Charles Warren: The Indiana Jones of Jerusalem
Updated: Apr 23
Sir Charles Warren (1840-1927)
Charles Warren was commissioned as a second lieutenant of the British Royal Engineers in 1857 at the age of 17. In 1867 he was recruited by the newly established Palestine Exploratory Fund (sponsored by Queen Victoria) to participate in their first archaeological project in the Holy Land. For the previous half century, the British Empire had become an important supporter of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, who had been in control of Palestine since the 16th century. This growing alliance between the two empires led the Turks to begin to show favor toward British visitors to Jerusalem who wished to examine the ancient biblical sites. After centuries of little access to these sites, a new era began with a growing interest from Europe and America in the geography and archaeology of Jerusalem and other biblical locations.
Charles Warren arrived like other visitors to Jerusalem, by horseback from the port town of Jaffa over two days with mules in tow, but in his case facing intense winds that nearly blew them off their horses. Once in Jerusalem he found that the local Turkish Governor, Pasha, was not in the mood to cooperate and only allowed him access to certain areas, with the Temple Mount being off limits. Warren accordingly tried digging right next to the walls of the Mount because he needed to determine the nature of their foundations. These unfortunately had been continually buried over the centuries under nearly 100 feet (in places) of debris from past destructions of the city and temple buildings. He would dress in native attire to avoid attracting attention. Charles found it challenging to hire local hands to help with the diggings, because if any local accidentally touched the wall they could face three months in prison. Warren was fearless in his risk taking, as he would dig vertical shafts many tens of feet downward that were kept from caving in only by a tenuous framework of boards and planks. Many local workers refused to enter these burrows in fear of their lives. He also was plagued with local illnesses and at one point was laid up for days with fever. But the fruit of his labor was exciting as he plumbed the depths around the Temple Mount’s retaining walls, discovering their historical secrets. Eventually he was allowed access to the Mount itself where he explored over a dozen cisterns deep in the bedrock dating to both the first and second temple periods. His work to this day remains the only scientific study of what lies beneath the Mount, as not long afterward access was forbidden by Muslim authorities—a prohibition lasting to the present day. The maps and reports Warren published with Sir Charles Wilson in 1871 have been the foundation for our present-day understanding of the Temple Mount and its history.
The other location for which Warren is well-known for exploring is the Gihon Spring and Hezekiah’s tunnel, the latter built circa 700 BCE to divert water inside the city in preparation for a siege. Warren and his companion nearly drowned in this tunnel when, not long after they entered, the spring surged to its full rate of flow, leaving them only inches of air space at the ceiling. He also discovered a vertical passage (called Warren’s Shaft today, see below) connecting the spring rooms to the city above. This shaft is widely believed to be the one recorded in the Old Testament where King David and his men secretly entered and captured the fortress town, which became the seat of his reign, Jerusalem.
Later Warren gained renown for being the police commissioner in charge who failed to capture Jack the Ripper in 1888 London.
Looiking up through Warren's Shaft in the City of David