Northern Illinois University

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Mike Bramnick
Mike Bramnick

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News Release

Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-3635

October 19, 2009

The bedrock of monotheism

Analysis by NIU student concludes geology
played key role in rise of Jerusalem as holy city

DeKalb, Ill. — A Northern Illinois University student is developing new insights into why the city of Jerusalem became the City of David—and his research seems to hold water, quite literally.

NIU senior Michael Bramnik says Jerusalem's karst limestone bedrock—which contained sinkholes, caverns, underground streams and an ample water supply—played prominent roles in the founding and flourishing of the holy city.

Bramnik, who is working toward bachelor's degrees in both history and geology, is scheduled to make a presentation on the topic on Tuesday, Oct. 20, at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Portland, Ore. His abstract won the student award—usually given to graduate students—in the “history of geology” category.

“It's pretty rare that you have a bachelor's-level student so well-versed in two disciplines that he can even attempt something like this, much less do it well and present his work in such a prestigious forum,” says Jason Hawke, an NIU professor of ancient history who advised Bramnik on his research.

“Being able to use science to answer questions in history is to me the best of both worlds,” says Bramnik, a 30-year-old student who lives in DeKalb and originally is from suburban Deerfield.

Bramnik concludes from his analysis that the Israelites must have had an extensive familiarity with Jerusalem's sub-surface geology. The Spring of Gihon, located outside the old city walls, is the only source of freshwater near the surface for a great distance.

When King David first attempted to seize the city from the Jebusites in 1000 B.C., the city's defenders sealed themselves in its citadel. According to the Bible, David's elite guard went down into the Spring of Gihon and then up a shaft before striking the Jebusites.

Bramnik—who studied ancient historical texts, the Tanakh (or Hebrew bible) and geologic records—says it's entirely plausible. The ancient Israelites might have simply exploited naturally formed tunnels in the limestone.

Bramnik believes the Israelites entered the spring, climbed a vertical tunnel now known as Warren's Shaft and dug the remaining few meters to the surface, entering the citadel from within. He says a scientist who investigated the shaft concluded it was naturally formed and has existed for 40,000 years.

After David seized the city, the ample water supply likely factored into David's decision to make the location the capital of his new kingdom.

“He had other cities to choose from,” Bramnik says. “The holiest place in Judaism at the time was Shiloh, where the Ark of the Covenant was located. And given David's mastery of the region, he could have made Damascus his capital because it was much more defensible.

“We don't really know why he chose Jerusalem,” he adds. “I think it was largely because he had intimate knowledge of the subterranean water system.”

Centuries later, Jerusalem's geology would play a crucial role in helping the Israelites fend off an attack by the brutal Assyrian war machine, which was known to cut off the water supplies of its enemies. Before the Assyrians arrived at the city in 701 B.C., King Hezekiah had an 1,800-foot-long tunnel dug to reroute the Spring of Gihon's flow into the protective city walls. This manmade tunnel still exists, Bramnik points out.

“The rerouting of the water supply played a pivotal role in making Jerusalem the only city in history to have survived an Assyrian siege,” he says.

Biblical accounts indicate tens of thousands of Assyrians died while camped outside Jerusalem from causes other than battle.

“That might have been related to Jerusalem's geology as well,” Bramnik says. “It's possible that local sinkholes could have been filled with rainwater, or even drainage from Jerusalem's waste, and the Assyrians could have died from diseases such as cholera, which was particularly lethal in ancient times.

“Because Jerusalem was the only city to survive an Assyrian siege, the record seems to indicate the inhabitants attributed the victory to God and felt it was their faith that saved them,” Bramnik adds.

The Babylonians took the city in 587 B.C. and carted its inhabitants to Babylon. The Israelites reasoned that their enslavement had resulted from the unfaithfulness of their leaders, who were worshipping multiple gods.

“While in captivity, modern Judaism formed,” Bramnik says. “It's when the Israelites shifted wholeheartedly to a monotheistic belief structure and congregational Judaism, which allowed one to worship even if you were not in the land of God.”

For more information, see news release from The Geological Society of America:

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