Israel Razed the Last Orchard in Silwan in Search of Siloam Pool. It Still Can’t Be Found

For over four months, the Israeli Antiquities Authority and the settler NGO Elad excavated in East Jerusalem in an effort to find the most ancient and significant pool in Jerusalem’s history. It is possible that the lack of findings will require to redraw maps of ancient Jerusalem

In the early morning hours of December 27, 2022, a large police force arrived at an orchard belonging to the Sumarin family in Silwan, East Jerusalem.

The orchard, in which scores of olive, lemon, fig and other fruit trees were growing, as well as strawberries, was one of the last to survive the increasingly crowded neighborhood.

Police officers and security guards removed the family from the site while workers from Elad, an organization promoting Palestinian displacement by Jewish settlers, took down the fence.

“I tried to get in but a guard stopped me with pepper spray. He said that if I moved he would spray me,” said Shadi Sumarin, whose family had tended the orchard for decades.

At the same time, the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and Elad issued a joint statement to the media entitled: “The Ancient Siloam Pool (Breichat Shiloah in Hebrew) in the City of David National Park will be fully exposed again and opened to the general public.” Attached to the announcement were images of how the ancient and magnificent pool would look after it has been turned into “a major national and international archeological and historic site.” The pool, according to most archeologists, lies under the Sumarin family orchard.

A few days after the orchard’s trees were uprooted, the old terraces were destroyed and excavation began to uncover the ancient pool. Bulldozers were brought to the site to remove layers of earth, with scores of trucks lined up to carry it away, but to this day no signs of the pool have been uncovered.

In some places, workers have dug down several meters below where the pool’s floor was supposed to be and found nothing, just more earth empty of relics and no structural findings (walls, floors, or parts of buildings) at all.

Antiquities Authority researchers ask for more patience, saying that the work is still underway and that there are areas that have yet to be excavated. But it can be safely said that the ancient pool is not where it was supposed to be, or at least not in the way that researchers over the last decades have presumed it to be.

The excavation, financed with millions of shekels by the Tourism Ministry, not only raises questions about the archaeology of ancient Jerusalem, but ethical questions about when a dig causes more harm than good.

In ancient Jerusalem, the Siloam Pool was one of the city’s most important places. It is believed to be the pool mentioned in the Bible’s Book of Kings as one of the projects undertaken by King Hezekiah during the First Temple period. Archeologists say that during the Second Temple period, it was one of Jerusalem’s main urban centers. The pool wasn’t only the city’s most important reservoir, but its main mikveh, used by pilgrims before they ascended the Temple Mount. The pool is also mentioned in the New Testament, where it is said that Jesus used its water to restore sight to a man who was blind from birth.

Over the centuries, the pool that had once been the glory of Second Temple Jerusalem disappeared from sight. Archeologists posited that it would be found near the end of the Siloam tunnel that carries the waters of the Gihon Spring. During the Byzantine period, a church was erected at the site and next to it a small pool, and it was turned into a Christian holy place. Later, the Greek Orthodox Church, which was the successor to the Byzantine church, gained control of the site and its environs.

When German Air Force pilots took aerial shots of Jerusalem during the First World War in 1918, the area was green and was perhaps already being used as an orchard. A decade later, the church leased the land under the small pool to the Sumarin family, among the families that founded Silwan village.

The family tended the orchard long after others in the area succumbed to urban development. In 2004, without the knowledge of the family, the Greek Patriarchate sold the rights to lease the land to the Ateret Hacohanim nonprofit, which in turn transferred them to Elad. The transaction was done as part of a historic deal reached by Ateret Hacohanim and the patriarchate in 2005 in which the latter also sold two historic hotels near the Old City’s Jaffa Gate at below-market prices. The patriarch at the time was expelled from office and his successor tried unsuccessfully to back out of the deal.

No Findings

About six months ago, Elad demanded that the Sumarin family vacate the orchard and last December seized it with the assistance of the antiquities and nature and parks authorities.

“After years of anticipation, we are privileged to expose this important site and make it accessible to millions of visitors coming to Jerusalem,” Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon was quoted as saying in the celebratory press release that came out during the operation.

The Peace Now organization found that the 25 million shekels ($6.9 million) cost of the excavation was funded by the Tourism Ministry via the Jerusalem Development Authority. But then what happened is what often happens in the world of archeology – the site didn’t cooperate with the archeologists’ assumptions. In what was once an orchard, there is now a giant hole with barely a finding to justify it.

The assumption that the Siloam Pool would be found under the orchad was based on earlier digs that uncovered parts of the pool. In 2004, as an underground sewer pipe was being laid in Silwan, Antiquities Authority archeologist Eli Shukron happened by chance to be in the area and noticed that a bulldozer had exposed some ancient stone steps. Shukron stopped the work and called Prof. Ronny Reich to come over. At the time, the two were involved in excavations of the City of David. Reich remembered that another part of the same steps had been discovered by two American archeologists at the start of the 20th century. These two discoveries led to a dig in which three tens of meters of stairs were uncovered that led to what appears to be a very large public pool.

Based on that work and topographic logic Reich, sketched out the pool surrounded on all four sides by a large and luxurious structure that contained stairs leading down it. In a rendering attached to the press release it issued, Elad filled the pool with water, populated it with people and added a pilgrimage street that led from the pool to the Temple Mount.

Due to lack of finds, the excavation was carried out mostly with bulldozers, rather than slowly and more meticulously by hand. In much of the projected pool area, the bulldozers dig below the level where the floor was supposed to be, neither finding the pool nor the stairs around it.

A well-known rule in archeology is that you must be careful in reaching conclusions in the absence of actual findings. However, a number of archeologists who know the area will admit that they were surprised both by the fact that the dig was conducted with bulldozers and that it has failed to confirm the presence of the pool, at least not in the way archeologists over the past 20 years imagined it.

“It’s a surprise that in the area of the park, nothing’s been found,” said Reich. “I can’t explain it. For years, I had wanted to dig a trench between the trees to get to answers – how far beneath the surface the pool lies and whether there are steps on the other side. Now they made a godly mess there, and we didn’t get any answers, I hope that in the heat of battle, no data was lost there.”

In his book “Digging the City of David,” which was published in 2011, Reich wrote about the orchard: “There were those who said that all the orchard’s trees should be removed and the area dug up. I opposed that. It is a wonderful green corner of pomegranate and fig trees and helped us envision the king’s garden mentioned in the Book of Nehemiah.”

“If the dig failed to yield the expected results, it doesn’t mean the pool didn’t exist. This area is prone to flooding. The pool may have been damaged for some reason or partly dismantled in older days, with floods then sweeping away what remained. You can’t reach any definitive conclusions yet,” says Dr. David Gurevich, a research fellow at the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at Haifa University, who studies Jerusalem’s ancient pools.

Archaeologist Eli Shukron, Reich’s partner in the excavation of the pool’s eastern section, also believes the pool was dismantled over the generations. “I have no doubt that during the Second Temple period, the pool looked as described by Shukron and Reich, but later processes destroyed it,” says Shukron.

Nahshon Zanton, an archaeologist from the Antiquities Authority who is leading the excavation, admits that he too was surprised by the absence of findings, but explains that it’s too early to determine what the pool looked like. “Reich and Shukron’s reconstruction is reasonable and logical, and no one disputes it. I think it’s still correct,” says Zanton. He says that before bulldozers started digging, he conducted a preliminary investigation among the fruit trees, but this yielded nothing. “Archaeology tends to surprise and this site has a lot of potential. It hasn’t said its last word. It’s a prime location in Jerusalem. Anything coming out of there will be interesting and important.”

On the morning the dig started, archaeologists Alon Arad and Prof. Raphael Greenberg from Emek Shaveh, a human rights NGO trying to prevent the politicization of archaeology, warned against this excavation. In a letter to the director of the Antiquities Authority, Eli Escusido, they wrote: “We were astonished to learn about this operation, coordinated by the Authority and private organizations, during which Palestinian residents were forcibly removed from a plot they’ve been cultivating for decades, with an archaeological operation aimed at revealing the Siloam Pool.

“This operation, at the service of a private organization with controversial messianic ambitions, again makes archaeological excavations a political tool meant to promote the control of a few over the past and future of the city, dear to us all. The Antiquity Authority thereby sullies the entire Israeli archaeological enterprise, turning it into the property of a narrow sector in Israeli society,” they wrote.

Escusido’s response to Greenberg and Arad’s letter is instructive with regard to prevailing views at the Antiquities Authority concerning digs in the City of David and the residents of Silwan. He claimed that an excavation is preferable in any case, since it will create an important tourist magnet which will develop the entire area. He added: “I believe this is better than the site being a location for illegal trade in antiquities, while collecting protection money from tourists.”

Shadi Sumrin says that ever since the fruit orchard was taken from the family and the excavation commenced, he tries not to look at the site, even though the windows of his house face the pit that once was his orchard. “It’s very difficult. I turn away so as not to see it; we grew up on this land, we ate its fruit, and now there is nothing there.”