Puzzling out Jerusalem’s ancient pools
Where is the Pool of Siloam? If you visit the City of David Archaeological Park in Jerusalem, you would easily think it is the large pool, formerly known as Birkat el-Hamra, that was excavated by Ronny Reich and Eli Shukron in 2004–2005 near the southern end of the ridge. However, Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist and Tel Aviv University doctoral candidate Nahshon Szanton believes this identification is almost certainly incorrect. Publishing in the journal ‘Atiqot, Szanton instead identifies the true Pool of Siloam with the more traditional Pool of Silwan, which is located only a few hundred feet to the north of Birkat el-Ḥamra.
Mentioned in John 9 and rabbinic literature as a place of holy water, the Pool of Siloam was one of two pools used in the area of the City of David during the late Second Temple period (c. 200 BCE–70 CE), the other being known by the Roman historian Josephus as Solomon’s Pool. Several ancient texts record details about the Siloam Pool, most notably the eighth-century BCE Siloam Tunnel Inscription. These texts provide important details about the pool, including its connection to the Siloam Tunnel, its proximity to a second, larger pool, and its association with a church during the Byzantine period (c. 324–634 CE).
Although these details do not match the site or location of Birkat el-Ḥamra—the pool most associate with the Siloam Pool today—they do accurately describe another pool: the nearby Pool of Silwan. Located at the outlet of the Siloam Tunnel, the Pool of Silwan was fist excavated in the late 19th century, when archaeologists Bliss and Dickie found a roughly square pool surrounded by an arched colonnade that can be dated to the early Roman period. Immediately next to the pool were the remains of a Byzantine church, while a much larger pool, Birkat el-Hamra, is found just a few hundred feet away. All of these details match the historical descriptions of the Siloam Pool. While the Silwan Pool was fed directly by the Siloam Tunnel, Birkat el-Ḥamra was instead fed by runoff from the Silwan and Tyropoeon Valleys. Furthermore, Szanton argues, the name Silwan is likely derived from Siloam, which itself developed from the biblical name Shiloah found in the books of Isaiah and Nehemiah.
Examining these and other historical details related to the Siloam Pool, Szanton proposes that the earlier identification of the Silwan Pool with Siloam was likely correct all along. By contrast, Birkat el-Hamra, which only came to be associated with the Siloam Pool in the mid-2000s, is more likely the pool that first-century Roman historian Josephus knew as Solomon’s Pool.
The Siloam Pool had a ritual function, with pilgrims using it for ritual immersion before ascending to the Temple. However, Solomon’s Pool, which was a large, open pool not appropriate for a Jewish ritual bath, likely served as a large public bathing and swimming area.
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update.
Dig into the world of Bible history with a BAS All-Access membership. Biblical Archaeology Review in print. AND online access to the treasure trove of articles, books, and videos of the BAS Library. AND free Scholar Series lectures online. AND member discounts for BAS travel and live online events.Subscribe Today