Posts Tagged ‘Cisterns’

When you travel in Israel, you can’t help but notice that water is not plentiful. It is, after all, mostly desert. As a result, few rivers or lakes or other bodies of fresh water are available. How did those living in antiquity survive without water being readily available? The answer in many parts of the country was–cisterns. A cistern is not the same as a well. A cistern is a device for rain water collection, and it is typically carved out of rock. This is possible because in many parts of Israel, the rock is limestone which is relatively soft and easily carved. The problem; however, with limestone is that it is very porous, and so to keep the water in the cisterns, the walls were plastered over. The following are some of the cisterns I have visited in Israel. 

Looking up out of the cistern in Beersheva
The evidence of plastering of walls of cistern in Beersheva
Cistern at Beit Shemesh
Entrance into the cistern at Beit Shemesh (notice how water has carved the stone)
Cistern Qumran (by the Dead Sea)
One of several cisterns at Herodian
Different cistern at Herodian

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Day one of the tour, we head south from Tel Aviv, to reach the south of Israel. On the way, we visit a couple of very interesting sites. These are new to the tour, so the excitement starts immediately. 

Beit Shemesh

You may recall the story of the how the Israelites have the bright idea of bringing the Ark of the Covenant to battle with them against the Philistines. Other armies bring their gods with them, so Israel thought it might give them a boost over their relentless enemy to bring the ark with them. Their idea turns into a nightmare when the ark is stolen by the Philistines.

This ends up being one of the most comical stories in the Bible to my way of thinking. The Philistines take the ark to Ashdod and put it in the temple with their god, Dagon. The next morning, they find Dagon face down before the ark of the covenant. They set Dagon back in his place, but the next day when they came to check, Dagon’s arms and head were missing and he was face down again before the ark of the Lord. This just led to more problems and the ark was sent from one Philistine town to another and at each stop, the people in the city suffered because of the ark or so they believed. Finally, they are so tired of people dying, being tormented by hemorrhoids and rats eating their crops that they decide to send the ark back to the Israelites. You can read the story in 1 Samuel chapters 5 and 6. 

When they send the ark back to the Israelites, the Philistines send it from Ekron, a Philistine city at the west end of the Sorek Valley, to Beit Shemesh, an Israelite city further east in the Israel-dominated end of the Sorek. 

The Tel of Beit Shemesh sits as it did in antiquity, overlooking the Sorek Valley, a complex system of ravines that protects Jerusalem on the west side from attack because of the difficulty of traveling through it. We stood on the tel and looked into the valley, rich with agriculture today and could almost hear the mooing of the milk cows drawing the wagon with the ark from Ekron.


Tel Beit Shemesh
Tel Beit Shemesh (ruins)
Looking east toward Jerusalem

Looking west toward Philistine territory


One of the things you come to look for at ancient sites in Israel are the cisterns. Because of the lack of water in the land, in order to survive the hot, dry spring and summers, occupants of the land carved cisterns out of the rock. The water would be captured and routed to these underground storage places. This is our first cistern of the trip, but it will certainly not be our last. 

Steps into the cistern – Beit Shemesh
Cistern – Beit Shemesh
Plaster on walls of cistern to help keep water from leaching into the Limestone
Inside the cistern

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