Thus the Great Revolt against Rome ended: The enemy breached the defenses, and the beleaguered Jewish fighters hid in the sewer system, in a bid to escape the siege, or perhaps to stage a last, desperate stand. But the technologically and numerically superior Roman forces quickly flushed out and killed the remaining rebels.
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This vivid flashback emerged as archaeologists dug up sections of a monumental, stepped road dated to the early first century C.E., located in the most ancient area of Jerusalem.
The wide road ran uphill for about a kilometer from the Siloam Pool to the Temple Mount. It was probably used mainly by pilgrims who, after purifying themselves in the waters gushing from the city’s main spring, Gihon, would ascend to pray at Judaism’s holiest site.
While scholars knew about the road already a century ago, it has only been properly excavated over the last decade. The bizarre nature of finds while excavating this road system has led archaeologists to conclude that this was where one of the final chapters of the Great Revolt was written.
Cookware in the sewage system
Below the street’s thick slab stones lay a large roofed drainage canal that channeled rain water away from the city. It was in this underground channel, which was wide and tall enough for people to comfortably stand in, that archeologists found the first puzzle.
Among the sediments and refuse that had filled it up were several coins from the period of the revolt that confirmed the dating of the site - as well as cooking pots and utensils.
“We found two perfectly preserved cooking pots,” says Ronny Reich, an emeritus professor of archaeology at Haifa University who, until recently, headed the dig of the stepped road. “If they had rolled in or had been thrown out as garbage, they would have been in pieces. The fact that they were intact indicates that people used them in the canal, and lived there for a time.”
The second clue came from the state of the street above. Most of it was intact, except that in five spots the paving stones had been broken and removed to create an opening into the canal below, Reich says.
Researchers now connect these finds to the text of Josephus Flavius, the Jewish-rebel-turned-Roman-collaborator who wrote the history of the revolt. In “The Jewish War,” Josephus recounts how, after the Roman legions, led by Titus, breached the walls of Jerusalem and burned down the Temple, some of the surviving rebels and civilians took refuge in the sewers and underground spaces of the city.
In one passage, in book six, he describes how a group of rebels “fled immediately to that valley which was under Siloam” and after failing to breach the Roman siege wall, they “went down into the subterranean caverns.”
The Romans, Josephus says, canvassed the area for enemies, “and when they found where they were, they broke up the ground and slew all they met with.”
Reich believes the gaping holes cut into the stepped street are a testimony to this Roman mop-up operation.
When the Romans had finally crushed the Jewish rebellion, they razed Jerusalem. The area around Siloam was destroyed, and was not included in the city when it was rebuilt as a Roman town, called Aelia Capitolina, about half a century later. The stepped street was buried under sediment and debris from collapsed houses. However, none of this rubble had the size and weight to punch through the 20-centimeter-thick slab stones of the street and the roof of the canal, Reich says. “We have coins from the period, the holes, the tools in the ditch and the text of Josephus,” Reich told Haaretz in a telephone interview. “All the details point to the fact that it was part of this event.”
The capture of John of Giscala
According to Josephus, among those who took refuge in the sewage system was John of Giscala, one of the leaders of the revolt.
Driven by hunger, Josephus says, he ultimately surrendered to the Romans and spent the rest of his life in prison – although we probably will never know if the stepped street of Siloam was the exact spot of his capture.
Siloam is also where Jesus miraculously cured a blind man, according to the Gospel of John.
Visitors can access parts of the street, which remains underground, through the City of David archaeological site. The area, a hilly spur on the south side of the Temple Mount, was the original nucleus of the city some 6,000 years ago, starting in the Bronze Age.
Palestinians consider it part of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan and archaeological digs in the area routinely stir up controversy.
But the research there has also uncovered countless treasures from Jerusalem’s past, ranging from the underground water system built in the First Temple period, to the recent discoveries of a Roman podium and the remains of the Akra, the Hellenistic fortress that dominated the town in the second century B.C.E.