In 701 BC the writing seemed to be on the wall for Hezekiah, king of Jerusalem. The Near East in the 8th century BC was dominated by the Assyrians, and every year the Assyrian king marched out of Nineveh in northern Iraq to survey his empire. In 701, Sennacherib headed west to subdue numerous rebellions which had erupted in the western provinces. As the ring-leader of one particularly dangerous rebellion, Hezekiah was top of Sennacherib’s hit-list. Once loyal to the Assyrians, Hezekiah had taken the opportunity afforded by the death of Sennacherib’s father, Sargon II, to break the yoke of the Pax Assyriaca.
Hezekiah was taking a risk. The Assyrians were masters in the art of warfare. With what they called their “terrifying splendour,” the approach of the massive Assyrian army struck dread in the hearts of the populations they came to subdue. When Sennacherib reached Lachish—one of Hezekiah’s provincial cities—he besieged the town, burnt it and impaled and flayed its leaders. This was the fate destined also for Jerusalem.
Jerusalem before Hezekiah had a serious strategic weakness: its main water supply — the Gihon Spring — was outside of the city in the Kidron valley, making survival during a siege virtually impossible. But Hezekiah was prepared for Sennacherib: he had a tunnel built to bring the water into the city: “And Hezekiah blocked up the source of the Gihon to a reservoir within the city walls” (II Chronicles 32:30).
Hezekiah’s 1,749-foot long tunnel can be walked today, but only by those who do not mind getting wet (the water still runs), and who do not mind dark, enclosed spaces (it is pitch black and you have to crouch most of the way). A flashlight and sturdy footwear are a must.
At the half-way point the tunnel rises: Hezekiah’s engineers tunneled from either end but met at different levels and therefore had to lower the floor so the water could flow. An inscription by Hezekiah’s men was found in 1880 near the end of the tunnel by Siloam’s pool:
“The tunneling was completed… While the stonecutters wielded the ax, each man toward his fellow… there was heard a man’s voice calling to his fellow… the stonecutters hacked each toward the other, ax against ax, and the water flowed from the spring to the pool, a distance of 1,200 cubits…”
The siege of Jerusalem is one of those rare events that is described by multiple ancient authors, although they differ in certain details. Sennacherib’s inscriptions describe how he shut Hezekiah up “like a bird in a cage” and carried off booty from the temple. Herodotus records how rats destroyed the besieging Assyrian camp, an event attributed in the Bible (II Kings 19) to “the angel of the LORD.” In the end, Hezekiah was once more forced to submit to the Assyrian yoke, but the histories all agree that Jerusalem was never taken, thanks in some part to the tunnel that today bears his name.
A few summers ago I spent some time in Jerusalem. One Friday morning we decided to explore the tunnel. At a pool at the mouth of the tunnel, two elderly Jewish gentlemen were cheerfully performing mikvot — ritual Jewish washings. It was the morning before the Sabbath, and these two men were cleaning themselves physically and spiritually with the holy waters of the Gihon spring. They walked with us through the shaft, singing Psalms and praising God, for the water we walked through was holy to them, having literally helped save Jerusalem during the Assyrian siege. At the end of the tunnel is Siloam’s Pool, where, instructed by Jesus, a blind man had washed his eyes and regained his sight. It’s a very cool place.
Getting there: Hezekiah’s Tunnel can be reached via the City of David Excavations (go through Dung Gate).
Best place to stay in Jerusalem: The Lutheran Hospice in the Old City offers clean and friendly accommodation. The roof garden offers a beautiful view of the city. http://www.luth-guesthouse-jerusalem.com.