In recent news, it was announced that Turkey agrees to return to the Land of Israel the "Siloam inscription" (see it in Times of Israel). What is it about? How important is this item?
The Siloam inscription was found in an underground tunnel dug in the times of King Hezekiah before the forthcoming Assyrian invasion and siege to Jerusalem, the capital of the Kingdom of Judea. The year of construction was probably a few years before 701 BCE when the Assyrian invasion actually took place. It is mentioned in the Bible in two occurrences:
Now the rest of the acts of Hezekiah, and all his might, and how he made the pool, and the conduit, and brought water into the city, are they not written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Judah? -- 2 Kings 20:20
And when Hezekiah saw that Sennacherib was to come, and that he was purposed to fight against Jerusalem, he took counsel with his princes and his mighty men to stop the waters of the fountains which were outside the city; and they helped him. So they gathered many people together, and they stopped all the fountains, and the brook that flowed through the midst of the land, saying: 'Why should the kings of Assyria come, and find so much water?' -- 2 Chronicles 32:2-4
And thus, King Hezekiah ordered to divert the waters from the Gihon spring. This spring was located outside the walls of the city and protected by a solid tower built some 4000 years ago in the Canaanite era.
The Canaanite had also dug a huge underground water reservoir, also protected by the tower, to collect the waters from the spring. In addition, they dug a tunnel to drive the excess waters outside this complex, towards the agricultural fields of the valley of the Kidron. King David conquered the Canaanite city of Jerusalem and it became the capital of the Kingdom of Judea until the destruction of the First Temple era over 300 years later. This ancient city is what we can visit today in the so-called City of David, located a bit south from the southern walls of present-day Old City of Jerusalem.
So, Hezekiah diverted the waters of the Gihon spring so that they would be available from inside the city in case the Assyrians would manage to conquer the protective tower outside the city walls. This deviation had to be done below ground because the Gihon spring is already located at low ground. And, to use the benefit of gravity, the waters were diverted to the lowest point of the city, in a reservoir that became the Pool of Siloam (known to Christians as the place where Jesus cured the blind man -- check here for the Christian sites).
So, today, the previous Canaanite tunnel is dry because waters no longer flow into it since about 701 BCE. The visitors can take this dry tunnel and they end up outside in the valley.
The Hezekiah tunnel was found in 1838 by Edward Robinson, the British archaeologist who gave his name to the famous "Robinson Arch" of the Temple Mount. But, owing to the fact that the inscription was written on the wall of the tunnel and covered with mineral deposits over many centuries, it was not until 1880 that a student actually noticed it !! This discovery shook the archaeological world: the Biblical narrative was proven by an inscription written on a stone ! It was a British Biblical scholar who translated the inscription as stated in the press of this time.
But, 10 years later, in 1890, the inscription was chiseled out from the wall, not without causing damage because it was cracked in several points and some parts of text were destroyed. Who did this? It was done by locals from the nearby Arab village of Silwan, upon orders from a Greek Orthodox official who wanted to sell the inscription to a European museum. As we can see, the theft of antiquities is an old profession, alas. But Turkish authorities got wind of the act, seized the inscription from the Silwan people and put it on display in Jerusalem for some time before finally shipping it to the archaeological museum in Istanbul. The investigation of the theft was discreetly buried under the carpet, and everybody forgot about the unorthodox official and his Arab handymen.
What does the inscription say? It mentions the encounter of the two teams of workers who dug the Hezekiah tunnel from each end, one from the Gihon Spring and the other from the pool to become the Siloam Pool. Some words are missing due to the damage caused when the inscription was chiseled out. But it clearly shows two teams of workers advancing under the ground, not knowing where they were one from another, but progressing towards the sound made by each of the team. This explains why the Hezekiah tunnel is not going on a straight line (see picture above in this article), because the two teams progressed with difficulty, at a time going to the right, and at another to the left.
... the tunnel ... and this is the story of the tunnel while ... the axes were against each other and while three cubits were left to (cut?) ... the voice of a man ... called to his counterpart, (for) there was ZADA in the rock, on the right ... and on the day of the tunnel (being finished) the stonecutters struck each man towards his counterpart, ax against ax and flowed water from the source to the pool for 1,200 cubits. And (100?) cubits was the height over the head of the stonecutters ...
The text is in Hebrew of the First Temple era (also called Paleo-Hebrew). The characters are different from modern Hebrew but the words and grammar are the same language.
It is possible to walk inside Hezekiah's tunnel today. It is a wet walk, in the dark, that takes about 30-45 minutes. Water goes up to the knees and even higher at certain times of the year. It is therefore better done in the summer when it's hot outside. The walk must be done with a torch.
When walking inside the tunnel, about halfway, visitors can notice that the ceiling of the tunnel becomes higher. This is because the two teams had to direct themselves one towards another, left and right, but also up and down. Some adjustment was necessary along the digging.
With this agreement with Turkey, Israel will soon see this important Biblical artifact return to Jerusalem after over 130 years. And visitors would be able to see the original in all its glory in the Museum of Israel.
For those willing to visit the Canaanite and the Hezekiah tunnels, and the City of David, I can only recommend hiring a tour guide to make most of your visit time with plenty of explanations in situ. And don't forget to bring attire and shoes that would fit to walk in waters.
Certified Tour Guide, Israel