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AXE UPON AXE: The Story of Hezekiah’s Tunnel
By Joy Nelkin Wieder

The miner’s muscles tensed as he hammered desperately at the limestone. The enemy would soon surround Jerusalem, cutting off the city’s water supply. Stone chips flew as his pickaxe carved through the bedrock, toward the spring and its life-giving water. Suddenly he heard a voice on the other side of the rock.

“Halt!” he cried out to the other miners on his team. “I hear something…someone.”

The other workers stopped swinging their axes, straining to hear. They, too, heard muffled sounds and called out to the miners on the other side:

“We are here!”

“Can you hear us?”

Following the sounds on the other side of the rock, they worked toward the other team, hewing the rock as quickly as they could. Finally, they broke through to the other side and the two teams became one. The tunnel connecting the Gihon spring to the Siloam Pool was complete, bringing much needed water to a city on the verge of war.

This is how King Hezekiah’s tunnel was built over 2,700 years ago.

How do we know this is true? When the historic tunnel was rediscovered in 1880, archeologists found an inscription in the tunnel wall, a few paces from the pool. Written in ancient Hebrew, it described how the tunnel was carved out of the solid rock by two teams of miners, starting at opposite ends.

The Turkish government pried out the rock containing the inscription and put it on display in the Istanbul Archeological Museum. A copy of the inscription is on display in Israel.
When archeologists inspected further, they noticed that axe marks still engraved the inside of the tunnel walls. The marks pointed toward each other from opposite ends: the axe marks from the spring pointed toward the pool and the marks from the pool pointed toward the spring!

The 1,760-foot tunnel was carved through solid rock with only hand-held tools such as hammers, wedges and pickaxes. It is one of the greatest engineering feats of the ancient world. Experts estimate that it took six to nine months to complete.

Why was the tunnel built? When Hezekiah reigned in Jerusalem, the mighty Assyrian Empire sought to rule over the entire Middle East. Assyria had already conquered many civilizations including Babylon and the Northern Kingdom of Israel. In those days, high stone walls surrounded major cities like Jerusalem. Conquering armies would besiege a city, completely surrounding the walls thus cutting off supplies such as food and water. In a desert climate like Jerusalem, water is crucial to survival. The city’s main source of water was the Gihon, a spring outside the city walls. If the Assyrians surrounded Jerusalem, they would cut off access to the water. Hezekiah’s tunnel connected the spring to the city’s reservoir, the Siloam Pool, which was inside the thick wall.

Since the Assyrians had already invaded his land, King Hezekiah had to complete the tunnel as quickly as possible. He did something so outrageous that experts today cannot understand how it was accomplished. Hezekiah ordered two teams of miners to dig the tunnel, one from the Gihon spring and one from the Siloam Pool. It must have taken a miracle for the two teams, digging through solid rock from opposite directions, to meet in the middle!

Hezekiah’s tunnel has many twists and turns. Why didn’t they simply dig a straight line? The limestone beneath Jerusalem contains a Karst system, water-carved caves sprinkled throughout the bedrock. Hezekiah’s engineers connected these existing caves like a giant dot-to-dot puzzle. They made use of what was there to speed the completion of the tunnel.

Hezekiah may have been inspired by his great, great, great, great grandfather, King David. When David wanted to capture Jerusalem, it was a heavily fortified city set on the ridge of a mountain. With Jerusalem surrounded by high walls and deep valleys, David knew he couldn't take it by force.

David’s commander, Joab, found an aqueduct carved into the mountain. It ran from the Gihon spring outside the city walls right into the heart of Jerusalem. David sent a small force of his best men to crawl through the aqueduct. Then they had to climb straight up a deep well to get into Jerusalem. Quietly, they opened the East Gate of the city where David and the rest of his army were waiting in a narrow valley. David took the enemy by surprise and captured the city without bloodshed. He made Jerusalem his capitol, and it became both the political and religious center of the Israelite kingdom.

Afterwards, the aqueduct was used to water the king’s gardens, but eventually fell into disrepair. By Hezekiah’s time, it had become completely unusable. Hezekiah had to build a new tunnel to bring the sweet water of the Gihon into his beloved city.

Hezekiah’s tunnel has survived to this day, little changed since it was first carved out of the Jerusalem bedrock. Adventure-seekers can travel the entire length of this ancient wonder – approximately six football fields laid end to end. Guides lead visitors through winding turns, often ducking to bypass outcrops in the bedrock and splashing through the knee-high spring water. It’s an adventure of a lifetime!

Inscription
The inscription reads:
"The tunnel is completed. And this is the story of the tunnel: As the miners were still waving the axe, one in the direction of the other, and as there remained three cubits (4 ½ feet) to be cut through, there was heard the voice of one calling to the other that there was a hole in the rock on the right hand and on the left hand. And on the day of the completion of the tunnel, the miners met each other, axe upon axe. Then the water poured from the spring to the pool twelve hundred cubits (600 yards), and one hundred cubits (200 yards) was the height of the rock above the heads of the workers in the tunnel."

  • Learn more about Hezekiah’s tunnel
  • Take a virtual tour of the tunnel

    Joy Nelkin Wieder is the author/illustrator of “The Secret Tunnel,” a Fun-to-Read book for children seven to ten years.

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