his trust on such defense preparations. Hezekiah ultimately relied on Jehovah to protect and uphold His worshipers. Strengthened by the prophet Isaiah, King Hezekiah told the people: “Be courageous and strong. Do not be afraid nor be terrified because of the king of Assyria and on account of all the crowd that is with him; for with us there are more than there are with him. With him there is an arm of flesh, but with us there is Jehovah our God to help us and to fight our battles.”—2 Chron. 32:7, 8.
And that He did. While the Jews inside the city were being supplied with water that flowed from Gihon through the tunnel, the Assyrians encamped at some distance from the walls. Then in one night an angel of Jehovah struck down 185,000 Assyrians, “every valiant, mighty man and leader and chief in the camp of the king of Assyria.” (2 Chron. 32:21; 2 Ki. 19:35) So wading through Hezekiah’s tunnel should do more than bring to mind the history of an engineering project. It should strikingly impress on your mind and confirm in your heart that Jehovah takes an active interest in supporting those devoted to him.
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Where Temple Was Later Built
CITY OF DAVID
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Gihon 1 2 3 4
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