BCC Travel Club: Hezekiah’s Tunnel, Jerusalem

June_2008_hezekiahs-tunnel-04 Deep below the City of David outside of Jerusalem’s southern walls runs Hezekiah’s tunnel, the tunnel that saved Jerusalem.

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.



  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Very cool, Ronan.

    I have long been fascinated by the Siloam Inscription, which was a frontspiece to the Hebrew Grammar of Wilhelm Gesenius. At this site people can see the inscription and even download a font of the type of palaeo-Hebrew letters used in the inscription.

    Avraham Gileadi was baptized in the Pool of Siloam by John Tvedtnes in the early 70s.

    The inscription that was cut from the wall is housed in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum in Turkey. Israel asked for it back and Turkey refused, but I think they compromised by agreeing to display it in Israel for a period of time.

    I think the reason I love this inscription so much is that it is absolutely contemporary with the events described in the Bible story; to me, the inscription brings the story to life.

  2. Julie M. Smith says:

    One of my professors described touring the tunnel with her little kids once and hearing (maybe even feeling?) rats around them, water at their ankles, and realizing that it was really not appropriate for little kids. That image stuck with me. Ugh.

  3. I don’t remember any rats.

  4. John Hamer says:

    Don’t poo-poo the rats — they’re the angel of the LORD.

  5. I don’t remember rats either, but the first time I went through the water was close to waist-high. Some friends who’d been there before were in chest-high water. A year later they’d cleaned it and it was less than knee-high. There’s no way I’d have my kids miss Hezekiah’s Tunnel if we’re ever in Jerusalem with them. Ankle-deep water wouldn’t concern me.

    My kids do get an earful when we get to Hezekiah when we’re reading the OT.

  6. I went through when I was eight – the gate at the end of the tunnel was locked so we had to wait for about 45 minutes until somebody came by with a key. That and a being trapped in an elevator experience kept me from going through again in 2000 when we were on a family trip. Too cold, damp and cramped. It was one thing as a 4’8 8 year old. Another as a 6’3 adult.

  7. Peter LLC says:

    So how much extra baggage can you carry around your midsection and still make it through?

  8. FYI the old pool of Siloam has been shown to not be the place of the original pool of Siloam. The original pool, which is a very large pool like structure with a large area where priests would descend from Herod’s temple, has recently been uncovered (within the past year). I spoke with the chief archaeologist in charge of the excavation of the pool just three days ago when I walked through Hezikiah’s tunnel (I’m in Jerusalem right now). He provided several coins from Jesus’ time that had been uncovered in situ (I obtained several of them). In addition, there are still tiles in their original in situ setting that have not been disturbed that still meet and join perfectly. The pottery jar setting stones are still in place where the priests from Herod’s temple would bring them for the morning libations and where they would refill them for the Feast of Tabernacles. It’s very cool! It is one of the few places that can actually be identified where Jesus walked (the other being the western stairs of Herod’s temple recently uncovered).

    I was at Lachish just a few days ago where it is still easy to recover pottery shards from various time periods. It is near Azekah as you likely know that had also fallen to Sennacherib in 701. I was particularly impressed with the “high place” still very visible at Lachish that dated from the time of Canaanite occupation and was likely used still by the Hebrews.

    Best place to stay in Jersusalem: The BYU Center for Near Eastern Studies. It also has the best from from Mount Scopus overlooking the Temple Mount.

    I was also talking just today with the curator of the Citadel Museum where the copper “scrolls” from the Dead Sea scrolls is located. This museum in Jordan is really a must see because of its remarkable collection from the city of ancient Ammon and environs. There are several altars from high places that date to the time of the First Temple and several reliefs of the goddess Astarte.

    Finally, anyone who gets into this area just has to go to Petra. Just one word — incredible.

  9. Yipes,
    I’m jealous of your current adventures. Of course the Jerusalem Center is lovely, but not any old pleb can stay there.

  10. Peter: Of course it depends on how big your mid-section is to begin with. But the answer is: not much.

  11. John Hamer, please check out dictionary.com or my recent post on bloggernacle vocabulary. I would hate for this word to lose its effectiveness in the English language.

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