Through the American Colony Lens: A BRIEF WINDOW TO ANTIQUITY


The Upper Siloam Pool, looking north: Roman period wall & moulding (top). (Full-frame scan from glass plate stereograph negative, LOC/Matson image #08471)

The American Colony photographers were often documenting sites of biblical importance, at least the traditional places as they were then understood and being presented to pilgrims and tourists. They also captured on film, whether intentionally or more by chance, things of archaeological interest from antiquity. And, they were sometimes recording scenes that, unbeknownst to them, would be obscured or completely lost to future generations. The two very interesting images featured here — similar in appearance but separated slightly in time — encompass all these facets of the photographers’ work!

Both of the pictures provide evidence — now hidden by layers of later construction — that the traditional Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem is indeed the remnant of a much larger ancient pool on exactly the same site. The photos, looking north, were taken sometime after the completion of the excavations of Fredrick Bliss and Archibald Dickie in the area in the 1890s, after which a mosque (top left corner of photos) was constructed adjacent to the existing pool (and inside the ancient one). The excavators, who carried out their work on behalf of the Palestine Exploration Fund, wrote in 1898:

The Siloam people took advantage of our excavations to erect a small mosque in the north-western angle of the original pool, resting their flooring on the debris. They . . . laid bare about one-half of the upper part of the northern wall of the original pool  (Bliss and Dickie, Excavations at Jerusalem, 1894-1897, p. 159)

The  “northern wall of the original pool” which they refer to is almost certainly the wall section visible here, behind the donkey standing on the terrace. Note that it is built of large, finely-dressed ashlars, topped by a classical moulding. Excavating mostly by the use of shafts and tunnels — digging in tight, enclosed spaces underground — Bliss and Dickey had already identified a nearly square ancient pool which they dated to the Roman period. Measuring approximately 75 feet (23 m) on a side, the pool was surrounded by arcades and was connected by a courtyard and steps (on the western side) to a stepped street running northward toward the Temple Mount.

Now, thought questions: How aware were the Colony photographers of the findings of Bliss and Dickie, and how focused were they (if at all) on the exposed ancient wall? In other words, what was their actual purpose in recording these particular images at the time they did? (Disclosure: I don’t know the answers!)


Northern wall of the Roman period Upper Siloam Pool (LOC/Matson image #08471, detail)


Bliss & Dickie’s section through the Upper Siloam Pool, looking north (Excavations at Jerusalem, p. 143). The narrow center part, appearing rather like a deep trench, is the pool as it has existed in modern times; shading (supplied) shows the approximate location of the exposed section of wall.

The Siloam Pool lies well outside the southern walls of the Old City, at the southern tip of the ridge known today as the City of David. It is situated at what is, topographically, nearly the lowest spot in the so-called “holy basin” of Jerusalem. And, it is a place-name that has survived the centuries: “Siloam” comes to us through the Greek of the New Testament; Silwan is the equivalent in Arabic, Shiloach in Hebrew.


Jerusalem, aerial view looking south (LOC/Matson image #22790, hand-tinted; labels supplied by the author)

BAR-SP_Jesus&BlindMan-600dpi (800x581)

The pool’s importance for Christian visitors to Jerusalem, of course, is in connection with the healing miracle of Jesus as recounted in the Gospel of John, Chapter 9. There we are told of a man blind from birth whom Jesus encounters in the vicinity of the Temple. Applying mud made from his spittle to the man’s eyes, Jesus sends him to wash in the Siloam Pool in order to receive his sight. (Thought question: Where does the miracle “happen”?) The text says that the name Siloam means “sent”, no doubt reflecting the source of the waters, which to this day are “sent” to the pool from the Gihon Spring via a long rock-hewn conduit, Hezekiah’s Tunnel.

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The Lower Siloam Pool, looking east.

Beginning with Bliss and Dickey, modern archaeologists have also discovered parts of a long stepped street which led down from the Temple area and ended near the pool. (It is along this street that the blind man in the story would have walked!) Moreover, in very recent years, a second, lower Siloam Pool has also come to light, a large, well-preserved reservoir with stepped sides; undeniably impressive, as of this writing (and probably for many years to come) only its northern edge and an adjoining plaza have been uncovered. In any event, I now refer to the feature seen in these historic American Colony photos — to avoid any confusion — as the Upper Siloam Pool. (By the way, several other images of the pool can be viewed by searching the Matson Collection of the Library of Congress.)


Another, apparently slightly earlier view of the Upper Siloam Pool, looking north: The minaret (just out-of-frame in the other photo) appears above the edge of the ancient pool; I believe the upper retaining wall and fill material (left) were removed not long after this image was made. On the skyline (left) are the southern walls of the Old City. (LOC/Matson image #06745)

Siloam Pool_Francis Frith ca 1860_detail

Siloam Pool, north end. Francis Frith, ca. 1860 (detail)

(After a years-long debate — with myself — I have decided that the Colony photograph just above dates slightly earlier that the one displayed at the top of this post. I’ve gone back and had a look at the earlier images of both Francis Frith (ca. 1860) and Bonfils (ca. 1880), which each shows essentially the same features as the other. In the Bonfils, the upper retaining wall at the left is clearly visible. Another reference point as to elevations is the architectural corner which appears in all of the photos; counting the number of courses above the large “reference” stone (arrow in detail), it becomes clear that the corner was reduced in height by about five courses between ca. 1880 and 1900, around the time the mosque was constructed. And, obviously, the field-stone facing and the arch at the north end of the pool were all removed, exposing the Roman wall. In that context, it makes sense that the ground in front of the new mosque would have been lowered, to improve its visibility. The clincher, though, is the upper retaining wall visible in the Bonfils but missing (and the ground previously enclosed within it removed) in the opening American Colony image.)

In the Byzantine period, the earliest Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem apparently visited the arcaded, Roman-period upper pool here, remembering the place of the miracle in John 9. In fact, the account of the Bordeaux Pilgrim from AD 333 refers to the place, giving the four-sided arcade surrounding the pool the descriptive Latin name quadriporticum. (We can’t be sure, but it is possible that the lower pool was already silted up and out of use by that time–it doesn’t take long!) Then in the 5th century, a commemorative church of unusual design was built partly overhanging the northern edge of the original upper pool, and Bliss and Dickey discovered many traces of this church as well (the remains were covered over and are not visible today).


Upper Siloam Pool: Reconstruction of the Roman-Herodian period square pool and the Byzantine memorial church. (Source: Dan Bahat, Historical Atlas of Jerusalem)


The Upper Siloam Pool–a tiny remnant of the original–as it appears today, looking north (Source:

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 This is one of a series of posts highlighting images produced by the Photo Department of the American Colony of Jerusalem (and later by Eric Matson, working independently), between about 1897 and 1946, as well as other aspects of Colony history. The springboard for some of these posts was work I did in collaboration with Todd Bolen on his digital publication project of  American Colony/Matson images. For more background on the Colony, see my on-line articleJerusalem’s  American Colony and it’s Photographic Legacy“.

This entry was posted in American Colony, Antiquities, Archaeology, City of David, Hezekiah's Tunnel, Jerusalem Antiquities, New Testament, Photography and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Through the American Colony Lens: A BRIEF WINDOW TO ANTIQUITY

  1. Outremer says:

    A few comments (if I may comment on my own post!) which go beyond the scope of the article: In short, I contend that both the upper AND lower pools at Siloam–in some form–extend far into antiquity, long before the time of Jesus.

    First, it is known that the recently uncovered lower pool is built immediately behind a thick dam that runs across the mouth of the Tyropoeon Valley, just above its confluence with the Kidron. In antiquity this would have created a hugely important reservoir, a catchment for the rainwater runoff from the entire area of today’s Old City. And in antiquity, in that semi-arid land, people simply did not waste water! I believe the origins of the dam have even been dated archaeologically to the Middle Bronze Age, i.e. Canaanite-Jebusite Jerusalem. Thus, a pool in that location has long been presumed–see 19th century maps–long before the impressive Hasmonean-Herodian version was partially exposed several years ago.

    As for the upper pool, the main focus of this post: It is almost impossible to think that there was not a special pool catching the outflow of the Siloam (“Hezekiah’s”) Tunnel–the pure waters of the Gihon Spring–from the very beginning. Consensus does in fact place the cutting of the tunnel in the time of Hezekiah, ca. 700 BC (although Reich and Shukron now propose an even earlier date:

    Thus, any discussion of which is the “real” Siloam Pool is rather a non-question. As for the differential use of the two pools in such close proximity to each other, I suggest the following: The Upper Pool–the pure Gihon spring water–was reserved as a readily accessible source of potable water for public, household use. The Lower Pool–receiving the overflow from the upper pool (and, in its earliest manifestations, impounded rainwater run-off)–was most likely a place for bathing, possibly including ritual immersion in the Second Temple period; such use is also strongly suggested by it’s stepped construction.

    If this picture is correct, then the blind man in John 9, I suggest, would in fact have visited the lower pool. Still, the upper pool was there, one element of the amazing Herodian period water infrastructure of Siloam.

    TOM POWERS / Waynesville, NC

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