Revisiting Katamon's Byzantine Cistern

Byzantine cistern discovered beneath Jerusalem playground may open to public.

In Jerusalem, archaeological sites can show up just about anywhere! In 2005, residents of Jerusalem’s Old Katamon neighborhood noticed that the sandbox in their local playground was mysteriously being swallowed up by the ground. When the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) received this information, they promptly sent Dr. Yuval Baruch, an IAA archaeologist, to investigate. Dr. Baruch’s inspection revealed that the playground’s sandbox was built on top of an ancient cistern used to collect and store water.

Entering the cistern in 2005.  Photo:  Ofer Cohen, courtesy of Israel Antiquities Authority

Entering the cistern in 2005. Photo: Ofer Cohen, courtesy of Israel Antiquities Authority

Following the discovery, archaeologist Dr. Uzi Dahari and engineer Ofer Cohen of the IAA conducted a more detailed exploration of the cistern. Donning their scuba gear, Dahari and Cohen entered the mirky water still contained by the massive cistern. Their measurements revealed that the cistern is over half the length of an Olympic pool, and could contain almost 300,000 gallons of water. According to Dr. Baruch, the cistern dates to the Byzantine period and has remained well preserved for some 1,500 years. The cistern is most likely associated with an archeological site formerly discovered under the Ramban Synagogue nearby.

In recent months, the Municipality of Jerusalem has revisited the Katamon playground and its hidden cavern. The Municipality’s intent was to renovate the neighborhood playground. As part of this process, and with the advice of the IAA, an examination of the cistern’s physical stability was conducted to ensure it posed no danger to the general public. Upon this reexamination, a new idea was laid on the table. What if the Municipality were to develop the cistern into an archaeological attraction of the Old Katamon neighborhood? This would allow the public to enjoy the impressive cistern, similar to other subterranean sites such as the Arches Pool in Ramla. 

The Municipality emphasizes that at this stage the cistern is still dangerous to access. For the safety of the public the area is currently fenced and entry is prohibited. However, Dr. Yuval Baruch said that the IAA will provide the Municipality with all the assistance required to develop the site. 

Abby VanderHart: IAA Contributor

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