During the Temple period, the Old City contained many pools of water necessary for Temple rituals. They served as storage for drinking water which doubled as natural air conditioners cooling the air around them as the water evaporated. They were spread out over the entire city, and many of them can still be found today.
West of the Jaffa Gate, the Mamilla pool is an impressive stone-lined structure located on Rehov Agron across from the soon-to-be-resurrected Palace Hotel on the edge of the Turkish cemetery. Existing in its present form since the 1500s and now dry, it has an 30-million liter capacity. In early drawings, people were seen sitting alongside with a clear view of the western side of the city walls.
Nearby is a large valley, referred to as the Serpent's Pool by Second Temple period historian Josephus. We know this as "Sultan's Pool," where summer concerts are held at the foot of Yemin Moshe. The pool was formed by a dam at the south end (which can be seen today as Derech Hebron passes alongside), to prevent water from going down into the Hinnom Valley on the south side of the Old City. It can hold 72 million liters of water.
Inside the walls, the Towers Pool, also known as Hezekiah's Pool, or Pool of the Patriarchs, at one time received water from the Mamilla Pool via an aqueduct into the Old City near the present Jaffa Gate. It has a 15 million liter capacity, but in its present condition is empty of water and full of garbage. Different groups have volunteered to clean it up, but this stately pool whose waters once cooled the homes encircling it remains neglected.
The pools on the east side of the Old City are clustered together near the north end of the Temple Mount, close to where the water was needed. The Struthion Pool collected rainwater from the moat around the Antonia Fortress during Roman rule. Today, it is the cistern seen at the end of the Western Wall Tunnels tour, whose other end is found across the road in the Sisters of Zion Convent.
On the left side of the road, short of the Lion's Gate, the Pools of Bethesda date back to the First Temple period. The north pool was formed by the valley of Bezetha and believed to be the place where sheep were washed before the sacrificial offerings. It is referred to by the prophet Isaiah: "Go forth to meet Ahaz, you, and Shear-jashub your son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool" (7:3).
The south pool came into being during the Second Temple, where a paralytic man was healed by Jesus (John 5:2). This area is now a most pleasant respite from its surroundings, cared for by a Jesuit order.
Across the road from Bethesda is a large paved area. Located at the northeast corner of the Temple Mount, it was filled in during the 1930s. This was the Pool of Israel, the largest one in Jerusalem, created by a dam that King Herod built to block the Bezetha Valley riverbed during the construction of the present-day Temple Mount platform. Its grandeur was depicted by the artist David Roberts in the 1800s (top of previous page).
Perhaps the best known pool in our day is the Pool of Siloam in David's City. Fed by the Gihon Spring, it was made by King Hezekiah who diverted the water source from outside the city to supply water in time of siege (2 Kings 20:20). This area is used now as a place for tashlich (the ritual ceremony of casting sins upon the water) on Rosh Hashana.
Appropriate to this week, during the Temple period on Succot, the water libation ceremony was performed every morning when a procession was led by the high priest down to the Pool of Siloam to collect water, that was then poured out on the altar in the Temple. This was a prayer for rain that invoked God's blessing and further illustrated the importance of water in an arid land. "Those that had not seen the libation ceremony have not seen happiness in their days," says the Mishnah in tractate Succot.