A Trip to Hell

I’ve been meaning to go to Hell for a while. Especially since I’ve been advised to do so on a number of occasions over the years. So yesterday I did. And Jenny sportingly came with me.

Here it is.


This is the Hinnom Valley. It runs round the south of Jerusalem’s Old City. In the Hebrew Bible it has the name “Ge Ben-Hinnom” (Valley of Ben Hinnom) which becomes “Gehenna” in the Greek of the New Testament, by way of the Aramaic “Gehinnam”. Most English translations of the bible render “Gehenna” as “Hell”.
But it doesn’t look all that bad, does it? In the words of an AC/DC song which I once endured being played at a funeral service I conducted, it seems that “Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be”.

At least, not this one. Not these days.

The explanation which is traditionally offered for this valley as the source of the imagery of Hell is that it was Jerusalem’s rubbish dump, and a fire burned perpetually in it. The inhabitants of the city, so the explanation goes, constantly fed the fire with their trash, and even with the bodies of their dead. I’ve heard this claimed by various preachers, and you find it repeated in the commentaries.1

But along with a lot of things we simply repeat without checking (e.g. that Jerusalem had a gate called the “needle”, and that the High Priest went into the Holy of Holies with a rope tied around him) the city dump tradition turns out to be very late in its origin, and therefore very unreliable.

Its earliest appearance, as noted by Day (1989) and others, is in Kimhi’s commentary on Psalm 27:13. Writing in around 1200AD, he describes Gehenna as “a despised place where they cast filth and corpses, and there was perpetually a fire for the burning of the filth and the bones of the corpses. On account of this the judgement place of the wicked is called Gehenna”.

This is, in fact, quite unlikely for two reasons. First, cremation has never been the way that Jerusalem has dealt with its dead (the only cremated human remains found in Jerusalem so far are Roman, see Barkay, 1994:91). And second, even if the bit about the corpses is an exaggeration, there’s no evidence (either archaeological or literary) that the Hinnom Valley was used as the city dump. Perhaps such evidence will one day come to light, but the recent discovery (Reich & Shukron, 2003) of an extensive city dump on the eastern slope of the City of David (i.e. not in the Hinnom Valley) would tend to make this seem less likely.

I should note that it’s possible there was a different kind of dumping going on in the Hinnom Valley in Late Second Temple times, but that’s a different story, and it’s not related to perpetually burning fires.

The real origin of the association between this valley and Hell is much more disturbing. I would personally be only moderately disconcerted by a municipal waste disposal facility as the root idea. But what we really have to face up to here is something much worse – an horrific ancient practice of child immolation by fire.

Listen to the prophet Jeremiah reporting God’s anger at the actions of the people of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 32:35):

They built high places for Baal in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molech, though I never commanded, nor did it enter my mind, that they should do such a detestable thing and so make Judah sin.

In this beautiful, sunlit valley, something truly dreadful used to happen.
So, who is this Molech character? I’m interested in him because it’s quite possible that he is mentioned in Zephaniah 1:5. I argued against this in my Master’s dissertation some years back, but now I’m starting to disagree with myself.

For most of the history of reading the bible, it has been assumed that Molech is some sort of god. Whose god exactly is debated. Is he a foreign import, or was he already loafing around in the Hinnom Valley, as it were, before the founding of Judahite Jerusalem? There doesn’t seem to be enough concrete evidence to allow a firm conclusion.

Whatever Molech’s personal history, that he required the sacrifice of children, and that such a thing actually appears to have been done in this valley for his benefit is sufficient to qualify Ge Ben-Hinnom as the starting point for ideas about hell. It’s hard to think of many things which are more horrific.

When you add to this the observation that the valley’s lowest point is also the lowest point of the city of Jerusalem, you can start to see how it might be seen as a natural contrast to the dwelling place of God on the heights of Zion.

From the depths of the “hell” of the Ben Hinnom Valley, Jenny and I hiked back up into the Old City, where, because pilgrims are scarce in this city at the moment, we were able to enter the tomb of Christ in the Holy Sepulchre (I have written about the significance of this church here), and from there to visit the Cenacle, with its strong associations not so much with the Last Supper as is popularly claimed, but with the gathering of the first disciples at Pentecost.

IMG_2782 - Copy

View of the inner depths within the Edicule of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre


It’s only now on reflection that I realize that, without planning it, we walked the contours of the gospel message.




1 I briefly consulted a few commentaries on Matthew’s Gospel. I found the standard view stated in F D Bruner (1987); H B Green (1975); R H Gundry (1986); D Hill (1972); J F O’Grady (2007). L Morris (1992 : 115 n92) claims that there is “some evidence” for the city dump theory and references TDNT I.657-68. This turns out to be an article by J Jeremias who actually doesn’t seem to mention the tradition at all. Davies & Allison (1988 : 515) say that “The standard view … is without ancient support although it could be correct”.

Dirt Sifting, Pesher Habbakuk, Babel

Yesterday I crashed a conference. It’s being organized by the Ecumenical Theological Research Fraternity in Israel (its aims are set out here) and throughout the week it is hosting a varied and interesting range of speakers. The conference is taking place at the Hotel Yehuda in South-West Jerusalem, which is a bit tricky to get to by bus from where I’m staying, so I went on my bike. The route was most enjoyable – apart from the hills. It took me along the new cycle trail which runs along next to the train line.

First up was Professor Gabriel Barkay who directs the Temple Mount Sifting Project.

IMG_2609 - Copy

Brief history for those who are interested: the Haram ash-Sherif (Arabic for “Noble Sanctuary”), or Har HaBayit (Hebrew for “Hill of the House”, or “Temple Mount”) is managed by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf. The history and the politics are complicated, but this is the status quo.  In 1999-2000 the Waqf conducted a large scale construction project on the site without archaeological supervision. The purpose was to dig out an entrance to the so-called Solomon’s Stables, an ancient subterranean structure at the south-eastern corner of the site, which has been converted into a mosque which can accommodate 15,000 worshippers. The dirt which was dug out (tons of it) was dumped – some near the ancient town of Bethany, but most in the Kidron Valley. Larger items were picked out before the dirt was moved, and if you walk along the eastern side of the Temple Mount platform today, you can see piles of stuff, including ashlars, bits of columns, capitals etc. It’s a terrible mess. In my five visits there over the last couple of months I’ve discovered that if you take too much interest in this stuff, you very quickly get shooed away.

Rubble on the Temple Mount

Rubble on the Temple Mount

The purpose of the Temple Mount Sifting Project is to go through all of the dirt which was dumped in the Kidron Valley, sieve by sieve, to see what’s in there. Professor Barkay gave us a summary of the story and of the finds so far.

Most interesting to me is that a lot of Byzantine material has been found. The usual story told is that after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD70, the Temple Mount was abandoned – left to become a wasteland. The Christians, it is said, in the 4th-7th centuries, had no interest in the site, preferring to leave it desolate as evidence of God’s judgement on the place. The finds, however, suggest that a different story should be told. There are plenty of Byzantine materials among them – coins, bits of buildings, floor tiles, pendants, even dice.

Second up was Professor Lawrence Schiffman of New York University who gave us an introduction to Pesher Exegesis in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In order to do this he took us through Pesher Habakkuk, explaining what the writer was doing with Habakkuk’s prophecy, and drawing some parallels and contrasts with some of the treatment of OT texts in the Gospels.

Lastly I went to a seminar on the Hebrew Text of Genesis 11:1-9, the story of the Tower of Babel, led by Rev Aart Brons. What was particularly amusing about this was that among the 20 or so participants at least 7 different first languages were spoken. The point of verses 6 and 7 of the text seems to be that speaking different languages makes it more difficult to cooperate. We tried.

There was a bit too much participation in small groups to take good notes in the last session!

There was a bit too much participation in small groups to take good notes in the last session!

O Little Town

Things I’m not going to talk about until I get home. Some photos.

DSC00239IMG_2130IMG_2118 IMG_2123

IMG_2125 - Copy

Digging Mount Zion


Digging Mount Zion at sunrise


For years I have been reading books and articles by archaeologists and, on and off, trying to think about what light their findings might shed on the biblical studies I have been doing. But I’ve always felt that I’d have a better understanding if I knew how archaeologists go about their task of digging things up. So I have joined Dig Mount Zion for two weeks of my sabbatical. At this point, I am half way through my fortnight.

To be honest, it feels like some kind of community service sentence. Each day I get up at 4am, cycle into Jerusalem (because it’s too early for the busses), and then spend about six hours pick-axing the ground, shovelling the yielded dirt into buckets, and then moving those buckets of dirt down the hill into large bags which will eventually be taken away by crane-and-lorry and dumped God-knows-where.

It’s hot (35C yesterday), it’s tiring, and it’s filthy (of course). And then, in the most extreme heat of the day, I get to cycle five miles back to Tantur, where I am living.

There are compensations, however. The first is getting to work with people from around the world whom I would not otherwise have met. They are all very interesting and inspiring, and I’m extremely glad to have met them and to have been able to have been part of a team with them. The second is getting to see the sun rise over Jerusalem on the cycle journey in. That is astonishingly beautiful. The third is getting fit and strong. I haven’t felt better physically for the last two decades! And the fourth is that you do sometimes turn up something interesting. Here’s a bit of pottery with a bunch of grapes on it that I spotted. I don’t know when it dates from – it’s probably not very old at all – but at least it feels like a find!



A Walk to Talpiot

I went for a walk to Talpiot today.

IMG_2300 - Copy

I was going to go on my bike but unfortunately there is a puncture in the front wheel’s inner tube.

The reason for my visit was a kind invitation from Emanuel Hausman, founder and Chairman of Carta Jerusalem, to meet with him while I am here.

Carta is a publishing house specializing in cartographical resources for the study of the Holy Land. Given my own geeky interest in this area, this was a very exciting invitation for me.

So I walked to Talpiot, a southern suburb of Jerusalem, about 40 minutes on foot from where I’m staying at Tantur, where Emanuel and his son Shay (the CEO) treated me both to lunch and to a couple of hours of their delightfully charming company. We discussed matters cartographical, archaeological, and pedagogical, and I was privileged to see a demo of an online resource they are developing. Some of it is already accessible, but there is more behind the scenes, almost ready for launch, which I could immediately see would be very useful indeed for teachers and preachers.

As I left, Emanuel directed me to a store across the road called “Ace” (which turned out to be much like B&Q) where I was able to purchase this:


(Incidentally, for those who may have a passing interest in this matter, it turns out that this is also where you can purchase trowels in this country.)

On my walk back I hopped over a makeshift fence to have a look at this place.


It may not look like much, but this is what is left of the Kathisma, described by Haaretz newspaper as “the most important ancient church you never heard of”.

Although it is known from Byzantine sources, the location of this church was lost for centuries until the 1990’s when a project to widen the Hebron Road turned it up. The route of the road was altered so as not to disturb the site, but not a great deal has been done with it since. As can be seen, it is overgrown and neglected.

“Kathisma” is the Greek word for “seat”, and legend has it that this is where the pregnant St Mary rested on the journey to Bethlehem. The church was built around the rock in the centre: the rock being Mary’s supposed resting place.

Whether or not this legend has any historical basis [and see Murphy-O’Connor (2008 : 173) for cogent reasons why it probably does not], what we have here is a large octagonal building constructed around a chunk of venerated bedrock. Precisely what we also have in the Dome of the Rock on the Haram ash-Sharif, only this one was built a couple of centuries earlier in the C5th.

There are some very beautiful mosaic floors here. They are covered with sand to afford them a meagre degree of protection, but you can see them if you brush the sand aside. No one seems to notice, let alone care, if you lurk around engaging in such behaviour. I did so engage, and was so excited I forgot to take a photo.

So I’ll leave you tonight with a photo I did think to take.

IMG_2308 - Copy

The front wheel of my bicycle, easily removed with the wrench I bought from Ace. Now I just need to locate the puncture.





Bank Holiday Update

Jenny tells me that people keep asking her when I’m going to post something new on my sabbatical blog. So here’s what I’ve been doing for the last couple of weeks.

I had a lovely holiday for the first week of the period in question with the Revd Ade Evans and Mr Chris Bright QC, who came to visit me. We walked around Jerusalem a fair bit, drove down to Masada, and then up to Tiberias. They asked me lots of questions which I couldn’t answer and then, sadly for me, they went home.

IMG_2135 - Copy

The Revd Ade Evans looking cool in the courtyard of Christ Church Guest House


Mr Chris Bright QC considering whether a spot of rappelling might be in order

The highlights for me (next to the deep theological reflection which we of course engaged in daily) were (1) the “Tomb of the Prophets” on the Mount of Olives, and (2) excavated Magdala in the Galilee. I loved the sweet apologetic nature of the Russian Orthodox chap who seems to live in (1) who knew full well that Haggai, Zechariah, & Malachi had never really been buried there, but wasn’t allowed to admit it. And I had a great conversation with the Mexican archaeologists at (2) who had absolutely no idea why a few (and just a few) Herodian ashlars had turned up in the Magdalene synagogue. “We’re hoping someone will come up with a theory” they told me.


Excavated synagogue at Magdala


As for the second week, I have mostly spent it in the library. Sorry, I know that’s a bit dull.

Although on Thursday I got to visit the inside of the Al Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock, both of which have been mostly closed to tourists since the Second Intifada. I also visited the Jewish Quarter, where I had an exhausting conversation with a party of schoolgirls at the Cardo, who were very keen to know if I personally knew One Direction. And I met a chap called Evan, who, like me, was trying to gain access to the Israelite tower uncovered by Nahman Avigad in the 60’s. We failed: it’s locked up because of the drug addicts, and no-one seems to know who has the key to the gate which guards it.

The library work, I fully understand, is not of much interest beyond the world of my own small mind – it all relates to a long fascination I have had with the prophecy of Zephaniah.

And so now, I am drinking this.

IMG_2276 - Copy

It is made by nuns.


Silwan (Part 2)

The second part of my morning on the 5th (for the first part see the previous post) included a small resident of the village of Silwan pretending to shoot me, and a walk through the Kidron Valley followed by a herd of goats.


I left the Pool of Siloam on the east side. The school parties were all getting coached back up the hill, and the tourists were paying 5 shekels to get a minibus ride back up to the Old City. I turned left and started to walk through the village of Silwan.

I have to admit to being slightly anxious about this venture, because this is not always a particularly calm part of East Jerusalem. Google “Silwan” and click on “News” (or just click here) and you’ll see what I mean. Besides, no one else was going this way. But they should. I bought some supplies from the little village shop, not because I needed them, but because I felt they ought to have some tourist dollars. There’s much more to write on all this, but now isn’t the sensible time.

Up ahead as I walked along the street was a multi story house with a group of six children – all about five years old – on a square balcony. They were calling to me and waving, even from quite a distance. I guess I wasn’t really blending in with my DMs and my straw hat.

I stopped at the foot of the house and called up to them “!مساء الخير” which entertained them greatly.

They shouted some things back at me which I did not understand. I can only say five things in Arabic with any confidence, despite the course I went on at the University of Birmingham – although I can read the road signs, which is nice.

One of the boys had a green toy gun which he shot at me. I pretended to be wounded. They loved it. As I walked on I wondered whether maybe I shouldn’t have done that.

After passing a few more homes, a school, some kind of centre – all perfectly peacefully – I began the walk along the path up the Kidron Valley in the direction of Gethsemane.

IMG_2075 - Copy

I wanted to do this because I feel quite sure that this must have been the route taken by Jesus and his disciples after they had eaten the Last Supper together.

The traditional site of the Last Supper is pointed out on Mount Zion1 where the Coenaculum stands today. Although this site is undoubtedly one with important historical significance dating back to the early Christian era (more about this another time, maybe) and its association with the events of Pentecost is reasonably solid, its connection to the Last Supper is tenuous.

Here’s a relatively uncontroversial map of Herodian Jerusalem, drawn by Leen Ritmeyer.


He’s marked out the Pool of Siloam in the south, which is helpful, and I’ve very clumsily marked it up to include the site of the Coenaculum on Mount Zion (I’m sorry, I didn’t bring any decent digital tools with me, I only have Microsoft Paint).

So, Mark’s gospel tells the story of how the guest room for the celebration of the Last Supper was secured. It’s a bit cloak-and-dagger. Two unnamed disciples are sent by Jesus to the city on the lookout for a man carrying a jar of water (Mark 14:13). I am assuming that they make the journey from Bethany, which is where the first part of the chapter is set. This means that they enter the city from the east – and given the paucity of water sources on the east side of the city, ones eye is drawn to the Pool of Siloam in the south-east, a known public water supply.

The account is clearly short on detail. How were the disciples to know which man carrying the jar of water was the man? Perhaps he was also carrying a copy of the Financial Times under his left arm, and was all set and ready to respond to a question about the weather in Paris – I don’t know. But, the point is, we have to try to make sense of the clues we do have.

Why would you carry a jar of water from the Pool of Siloam all the way up to a house in the Upper City? You wouldn’t. It makes no sense. Archaeological excavations on Mount Zion have demonstrated that houses in this area had cisterns. If you’re on Mount Zion and you need some water, then get it from your own supply. Or your neighbour’s.

The most likely explanation, cloak-and-dagger stuff aside, is that the room Jesus was going to rent for the Last Supper was not too far from the Pool of Siloam.

What this means is that the walk to Gethsemane after the supper had been eaten was essentially a journey north up the Kidron Valley.

One possible point of confusion here is John 18:1, which, if your bible translation of choice is the NIV, you will know says that “When he had finished praying, Jesus left with his disciples and crossed the Kidron Valley.” At first sight, this would appear to rule out the route I am describing.

I’m saying that Jesus walked up the wadi, following its path; the NIV says that Jesus “crossed” the valley to get to Gethsemane. So, a bit like when we talk about “crossing the road” this conjures up the image of Jesus’ party taking the shortest route they could from one side to the other.

This is unfortunate, and surely unintentional on the part of the NIV translators. The verse could more closely be rendered “Saying these things, Jesus went out with his disciples – to the other side of the Kidron valley where there was a garden”. It is not the purpose of the description to set out the route in detail; the purpose is to make clear the destination.2

So I’m convinced that, having eaten the Last Supper with his disciples, Jesus made his way from the vicinity of the Pool of Siloam up the Kidron Valley to Gethsemane with his disciples. This is the route I walked, leaving the village of Silwan and the excitable kindergarten behind.

I’m glad I did. Even though I was, quite bizarrely, followed up the valley by a herd of goats whose shepherd got in to trouble with the police as they approached the Church of All Nations.

IMG_2084 - Copy

I ran up the bank a bit to take this photo. Spot the goats.

For a long time I have read the account of Gethsemane, and have felt that it describes Jesus at his most vulnerable and weakest moment. The falling to the ground, the pouring sweat (not sweating actual blood, just sweating in the manner of blood pouring from the head, read Luke 22:44 carefully), the garbled prayer (“Take this cup”, yet, “Your will be done” – which we read far too calmly in church as if it all makes logical sense) all points towards something like a mental breakdown.

Walk the route. You’ll see it, I’m sure. To your right, and up above you, your route is lined with graves. It is now. It was then. Some of these graves are extremely imposing, like the Tomb of Pharaoh’s daughter and the tomb of Absalom. This is the valley of the shadow of death.

IMG_2076 - Copy

And if you’ve already come to realize that your own death is imminent, what would this sight, by the light of the Passover moon, do to your soul?


1 Just to confuse us all, there are three Mount Zions. The first is the Fortress of Zion, the place the bible says was conquered by King David, on the lower south eastern hill of Jerusalem (where the Siloam tunnel is, which I wrote about yesterday). The second is the site of the Temple Mount to the north, which gets called “Zion” by extension. The third is the south western hill, to which the name “Zion” became attached even by the first century AD when Josephus wrote his history of the Jewish war against the Romans. It’s this third Mount Zion I’m talking about here.


2 Similar language is used in the same gospel in Chapter 6, which describes Jesus going to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. He clearly didn’t take the direct route across the lake, because a great crowd followed him. The author of the gospel doesn’t expect us to imagine a flotilla tearing across the lake in pursuit of Jesus, sailing alone. Again, the destination is the point – not the route.

Silwan (Part 1)

I haven’t written anything for a few days, mostly because I’ve been reading these two fat books, and some journal articles, and have been going through the prophecy of Zephaniah again (which is what I wrote my Master’s thesis on in 2003). It’s going to be a while before I’m ready to write anything about all of that.


But I hear folks at home want an update! Yesterday I went out into the sunshine again to do some things which are maybe a bit more entertaining to read about. I took what everyone calls the “Arab bus” into Jerusalem (it only costs 5½ shekels, which is about £1) and walked from the Jaffa Gate down to the village of Silwan. This is where you can visit the “City of David”, the oldest part of Jerusalem, although it now lies outside the city wall.

This is a complex part of East Jerusalem, with complex politics, where the academic exercise of archaeology serves multiple ends. I’ll not write any more about that at the moment for reasons I’ll explain when I get back home.

I came here with Jenny in 2010, but there were a couple of things I wanted to do which I thought I could combine. One was to try to get a better understanding of the complex ancient water systems focussed around the Gihon spring. The other was to walk what I think must be the route to Gethsemane taken by Jesus and his disciples after the Last Supper.

Everyone agrees that the reason Jerusalem finds its origin on the South Eastern hill, rather than on the higher, more easily defensible, surrounding hills is that there is water there. The Gihon rises in a cave on the eastern slope of the hill. A complex system of ancient tunnels testifies to various schemes through the ages employed to move pool this water, or to move it to the south of the city.

The most famous of these feats of engineering is what has become to be known in recent years as “Hezekiah’s Tunnel”. Here’s a nice, over-simplified map, nicked from the Biblical Archaeological Review, illustrating this solution and ignoring the other more ancient ones.


Over a length of 533 meters this tunnel carries the water from the spring downwards (a change in height of just 30cm across its length) through a pitch dark tunnel to a pool, known in Second Temple times as the Pool of Shelakh/Siloam (Nehemiah 3:16; John 9; Josephus, Wars 5.140).

The reason this tunnel has become known as “Hezekiah’s Tunnel” is that in four places the bible describes the king undertaking a project such as this (2 Kings 20:20, Isaiah 22:9-11; 2 Chronicles 32:1-4, and 2 Chronicles 32:30). If this identification is correct, then it means the tunnel was cut in the years leading up to the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem is 701 BC.

An inscription found inside the tunnel describes its method of construction:

And this was the matter of the tunnelling. While [the hewers wielded] the axe, each man toward his fellow, and while there were still three cubits to be he[wn, there was hear]d a man’s voice calling to his fellow, for there was a zdh1 in the rock on the right and [on the lef]t. And on the day of the tunnelling through, the hewers hacked each man toward his fellow, axe upon axe. And there flowed the waters from the spring toward the reservoir for two hundre[d and] a thousand cubits. And a hu[nd]red cubits was the height of the rock above the head(s) of the hewers.

Last time I went through this tunnel I didn’t notice the “join” where the two groups of tunnellers met and I was quite keen to have a good look at it this time. However, at the time I turned up yesterday – about 10am – it was just when all the school parties were arriving. Lots and lots of excited children whooping and screaming as they stepped into the watery darkness of the tunnel. The problem is you can’t really stop if there are people behind you, because there’s not enough width in the channel for anyone to pass you. And you certainly can’t start insisting that people turn round and go back if you think you’ve missed something.

So I waited until the screams of the children had faded away in the distance, and then I set off. Being on my own I was acutely aware that the only light source I had was my own torch. It’s completely pitch dark in there, and it would have been wise to bring spare batteries or a second torch!

Eventually to my great satisfaction I found the “join”. As can be seen on the map above, the tunnel is very twisty in the region of the join, almost certainly bearing witness to a trial-and-error final stage in the word of the two cutting crews. The heights of the two tunnels are slightly different too, which is something I attempted to capture in this photograph. I fear I may have failed.

IMG_2059 - Copy

At the “join” in the Siloam Tunnel

When you emerge from the south side of the tunnel you reach what used to be thought to be the pool of Siloam. The rags-to-riches Empress Aelia Eudocia (401-460 AD) thought so, and had a church built there, the remains of which can be seen today.

However, on the 30th May 2004, Gihon, the municipal water company, started digging a channel in a nearby orchard in order to replace a sewage main. Within minutes their bulldozer struck some ancient steps. The work was stopped, and the area properly excavated, and lo-and-behold, the true Pool of Siloam once again saw the light of day.


Or at least part of it. The rest of it lies under the orchard belonging to the Greek Orthodox Church.

IMG_2065 - Copy

I spent some time here drying my feet and the soggy bits at the bottom of my trouser legs, thinking of the people of Second Temple Jerusalem who came here for vital supply of water that the pool provided. And of the man who once came here to wash spit-formed mud from his eyes, and went away having experienced the power of Jesus.

The Siloam Pool marked the end of the first part of my day, and the start of the next part. I’ll write about that tomorrow, while everyone at home is busy at the polling booths.




1 Hebrew word of uncertain meaning. Perhaps “fissure”.

2 The story is very entertainingly told by Ronny Reich, Excavating the City of David (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 2011) 225-236.


Here’s my bike. I bought it today.

IMG_2029 - Copy


It was always my plan to get a bike early on in my sabbatical, but the reality of obtaining it did not match the fantasy I began to hatch in my mind a year ago. I thought perhaps there were used bike sellers with whom you could sit down in the sun, drink coffee, and discuss the price. I couldn’t find any of those. What I did find, by using (have a go) was a bloke selling ex rental bikes from the Rav Shefa shopping centre in North West Jerusalem.

So after a journey on the Arab bus, and then the Jerusalem Light Rail, and a bit of a walk, I located the place. There is a small shopping centre there, but the bike shop I’d envisaged was nowhere to be seen. After asking a guard “Ofanayim?” (The beautiful word invented by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the reviver of Hebrew, for a bicycle – made from the biblical word for wheel [see e.g Ezekiel 1:15] with the addition of the dual suffix) I was directed to the car park basement of the shopping centre.

There, in the dingy gloom, I discovered a gent with a large pile of bikes in various states of disrepair. This bit of Shamgar St is quite an Orthodox neighbourhood, and my request that we might converse in English was met with considerable disdain. So we had to make use of my exceptionally ropey Hebrew, and a calculator to communicate prices as we haggled.

After about half an hour of fairly heated debate in this manner, I emerged out of the car park into the daylight with this white bicycle, which seems to be reasonably functional.

There were three things I hadn’t really fully thought through at this point. The first was the heat (it’s about 31C today), the second was the distance I had to cycle it to where I’m staying (given that I have done virtually no exercise for about twenty years), and the third was the hills.

Jerusalem is extremely hilly.

Psalm 121 makes more sense to me now than it ever has. And at various points on the journey home I wondered the same thing the psalmist does in the first verse.

But eventually I made it … in this state:

IMG_2028 - Copy

And here is my reward…

IMG_2030 - Copy

…along with the answer in Ψ121:2, of course.


Pictures of Walls

Just a few pictures of walls, because walls are of course Most Interesting.

Yesterday I went on the Kotel Tunnels Tour. You have to join a tour because that’s the only way they let you down the tunnels which take you along the outside face of the western wall of Herod’s Temple. The spoken content of the tour was a bit dull, mostly history which I already know. I hung at the back of the group so I could have a better look after the tour guide had disappeared into the distance (and have  a good & proper feel of the stones).

So here’s a beautiful example of Herodian masonry, each block with its perfect margin, and the course above set back a tiny bit from the course below.


And here’s a weird thing. Eventually the tunnel you walk through meets the 1st century street level. This is because the street was on a hill rising to the north, and the tunnel you walk through is pretty much level. That’s not the weird thing, that’s background. So here’s a gorgeous Herodian pavement, with the temple wall to the right (actually at this point, made out of the bedrock), and then slap bang in front of the uncompleted pavement is a biiig chunk of rock.

IMG_1988 - Copy - Copy 2

This was open to the sky in the first century, of course, not stuck in a tunnel, and the wall with the light behind the chunk of rock would not have been there. So if you were walking up this street, next to the magnificent temple wall, you would have encountered this slightly messy unfinished feature. Perhaps someone has done some work on this, I don’t know – but surely this must have stood out? Is it mentioned by – or alluded to in – any contemporary sources?

That was yesterday. Today, with great excitement, I visited the Kishle, the long building south of the Citadel, seen in the centre of this picture. Again I had to join a tour, but this tour guide (a medical student, she told me when I enquired) really knew her stuff.


Originally an Ottoman prison, and also used as such during the years of the British Mandate, and the Jordanian rule of the Old City, this structure stands over what has long been suspected to have been the site of Herod’s palace (just the northern bit, the palace grounds would have been vastly more extensive).

Excavations began over a decade ago, but it’s only in the last few months that Joe Public has been allowed to have a gander. What’s in here is thousands of years of history, including, yes, part of the retaining walls of Herod’s palace.

Just as exciting, though it may not look like much, is part of a city wall which has been dated to the time of Hezekiah, giving valuable information about the extent of the city in Hezekiah’s time.

DSC00205 - Copy


I have also engaged with modern Jerusalem life over the last three days – bought some stuff, seen some interesting things, learned some words. I might write a Shabbat Round Up of that tomorrow, because I don’t want to forget it.


Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑