Warren's_ShaftDangling on a rope ladder in a subterranean shaft, 30 feet below the City of David, the oldest part of Jerusalem, and 45 feet above the bottom of the shaft, I wondered whether I was being foolhardy. At 69, should I really be trying to re-enact the hypothesized entry into Jerusalem of Joab, King David’s general, that enabled the Israelites to capture the city?

But I threw caution to the winds. After all, my 37-year-old companion, Eli Shukron, was at the bottom of the shaft, prepared to catch me if I fell.

Archaeologists Shukron and Ronny Reich, who are excavating this area of Jerusalem, insist that the shaft was never used to draw water (despite a near-universal belief, until now, that it was) and that Joab did not penetrate the city through this shaft. Ever since 1867, when the British explorer and engineer Charles Warren (later Sir Charles Warren), working for the London-based Palestine Exploration Fund, discovered the 52-foot vertical shaft that now bears his name, Warren’s Shaft has been a popular candidate for the Biblical tsinnor (2 Samuel 5-8)—often translated as watershaft—that Joab supposedly climbed up to enter the city, much to the surprise of its Canaanite-Jebusite residents.a

Skeptics have included the late Yigal Shiloh, who in the 1980s cleared the tunnel that gives access to the top of the shaft. Shiloh contended that the shaft dated later than David and thus could not have figured in his conquest.b On the other hand, Shiloh’s own geological consultant, Dan Gill, argued that the shaft was a natural karstic formation that had existed for millions of years.c But the question remained- Could a human being—even a strong military leader like Joab—climb it? Well, Warren managed to do it with the help of some wooden boards and his trusty assistant Sergeant Birtles. Some students and local Arabs have also claimed to have climbed up the shaft.

Now Reich and Shukron, of the Israel Antiquities Authority, contend not only that the shaft was inaccessible and unknown in David’s time, but that the shaft was never used to draw water and thus cannot be the Biblical watershaft.d

Ever the skeptic, I would not be satisfied until I examined the evidence myself.

For more than 25 years, I have been writing about Warren’s Shaft and the possibility that it might be the Biblical tsinnor. I still remember my excitement the first time I saw the shaft. It was 1973. I had bellied through the small opening above the wall that blocked the entrance to the bottom of the shaft.e This was long before Shiloh would clean the tunnel leading to the top of the shaft. I recall peering into the gloom and wondering, “Could Joab have climbed up there?” The sides of the shaft were by no means smooth, so he might possibly have found a foothold. My friend Mohammed, the Arab antiquities dealer south of the Gihon Spring, told me he had climbed it when he was a boy.

So on a recent trip to Jerusalem, I arranged with Reich and Shukron to return to the shaft. The intrepid and creative photographer Garo Nalbandian accompanied us on our expedition.

I can now report that Reich and Shukron are unquestionably correct. Joab may have entered through a water system—but not through Warren’s Shaft.f Further, no reasonable person can argue any longer that Warren’s Shaft was used to draw water.

The first thing we did when we arrived at the top of Warren’s Shaft—which can now be reached through a new entry excavated by Reich and Shukron—was to perform an experiment- We lowered a bucket on a rope down the shaft to see how difficult it would be to draw water, considering all the protrusions, sometimes called shelves, that stick out from the sides of the shaft. If the ancients had gone to so much trouble, as they surely did, to dig the extraordinary tunnel that now leads down to the shaft, why wouldn’t they have cleared the shaft itself of all these protrusions?

It was easy for us to get near the center of the shaft to lower the bucket because several iron-grated platforms and steps for tourists provide a secure approach. Without these, however, our experiment would have been extremely dangerous—if not impossible. The ancients could never have gotten close enough to the center of the shaft to lower a bucket down unless they, too, had some kind of platform.

As we lowered the bucket over the side, we noticed that there were no rope marks on the walls of the shaft. Usually on ancient wells and cisterns where water has been drawn in a bucket on a rope, the ropes gradually make grooves in the rock. The absence of such marks at the top of Warren’s Shaft immediately aroused our suspicions- Ropes had never been lowered repeatedly into this shaft.

We watched as the bucket went down and down, jerking and swinging from side to side as it made its way past the protrusions, finally reaching the bottom. (We put a flashlight inside the bucket so that Garo Nalbandian could record its descent.) It was hardly smooth sailing for anyone trying to lower a bucket to the bottom. I can’t imagine trying to hoist a bucket full of water past these hurdles.

Next we decided to go down ourselves on a rope ladder. Eli Shukron went first. Then slowly, slowly, one careful step at a time, I descended, trying to get a secure foothold even when the rope ladder rested against a relatively flat stone wall. Whenever I reached a shelf, I rested. Eventually, I reached the bottom. Soon thereafter, Ronny Reich joined us. Together the three of us examined the evidence at the bottom of the shaft. It was a small cave, narrow and confining. Surely if the shaft had been used to draw water, the ancient peoples who used it would have enlarged the cave at the bottom so that it would have held more water. The natural karstic cavity actually makes a turn and descends another nine feet or so below the floor of the cave. But this was never exploited. If the cave had been dug lower, it would have held more water, but the ancients did not do this. The lowered bucket could not get into the extension of the shaft below the cave floor.

Finally, there was a water line on the walls of the cave—only a foot above the cave floor. If the shaft had been used to draw water, the people who used it would surely have lowered the floor so that they would be able to lower their buckets into the water. With only a foot of water, it would be difficult to fill a bucket.

There was no longer any doubt in my mind. Warren’s Shaft was never used to draw water.

I was ready—although a bit apprehensive—to begin the climb up. With each step on the rope ladder, I had to raise my arms high above my head to grasp the next rung. I pulled myself up with my hands and pushed myself up with my feet.g As I huffed and puffed, climbing higher and higher, Ronny yelled up to me, “Well, Joab, how does it feel?”

It felt wonderful. Even if Joab never climbed it, Charles Warren did—as did a mere handful of people in the following 130 years. This was the shaft that people for more than a century thought was the tsinnor. It was, for me, a historic climb. My unexercised arms and thighs ached as I climbed out of Warren’s Shaft. I felt triumphant. But never again would I suggest that this may have been how Joab entered Jerusalem.

I cannot leave you, however, without telling you the full story- There are some pick marks in the walls of the cave at the bottom of the shaft and on the other side of the opening at the top of the shaft (at our backs in the photo above). Who made them? And when? And how?

We have no idea.

a. See Terence Kleven, “Up the Waterspout—How David’s General Joab Got Inside Jerusalem,” BAR 20-04; and Dan Gill, “How They Met—Geology Solves Long-Standing Mystery of Hezekiah’s Tunnelers,” BAR 20-04 (also available on our Web site- www.bib-arch.org). See also Yigal Shiloh, “The Rediscovery of Warren’s Shaft,” BAR 07-04.

b. Yigal Shiloh, “The Rediscovery of Warren’s Shaft,” BAR 07-04.

c. Dan Gill, “How They Met—Geology Solves Long-Standing Mystery of Hezekiah’s Tunnelers,” BAR 20-04.

d. According to Ronny Reich and Eli Shukron (“Light at the End of the Tunnel—Warren’s Shaft Theory of David’s Conquest Shattered,” BAR 25-01; also available on our Web site- www.bib-arch.org), the tunnel system that now provides access to the top of Warren’s Shaft was never intended to lead there; it was reached only by accident in the eighth century B.C., nearly 300 years after David conquered the city. The tunnel actually went on to two huge towers protecting a pool of water near the Gihon Spring.

e. Hershel Shanks, The City of David—A Guide to Biblical Jerusalem (Jerusalem- Bazak, 1973). The entrance to the cave at the bottom of the shaft had been blocked by the Parker Mission in 1910, leaving only a small hole at the top of the blocking wall. This wall remains in place today.

f. Perhaps he entered through the water system discovered by Reich and Shukron that ended in the towers by the Gihon Spring. See Hershel Shanks, “First Person- New Life for an Old Theory,” BAR 25-01.

g. One of the few who have climbed the shaft, excavator Yigal Shiloh observed- “Climbing with the aid of the lowered rope appeared to be relatively simple. However, here too we were surprised, for the climb up the shaft obviously demanded special abilities which we hadn’t realized were needed. From among the entire team of archaeologists, only two reached the top of the dark shaft, even with the help of the rope—the author and the expedition’s photographer, Itzhak Harari.” See Shiloh, “The Rediscovery of Warren’s Shaft,” BAR 07-04.