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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature


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In a country which has scarcely more than one perennial stream, where fountains are not abundant, and where the months of summer pass without rain, the preservation of the rain-water in cisterns must always have been a matter of vast importance, not only in the pasture-grounds, but in gardens, and, above all, in towns. Hence the frequent mention of cisterns in Scripture, and more especially of those which are found in the open country. These were, it seems, the property of those by whom they were formed (). They are usually little more than large pits, but sometimes take the character of extensive subterraneous vaults, open only by a small mouth, like that of a well. They are filled with rain-water, and (where the climate allows) with snow during winter, and are then closed at the mouth with large flat stones, over which sand is spread in such a way as to prevent their being easily discovered. If by any chance the waters which the shepherd has thus treasured up are lost by means of an earthquake or some other casualty, or are stolen, both he and his flocks are exposed to great and imminent danger; as are also travelers who hasten to a cistern and find its waters gone. For this reason a failure of water is used as the image of any great calamity (; ). There is usually a large deposit of mud at the bottom of these cisterns, so that he who falls into them, even when they are without water, is liable to perish miserably (, sq.; ; ; ; ). Cisterns were sometimes used, when empty, as prisons, and indeed prisons which were constructed underground received the same name (; ).

In cities the cisterns were works of much labor, for they were either hewn in the rocks or surrounded with subterraneous walls, and lined with a fine incrustation. The system which in this respect formerly prevailed in Palestine is, doubtless, the same that exists at present; and indeed there is every probability that most of the cisterns now in use were constructed in very ancient times. Professor Robinson assures us, that 'the main dependence of Jerusalem at the present day is on its cisterns; and this has probably always been the case.' He then mentions the immense cisterns now and anciently existing within the area of the Temple; supplied partly by rain water, and partly by an aqueduct from Solomon's Pools, and which, of themselves, would furnish a tolerable supply in case of a siege. But, in addition to these, almost every private house in Jerusalem, of any size, is understood to have at least one or more cisterns, excavated in the soft limestone rock on which the city is built. The cisterns have usually merely a round opening at the top, sometimes built up with stonework above, and furnished with a curb and a wheel for the bucket; so that they have externally much the appearance of an ordinary well. The water is conducted into them from the roofs of the houses during the rainy season; and, with proper care, remains pure and sweet during the whole summer and autumn. In this manner most of the larger houses and the public buildings are supplied. The Latin convent, in particular, is said to be amply furnished; and in seasons of drought is able to deal out a sufficiency for all the Christian inhabitants of the city.

Most of these cisterns have undoubtedly come down from ancient times; and their immense extent furnishes a full solution of the question as to the supply of water for the city. Under the disadvantages of its position in this respect, Jerusalem must necessarily have always been dependent on its cisterns; and a city which thus annually laid in its supply for seven or eight months could never be overtaken by a want of water during a siege. Nor is this a trait peculiar to the Holy City; for the case is the same throughout all the hill country of Judah and Benjamin. Fountains and streams are few, as compared with Europe and America; and the inhabitants, therefore, collect water during the rainy season in tanks and cisterns in the cities, in the fields, and along the high roads, for the sustenance of themselves and of their flocks and herds, and for the comfort of the passing traveler. Many, if not the most, of these are obviously antique; and they exist not infrequently along the ancient roads which are now deserted. Thus, on the long-forgotten way from Jericho to Bethel, 'broken cisterns' of high antiquity are found at regular intervals. That Jerusalem was thus actually supplied of old with water is apparent also from the numerous remains of ancient cisterns still existing in the tract north of the city, which was once enclosed within the walls.





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Bibliography Information
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Cistern'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature".

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