Walking underground to Robinson’s Arch

The 12th annual City of David Archaeological conference marked the official opening to the public of Jerusalem’s central drainage channel in the Tyropean valley from the Second Temple period. Thanks to the excavations by Reich and Shukron it is now possible to begin on the Herodian street beside the Siloam Pool, walk underground up the hill on the western stairs and then take a left to the drainage channel and continue, exiting on the Herodian street by the western wall below Robinson’s Arch, a distance of 650m. This is an incredible experience or in Hebrew, a havaya. You are walking on 2000 year old paving stones and in the drainage channel where Josephus writes that Jerusalem residents hid from the Romans until either they succeeded to flee the city or were discovered; you can see paving stones smashed so Roman soldiers could enter the channel.

It was Bliss and Dickie who in 1898 first discovered and documented the stepped street with a stone pavement and an underlying large drainage channel when they excavated a line of 9 shafts sunk across the width of the Tyropean 425m to the south of where Warren had excavated. In this southern section the channel is built of ashlars (large square cut stones) on bedrock and is covered with heavy stone slabs that are actually the paving stones of the street above.

Earlier Warren had sunk 7 shafts across the Tyropean at Robinson’s Arch. In a report for the Palestinian Exploration Fund (PEF) in 1867 he described two drainage channels, running generally north south, the western channel was unearthed about 4m from  the western wall and the eastern channel about 37m east of the southwestern corner. The western channel is quarried into the bedrock, about 4m deep and 1.2 m wide and roofed with an elongated vault. In two places, a large voussoir (a wedge-shaped stone used to construct an arch) fell during the building of Robinson’s arch and wedged itself  in the top of the channel; the vaulted roof was built around these stones. According to Mazaar and Ben-Dov who excavated this area in the 1970s, these stones fell before the street pavement was installed. They concluded from this that the channel was built earlier, in the time of Herod, while the street was paved afterward. Excavations by Reich and Billig in 1990s discovered 15 coins in the earth fill between the street and the vault, the latest of which was from the time of Pontius Pilate (23-26CE), implying a late dating of the middle of the first century for the street paving (time of Agrippa II).

In 1869, William “Crimea” Simpson (widely known for his firsthand coverage of the British campaign in the Crimean War) was sent by his employer the Illustrated London News to sketch the opening ceremony and scenes of the Suez Canal. On his way, he took the opportunity to visit Jerusalem on behalf of the PEF and made sketches of the excavations which Warren had undertaken of some ancient water tunnels. To provide sufficient light for him to sketch, they had to burn magnesium wire (Edison only invented the incadescent light bulb in 1879). This sketch was made into a watercolor painting – Henry Birtles, Warren’s assistant, leaning against the wall of the drainage channel with the large voussoir in the foreground. Interesting that we have illustrations and paintings from Warren but no photographs although the process was known from 1839. The daguerreotype, with its silver surface and minute detail, was very popular in both Europe and the US. At virtually the same time, Talbot published working methods for his photogenic drawing and the negative-positive calotype process in 1840. These provided the basis for photography until the digital age. Today you can stand where Birtles stood and take your photograph under the same stone still lodged in the channel.


7 thoughts on “Walking underground to Robinson’s Arch

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