Adventuring beneath Jerusalem

I put one of my favorite Richard Halliburton quotes to the test the other day while exploring Jerusalem’s subterranean wonders:

“The more imagination one has, the more travel means.”

This quote goes a long way in answering my Big Question: Can today’s travelers have the same experiences as the travelers of the early 1900’s? When I first approached Hezekiah’s Tunnel on a sunny winter day in Jerusalem, I had my doubts. What had sounded like an intense adventure for Richard in 1931 was set up to be a massive disappointment in 2014. The ancient waterway that had been carved into the living rock beneath the ancient walls of Jerusalem had only been recently excavated in Richard’s day, but now it was a normal tourist attraction. In what ways had it changed?

Example 1: Richard and his friend Moye had to learn of the tunnel’s location from archaeologists living in Jerusalem. I used Trip Advisor.

Example 2: Richard and Moye rooted around an excavation site, following the sounds of flowing water to find the tunnel entrance. I followed large signs to a popular archaeological park, purchased a ticket, and was given a map.

Example 3: Richard and Moye explored an area that was barely excavated, with silt and rubble filling portions of the various tunnels. I had well-lit staircases and wide pathways leading me through an extensive network of tunnels, right to the start of Hezikiah’s Tunnel.

Fancy staircases leading to the start of Hezekiah's Tunnel.

Fancy staircases leading to the start of Hezekiah’s Tunnel.

With all that, I fully expected the ancient waterway to be a disappointment. I envisioned it enlarged, with a handrail installed along either side, and a string of lights to guide fumbling tourists to the other end in total safety.

Not so.

What I found instead was a slender gash in a cliff face, with water bubbling out of the spring at its entrance, and swiftly disappearing into the darkness beyond. My heart rate quickened just looking at it. I zipped off my pantlegs, stashed my money in my backpack, secured my camera up high, and turned on my flashlight. Not a soul was there to share the tunnel with me, and so I entered it alone. Perfect.

About to enter Hezekiah's Tunnel!

About to enter Hezekiah’s Tunnel!

Now, I’m neither claustrophobic nor scared of the dark, but when I stepped into that tunnel, with cool water rushing past my ankles, my eyes widened and my imagination went wild. It no longer mattered that it was full daylight somewhere above my head, or that thousands of people had walked through this tunnel before me. All sense of time and place vanished, leaving me with nothing but dilated pupils and a racing heart.

As I splashed through the darkness I dragged my fingers along the dripping wall, through the grooves left by pickaxes 2700 years ago. At times the tunnel narrowed to the width of my shoulders and the roof descended so low I had to duck. Other times the roof was so high the weak beam of my flashlight couldn’t reach it. Cold water dripped onto the exposed back of my neck, and my breath fogged in the humid air, curling into the beam of my light like a discontented spirit.

I clicked my light off, curious about the feel of the darkness. It was absolute, not a glimmer or spark anywhere. There was no difference in the darkness when I opened or closed my eyes, or when I waved my hand in front of my face. I could be anywhere. It could easily be 700 BC again, and I could be a resident of Jerusalem, sent to check on the spring during the endless siege of the city. Or it could be 1931, and I was following Richard and Moye as they laughed and joked in the darkness ahead of me.

Exploring the tunnel

Exploring the tunnel

Suddenly, the hard clop of footsteps echoed through the darkness, fast and loud, and right in front of me. Squelching a scream, I fumbled for my light, but when I turned it on I saw nothing but more tunnel disappearing ahead of me. Still the sound continued, insistent, frightening. Finally I recognized it for what it was—the waves from my own footsteps were splashing in a small indentation right at the water’s surface, a space that cupped the sound and threw it back into the tunnel at terrifying volume.

I had only just managed to calm my heart when it leapt again into my throat—immediately behind me a voice spoke, a deep murmur practically in my ear! I whipped around in the close confines of the tunnel, and again found nothing but empty air. The mysterious sound was swallowed by the darkness, never to return.

Eons later, or so it seemed, I rounded a corner and saw daylight reflecting on the water far ahead, and I was filled with a deep respect for the men who had carved this waterway to keep their city safe from sieges. The tunnel was not just famous for its role in providing drinking water to the citizens of ancient Jerusalem, but also for a remarkable feat of engineering: it had been started from opposite ends, and somehow the two teams had managed to find each other underground and join the two tunnels, an accomplishment commemorated by a carved plaque (and an abrupt change in the level of the floor).

The replica plaque before the light at the end of the tunnel.

The replica plaque before the light at the end of the tunnel.

Just as I was wondering where the plaque used to hang, I walked off the step that lies hidden beneath the water and stumbled into the lower of the two tunnels. There on the wall next to me was a replica of the original plaque. I touched the chisel marks around it, as Richard surely had in 1931, and I smiled. Despite the intervening years, my willingness to imagine myself in the past had enabled me to have quite an exciting time in Hezekiah’s Tunnel, an experience that paralleled Richard’s story in many ways. And with that thought, I emerged into the dazzling sunlight and rejoined the modern world.


Note: There’s a lot more to this story, far more than I can fit into a normal blog post. Further details will be in the book, including what I saw in Hezekiah’s Tunnel that exposes a big fat fib of Richard’s, the first significant one I’ve discovered on this adventure!

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  1. Cool! I just love how you keep going to places and “touching” things that Richard potentially touched and saw. Thats why I LOVE history so much! Can’t wait for your book someday :-)

  2. william r. taylor

    This was just what I was waiting for – to see if you would seek to duplicate Richard’s descent into the tunnel. Your initial words of disappointment at the “modernization” of the place disappointed me as it did you. However, when you actually stepped into the tunnel, found you were alone, and described the blackness and mysterious sounds, I was transported into that ancient eerie place too. My disappointment vanished because of the aura you created. I can’t wait until I read the book.

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