Underground cisterns at Temple Mount, Jerusalem

The immense consumption of water at the Temple sanctuary required the development of a complex water system on the elevated Temple Mount. How was this arranged?

"When the terrace was built to form the platform upon which the Temple Mount was erected (by Herod the Great around 19 BCE, TN), depressions were left in the filling for the express purpose of serving as water reservoirs. It is most probable that additional water cisterns were dug on the Temple Mount in later periods, but it is difficult to substantiate this assumption, since no thorough investigation has been made since Warren explored this area in the nineteenth century.

The diagram (below right, TN) indicates  the location of thirty-seven water cisterns on the Temple Mount known today. These cisterns, which all collect rainwater, were examined in the nineteenth century, mainly by Warren and Conder. The numbering of the cisterns in this diagram is that used by these two scholars, and this is the accepted numbering to this day.

As to the dimensions of the cistern complex, because of the irregular shapes, exact figures are difficult to obtain. Some estimates: the largest cistern (nr 8 in the plan below) should have held 12.000 m3. Total capacity of all Temple Mount cisterns would have added up to 40.000 - 45.000 m3. 

click to enlarge

Not all the cisterns were at first used for the accumulation of water during the Second Temple period. For example, cistern No. 19 (Barclay's Gate) and cistern No. 30 (Warren's Gate) were described by Josephus as gates which led from the Temple Mount to the street which ran the length of the Temple Mount western wall. The gates opened onto tunnels, and from there to steps going up to the Temple Mount. The entrances at street level were sealed off and in the course of time they were turned into water cisterns. It would appear that cistern No. 5 was an installation for the draining of water from the Temple Mount platform to the lower compound, and cistern No. 10 was also part of this drainage system.

There is a theory that cistern No. 1 was the tunnel which led from the Temple compound, directly out of the Temple Mount. Another theory has it that this cistern was connected to an underground passage leading to the ritual bath (Beth Hatevila), which was the purification installation northwest of the Temple.

Cistern No. 8 is the largest of the Temple Mount water cisterns, all of which were quite large. The cistern held up to 12.000 cubic meters of water. Part of the water flowed to Jerusalem through aqueducts leading from Solomon's Pools. From the Mamluk period, the aqueducts reached the purification installation built by Tankiz en-Nasiri in the fourteenth century, near cistern No. 36.
Cistern No. 22 was possibly the cistern dug in the Hasmonean period, to which a water conduit led from the vicinity of the present-day Damascus Gate."

It is most probable that the old cisterns, as well as other subsurface water conducts and tunnels on the Temple plateau, were still in use in Crusader times. As it is certain that other old subsurface structures, such as the "Stables of Salomon", shown on the bottom ilustration at the bottom right side ot the plateau, were used by the Templars during their 12th century stay in Jerusalem, the "Stables" indeed as stables. Probably the need for the Templars to "excavate" new structures in the Herodian plateau was much less necessary than popular myth suggests. 

This blog quotes, with minor adaptations, the blog Pools of Jerusalem by Wilke Schram from this source, consulted March 23, 2024, which itself quotes as source D. Bahat (1994): The Atlas of Biblical Jerusalem, page 32. Upper illustration is a water colour drawing of William Simpson from 1870 depicting the Bahr el Khabeer or the Great Sea, the largest rock-cut cistern under the Temple Mount of Jerusalem. source . Lower illustration from this source, shows the Temple Mount, pierced with over 30 cisterns of quite different size, as depicted by Wilson in the 2nd half of the 19th century. Number 8 is the famous "Great Sea". Fair Use intended.

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