During April–May 2011, a salvage excavation was conducted in a cistern at 43 Ha-Nevi’im Street in Jerusalem (Permit No. A-6147; map ref. 221201/632316), prior to the construction of a residential building. The excavation, on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, was directed by E.D. Kagan (field photography), with the assistance of A. Hajian (surveying and drafting) and B. Antin (plans).
A square cistern was excavated in the Venyamin Courtyard—a complex of historical buildings that served as a women’s hospice of the Imperial Russian Orthodox Palestine Society at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries CE. The Venyamin Courtyard was the property of the Russian Orthodox Church until the beginning of the 1960s, at which time it was sold to the State of Israel. The buildings were turned over to Yad Sarah, which vacated the site in 2006. Today the buildings stand empty. Several single-story buildings in the southern part of the courtyard were demolished for the sake of construction. Building No. 43, where the excavation took place, is located in the northern part of the courtyard and the Jerusalem municipality has declared it as a building for preservation.
The southeastern side of the cistern was destroyed before the excavation. The cistern (c. 7 × 7 m, depth 4.5 m; Fig. 1) was built inside a crudely hewn rectangular rock-cutting. The sides of the cistern were constructed 0.5 m from the hewn bedrock sides, and the space between them was filled with soil and rubble (Fig. 2). The sides of the cistern were built of coarse ashlars (c. 0.25 × 0.30 × 0.40 m), tamped with lime-based mortar mixed with large amounts of charcoal. Four cross-vaults that formed the cistern’s ceiling were supported by a massive square pillar (1.45 × 1.45 m) in the middle of the cistern. Two openings, fixed in the cistern’s ceiling, were subsequently blocked with stones and concrete was poured on top of them, completely sealing the cistern.
The sides of the cistern and the ceiling were coated with a thick layer of gray hydraulic plaster mixed with a large quantity of ground stones and potsherds (max. thickness 7 cm). The outer plaster layer was smooth, without any inclusions. A shallow depression (diam. 0.3 m), meant for collecting debris, was installed on the bottom of the cistern, beneath the eastern opening. Two openings for terracotta pipes (Fig. 3) were discerned in the upper part of the northwestern side. The northern pipe (diam. 0.25 m), situated 4 m above the bottom of the cistern, was used to fill the facility with water. The direction of the pipe shows that it conveyed water to the cistern from the roof of the old wing and from the courtyard. The southern pipe (diam. 0.3 m), which was c. 3.5 m above the bottom of the cistern, drained the overflow from the cistern. Signs of five different water levels were visible on the sides of the cistern. The uppermost level was directly below the elevation of the southern terracotta pipe; its prominent and broad signs indicated that the cistern was probably filled to its maximum capacity (in excess of 180 cu m) during most of the time it was used.
Documents of the Imperial Russian Orthodox Palestine Society in Jerusalem provide important information about the Venyamin Courtyard (http://ricolor.org/Russia/ippo/h/veniamin/). The west wing of Building No. 43 was the oldest in the complex. It was built in the final third of the nineteenth century and belonged to the Jewish banker Johannes Frutiger until 1887. The courtyard at that time comprised four buildings and two cisterns. The cistern documented in the excavation is one of these two. The northwestern side of this cistern was parallel to the old west wing of the courtyard and it therefore seems that the location of the cistern was meant to correspond to the alignment of the building. The second cistern was apparently destroyed during the construction of a new wing (below). In March 1887, the courtyard was sold to Father Venyamin, a Russian priest and an Orthodox emissary to Jerusalem, who opened a hospice in the courtyard for elderly female pilgrims, whose wish was to die and be buried in the Holy City. In 1891, the hospice was turned over to the Imperial Russian Orthodox Palestine Society. In 1893, a new wing, which was located northeast of the excavated cistern, was constructed next to the west wing. In a photograph taken sometime after 1893, the eastern opening of the cistern is visible; its western opening was blocked during the construction of the new wing (http://palomnic.org/gallery/v/19-vek/ippo/ven/6.jpg.html). Five buildings and three cisterns are mentioned in a list of the courtyard’s assets dating to 1910, one of which is a large cistern located near the old building (the cistern documented in the excavation) and the other two are smaller cisterns in the south of the courtyard. One of the small cisterns was destroyed before the excavation and the location of the second cistern is unknown. It too may have been destroyed prior to the excavation. It was also mentioned in the same list of properties that two small cisterns provided for all of the needs of the residents, and it was decided that the water from the large cistern would be sold.
It seems that the cistern documented in the excavation was built together with the west wing of Building 43 in the final third of the nineteenth century. The water in the cistern was conveyed through drains from the roof of the building and from the floor of the courtyard. A new wing of the house was constructed in 1893 along the northern side of the cistern, which continued to function, although its western opening was blocked. It is unknown when the cistern ceased to be used.