The Secrets of Bethlehem’s Controversial Pools of Solomon Have Been Unlocked

·7 min read
MUSA AL SHAER/AFP via Getty
MUSA AL SHAER/AFP via Getty

Last year, in conjunction with President Trump’s “peace plan,” Jewish Israeli hiking initiative Amitim L’Tiyulim appealed to the U.S. Ambassador David Friedman for assistance in “returning” the Pools of Solomon to the Jewish people. The pools are a complex of three large reservoirs located five kilometers to the southwest of Bethlehem. Amitim L’Tiulim claimed, “There is no doubt that the archaeological finds and the entire initiative are part of the preservation of the activities of the Jewish nation in the Land of Israel.”

However, the recent discovery of a hidden underground complex at the site shows that this claim is simply wrong: the Pools of Solomon have no connection to biblical kings, the Bible, or Judaism.

As anyone who has visited the Middle East knows, water is a scarcity there. Jerusalem is situated between a series of hills and high above sea level. Today, water is pumped up from the coastal plain to the west of the city in order to meet the city’s considerable water needs, but that system is a twentieth century innovation. During the Roman period the city was supplied with water by a series of aqueducts largely designed and built by Roman engineers. On one occasion, Pontius Pilate famously raided the Temple treasury to finance the construction of one such aqueduct.

Then, there are the Pools of Solomon, three huge pools that first appear in passing in a 10th century travelogue by the medieval Arab geographer al-Muqaddasi. One of these pools, the Lower Pool, holds enough water to fill 46 Olympic sized swimming pools. Popular Zionist opinion maintains that the pools were built by the 10th century BCE monarch King Solomon, and they are believed to be the subject of a verse in Ecclesiastes, which tradition maintains was written by Solomon himself, “I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees.”

Scholars, on the other hand, are at the other end of the scale. Al-Muqaddasi only mentions two pools and, as a result, people have tended to assume that the upper two pools are early medieval while the lower pool was built in the sixteenth century by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, when he renovated the structure. New archaeological work reveals that both of these opinions are wrong.

Urgently needed conservation of the site, overseen by the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in conjunction with the Solomon’s Pools Preservation and Development Initiative (funded by the United States Consulate in East Jerusalem) has led to some remarkable discoveries. The archaeological directors Matthew J. Adams, the Director of the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, and Mark Letteney, an incoming postdoctoral fellow at the University of Southern California, spoke to The Daily Beast about their discoveries.

The first stage of construction was to build a dam wall (125’ wide x 60’ tall) across the narrowest part of the valley. This dam became one wall of the Lower Pool. The next stage of construction involved digging through the limestone bedrock to marl (which is impermeable). Finally, walls on sides of the pool were erected and plastered over so that the structure could hold water.

At one place in the center of the dam wall, however, it is hollow. Letteney told me “At the center of the dam, about 75 feet underground, we found a vaulted (arched) tunnel leading to a larger vaulted room that serves as a meeting point for the outlet of the pool, and the outlet of a small spring that runs underneath the pool. The chamber connects these water sources with one of the aqueducts sending water on to Jerusalem.” Letteney and Adams knew that there was an underground passageway there because it was mentioned in earlier reports. But previous archaeologists had never legally entered the underground tunnel, discovered the stairway, or found a series of rooms that they call the “Spring House.” Though it had been illegally excavated at some point it had, for obvious reasons, been kept a secret. Letteney said “we were not prepared for what we found when we entered. The complex inside of the dam is magnificent. It is enormous — a 50 foot vaulted passage leads into a vaulted room 20 feet on each side, with 20 foot ceilings. When we looked right, we saw something unexpected, though: a stairway, built out of the same monumental blocks as the rest of the dam, leading up into the structure of the dam. The staircase must have originally lead to the top of the dam, but we found it sealed off by a stone vault.” It was at this point, they told me, that their initial foray was interrupted by a bat.

The Spring House complex turned out to be the key to unlocking the secrets of the Pools of Solomon. Excavating from the top of the dam down to find where the staircase would have lead, , they discovered a building, originally on top of the dam, that had white plastered walls and a distinctive floor that, Letteney said, “is known in Roman sites from Palestine in exactly one other place: the castra [military camp] of the Roman 6th Legion, 60 miles north, at Legio.” They also unearthed roof tiles identical to those that were custom made for the 6th and 10th Legions, stationed in the region. The water pipes used in the drainage channel are also identical to those used in the hydraulic system in Legio, where both Adams and Letteney excavate as well. “Matt and I have excavated thousands of these pipes, and when we saw them, we knew them,” said Letteney. (Letteney assures me he has other hobbies)

At this point it was clear to Letteney and Adams when the pools were built. The military camp of the sixth Legion was established after the Bar Kokhba revolt (or Third Jewish-Roman War), under Hadrian in the mid-second century C. E. This was the same time period when the Romans, including their highly skilled engineers, were re-founding Jerusalem as the city of Aelia Capitolina as a pagan Roman colony and city without Jews.

Analysis of the layers of plaster in the walls of the pools only confirmed this assessment. The Pools were first built by the Romans in the second century. A period of major reinforcement took place in the early middle ages, after an earthquake had rendered them unusable. A restoration and enlargement program, likely conducted under the auspices of Suleiman the Magnificent, took place in the 16th century. A final phase, begun by the British military in the early twentieth century, rounded out the evidence.

What this means, then, is that there is no biblical or archeological basis for claims that these pools evidence “activities of the Jewish nation in the Land of Israel,” as proponents of their ‘return’ advocate.”

“The problem with the story told to support the ‘return’ of The Pools to Israeli control is that it is wrong,” said Letteney, “The Pools are not Jewish. (Pools, for what it is worth, cannot be Jewish, Muslim, Christian, or Druze. I’ve spent a lot of time in these Pools and I’ve never once heard them pray.) They are also not Muslim. They are not Christian. If they “are” anything, they are Roman.” Currently, under the Oslo Accords, the Pools are located in Area A, an area of the West Bank where Israeli citizens cannot legally go. They border one of the largest and most politically important settlements in the West Bank.

The political context was something that Letteney was aware of as he worked. “There are deep, abiding, and fraught ethical issues involved in doing archaeology under military occupation.” The irony is that the situation of oppression and military occupation fits well with the original context of the construction of the Pools they were “were built under military occupation, in a moment when Jews were banished from their ancestral homeland Jerusalem.”

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