The Siloam Inscription and Hezekiah’s Tunnel by Christopher Rollston

The Siloam Tunnel Inscription, discovered in 1880, narrates a dramatic moment in Jerusalem’s history. Fearing that the city would soon be under siege, residents thousands of years ago undertook a project that would bring water from a source outside the city walls into the city. The inscription, chiseled into the wall of a tunnel (called Hezekiah’s Tunnel) tells how two crews of workmen tunneled through bedrock. One started at the Gihon spring outside of the city; the other crew started from inside the city walls. Sometimes following natural fissures in the rock rather than always hewing through the stone (which accounts for the somewhat winding nature of the tunnel), the two crews finally met. It is this moment that the inscription, six lines of Old Hebrew, narrates:

 

(1) [. . .] the tunneling. And this is the narrative of the tunneling: While [the stone-cutters were wielding]

(2) the picks, each toward his co-worker,the picks, each toward his coworker, and while there were still three cubits to tunnel through, the voice of a man was heard calling out

(3) to his co-worker, because there was a fissure in the rock, running from south [to north]. And on the (final) day of

(4) tunneling, each of the stonecutters was striking (the stone) forcefully so as to meet his co-worker, pick after pick. And

(5) then the water began to flow from the source to the pool, a distance of 1200 cubits. And 100

(6) cubits was the height of the rock above the head of the stone-cutters.

(Author’s translation)

Biblical texts describing the reign of Hezekiah suggest the reason for this engineering feat. The Gihon spring is the source for the water that flowed through the Siloam Tunnel (2Kgs 20:20; 2Chr 32:30; Sir 48:17-18). King Hezekiah of Judah (reigned 715–687 B.C.E.) believed that the Neo-Assyrian king Sennacherib (reigned 704–681 B.C.E.) would soon besiege Jerusalem. After all, Hezekiah had recently revolted against Assyria’s control. Although most scholars accept this as the most likely context, some think that the Siloam Tunnel Inscription dates to the Hasmonean period (second century B.C.E.), others to an even later time (early eighth or late ninth century C.E.)

According to the inscription, the total length of the tunnel was around 1200 cubits. At about 18 inches per cubit, the total length was nearly 1800 feet. Modern measurements confirm that the tunnel is indeed almost 1800 feet long. At one point, the inscription states that the height of the ceiling is about 100 cubits (or 150 feet). Although there are places where the ceiling is about this high, there are also many places where it is less than six feet high. The inscription does not mention the breadth of the tunnel, but it is usually at least shoulder width.

Shortly after its discovery, the inscription was chiseled out and removed, with some resulting damage. Because its discovery and removal occurred during the Ottoman period, it was sent to Istanbul. It remains in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.

Christopher Rollston, "Siloam Inscription and Hezekiah’s Tunnel", n.p. [cited 24 May 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/places/related-articles/siloam-inscription-and-hezekiahs-tunnel

Contributors

Christopher Rollston

Christopher Rollston
Associate Professor, George Washington University

Christopher Rollston is an associate professor in the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at George Washington University.  He is a philologist and epigrapher of ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean languages and works in more than a dozen ancient and modern languages, including Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, as well as Ugaritic, Phoenician, Akkadian, Ammonite, and Moabite. He is the author of several books, including Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel (SBL,  2010).

A tunnel, still accessible today, that connected the original walled city of Jerusalem to an outside water source. Likely built by King Hezekiah, as described in 1 Kings 20:20.

A region in northern Mesopotamia whose kings ruled most of the ancient Near East in the 8th and 7th centuries B.C.E.

Common Era; a notation used in place of A.D. ("Anno Domini") for years in the current calendar era, about the last 2,000 years.

Relating to the dynasty established by Simon Maccabeus that ruled Israel independently from 140-37 B.C.E.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

(adj.) Of or related to the empire founded by Turks at the turn of the 14th century C.E. and lasting into the early 20th century. (n.) One from that empire.

2Kgs 20:20

Death of Hezekiah
20The rest of the deeds of Hezekiah, all his power, how he made the pool and the conduit and brought water into the city, are they not written ... View more

2Chr 32:30

30This same Hezekiah closed the upper outlet of the waters of Gihon and directed them down to the west side of the city of David. Hezekiah prospered in all his ... View more

Sir 48:17-18

Hezekiah
17Hezekiah fortified his city,
and brought water into its midst;
he tunneled the rock with iron tools,
and built cisterns for the water.18In his days S ... View more

 NEH Logo
Bible Odyssey has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this website, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.