The Jerusalem Tunnel that Saved Judaism. Archeology and the Bible intersect.
If the holy city of Jerusalem had fallen in the eighth century BCE it would have meant the end of Judaism and altered the course of human history. However, because of what is now known as “Hezekiah’s Tunnel” the city stood and entered eternity. The tunnel that saved Judaism is still in existence and accessible today. Its completion was commemorated by contemporary inscription known as the “Siloam Inscription.”
The Siloam Inscription captures the drama of the project as it neared completion and represents one of the rare instances when a specific project of a Hebrew king can safely be identified archeologically. The Bible recounts that Sennacherib’s army were smitten by a mysterious plague. One possible explanation is that, suffering the ravages of thirst and heatstroke due to inadequate water supply, the Assyrian army was forced to withdraw, after negotiating a massive tribute to be paid by the Judeans.
Hezekiah, the King of Judah (727-698 BCE) physically prepared the city of Jerusalem against the Assyrian danger expected from the east. The King took precautions for a possible scarcity of water in case of a protracted siege. He had a 533-meter-long tunnel cut out of rock that would bring water to the city from the Gihon Spring outside the walls, in the Kidron Valley, to the southeast of the city. The water, flowing through the tunnel, was collected in the Siloam pool, which was inside the city walls. The Bible, in II Kings 20:20 states;
Now the rest of the acts of Hezekiah and all his might, and how he made the pool and the conduit and brought water into the city, are they not written in the Book of Chronicles of the Kings of Judah?
At the southern end of the tunnel, where the water reaches the Pool of Siloam, a six-line commemorative inscription was discovered in 1880 a scant six meters from the opening to the pool. The Hebrew inscription was engraved into the limestone wall, possibly by Hezekiah’s engineers, in about 701 BCE. The dramatic moment in which the two groups met was perpetuated in the Siloam inscription. Written in a poetic style it is one of the longest and most important monumental Hebrew texts from the period of the monarchy. When the two teams met up deep in the rock, they celebrated by carving an inscription to record their amazing achievement.
And when the tunnel was driven though, the quarrymen hewed [the rock], each man towards his fellow, axe against axe, and the water flowed from the spring towards the reservoir for 1,200 cubits.
The monumental commemorative inscription describes the dramatic meeting of the two teams and the resulting completion of the 1,200 cubit (533 meter) long tunnel under 100 cubits (53 meters) of rock. The tunnel was masterfully engineered with a gradient of only 0.06 percent. This allowed the water to flow slowly from the Gihon Spring to the Siloam Pool inside the walls. The project was finished under the pressure of an imminent Assyrian siege. To prevent the enemy forces of Sennacherib having access to drinking water, vital to any massive army, Hezekiah also camouflaged the site of the original Gihon Spring.
The Taylor Prism, and two similar unprovenanced prisms, The Jerusalem Prism, and the Oriental Institute Prism, (and some other prism fragments) are part of the official court archives of Sennacherib. The Taylor Prism’s importance lies in the fact that it adds credulity to the biblical account of the siege of Jerusalem. Both the biblical account and the prism agree that Sennacherib, after a protracted siege, failed in conquering Jerusalem. What happened when Sennacherib’s huge army surrounded Jerusalem in 715 BCE is one of the great mysteries. Sennacherib’s own triumphal inscription concedes he failed to vanquish Hezekiah. Another important element of the prism is the mention, outside of a biblical context, of a king of Judah, Hezekiah, by name. The Prism states:
I had Hezekiah, King of Judah, trapped like a bird in a cage.
The Taylor Prism, composed in 691 BCE, was discovered in situ in Nineveh in the nineteenth century CE. The baked clay hexagonal prism (38 x 14 cm) contains 500 lines of cuneiform text on each side. The text recounts various campaigns of conquest by Sennacherib and his army, including his devastating campaign against Hezekiah’s rebellious Judah in 701 BCE. It lists 46 fortified Judean cities, including Lachish, that were captured, and the resulting deportation of vast amounts of prisoners and livestock. Most famously, the prism records the siege of Jerusalem, King Hezekiah and the heavy indemnity paid by the kingdom of Judah. The official Assyrian records, the Bible, and some other ancient historians, such as Herodotus and Josephus, concur that despite the devastation wreaked on Judah by the Assyrians, Jerusalem was not captured. The Assyrian siege of Jerusalem was terminated abruptly (probably due to internal problems in Assyria) an event that was seen by the Judeans as a miraculous deliverance. The Bible in II Kings 19:35 states:
Then it came about that night that the angel of The Lord went out and struck down 185,000 men in the Assyrian camp. When the men arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses.
The above is an extract from my latest book in the Koren Jewish history series. The book, tentatively titled, “Jewish Journeys, The First Temple Period 1000 – 586 BCE” is due out later this year. It is the companion volume to “Jewish Journeys, The Second Temple Period to the Bar Kokhba Revolt 536 BCE -136 CE” (Jerusalem: Koren, 2021).