One of the things that excited me most about visiting Israel was visiting some of the historical places that I’ve only read about in the Bible, but never dreamed of actually visiting. When our Jerusalem “must-see” list was too long for one weekend, we split the list into two weekends. Stay tuned for our Two Days in Jerusalem family itineraries!
While doing research for these weekends, I found many positive reviews for Dig for a Day, where individuals and families can become archaeologists for a few hours and actually find artifacts at Beit Guvrin, an active dig site of an ancient city. With my two dirt-loving boys, I knew that digging and learning would be a great activity for the whole family! Because Austin’s work schedule was not predictable, we had to plan our excursions last minute, and by the time we tried to make a reservation, the dig days were full at Beit Guvrin. They are not open Saturdays, as it is Shabbat. After being crushed we could not go to Dig for Day, our Plan B was to visit City of David-Ancient Jerusalem, which is part of Jerusalem Walls National Park. Located just south of the Dung gate and outside of the walls of “Old Jerusalem,” this site is the REAL old Jerusalem!
To access the City of David, their website suggests parking in the Mamilla Mall parking garages west of Jaffa gate, entering Old Jerusalem through Jaffa Gate by foot and following the southern wall of the city to the Dung Gate, then leaving the Old city through the gate to the well-marked entrance. We were able to follow the directions without any trouble. The City of David is the ruins of ancient Jerusalem, which was built on a ridge. The site requests not bringing baby strollers because there is not adequate storage at the entrance, and the paths are not at all stroller accessible. So, we put Owen in the baby carrier and Landon walked from the mall parking lot to the entrance, all the way through our 3-hour tour, and back to the car. He did great!
For visitors to this amazing site, there are a few options for tours. Although it wasn’t clear from the website, it seemed like for a smaller fee, tourists could do a self-guided tour of the ruins, but not have access to the tunnels running underneath the city. A 1.5 hour tour included the ruins and some tunnels, but not Hezekiah’s tunnel. The 3-hour tour included a 3D movie discussing the history of the city, a more in-depth look at the ruins, and the option of walking through the tunnel that Hezekiah had built from Gihon Spring to the pool of Siloam. The City of David is closed on Saturdays, and is only open until 2 pm on Fridays because of Shabbat. We visited on a Friday, and so there was only one English tour option- a 3-hour tour at 10:00 am. If we had a choice between the 3-hour and 1.5 hour tours, I probably would have chosen the shorter one with the kids, but I’m glad we were forced into the longer tour. Landon was enthralled with all of our tour guide’s stories, and the tunnel was an awesome adventure. Owen had a hard time during first part of the tour, but fell asleep on Austin’s back in Hezekiah’s tunnel!
I was not aware that the current location of “Old Jerusalem” within the city walls was not the original Jerusalem as mentioned in the Old Testament. The city is first recorded in the Bible as Salem, the city of Melchizedek in Genesis 14. It was built south of the current old city on a ridge with steep hills going down into valleys on either side. Until the time of King David, about 3,000 years ago, the land was under the control of Canaanites and Jebusites. David conquered the land from the Jebusites and made it his capital because of Gihon Spring and the city’s central location among the lands of the tribes of Israel. He built a palace on the highest point on the ridge, and his son Solomon continued building up the city by building the great Temple of Solomon just north of the established city on Mount Moriah. This mountain is thought to be the location where Abraham bound Isaac and almost sacrificed him on an altar to fulfill the commandments of God (Genesis 22). He proved his obedience and an angel stopped him and provided a ram to sacrifice instead of his son. Mount Moriah is sacred to Jews, Muslims, and Christians. The Temple Mount, with the Western Wall, Dome of the Rock, and Al-Aqsa mosque, is still a holy site for many worshipers throughout the world.
Our tour guide was a very knowledgeable and friendly New Yorker. Our tour started out with a 3D movie introducing us to the site. We then visited a lookout point where we could see the City of David below us, the Mount of Olives off to the east, and the Temple Mount just up the hill. Our guide told us many stories from the Bible and other historical records. One story that stood out was from 1 Kings 1. King David was getting very old, so his older son, Adonijah, decided to have a party and have himself crowned king. He and his friends/followers went down into the valley to have the party and he had enough supporters to be the next king. Nathan the prophet heard about this and told David that they needed to anoint Solomon to be king. So, they took Solomon secretly to a pool outside the city walls, washed him in the spring, anointed him with oil, blew the ram’s horn and shouted “God Save King Solomon!” They put him on a donkey and brought him into the city. Adonijah heard the shouting from his party, and rushed back to the city only to find it was too late- Solomon was already king! A few different times in our tour, our guide had us shout to test out the acoustics of the hillside. With the slopes of the ridge being so steep, sound bounced off opposite ravine wall and caused quite the echo! No wonder Adonijah heard the shouts at Solomon’s coronation!
The first archaeological place we visited were the remains of David’s palace. Archaeologists have their work cut out for them here- the ruins of David’s palace were underneath ruins from the Byzantine and 2nd temple periods. The foundation stones of this palace, though, date back to David’s reign (2 Samuel 5). Also found at this site were clay seals for official documents from the reign of King Zedekiah, the last king of Judah before the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem. This is evidence that the palace continued to serve as the royal residence until the Babylonians destroyed everything and took the Jews to Babylon (2 Kings 25).
I can’t stress enough how instrumental our guide was in explaining everything we saw and making it interesting with wonderful and interesting stories. He would pick people out of the tour group to play different people in his stories, and brought this ancient city to life. I wish I could have heard more of what he said, but Austin and I were taking turns wrangling a very active toddler, who just wanted to explore everywhere and not stay with the tour. “Area G,” or the Royal Quarter, was closed during our tour due to ongoing excavations and construction.
After surveying a few of the ruins on the hillside and listening to more fascinating stories, we descended into the Canaanite water system. The Gihon spring was so far down the hillside that the Canaanites built a tunnel through solid rock under the city walls to the spring. They built a pool next to the spring and fortified it to protect those drawing water from attackers. They would enter and exit the city to get water through this secret tunnel. Later on, the floor of the tunnel was lowered and exposed a natural shaft in the rock. We walked through the tunnel to the Canaanite pools and fortifications, which were all underground.
Soon, we found ourselves at the entrance of Hezekiah’s tunnel. Hezekiah ordered a tunnel to be built from the spring to the Pool of Siloam inside of the city walls so that the Assyrians would not have water when putting Jerusalem under siege (2 Chronicles 32). It is an amazing feat of engineering considering that two crews started at opposite ends and met in the middle after chiseling through solid rock for 533 meters. The height differential between the spring and the pool is only 30 cm. Our guide explained that they used concentric circles when planning the tunnel so they would have a better chance of meeting in the middle. Near the middle of the tunnel, an inscription was uncovered that told the story of the day that the tunnel-building crews heard each other and chiseled through the rock, and water from the spring flowed into the pool at the other end. Oh, and did I mention they did this in the 8th century B.C.!
The water level in the tunnel can vary depending on the season. At the entrance of the park, before the ticket booths, there are signs that show the current water level. When Landon stood next to the sign, the water was up to his chest. There is an option to take a dry tunnel and continue the tour, but Landon still wanted to do the water tunnel. Shoes and flashlights are required. I would recommend anyone with anxiety or even a little bit of claustrophobia not attempt this tunnel. I am not claustrophobic but I definitely had my moments of panic in this tunnel! Even though the deepest water in the tunnel was chest level on Landon, it was more often only a few inches deep.
To prepare for the tunnel, I reminded Austin to wear shorts and water shoes, and I wore pants that could be easily rolled up. I brought swim shorts for Landon, and we changed out of his undies before our tour so he would have dry underwear afterwards. I was planning on having Landon wear his shirt and just hike it up for the deep part, but after getting inside the tunnel, Landon wanted his shirt off so it didn’t get wet. To enter, we walked down a stone staircase and at the bottom the water was at its deepest- about chest height on Landon. It was not very fast moving, but definitely still flowing from the spring to the pool! I helped Landon through the deep part, and was very surprised at how cold the water was. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it was cold. The tunnel was completely pitch black without our flashlights, and I was glad we paid for the little flashlights at the ticket booth!
The tunnel started out very high, and wide enough for us to move through comfortably. It was interesting to see how ambitious the workers were at the beginning of the project, chiseling a large path through solid rock. As we got closer and closer to the middle of the tunnel, the walls and ceiling closed in, as the workers decided to move inward instead of making a large path. Austin’s shoulders barely fit through and scraped along the sides of the walls. At times, he was bent in half (with Owen on his back!) and crouched down trying to not hit Owen on the ceiling. Landon had a blast shining his flashlight around and following Austin. Several times during our walk, I had to just take some deep breaths and not think about what would happen to our family if an earthquake disrupted the tunnel and squished us all in the middle of the earth, with no light and no hope of escape.
When we got closer to the middle of the tunnel, the path took some serpentine turns as the crews tried to find each other. I’m just amazed that they actually connected! We had one guy from our tour behind us in the tunnel. He was very patient with our family taking a little longer than most people, and he tried to get a family picture of all of us, but it was so dark that our camera did not work! I was able to snap a few of the boys, though, and Austin took my picture at the tunnel exit to prove that I was there and completed Hezekiah’s tunnel!
The tunnel ended at the traditional Pool of Siloam, which was constructed in the Byzantine era to commemorate Jesus healing a blind man there. The real pool of Siloam was only rediscovered in 2004, when a large pool from the Second Temple period was uncovered close by. There were steps into the pool, suggesting to archaeologists that worshipers heading to the temple stopped at the pool to ritually cleanse and purify themselves before ascending the steps to the temple.
Our tour ended on the steps leading up to the Temple Mount. Pilgrims climbed these steps, some with animals to sacrifice, from the ancient city of Jerusalem to the temple. The steps were made of large paving stones, and in some areas there was evidence of a sewer or drainage system underneath the stones. When Jerusalem fell to the Romans in 70 A.D., the last remaining Jews in the city fled to the sewers. Some of the stones over the drainage system were crushed and destroyed by Roman soldiers as they tried to ferret out all remaining Jews in the city. Among the broken stones, researchers have uncovered intact cooking pots and coins from that era.
From the end of our tour, there were several options for getting back up to the City of David entrance- we could take a shuttle back for a few shekels, walk back above ground, or take a dry tunnel to the Givali parking lot excavations. Well, we just didn’t get enough of the tunnels before, so we took the tunnel option. This tunnel had stairs because we were going back up the mountain, but we managed. Landon started getting tired right at the end and we had to work extra hard to get him to walk back after our long tour, but it was worth it! The tunnel we took runs all the way to the Davidson center, an archaeological center and museum near the Western Wall. We had many other things on our agenda for the day, so we opted not to pay the extra fee to continue on to the Davidson center.
As we finished our amazing tour at the City of David, Austin and I declared Hezekiah’s tunnel as the bucket list item that we never knew existed. I had no idea that this tunnel was still open, and never imagined that I would actually get to walk in it! On their website, the tunnel is recommended for kids 5 & up. Landon is a tall four-year-old and very adventurous. I would not recommend the tunnel for kids who do not like water, or dark, or enclosed spaces. I’m actually so surprised that Landon did as well as he did in the tunnel. He seemed to enjoy it, while I was a bit apprehensive. Dress to get wet, and bring water shoes (not flip flops). There are other options if the dark, tight water tunnel is not for you. Our guide took the dry route along with most of our group. The tour was well worth the cost, and we learned so much about the geography, topography, architecture and history related to many Bible places, stories, and characters that we know and love. Everything was presented in a very factual way, so those of other faiths or no faith at all would still enjoy this tour! Especially in the summer, be sure to pack plenty of water, apply sunscreen and wear sunglasses and hats. If you’re in Jerusalem with (older) kids, check out the city of David!