Pool of Siloam, Then and Now

Understanding the ancient Pool(s) of Siloam is a bit difficult.  First, there is the pool where Hezekiah’s Tunnel emerges.  This pool is small, shallow, and unimpressive.  In 2004, a monumental reservoir was discovered to the south, dating to the 1st century A.D. (for more on that, see here and here).

Scholars today do not yet know how the two pools are related.  The Lower Pool was quite likely the place of the miracle of the healing of the blind man (John 9).  The area above was the site of a pool in the Late Roman period, and continued in use in the Byzantine period when a 5th century church was constructed over it.  What existed here before the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 is not known.

Pool of Siloam, tb051501204

Pool of Siloam, view to the north, present day

Today if you visit the pool at the end of Hezekiah’s Tunnel, there are a few column drums from the Byzantine pool, but little else to suggest the beautiful complex that pilgrims visited.  That hasn’t always been the case, however, for the excavations of Bliss and Dickie in the 1890s revealed some of the ancient walls.  In the photo below, behind the donkey is a wall of large, well-dressed stones with a classical molding.  The excavators identified this as the northern side of the square Roman pool.

Pool of Siloam, north end, mat08471 Pool of Siloam, view to the north, early 1900s

After the excavations, Muslims erected a mosque over the northwestern corner of the area, covering all traces of the earlier pool and the Byzantine church built to commemorate it. 

This photograph is one of 45 in the “City of David” set included in the Jerusalem volume of The American Colony and Eric Matson Collection.  Photo: Library of Congress, LC-matpc-08471.


3 thoughts on “Pool of Siloam, Then and Now

  1. Todd, Hi…
    Thanks for featuring this very interesting and important image. It is one of my favorites from "our" collection!

    One small correction: The mosque did not really cover the site of the Byzantine church, which Bliss & Dickie had recently finished excavating immediately north of (and above) the Upper Pool. The small mosque structure was built atop many yards of accumulated debris in the pool's NW corner, and the minaret sat on the terrace just above the pool.

    I agree that the Lower Pool was probably the place where the blind man washed his eyes in John 9. In this it seems that the Byzantine Chritians, who venerated the Upper Pool and built their church overhanging it, were "close" but not entirely accurate. In Jesus' time the Lower Pool very likely served as a public swimming pool and perhaps also a mikveh (I have never heard that the former use precluded the latter), but the jury is still out on this, I think it's fair to say. The Upper Pool, which I believe also existed in Jesus' day, would have been reserved as a source of clean water.

    I have long suspected, though I can't prove it, that there were always upper and lower pools at Siloam, even from the time of Hezekiah, but certainly by the Herodian period. For one thing, it simply makes sense that as much of the precious spring water as possible would always be impounded and made accessible before flowing out to water the surrounding area. Bliss & Dickie indeed dated their square, colonnaded upper pool to the Roman period, however they actually encountered only small portions of it, via their shaft and tunnel method of excavating. Moreover, the analytical tools for dating such things hardly existed then — this, after all, was the 1890s!

    In short, I think it's becoming clearer all the time that the square, "Roman" upper pool, whose north wall is seen in the photo, is actually, in its original construction, Herodian (if not earlier — the lower pool, after all, is Hasmonean in its original phase). For one thing, I am not aware of the Romans having any particular interest in that part of the city after 70 AD. The clincher though, to me, is that archaeologists have now uncovered stepped streets ascending along both the east and west sides of the Upper Pool, and in fact abutting its enclosure wall, not to mention the paved plaza along the pool's south side — all firmly dated to the Herodian period. The street running along the pool's east side is particularly fascinating: There is clear evidence that holes were deliberately punched in the thick pavers at regular intervals in order to access the drain below — seemingly a snapshot of Josephus' vivid description of the last survivors of Jerusalem in 70 AD being hunted down in the sewers by Roman legionnaires.


  2. Tom – thank you for the correction and other thoughts.

    I finished a short article last week on the pool and I suggested the same thing you have: the upper pool may have served as a source of clean water. But that led me to suggest that the upper area may have served as the mikveh for individuals, and perhaps the lower area for vessels. There are several difficulties with the lower pool being used for ritual cleansing of unclothed individuals. I also am doubtful that the pool was used for swimming, as Elitzur argues. But, as you know, more evidence can easily swing this discussion.

    I think the Hasmonean dating of the lower pool is unproven. The discovery of Alexander Jannaeus coins in the plaster proves only the earliest possible date for the pool. Since these coins were in circulation well into the Herodian period, establishing the date of construction needs additional evidence.

    As for the Late Roman wall in the photo now being Herodian, perhaps. The streets now being excavated are certainly of interest. But Siloam was always a source of water, and even if the rest of the City of David was abandoned in the Late Roman period (as apparently it was), the pool would still be of value. Hadrian's shrine to the Nymphs would naturally have been built here at the only natural source of water in the city. This activity around the upper pool, combined with the silting and ignoring of the lower pool, is probably the best explanation for why the Byzantines identified this area as the pool and thus site of the miracle.

    One other thought on upper and lower pools: we see this phenomenon at "Solomon's pools" south of Bethlehem, where multiple reservoirs were built in order to ensure maximum collection of the water. Such would be even more logical here, where the pools were used not only to collect water, but also for priestly ritual purposes. The location of the exit of Hezekiah's Tunnel certainly gives room for multiple pools.

    It's a privilege to be living in a time when further archaeological excavation of the area is likely.

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