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Birket Israel

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The empty reservoir in the late 19th century

Birket Israel (trans. Pool of Israel) also Birket Israil or Birket Isra'in,[1] abbreviated from Birket Asbât Beni Israìl (trans. Pool of the Tribes of the Children of Israel) was a public cistern located on the north-eastern corner of the Temple Mount, in Jerusalem. The structure is believed to have been built by the Romans for use as a water reservoir and also to protect the northern wall of the Temple Mount. Arab locals have known it by this name since at least 1857.[2]

By the mid-19th century it had gone out of use as a reservoir; being partly filled with rubbish and reused as a vegetable garden. In 1934 it was filled in and is now known as el-Ghazali Square. It is currently in mixed use for shops, as a car park, and as a transshipment point for refuse.


Birket Israel, circled, on a 1915 map

According to Muslim tradition, the reservoir was constructed by Ezekiel or Hezekiah, King of Judah.[3] Some archaeologists have determined that the cistern was possibly built during the Herodian period to improve Jerusalem's water supply.[4] Others estimate the date of construction later, in around 130 CE. This view is held by Charles Warren who recorded that although some kind of fosse must have existed at the spot at a very early period, since there is no description of the pool in the works of Josephus, "and it is very improbable that he world have omitted to mention so enormous a reservoir had it existed in his time", it was most probably constructed by Roman emperor Hadrian during his restoration of Jerusalem. This is further attested to since the masonry of the birket is inferior in character and resembles the later Roman work in Syria. Additionally, this reservoir appears to be mentioned by the Bordeaux Pilgrim (section 4) as already existing, and "would therefore most naturally be referable to Hadrian."[5]

It was constructed in the bed of the western fork of the Kidron Valley that traverses the north-west quarter of the city.[6] It formed Jerusalem's largest reservoir, measuring 109.7 m (360 ft) by 38.4 m (126 ft) with a maximum depth of 26 m (85 ft).[7] The cistern contained a total capacity of 120,000 cubic meters[4] and for centuries it formed part of Jerusalem's rainwater storage system. The pool also served as a moat, protecting the northern wall of the Temple Mount.[8]

The eastern and western ends of the pool were partially rock-cut and partly masonry. The masonry at the eastern end formed a great dam 13.7 m (45 ft) thick, the lower part of which was continuous with an ancient eastern wall of the Temple compound. The sides of the pool were lined entirely with masonry because it was built across the width of a valley. The original bottom of the reservoir was covered with a layer of about 19 inches of very hard Roman concrete and cement. There was a great conduit at the eastern end of the pool built of massive stones, and connected with the pool by a perforated stone with three round holes 5½ inches in diameter. The position of this outlet shows that all water over a depth of 6.5 m (21 ft) must have flowed away.[9]

Association with the Pool of Bethesda[edit]

The Birket Israel cistern was frequented by Christian pilgrims during the 19th century, it being previously identified as the "Sheep Pool" or Pool of Bethesda of John 5:2; a double-pool with five porches, where the sick came to be cured.[10] This link was based on the premise that the nearby St. Stephen's Gate occupied the site of the Sheep Gate mentioned in the New Testament. It was reinforced by the co-location of the names 'Birket Israel' and the 'Pool of Bethesda' on maps and plans of Jerusalem; and in drawings and paintings, such as those made by David Roberts in 1893.[11]

According to Kopp, the Pool of Bethesda became associated with a Byzantine church by 450 CE; then a 6th-century church, which by the arrival of the Crusaders, in 1099, was known as the "Church of St. Anne".[10] A new Church of St. Anne was built in the 12th century CE; the church and the pool fell into disuse after the fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.[10] The church was converted into madrasah and Christian pilgrims were redirected to nearby Birket Israel on the other side of what is now called the "Via Dolorosa".[10] Ownership of the whole site of the Church of St. Anne passed to France after the Crimean War, in 1856;[10] and discoveries made in around 1870 led to the belief that the real Pool of Bethesda was actually located in the grounds of the Church of St. Anne.[12]

Later uses[edit]

By the mid-19th century, Birket Israel was no longer being used as a reservoir;[2] and towards the end of the 19th century it was being rapidly filled with refuse and part of it was being used as a vegetable garden.[13] In 1934 the pool was filled in because its condition posed a threat to public health.[14]

Being located just inside the Lions' Gate, one of the major entries to the Old City, the East Jerusalem Development Company initially intended to excavate the reservoir and build a multi-storey car park at the site. This post-1967 plan was rejected by the waqf authorities who own the plot because they feared that clearance work at the base of the Temple Mount would endanger the Haram compound. Subsequently, in 1981 a small square equipped with benches was constructed on part of the covered pool.[15]

Today the area is known as el-Ghazali Square and is used as a car park and collection point for refuse before it is dumped outside the city.[15] Some small shops also exist at the site.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Koenen, Klaus. (2004) Bethel: Geschichte, Kult and Theologie
  2. ^ a b Hackett (1857), p. 186
  3. ^ Hanauer (2008), p. 104
  4. ^ a b From Pompey to the Destruction of the Second Temple
  5. ^ Warren, Charles. Conder, Claude Reigner. The Survey of Western Palestine, Committee of the Palestine Exploration Fund, London, 1884.
  6. ^ Paton [1908] (1977), p. 35
  7. ^ Finkelstein, Horbury, Davies & Sturdy (1999), p. 10
  8. ^ Response to Other Theories Archived September 7, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
  9. ^ International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (1913)[permanent dead link]
  10. ^ a b c d e Kopp (1963), Pages 305–313.
  11. ^ Schuler, Wolfgang (1991). In the Holy Land: Paintings by David Roberts 1839. Bnei Brak, Israel: Steimatzky ltd. What appears to be Birket Israel is described as: "Jerusalem, Bethesda Pool between the Temple Mount (left) and St. Anna".
  12. ^ Wallace [1898] (1977), p. 225
  13. ^ Wallace [1898] (1977), p. 240
  14. ^ Safdie, Barton, & Shetrit (1986), p. 115
  15. ^ a b United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Jerusalem and the Implementation of 21 C/Resolution 4/14, 31 May 1983


Coordinates: 31°46′49.22″N 35°14′10.35″E / 31.7803389°N 35.2362083°E / 31.7803389; 35.2362083