The Well of Souls—What is it? What was it?
When most people hear of the “Well of Souls” they think of Raiders of the Lost Ark and the room in the lost city of Tanis in Egypt. But a smaller room by that name sits in the center of Jerusalem at one of the most contested pieces of property in the world—The Temple Mount. Most people are unaware that the iconic golden dome there—called the Dome of the Rock—is a Muslim shrine built to draw attention to a rock over which it is situated—a limestone outcropping of bedrock. That rock is the peak point of the hill upon which the Temple Mount was built. The outcrop has been clearly chiseled on at some point in the past, and a circular shaft (over one foot in diameter) was cut downward into it and leads to a chamber beneath. The chamber can be entered by descending some 15 or so steps via an entrance at the side of the outcrop. The room—known as the Well of Souls—is about the size of someone’s living room. It has a natural rock roof and walls but a man-made floor. Today it is carpeted and serves as part of this Muslim shrine and hosts the faithful wishing to pray. The room is likely over two thousand years old. Which leads to the question—what was it originally?
A watercolor painting by Carl Haag (1859) of the Well of Souls.
Islamic legend would convince the faithful that the name originates from the sound of dead souls that could be heard awaiting judgment day. In fact, during the middle of the 19th century, an Italian engineer, Ermete Pierotti, discovered a much smaller chamber beneath the carpet and tiles of the floor. The lower chamber is connected horizontally on each side by a narrow tunnel. Another legend refers to this lower place as the Gates of Hell—consistent with the idea of why spirits can be heard awaiting judgment.
The most popular modern Israeli theory is that the entire Temple Mount was once the edifice that King Herod had built to support his grander new Temple. It is also widely (but not universally) thought that Herod’s (and thus also Solomon’s) Temple stood where the Dome of the Rock is today. A popular 3-D model recreation by the Dutch-born archaeological architect, Leen Ritmeyer, assumes this location. His model can be seen widely around Jerusalem and in books and, from what I can tell, has become officially adopted by Israel as the favored replica. It can be seen, for example, on full display in the Israeli Museum in Jerusalem. This popular theorized location would place the Well of Souls beneath the Temple, and even beneath the Holy of Holies. However, if one peruses the literature one can find probably a dozen theories of different exact locations of where the Temple might have once stood upon the Mount. I see a couple of problems arising if one claims the Temple was at the Dome of the Rock. First, a Jewish Altar was not to consist of any hewn stone (the rock outcrop has been clearly cut). Second, the natural cave beneath the outcrop is never mentioned in the Bible or the Torah. That such a prominent feature was never mentioned I find to be problematic.
In contrast, the best explanation I can find for the origin of the Well of Souls has been given by the 19th-century scholar, Thomas Lewin. Lewin has the credentials of being a scholar of both Jerusalem and Josephus, and was fluent in first century Greek, in which the works of Josephus were written and preserved. He was a well-educated British barrister of high rank who thought with a logical legal mind and wrote research articles on both the Temple Mount and Mosque of Omar. You can read more about Lewin in my blog of November 21, 2020.
An engraving of the Well of Souls under the Dome of the Rock—the shrine then known as the Mosque of Omar. By Stanley Lane-Poole (1883) from a set of books Picturesque Palestine, and Egypt.
Lewin presents the theory that today’s famous rock outcrop was once the site of the Greek Acra—the military fortress occupied by the Seleucids, the rulers and enemy of the Jews in the 3rd century BCE. Both Josephus and the historical First Book of Maccabees described this fortress as adjacent to and overlooking the Temple, where arrows could be fired down into the temple courts. It was also described as having been torn down in the 2nd century BCE after the defeat of the Greeks. The fortress was so deplored by the Jews, and seen as a future threat to the Temple, that even the hill beneath it was cut down even with the ground level of the Temple. Today the bedrock area surrounding the Dome of the Rock is relatively flat, except for this one rock outcrop-which possess cut marks. This area was thus likely the cut down hill of the Acra, with the outcrop being spared to preserve this room beneath it. At that time the room likely served to store provisions for when the fortress came under siege. The chamber beneath possibly as a cistern to store water during such sieges.
Lewin also suggests the Well of Souls had been, during the First Temple Period, a mausoleum of two 7th-century kings of Judah—Manasses and Amon, a place God had complained about to the prophets as being too unclean to be that near to the holy temple. The Greeks would have removed the remains upon building the Acra there in the 4th-century BCE. Then after the victory of the Maccabees and the establishment of the Jewish Hasmonean dynasty, the room was adopted by the Hasmonean King Alexander Jannaeus as a crypt for himself and his family. Evidence for this was found by Lewin in Josephus’ writings, where he wrote that during the Roman siege in 70 CE the rebel leader, John of Gischala, defended this area of the city against the Romans from (1) the Temple, (2) Fortress Antonia, and (3) area in front of the Tomb of King Alexander. The first of these two being separated by the third are in the diagram Lewin presents. No other place suggested for this tomb site makes sense in terms of John’s defensive position during the siege. Nor are they any other historical references to its exact location.
Thus to answer the question—What was the Well of Souls?—it seems likely to me that Lewin has the best theory: it began as a natural cave later to be converted to a tomb—a mausoleum for Judean Kings during the 7th-century BCE, and reused as such up to Jerusalem’s fall in 70 CE. Such use is a fitting origin for a room now referred to as a “well of souls”.