Planned Western Wall Train Will Threaten Historic Jerusalem Spring, Report Says

Water has flown from what might be the most famous spring in history for millions of years – and work on an underground train could end it

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Entrance to tunnel at the Gihon Spring.
Entrance to tunnel at the Gihon Spring.Credit: Assaf Avraham/Wikimedia Commons
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Ancient Jerusalem is posing a tough question for scholars: Why during the Middle Bronze Age, about 3,800 years ago, did human beings actually decide to establish the city on the low, unremarkable hill that later became the City of David and at the peak, the top of which became the Temple Mount?

The hill is low compared to its surroundings. It has no strategic importance. It is far from any important road, port or natural resource. So why here? The answer lies at the foot of the hill, where a spring, one that is exceptional in the Judean Hills, flows – the Gihon spring. It’s the largest spring in the area and its water output is steady year-round.

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“If it weren’t for the Gihon spring, Jerusalem wouldn’t have existed,” declares Prof. Ronny Reich, the archaeologist who has been in charge of the City of David dig in recent decades. The spring has been a source of life in the city for thousands of years, and the need to defend the spring shaped Jerusalem’s ancient defenses. Later it became a holy site and ultimately a tourist site managed by the Ir David Foundation, also known as Elad.

But the spring is now facing a substantial threat. A report, the contents of which are being reported here for the first time, states that the continued flow of water from the spring would be threatened if a plan for an underground train in the vicinity of Jerusalem’s Old City to serve the Western Wall is carried out. The plan is being promoted by Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich despite objections from professional staff at his ministry and at the state planning administration.

The report, commissioned by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and written by caves expert Prof. Amos Frumkin of Hebrew University in cooperation with Ronit Amiel, states that the excavation of a tunnel for the train would threaten the flow from the spring.

The Gihon is perhaps the most famous spring in human history, and the report also makes clear what is unique about it and the huge drainage basin associated with it. The report also analyses Jerusalem’s entire natural underground water network. A map included with the report shows, for example, that the rain which falls on the Knesset or the Chord Bridge at the city’s western entrance can end up, several weeks later, emerging from the Gihon spring at Silwan, below the Old City.

The Gihon, which is known to Muslims at Ein Umm al-Daraj and to Christians as the Virgin Spring, has the largest output of water in the area, at 600,000 cubic meters a year. The Lifta spring in West Jerusalem, for the sake of comparison, produces 125,000 cubic meters of water. But a disadvantage of the Gihon for residents of ancient Jerusalem was its low location, very near the Kidron stream, which made it extremely difficult to protect.

The Jebusites, who founded Jerusalem about 4,000 years ago, built huge fortifications around the spring that are at the site to this day. In recent years, there has been disagreement among archaeologists over the dating of the fortifications, with some scholars believing that they are not from the pre-Judean Canaanite period, as had been believed, but from 1,000 years later and that they were constructed by Judean kings.

One way or another, in the 8th century B.C.E. (according to a tradition that is well supported by archaeological finds), King Hezekiah built the Siloam Tunnel to bring the spring water to a location that was more secure and easier to defend if the city was besieged.

For hundreds of years, Jerusalem residents mistakenly thought that the water actually flowed from the tunnel rather than from the spring. Over the past several decades, there has been a great deal of research on the Gihon spring and the archaeology associated with it, but the actual source of the water remained a mystery of sorts.

The mystery was solved due to an unfortunate incident. Over the Shavuot holiday in 2002, the water from the spring suddenly became polluted with sewage. The Jerusalem Municipality and the city’s water utility – aptly called Gihon – began to look for the cause of the pollution. In the Old City, several small leaks were found and sealed, but it didn’t improve the water quality.

Ultimately it transpired that renovation work on Sultan Suleiman Street, at the other side of the Old City, had damaged a major sewage pipe, and a week after the pipe was repaired, the water quality of the spring began to clear up, getting back to normal after a month. Thanks to the mishap, researchers discovered that the drainage basin of the spring included the entire Old City and beyond.

The new report contains the results of a geological survey and chemical and biological testing of the Gihon spring’s water, which was done to chart the entire catchment basin of the spring water. Frumkin and Amiel concluded that the spring’s drainage area extends over 10.6 square kilometers (4 square miles) and that the water flows to the Gihon through an underwater system of natural stone cavities (or karst) from more than 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) away from the spring.

The entire Old City is in the drainage area, as are the neighborhoods north of the Old City as far as Ammunition Hill and to the west as far as Givat Ram and the Chord Bridge. The research has revealed that rainwater seeps under the city and spreads for a number of weeks in natural underground karstic cavities, until it emerges again from the Gihon spring.

The researchers surmise that the passageways converge from a number of directions in the area of the Old City and the City of David, so digging a railroad tunnel there would be particularly risky.

“If that’s the case, the Gihon is very sensitive to anthropogenic [human] activity and could be harmed even further by future tunneling. There is a high probability that such tunneling would cut across the flow of the karstic paths, particularly if it is performed under the Old City, Mount Zion and the City of David. In such a case, the tunnel is liable to affect the flow of the spring or, in an extreme case, even cut it off entirely from its sources of water,” the report states.

A similar incident occurred when excavation work was done to dig a tunnel at the city’s western entrance for the train line to Tel Aviv. At a depth of 80 meters (260 feet), the digging damaged the natural underground water system. “Tunnels should only be dug in essential cases,” the report states. “Avoid tunneling under the Old City, Mount Zion, and the City of David, due to the highest probability that it would cut through karstic passageways leading to the Gihon in this area.”

If it is decided in any event to construct such a tunnel, the experts say a meticulous geological survey would need to be conducted in the area, and if natural underground waterways are found, engineering solutions would be required so the flow of water was not harmed.

As reported by Haaretz, professionals at the state planning authority and the Transportation Ministry declined at first to approve the plan for the train to the Western Wall, but following pressure by the transportation minister, the plan was put back on the agenda for a rehearing.

That hearing took place last week, and the final decision was to proceed with plans for the train.

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