Subterranean 1,500-year-old cistern complex found under Jerusalem playground
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Case of the siphoned sand

Subterranean 1,500-year-old cistern complex found under Jerusalem playground

Antiquities Authority and municipality in talks whether to make the hidden water hole — half the size of an Olympic pool — a tourist site

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

  • Above the surface of a Byzantine-era cistern found under a playground in Jerusalem's Katamon neighborhood, photographed in 2005. (Ofer Cohen, courtesy IAA)
    Above the surface of a Byzantine-era cistern found under a playground in Jerusalem's Katamon neighborhood, photographed in 2005. (Ofer Cohen, courtesy IAA)
  • A 2005 image of a diver in the Byzantine-era cistern found under a playground in Jerusalem's Katamon neighborhood. (Ofer Cohen, courtesy IAA)
    A 2005 image of a diver in the Byzantine-era cistern found under a playground in Jerusalem's Katamon neighborhood. (Ofer Cohen, courtesy IAA)
  • Byzantine-era cistern found under a playground in Jerusalem's Katamon neighborhood, photographed in 2005. (Ofer Cohen, courtesy IAA)
    Byzantine-era cistern found under a playground in Jerusalem's Katamon neighborhood, photographed in 2005. (Ofer Cohen, courtesy IAA)
  • Byzantine-era cistern found under a playground in Jerusalem's Katamon neighborhood, photographed in 2005. (Ofer Cohen, courtesy IAA)
    Byzantine-era cistern found under a playground in Jerusalem's Katamon neighborhood, photographed in 2005. (Ofer Cohen, courtesy IAA)

Back in 2005, the Israel Antiquities Authority received word that at a Jerusalem neighborhood playground, the sand was being swallowed up into the earth. After initial testing by IAA archaeologist Dr. Yuval Baruch, it was discovered that the sand box was constructed directly above an ancient water cistern.

Today, as the Jerusalem Municipality begins a renovation of the Katamon neighborhood playground, the IAA and the municipality are in talks to decide whether the 1,500-year-old water cistern can be turned into a national site along the lines of Ramla’s subterranean Pool of Arches.

In a press release, the IAA’s Baruch, who is today the head of the Israel Antiquities Authority Jerusalem region, said the IAA is willing to offer the municipality any aid necessary to open the site to the public.

According to 2005 documentation and mapping by now retired IAA archaeologist Dr. Uzi Dahari and engineer Ofer Cohen, the cistern was approximately the size of half of an Olympic-sized pool. Its maximal capacity of water is 1,125,000 liters (some 300,000 gallons) and it covers an area of some 225 square meters (2,422 square feet).

Above the surface of a Byzantine-era cistern found under a playground in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood, photographed in 2005. (Ofer Cohen, courtesy IAA)

During diving excavations, the team discovered the cistern was superbly conserved.

Based on characteristic features, as well as archaeological remains from a nearby excavation — now found under the Ramban Synagogue — archaeologist Baruch dated the pool to the Byzantine era. The synagogue’s event hall features views of the archaeology.

Byzantine-era cistern found under a playground in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood, photographed in 2005. (Ofer Cohen, courtesy IAA)

Two months ago, an IAA team was sent to discern the physical state of the cistern after all these years and whether it presents unseemly danger to the playground. The IAA emphasized that at this point in time, the cistern is considered dangerous and entry is forbidden.

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