Cisterns of David

Antwerp Mannerist, King David Receiving the Cistern Water of Bethlehem, 1515/20

On the road out of Bethlehem, opposite to the Syrian Catholic church there are three large cisterns still in use, hewn in the rock: they are the Cisterns of David, in Arabic Biar Dawd.

The Bible speaks of them in 2 Sm 23, 15 17: “Now David had a strong craving and said, ‘Oh, that someone would give me a drink of water from the cistern that is by the gate of Bethlehem!’. So the three warriors broke through the Philistine camp and drew water from the cistern that is by the gate of Bethlehem. But when they brought it to David he refused to drink it, and instead poured it out to the Lord, saying: ‘The Lord forbid that I do this! Can I drink the blood of these men who went at the risk of their lives ?’ So he refused to drink it”.

Beyond the cisterns there are also remnants of a church and of an underground cemetery. In 1895 a fragment of floor mosaic belonging to the church was found; an inscription could be seen with verses 19 and 20 of Ps 117: “Open to me the gates of justice; I will enter them and give thanks to the Lord. This gate is the Lord’s, the just shall enter it”.

At present the mosaic is buried under a cultivated field and further researches are impossible. When it was found, someone thought it belonged to David’s mausoleum, the traces of which had been lost since the 6th cent.

Although there is no archaeological evidence, yet it seems that David’s tomb should be located, according to Jewish tradition, on Mount Sion. Beneath the church there is an underground cemetery, formed by galleries with 18 arcosoliums, each of them with 2 to 6 burial troughs.

In 1962 the Custody of the Holy Land had some work done (Br. Michelangelo Tizzani) during which catacombs and arcosoliums were restored. Excavations brought to light many potsherds (4th cent.) and wall inscriptions (4th 6th cent.).

The most meaningful graffito is a Constantinian cross (4th cent.) engraved in the rock at the beginning of the cemetery, which affirms the Christian nature of the burial ground.

Pool of Salomon

The fortress of qala’atal-burak in Bethlehem is generally held to be of Turkish origin but it is likely that the structure is much older. The location of the castle allowed it to guard the so-called Solomon’s Pools of Bethlehem, on the road leading to Artas.

The three basins represented one of the principal water resources for Jerusalem, by means of an aqueduct that terminated at the Temple. These definitely existed at the time of Herod and may have been up to two centuries older.

The basins are approximately rectangular in shape and placed in line with the fortress in an east-west direction; on the northeast side is a passageway leading to a chamber where water surges from a natural spring, while all around numerous traces survive of water channels that collected water from the surface of the nearby hills.

The water was taken to the upper aqueduct through a pipe whose age is unknown; the water channel disappears into a tunnel at a place marked on the ground by a series of nine wells. At the exit of the tunnel the water channel continues towards the Wadi Bijar (Valley of the Wells) before disappearing into a new tunnel marked on the surface by around thirty wells that are still used by local farmers. This was in fact a sophisticated water system designed to collect additional water from the aquifer, reproducing a qanat system.

Remains of the lower aqueduct survive near the ruins of the Byzantine structure known as Deir al-Banat (Convent of the Maidens). In 1998 the situation appeared to have worsened with regard to that encountered five years earlier, due to the state of abandonment of the basins.


Shepherds' Field

The Milk Grotto

House of Saint Joseph

Hortus conclusus

Rachel's tomb  


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