Palaces, prisons, and moats

After decades of excavations, the Kishle and moat are now accessible to the public.

The Kishle after the excavations. (photo credit: ODED ANTMAN)
The Kishle after the excavations.
(photo credit: ODED ANTMAN)
If you have never been to the Tower of David Museum of the History of Jerusalem, now is the time to go. And if you have toured the place in the past but haven’t been there recently, there are now two compelling reasons to visit again: the Kishle and the Moat. These previously inaccessible parts of the Tower of David citadel – each containing archeological remains and artifacts from more than 4,000 years of Jerusalem history – are now accessible and open to the public.
The present citadel dates from Mameluke and Ottoman times, built on the ruins of a medieval Crusader fortress.
The citadel was surrounded by a large dry moat – a narrow but very deep ditch intended to keep enemy siege towers and soldiers away from the defensive walls. During the later years of Ottoman rule, the moat – no longer needed for defense – became a garbage dump for Jerusalem’s residents. Restoration of the moat began in the 1920s with the establishment of the British Mandate.
The Pro-Jerusalem Society, set up by Sir Ronald Storrs, British military governor of Jerusalem, undertook a number of restoration works throughout the Old City.
“Perhaps the most difficult of all these works was the cleaning of the Citadel,” the society’s records state. The moat was “a public latrine and worse: it was a refuse heap for dead carcasses and decomposing matter.”
Excavations of the moat resumed in the 1980s, initiated and funded by the Heritage Program of the Prime Minister’s Office, as archeologists removed tons of trash and earth as they dug through the moat down to bedrock.
It is well known, however, that you can’t sink a spade anywhere in Jerusalem without uncovering history. As they dug through the uppermost layers, finding Turkish army uniforms, smoking pipes and broken coffee cups, the excavators began to reveal some truly startling discoveries. These include 20 massive stone steps carved into the rock leading to an enormous stone pool, built by King Herod as part of a larger complex.
This squares with the account of the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote in The Wars of the Jews that Herod constructed his palace on this site, with extensive and magnificent gardens: “There were several groves of trees, and long walks through them, with deep canals and cisterns, that in several parts were filled with brazen statues, through which the water ran out. There were withal many dovecotes of tame pigeons about the canals.”
It was long considered likely that Herod had built his glorious palace complex on the site of the earlier palace of the Hasmonean kings, and sure enough, the excavations revealed not only hundreds of Hasmonean dynasty coins but also a mikve (ritual bath), assumed to have been part of a Hasmonean palace.
Archeologists also uncovered the remains of a stone quarry dating from the period of the First Temple. The quarry, which may even have been started during Canaanite times, seems to have been abandoned while still in operation. The visitor can see large cut stones that were never removed from the bedrock, as well as the imprint of stones that were quarried.
For visitors to the Tower of David, the Citadel Moat provides a fascinating prelude and access route to the museum’s newest grand attraction, the building known as the Kishle. Built in 1832 by Ibrahim Pasha and used as a military compound throughout Ottoman rule, the Kishle became a police station and jail during the British Mandate period.
Used as a place to incarcerate not only criminals but also members of the Irgun Zva’i Leumi and others opposed to British rule, the building became disused and ultimately abandoned after Israel’s independence.
In 1999, Eilat Lieber, then head of the museum’s Education Department and now its director, despaired of the scarcity of closed spaces in the museum for exhibitions and programs, especially for children, in cold, rainy weather. With a hopeful eye on the Kishle building – unused, abandoned and derelict – no longer a prison or anything else, Lieber suggested removing the prison cells and putting the place to use.
A program of renovation was thus begun, funded by the Jerusalem Foundation and managed by the museum. As with any renovation in Jerusalem, however, once you start to renovate, you begin to find things.
What began as a simple renovation quickly morphed into a full-fledged archeological excavation.
As the Israel Antiquities Authority archeologists began to dig downwards, it soon became evident that they were tracing the history of Jerusalem in this one building. Beginning with the level that was above ground – the British Mandate jail where Irgun prisoners left graffiti on the walls of their cells – the excavators dug down below the Ottoman walls and soon found fabric-dyeing basins from the Crusader period. These were the remains of a medieval textile industry described by Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela in 1170: “Jerusalem contains a dyeing-house for which the Jews pay a small rent annually to the king, on condition that besides the Jews, no other dyers be allowed in Jerusalem.
There are about 200 Jews who dwell under the Tower of David in one corner of the city.”
Digging deeper, the team revealed massive foundation walls that were built to support the immense weight of Herod’s palace. Below those, more or less directly underneath, excavators found the remains of a defensive wall built by the Hasmoneans. But the most dramatic discovery lay even deeper.
The archeologists were stunned at the discovery of a portion of a wall made of partially dressed stones filled with mortar identical to plaster recovered from King Hezekiah’s tunnel and additional finds dating from the eighth century BCE. A continuation of the Broad Wall discovered in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter, this wall deep under the Kishle building may have been part of the defenses erected by Hezekiah before Jerusalem’s siege by the Assyrians.
“This has really changed the picture of Jerusalem during the First Temple period,” says museum director Lieber.
“Everybody knows about the large ‘Broad Wall’ inside the Old City in the Jewish Quarter, but now the whole story has changed because now we have this First Temple period wall this far west, almost at the valley. So this is a big, big change in what we knew about Hezekiah’s Wall, as well as the size and boundaries of the city at that time.
“We are also very excited about the remains of Herod’s Palace,” Lieber says.
“Inside the citadel we have the Phasael Tower, which is the only tower that has survived from Herod’s Palace. But the big question has been, ‘Where was the palace?’ We know that Josephus said that the palace was from this point, where David’s Tower is now, all the way to Mount Zion. We’ve had this great opportunity to investigate, and we can see foundation walls of Herod’s Palace here. And with Hezekiah’s Wall, dating from the First Temple period, we can see that from the British jail cells all the way down, we have almost the entire history of Jerusalem in one place, in this one building.”
Amit Reem, the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Jerusalem district archeologist, was the leader of the team that excavated the Kishle. Contacted the morning after the Kishle was officially opened to the public, Reem recalls, “We started the excavations in 1999, and we finished excavating in mid- 2000. It was two years of excavation and study. The team consisted of me as the archeologist, around 20 workers, and all the professional staff, such as photographers, other archeologists, etc. It was a very scientific excavation, with all the tools and methodology of archeology. It was like every professional excavation but even more because this is Jerusalem. Every piece of earth, every piece of pottery is important and crucial to our understanding.”
Referring to the unique challenges of conducting a major archeological excavation inside a 170-year-old building, Reem says, “You have to remember that excavating in Jerusalem is always very complicated in terms of logistics. And excavating inside the building was very slow and very complicated. For example, we needed a special convoy of workers to take all the dirt out. And it took time to take all the dirt outside the walls. It was a very slow process – not like an excavation in the desert or someplace like Tel Hatzor.
While we were excavating, I actually had a team of engineers standing by.
Every few meters we dropped down, they had to come and support us or else everything would have collapsed on top of us. It was a very complex process. But as of now, this has been the peak of my career. You have to remember that I was a very young archeologist when I started the work. I was about 30, even less.”
When asked to recall the single most exciting moment of the project, Reem immediately replies, “You know what? I will surprise you. Yesterday was the big moment. When the exhibition had its doors opened to the public. When I saw the excitement of the people who came to see it, their eyes, their faces, their sense of ‘wow!’ How when the doors opened and I could see the people understand the meaning of the antiquities they were looking at. This was for me the big prize. I have always felt the excitement of discovering antiquities, but I have kept it to myself, to my colleagues, to other archeologists. But to reveal this to the general public, that is the privilege.”
Since its excavation, the Kishle has been seen only rarely by a few small groups of visitors, accessible only by way of what museum spokesperson Caroline Shapiro remembers as a “rickety-rackety, hold-on-tight, wooden entranceway.”
With access now completely refurbished, the Kishle awaits your arrival. Visitors who want to see the Kishle building excavations, along with the moat, may do so by joining a group guided tour. The tours are in English and Hebrew. The next one in English, “From Herod’s Palace to British Prison:
A Tour of the Citadel Moat and the Kishle,” is scheduled for Friday, December 19, at 11 a.m. The Tower of David is also running tours of “From Herod’s Palace to British Prison” in English on January 2 and January 30. The tours in Hebrew take place regularly on Fridays – and on Tuesdays with a special price for senior citizens with an Israeli ID card.
For information about this and subsequent tours, call the Tower of David Museum at 626-5333 or visit