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Underground in Jerusalem with Charles Warren

Underground in Jerusalem with Charles Warren

It all started on a hot summer’s day in 1865.  British Baroness Angela Burdett Coutts, on a pilgrimage to the holy city, was thirsty.  When Mahmoud, her guide, drew up a bucket of stinking water from a courtyard cistern, Coutts thought to herself, would Jesus have drunk such smelly water?  And what about King David?

When she returned to England, Coutts donated 500 pounds sterling to help establish the Palestine Exploration Fund.  She convinced her friend and neighbor Vicky to be a sponsor of the new organization.  (Vicky, by the way, was none other than Queen Victoria.)  The goal of the P.E.F. was to promote research into the archaeology and history, manners and customs, culture, topography, geology and natural sciences of biblical Palestine and the Near East.

1869 drawing of the Temple Mount

Illustration in the Land and the Book by W. M. Thomson, published 1869

Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount at the time of Charles Warren

Two years later, the P.E.F. sent 27-year-old Lieutenant (later Captain) Charles Warren of the British Royal Engineering Corps to Jerusalem.  His instructions were to investigate the site of the Temple, the line of fortifications, the City of David, and the authenticity of the traditional Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  Warren had previously made a name for himself by perilously scaling and charting the Rock of Gibraltar.

In February 1867, Warren, a buddy from the Gibraltar climb named Corporal Henry Birtles, (promoted to sergeant during the course of the expedition), two other corporals, a photographer, a surveyor and 8 mule-loads of equipment including crowbars, ropes, jacks, handspikes, blocks and wheels, arrived in Jerusalem.
At the time, the Ottoman Turks ruled the holy land and holy city.  As the firman (permit) to dig had not yet arrived from Constantinople, Warren insisted that the British consul arrange a meeting for him with the pasha, the Turkish ruler of Jerusalem.  To the consul’s surprise, Warren convinced the pasha to approve digging around (but not inside) the Haram es-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary, known to us as the Temple Mount.  A Moslem ruler would not allow an excavation inside the Haram, third holiest site to Islam, containing the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque.

Charles Warren in an underground shaft

Warren, however, was not deterred.  He hired local diggers and at a distance from the outer walls of the Temple Mount, he dug a number of shafts and then began to tunnel towards the Temple area.  The people of Jerusalem noted he was always underground and nicknamed him “The Mole.”

At one point, the curious pasha wanted to see what was going on underground, and demanded to be let down the shaft.  The pasha was slowly lowered on a board attached to two ropes and just before he reached the tunnel leading towards the Temple Mount, expedition members holding the ropes began to yank them.  The frightened pasha shrieked and begged to be pulled up above ground.  Wiping the sweat off his forehead, the pasha congratulated Warren on his bravery.

Wilson and Warren, The Recovery of Jerusalem

Warren works by light of a candle in one of the underground shafts, 1869
When the firman finally arrived from Constantinople, Warren was startled to read
that the expedition was permitted to dig everywhere, except for Christian and Moslem religious sites.  Well, that was exactly where he intended to excavate.  Warren decided to wave the firman around and say “I got it,” but be sure to show it to no one.
For the next few months, he and his team sank shafts around the Temple Mount, digging down through more than 130 feet of rubble to reach bedrock.  The task was difficult and dangerous, as the mountain of debris above their heads tended to shift. They had a procession of “lucky escapes,” when falling stones nearly crushed them
to death.

One nineteenth century British historian wrote, “It was Warren who stripped the rubbish from the rocks and showed the glorious temple standing within its walls 1,000 feet long and 200 feet high, of mighty masonry.  It was he who laid open the valleys now covered up and hidden; he who opened the secret passages, the ancient aqueducts, the bridge connecting the temple and the town.”  (Warren, in fact, found not the walls of the temple, but the outer retaining walls of the temple platform.)

Warren's Excavations near Robinson's Arch

Wilson and Warren, The Recovery of Jerusalem

Warren’s excavations near Robinson’s Arch 1867-1870


Robinson's Arch in 2005

Photo: Gila Yudkin

Robinson’s Arch and the southwest corner of the Temple Mount, 2005

Warren’s greatest contribution was his suggestion that Jerusalem D.C. (David’s Capital) lay outside the medieval walls of the Old City.  At that time, everyone believed that the “Old City” was the old city, meaning fortifications from the days of David were located somewhere below the present city walls.  However, at the bottom of one of Warren’s shafts outside the south-eastern corner of the Temple Mount, Warren found the remains of a massive city wall that was leading southwards, away from the walls of the Old City.
As Warren tunneled alongside this wall for some 700 feet, he noted that it went way beyond the limits of the city.  The wall itself later proved to be fifth century AD, but the possibility, never before considered, arose that the earlier city could have been located south of the Temple Mount and the city walls, close to the city’s source of water, the Gihon Spring.

At the end of October 1867, Warren and his team explored a man-made conduit, leading away from the Gihon Spring.  Warren recorded in his journal that in the beginning it was easy walking until they reached 600 feet into the tunnel. Then they began crawling on all fours.  As they saw bits of cabbage-stalks floating by, they realized that the waters had started to rise.  Warren described himself with a pencil, compass and field book in his hands, and the candle for the most part in his mouth.  He and Birtles had just 4 inches breathing space.  When observing, his mouth was under water.
At 900 feet into the tunnel, they discovered false turns and began to go in a zigzag direction.  It was here that Warren inadvertently swallowed part of his lead pencil, nearly choking.  When they came out shivering, it was dark.  They had been nearly four hours in the water.

(Today, the 1750 foot walk through Hezekiah’s Tunnel is a LOT more fun.  It takes us some 40 minutes – and the water is only knee-high!)

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Where the tunnel began at the spring, Warren noticed that the water first collected in an underground, cave-like chamber.  With the help of his team and local Arab workers, Warren cleaned out the cave and found the entrance to a tunnel.  He followed it for 40 feet, where it ended in a curious shaft which rose into the darkness above his head.  A few days later, Warren and Birtles returned to climb the shaft.
“By jamming the boards against the side of the shaft, we succeeded in getting up 20 feet,” reported Warren in a letter.  “On lighting a piece of magnesium wire, we could see 20 feet above us, a piece of loose masonry impending directly over our heads and as several loose pieces had been found at the bottom, it occurred to both of us that our position was critical.  Without speaking of it, we eyed each other ominously and wished we were a little higher up.”

The intrepid Royal Engineers kept climbing to find another tunnel at the top of the shaft and a series of caves leading up towards a blocked entrance.  Slowly, it dawned on Warren that he had unearthed a hidden water system leading to the spring from somewhere on the southeastern ridge.  This, coupled with the ancient wall and the tunnel leading to the Pool of Siloam, had striking implications. It meant that there had definitely been a settlement outside the medieval walls of the city.

Controversy raged for another hundred years until the implications of Charles Warren’s discovery became accepted by all.  This was in the 1960s, when Kathleen Kenyon, also digging under the auspices of the P.E.F., revealed the 18th century BC city wall. The “oldest” city of Jerusalem was indeed located outside the “old city” walls, on the southeast ridge, close to the source of water.

The “water system” discovered by Warren, today called “Warren’s Shaft” in his memory, seems to be a natural karstic limestone sinkhole and not man-made, as it was thought for over a hundred years.  Excavations in the area, pioneered by Warren, are ongoing and the last word remains to be said.

Warren's Shaft

Underground passageway called Warren's Shaft

Although Warren could not excavate within the Haram compound itself, his good relations with the guards enabled him to make a thorough examination of the structure of the Dome of the Rock and the network of cisterns within the area.  He counted some 34 rock-hewn reservoirs of different shapes and sizes, the largest of them 43 feet deep with a capacity of over two million gallons.  As far as we know, Charles Warren was the first and last to survey beneath the Temple Mount.

Tour the Temple Mount in the company of Abraham and Isaac, David and Solomon, Jesus and the disciples, the angel Gabriel and Mohammed -- and Gila.  Meet many other luminaries, both real and legendary. 

Gila's Temple Mount tour is now available as a written 24-page PDF with a Temple Mount plan, guidelines for passing the security check and ten recommended reads on the Temple Mount from Gila's bookshelves.

Here’s an excerpt of Warren’s account of digging in the blocked up Huldah Gates which he calls the Double Passage in Underground Jerusalem, published in 1876,

“While Sergeant Birtles and I cut our way through the strong walls of the Double Passage, [one of the most sacred of the Moslem praying places, being the presumed site of Solomon’s Palace,] our faithful Moslem friends kept guard inside and outside and diverted the attention of those who wanted to come there to pray.  In the sanctuary live, for the protection of the place, certain Africans or Nubian men, of the most bigoted nature, who think nothing of life or the loss of it; to these the good keeping of the sanctuary is left, and their fanaticism knows no bounds, but I found means to be friendly with these people.

They once ate a very large pet lizard of mine which I wanted to send home to the Zoological Gardens in London, and I took advantage of the occurrence to make friends with them, so that instead of coming and throwing stones at me when I entered the Temple area by myself, they would stand up and deferentially salaam.  However, I never attempted to test their good feeling too far, and on this occasion they were given a hint that they might obtain a smell of grilled lizard if they went in a certain direction.  This was enough for them, they are greedily fond of the large lizard, which happens to be my namesake, Warren, and were thus out of our way.

The blows of our hammers resounded in the vaults and soon our Moslem friends got into the greatest fright lest all would be discovered: however, we were in for it; if we were to be set upon and eaten up instead of the lizard, we might as well complete our work first.  Accordingly, whenever we were implored to stop, we made the more noise until our friends lay in a corner tearing their beards and plucking at their garments in the greatest state of agonized terror.  It was very exciting; we had visions of wonderful vaults beyond us with sculpture and what not, but, when we had got through the wall, we only found earth against it with rough face, or rather no face.  There are certainly no vaults to the east of the Standing place of Elias…

And so we had put our lives in the greatest peril for these negative results….As soon as we had done the work, we got our tools out of the passage in the same secret manner we had brought them in, and appeared under the clear winter sky – two very grubby-looking mortals, for we had been groping head foremost in the earth.  We could not go outside in such a state, and measures were taken to clean us up a little. It was very exciting, for by this time our Nubian friends had found that in the hunt after the lizard they were on a false scent, and that the lizard (Warren) they should have been after was in the double tunnel, and came back to find out what was going on; but we had completed our work and were not to be torn in pieces on this occasion."

Charles Warren dug in Jerusalem for only three years.  In 1870 a new firman arrived from Constantinople forbidding all excavation.  Warren packed his bags and returned to England at the age of 30.  He died in 1927 at the age of 86.  He had an illustrious career which included walking from the Indian to the Atlantic Ocean, marking out the border between South Africa and Zimbabwe and walking from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, marking out the border between Canada and the U.S.  There is a Warren, Michigan and a Warren Minnesota, to celebrate this feat.  His last job was Commissioner of the London Police.  At one point Sherlock Holmes asks Dr. Watson, “Should we ask Commissioner Warren?”  However, as Commissioner, he did not succeed in catching Jack the Ripper.

On tour in Jerusalem, we tell colorful tales of Captain Charles Warren before we splash through Hezekiah’s Tunnel, as we descend Warren’s Shaft and when we visit the Western Wall Tunnel’s “Masonic Hall’ discovered and named by Charles Warren who was a Freemason.

Copyright 2006, 2010 Gila Yudkin.  Permission needed for any reuse.


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