Edward Robinson and the Legends of Jerusalem’s Springs

Robbie Maakestad

“He who comes to visit Jerusalem shall bathe in the fount of Siloam, which springs from the Garden of Eden.”
—Ancient Jerusalemite Saying, The Legends of Jerusalem

At the eastern edge of the City of David archaeological site in Jerusalem, a staircase drops into a cave where the naturally pulsing Gihon Spring burbles up from a bedrock crack. The water runs into a narrow tunnel leading deep within the earth, directly beneath the ruins of the ancient city.

Born in Connecticut in 1794 during the second presidential term of George Washington, Edward Robinson, the son of a strict Congregationalist-minister-turned-farmer, grew up to become a Bible scholar largely considered the father of Biblical archaeology. During his childhood, it became apparent that Robinson had no interest in tending his father’s large, prosperous farm; rather, young Robinson loved studying Greek. Upon graduating from Hamilton College in New York, he was immediately hired as faculty. Robinson married the daughter of a wealthy farmer, and when she died the following year, she left him a large inheritance. So in 1821 at the age of 27, Robinson retired from academia to privately study full-time in order to translate Homer’s Iliad.

The Pirke De-Rabbi Eliezer (c. 830 CE) recounts how, after Adam ate from the tree in the Garden of Eden and after Yahweh banished him, Adam lived on a hill outside of what is now Jerusalem. One day, Adam dipped himself into the Gihon Spring until the waters enveloped him up to his neck. He fasted like this for seven weeks and his body became like seaweed. Then, Adam prayed, “Lord of the universe! Acknowledge my repentance and clear me of my sins.” Yahweh, looking down from heaven, saw Adam still soaking there in the spring and extended his right hand to absolve him.

Southwest of the City of David lies a long, thin, shallow pool of water with three broken pillars poking up just above water level which local children use as stepping stones—known as the Pool of Siloam. Water, emanating from somewhere beneath the City of David, flows out of a two-foot-wide channel into the pool, running off through a pipe and channel system, to water gardens.

According to the Old Testament book of 1 Kings, when King David of Israel lay bedridden, making ready to die from old age, he instructed Nathan the Prophet and Zadok the Priest to anoint his middle son Solomon as successor—the son of his favorite wife, Bathsheba. So they led Solomon, astride David’s mule, to the steps of the Gihon Spring, hidden belowground from the eyes of David’s eldest son, Adonijah, the rightful heir. When Solomon emerged from the spring, olive oil dripping from his hair, the people rejoiced as one and played flutes so loudly that the ground shook. Adonijah, realizing he had been usurped, fled into Yahweh’s temple where he grabbed hold of the altar so that he would not be killed there, his spilled blood defiling the altar. Solomon spared Adonijah, saying, “If he shows that he is a good man, I promise that not a hair on his head will be hurt. But if he does anything wrong, he will die.” Because Solomon’s anointing took place at the Gihon Spring, ever after it was said, “The kings of Israel are anointed only at the spring that their sovereignty may endure.”

Enrolling in Andover Theological Seminary three years after his short-lived retirement, in 1824 Edward Robinson came under the tutelage of Reverend Moses Stuart, the renowned American Bible scholar, who, after only two years of study together, became so impressed by Robinson’s complete mastery of ancient Hebrew grammar that he arranged for Robinson to study philology in Germany—the country at the forefront of linguistic study in the early 1800s. Stuart hoped that Robinson’s brilliance might establish the historicity of the Biblical narrative, which had only recently come into question at the behest of Cambridge theologians. So Robinson studied in Germany for four years, before returning to Andover in 1830 to chair their Sacred Literature department. Stuart assumed that now the 36-year-old Robinson, who had surpassed him as the foremost American Bible scholar, would refute the non-literalists. Robinson, however, felt utterly inadequate. For he himself had never seen Palestine.

Two hundred and twenty-six years after King Solomon’s death, in 705 BCE, King Hezekiah of Jerusalem rebelled against his overlord, King Sennacherib of Assyria. For many years, scholars argued that before Sennacherib got around to marching three massive armies to Palestine to quell the rebellion, Hezekiah had four years to stop up the Gihon Spring, dig a tunnel beneath the City of David, and route the water through the tunnel to the Pool of Siloam on the other side of the city. It was thought that by dropping a vertical shaft deep beneath Jerusalem to reach the water course, the people of Jerusalem could access water during the impending Assyrian siege. The Babylonian Talmud records that in his life, King Hezekiah took six notable actions; the first three: 1) Hezekiah dragged his father’s bones on a bier of rope, 2) Hezekiah pulverized a brazen serpent, and 3) Hezekiah hid the book of remedies (it remains hidden to this day). The local sages approved of these three actions, yet his next three were not agreeable. Hezekiah: 4) cut the golden doors from Yahweh’s Temple and gave them as tribute to Sennacherib, 5) Hezekiah intercalated a month into the standard calendar, and 6) Hezekiah rerouted the waters of the Gihon Spring. The sages disagreed with this last action, for Yahweh had told them, “I will defend this city” and Hezekiah’s sixth action revealed that he did not trust Yahweh to provide water.

With the founding of New York City’s Union Theological Seminary in 1836, Edward Robinson was hired as their first professor of Biblical Literature. However, before agreeing to take the job, Robinson demanded that he first be funded for several years of travel and study in Palestine. So, in 1837, Robinson, accompanied by his friend, Eli Smith—a missionary/translator based in Beirut—departed on a quest to trace the route along which Moses led the Israelites out of their Egyptian captivity. On their journey through the vast wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula—some 400 miles of unsparing desert—Robinson and Smith carried nothing more than a measuring tape, three compasses, a telescope, a thermometer, meager rations, an English Bible, a Hebrew Bible, a Greek Bible, several traveler’s guides, tobacco, a tent, a canvas tarp, wax candles, charcoal, two muskets, and two pistols. The two survived on rice, biscuits, coffee, tea, sugar, butter, and dried apricots. They each rode a camel and were accompanied by Bedouin guides with whom they often bickered.

After Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem in 598 BCE and took the best of the city’s inhabitants to Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah addressed the exiles: “Had you been worthy, you would yet be dwelling in Jerusalem and drinking from the Siloam, whose waters are pure and sweet. But since you were unworthy, you are in exile in Babylon and drink from the Euphrates, whose waters are impure and evil-smelling.”

Arriving at the southern border of Palestine in 1838 after his arduous Sinai trek, the disheartened Edward Robinson wrote, “Over these swelling hills, the flocks of the Patriarchs once roved by the thousands; where now we found only a few camels, asses and goats.” Robinson’s disillusionment with the Holy Land seems to have transformed, though, when he arrived in Jerusalem: “From earliest childhood I had read of and studied the localities of this sacred spot; now I beheld them with my own eyes. And they all seemed familiar to me, as if the realization of a former dream. I seemed to be again among the cherished scenes of childhood, long unvisited, indeed, but distinctly recollected.” And yet, when Robinson studied nearly every sacred religious site in Jerusalem, he found that they merited little historical connection to the Biblical narrative.

One day, as Jesus walked the streets of Jerusalem, he passed a man blind from birth. His disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he is in darkness?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of Yahweh might be displayed. We must work while it is day, for night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” Having said this, Jesus spat on the ground and made mud with his saliva. Then he covered the man's eyes with the mud and said, “Go, wash in the Pool of Siloam.” So the man washed in the waters of Siloam and regained his sight.

During Robinson’s time in Jerusalem, Ottoman officials prohibited him from measuring the Haram ash-Sharif—the Temple Mount—which is said to have housed Yahweh’s Temple where the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque now stand. Unable to access Jerusalem’s primary topographical feature, Robinson took measurements of the surrounding areas and discovered the Ophel Hill to the south, which, unbeknownst to him, would later prove to be the City of David—the site of ancient Jerusalem itself.

In 333 CE, an anonymous Christian tourist from Bordeaux traveled to Jerusalem and wrote of the Gihon, “This spring runs for six days and nights, but on the seventh day, which is the Sabbath, it does not run at all.”

Around 400 CE, of the Pool of Siloam, Saint Jerome wrote: “Siloam is a fountain at the foot of Mount Zion; whose waters do not flow regularly, but on certain days and hours; and issue with a great noise from hollows and caverns in the hardest rock.”

Though Robinson did not ascertain the Ophel Hill’s significance himself, he wrote that wherever ancient Jerusalem had been located, the valley beneath the hill should be expected to contain the ruins of ancient buildings, originally built higher up the slope. Below the Ophel Hill Robinson noted that “occasional blocks of stone are indeed seen; but neither the surface of the ground, nor the bed of the torrent, exhibits any special appearance of having been raised or interrupted by masses of ruins.” With no archaeological training, Robinson did not account for the amount of dirt that accumulates across the centuries, burying even the most significant evidence of ancient civilizations—burying, even, an entire city.

In 443 CE, as a symbol of his love, Roman Emperor Flavius Theodosius II gave his wife Aelia Eudocia Augusta a gigantic Phrygian apple. A day or so later, his childhood friend-turned-advisor, Paulinus, presented the Emperor with a Phrygian apple, which Theodosius identified as the very same apple he had gifted to his wife. Eudocia claimed to have eaten her apple, but Emperor Theodosius executed Paulinus for adultery and banished Eudocia, who traveled to Jerusalem on pilgrimage. She lived out her remaining 17 years in Jerusalem, dedicating herself to the writing of epic Greek Orthodox verse. During this period, Eudocia identified the ancient site of the Pool of Siloam on the western edge of Robinson’s Ophel Hill; so there she constructed a new, ornate pool within a church—the roof supported by pillars.

In 1839, Edward Robinson studied several ancient Roman sources which mentioned water channels running beneath Jerusalem between the Pool of Siloam and the Gihon Spring, but the sources were so unclear that nothing firm could be established. So, Robinson turned to the locals: “We found it to be the current belief at Jerusalem, both among natives and foreigners, that a passage existed quite through between the two fountains; but no one had himself explored it, or could give any definite information respecting it.” Could it be that the Gihon Spring fed the Siloam Pool on opposite sides of the Ophel Hill?

At some point in the 600s CE, the Prophet Mohammad said: “Zemzem [in Mecca] and Siloam [in Jerusalem] are two fountains of Paradise.” In 985 CE, the Islamic geographer, Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad Shams al-Dīn al-Muqaddasī, wrote, “It is said that on the night of Arafat [the second day of the Hajj pilgrimage], the water of the holy Well of Zamzam flows underground to the water of the spring of Siloam. And the people hold a festival.” The distance between these two is 768.94 miles.

In a sparse map of Jerusalem, drawn between 1312 and 1321 CE by Pietro Vesconte—a Genoese cartographer—and included in the statesman-geographer Marino Sanudo the Elder’s detailed work Liber Secretorum Fidelium Crucis (“The Book of the Secrets of the Faithful of the Cross”), which Sanudo presented to Pope John XXII and King Philip V of France in an attempt to inspire a new crusade, consisting of a trade embargo followed by a military invasion of the Islamic world, Vesconte depicts the Siloam Pool and the Gihon Spring as two separate entities, without connection.

Of the tunnel from which water poured into the Siloam Pool, Edward Robinson wrote, “The water is apparently brought hither by some unknown and perhaps artificial channel; and flows off through a subterraneous passage under the hill Ophel.” In ancient times, the Jews called the Pool of Siloam Breichat ha-Shiloah, which likely meant “the Pool of the conducted [water].” This name is thought to have corrupted into today’s “Siloam,” a name without distinct meaning. 

Talmudist Haim Yosef David Azulai ben Yitzhak Zerachia, recorded in 1864 how in the 1500s, a cruel Turkish governor, Abu-Seifen (“Father of Two Swords”), ruled Jerusalem. When Father of Two Swords wondered whether the Gihon Spring could be opened, (for it had remained sealed since the time of Hezekiah), he was told, “There is a wise Jew in this city, a man of God, and his name is Rabbi Haim Vital. He will surely know how to open it.” So Father of Two Swords called for the rabbi and commanded him to open the spring or else be put to death. Just then, in a vision, Rabbi Vital saw his former teacher, Ha-Ari the Holy, who said, “The soul of Sennacherib of Assyria has been transmitted into Father of Two Swords, and into you, the soul of Hezekiah. Now is the time to open the Gihon Spring, for it was without the consent of the sages that Hezekiah sealed the waters.” Rabbi Vital replied, “I shall open the fountain.” There is no record of Vital doing so, but at some point before Robinson arrived in Jerusalem, someone opened the entrance to the Gihon Spring.

Robinson wrote of the water in what remained of Eudocia’s Pool of Siloam: “We drank of the water, and remarked a peculiar though not unpleasant taste. We had been told that the people did not use it for drinking; but we found here… women filling their water skins… They said they used it now for drinking; but when in summer the water becomes lower, it is then not good and has a brackish taste.” At both water sources, Robinson recorded the locals washing linens in the water, which perhaps accounted for the “peculiar though not unpleasant taste.” Robinson noted that travelers to Jerusalem viewed the water in the Pool of Siloam as good drinking water and that of the Gihon Spring to be bad for drinking.

In 1522 CE, Bertrand Salignac de la Mothe Fénelon, a French diplomat, wrote in Latin that the water of Siloam could prevent blindness and ophthalmia, but also that “In the spring, the natural water fountain is even used by Arabs to dispel the stench of goats.”

On April 27th, 1839, Robinson hoped to measure the Siloam Pool on the west side of the Ophel Hill. Finding nobody there and the water in the pool surprisingly low, Robinson took off socks and shoes, and rolled up his pants. Walking into the water tunnel that emptied into the pool, he found the tunnel to be two feet wide by twenty feet tall and filled with three to four inches of water with fine sand beneath. He held a candle and a tape measure, measuring as he walked. One hundred feet within, the ceiling dropped to 15 feet. After another 100 feet, the ceiling had dropped to ten; another 100, six feet; then four feet. Eight hundred feet within the tunnel and crawling on all fours in the water, Robinson could not bear to descend any further into the claustrophobic depths of the earth, so he traced his name onto the ceiling with candle smoke and returned to the Pool of Siloam.

Local Arabs call the Pool of Siloam Ain Silwan, or “the Spring of Consolation,” for anyone sad who drinks the water will be consoled. The Arab desert poet, Ruba son of Ajaj, found himself so despondent that he wrote, “Were I made to drink the water of Siloam, even then I should not be comforted.”

Three days after his initial attempt, Edward Robinson visited the Gihon Spring on the eastern side of the Ophel Hill, and followed the flow of water to see if it connected to the other tunnel he had tried to ford. This time, Robinson crawled forward until the ceiling dropped so low that he was “lying at full length” in the water and dragging himself forward with his elbows, with barely any airspace to breathe. The further he pushed onward, the more convinced he grew that it was a different tunnel. But at 950 feet within, on the ceiling, Robinson’s name appeared, scrawled in smoky letters. So he continued forward until he emerged at the Pool of Siloam—the first recorded passage in modern times, proving that the Gihon Spring did indeed connect to the Pool of Siloam.

With Edward Robinson’s solidification of these two water features as one, scholars soon argued that this was the tunnel Hezekiah constructed ahead of Sennacherib’s Assyrian siege, allowing Jerusalem’s inhabitants water access. After Robinson realized that the Gihon Spring fed the Pool of Siloam, he noted that once the water flowed into the Siloam Pool, it was then “led off to irrigate gardens of fig and other fruit trees and plants, lying in terraces quite down to the bottom of the valley… a descent still of some forty or fifty feet.”

Franciscus Quaresmius, a mysterious Italian orientalist, wrote an account in 1625 of his friend Vinhouen’s failure to clamber through the tunnel. In passing, Quaresmius noted one Pater Julius who had made a successful tunnel passage several years previous to Vinhouen’s attempt, but he does not specify that the two water features were connected. This is the only recorded mention of Pater Julius or of someone traversing the tunnel previous to Edward Robinson.

After traveling the length of the tunnel, Robinson and a companion returned to the Gihon Spring and prepared to measure the pool of water at the head of the tunnel when, to their surprise, they noticed that the spring water had begun burbling up, raising the height of the water by nearly a foot in less than five minutes. A local woman informed them that the spring boiled irregularly throughout the day, sometimes twice or thrice a day; other times, only once every two or three days. She explained that beneath the pool, a great dragon inhabited a cave of water; when the dragon slept, the water coursed out into the spring basin, but when the dragon awoke, it stopped the flow. If the dragon had slept while Robinson was within the tunnel, he surely would have drowned.

In his 1835 classic, A Summer Ramble in Syria, with a Tartar Trip from Aleppo to Stamboul, the Scottsman, Vere Monro, wrote of the Pool of Siloam: “Twelve other narrow steps lead down to the water, which is remarkably clear, but contains no perceptible medicinal property. It has, nevertheless, ever since the time of our Lord, been supposed to possess some purifying quality.” Just after this description, Munro wrote that on the slope below the Siloam Pool grows “the tree upon which Judas hanged himself. It is a fig-tree of not many years’ growth, but sloping in so-gallows-like a direction as apparently to have invited the legend.” This differs from an account of Judas’s tree found in the 1283 CE Tract of Brocardus, in which Brocardus identified Judas’s tree as a sycamore tree near the Pool of Siloam.

Once Robinson had fully explored the tunnel and measured both the Gihon Spring and the Pool of Siloam and once he felt that he had completely searched Jerusalem for historically relevant Biblical sites, he broadened his search. Using his vast understanding of ancient Hebrew linguistics, Robinson scoured Palestine, tracing the etymology of modern place names to locate possible Biblical sites. Robinson traversed nearly the entirety of Palestine, rarely retracing his steps and identifying the ancient tels (mounds of ruined cities) that dot the landscape using the three Bible translations he had lugged across the desert. It was not until Robinson returned to Egypt and reviewed his notes that he realized how significant his efforts had been. Robinson had identified hundreds of ancient sites mentioned in the Old Testament, effectively transposing a map of Biblical history onto the map of Palestine. As nearly all of his identifications have indeed proven accurate upon modern excavation, with this work Robinson laid the groundwork for nearly all historical and archaeological study in Palestine since the 1830s.

In the summer of 2005, some eighty feet south of the Pool of Siloam, a work crew uncovered a sewage line on the City of David’s southwest edge only to discover a series of ancient stone steps leading down into the soil. That week, Ronny Reich and Eli Shukron, two leading Jerusalem archaeologists, happened to be excavating near the Gihon Spring. Realizing this staircase provided a significant opportunity, the two halted their planned dig, and excavated the steps in either direction to determine the width of the staircase. Two hundred and twenty five feet later, Reich and Shukron had exposed both corners of an immense pool, trapezoidal in shape, with three tiers of five steps on each side, buried beneath ten feet of dirt that had slid off of the City of David across the centuries. This immense pool proved to have been in use during the time of Jesus, as coins found within its plaster finish provided a date of construction, and coins in the lowest soil layer within the pool provide a close approximation of the final usage date. This pool, too, had been fed by the water from Robinson’s tunnel. Though scholars disagree if the pool was for ritual cleansing, or if it functioned as a large public swimming pool, one thing is clear: this newly discovered pool, and not Eudocia’s site, was the actual Pool of Siloam, rendering all previous study of the Pool of Siloam misguided.

In 1903, Rabbi Eliyahu HaCohen of Izmir’s collection of midrashim records how in the 1600s, Naftali ben Yaakov Elchanan, the father of modern Jewish Kabbalic study, wrote that in the end times, in the time of eternal resurrection, the vessels of Yahweh’s Temple which were hidden in many places in many lands when Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian hordes swept through Jerusalem, will be revealed: “At that time a great stream shall flow forth from the Holy Temple, and its name is Gihon. It shall run through the great and awful desert and unite there with the Euphrates. And immediately, all the vessels shall rise and be revealed.”

In 1856, Edward Robinson published Biblical Researches in Palestine and Adjacent Countries, a 562 page account of his travels and mapping. Within an extensive passage detailing the specifics of what he thought to be the Pool of Siloam, without further comment, Robinson records that just below Eudocia’s pool stood a large mulberry tree where the prophet Isaiah was “sawn asunder.”

Sometime between 100-130 CE, Rabbi Simeon ben Azzai discovered an ancient scroll in Jerusalem detailing the death of the Prophet Isaiah. Though Isaiah’s death goes unrecorded in the Old Testament, the scroll records how sometime during the 600s BCE Isaiah angered King Manasseh, the son of Hezekiah. Fearing for his life, Isaiah uttered the name of Yahweh aloud, which was never to be done, causing a cedar tree near the Pool of Siloam to open up. Isaiah tucked himself within the tree to hide, and it closed around him; yet, as the bark sealed Isaiah up, it pinched the hem of his robe, betraying Isaiah’s whereabouts to King Manasseh who ordered the tree hewn in half. When the blade reached his mouth, the Prophet Isaiah died, and his blood spurted forth from the tree, running down the City of David’s terraces, mixing into the runoff from Siloam, watering the gardens and the fruit trees and the plants and the weeds.