Surprising Carvings Depicting a Cross and a Menorah Found in an Undisclosed Ritual Cave
Three hikers discovered rare engravings of a menorah and a cross in an ancient water cistern in south-central Israel this past weekend. The religious symbols were found amongst other interesting icons from antiquity in a cave which was used for ritual sacrifices in the Second Temple period.
The members of the Israel Caving Club were exploring in what is called the Judean Shephelah (meaning “Lowland”), a region between Palestine’s central mountain range and the coastal plains of Philistia. This area was covered with sycamore trees in ancient times. Speaking on the discovery, hiker Ido Meroz said:
“We heard that there are interesting caves in the region. We began to look about and came upon this cave, which is extremely impressive with rock-carved niches and engravings on the wall. Just before we were about to leave, we suddenly noticed an engraving that at first glance seemed to be a Hanukkah lamp.”
Engraving of a seven-branched menorah found at the site. (Saʽar Ganor, Israel Antiquities Authority)
How old the engravings are and who carved them is anybody’s guess, however Sa’ar Ganor, chief archaeologist of the IAA's Ashkelon district, speculates that the menorah was etched in the cistern after it was hewn out of the bedrock – maybe by inhabitants of the Jewish settlement during the Second Temple period and at the time of [Shimon] Bar Kochba (the leader of the Jewish revolt against the Romans in 133-135 AD.) He guesses that the cross was etched later on, during the Byzantine period, most likely in the 4th century AD.
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Engraving of the cross. (Saʽar Ganor, Israel Antiquities Authority)
The menorah engraving features a three-footed base and evidently depicts the lampstand that supposedly stood in the tabernacle, described in Exodus 25:31. It was ornamented with alternating knobs and blossoms and had three branches on each side of a central shaft, thus providing for seven holders in which small lamps were placed. Only fine beaten olive oil was used in these lamps (Ex. 37:17-24,27:20). Later in the Second Temple period a golden lampstand stood in the Temple rebuilt by Herod.
Evidence of such a lampstand is mentioned by Josephus, and its representation is also seen on a bas-relief in an interior vault of the Arch of Titus in Rome. This arch depicts certain items taken from Jerusalem when it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. Josephus claimed to have been an eyewitness of Emperor Vespasian and his son Titus’ triumphal procession.
Josephus speaks of the procession carrying “a lampstand, likewise made of gold, but constructed on a different pattern from those which we use in ordinary life. Affixed to a pedestal was a central shaft, from which there extended slender branches, arranged trident-fashion, a wrought lamp being attached to the extremity of each branch; of these there were seven.”— The Jewish War, VII, 148, 149 (v, 5).
Detail of a relief showing spoils from the Siege of Jerusalem, including the menorah, on the Arch of Titus. (Dnalor_01/CC BY SA 3.0)
In addition to the engravings of the iconic lampstand, the hikers discovered a cross. In the New Testament, Jesus Christ likened himself to “the light of the world” (Joh 9:5), his followers came to be “sons of light.” (Joh 3:21; 8:12; 12:35,36,46), and in a vision the apostle John recorded, ‘God’s glory is likened to an illumining light, just as the cloud of light that the Hebrews called the Shechinah illuminated the Most Holy of the ancient tabernacle and temple.’ (Le 16:”, compare Nu 9:15,16) - Re. 21:22-25.
Another engraving found in the cave seems to resemble a type of key that is characteristic to antiquity. Other carvings were also noted, some of which have not yet been identified.
Hiker Ido Meroz near the engravings, including the symbol that has been identified as an ancient key. (Mickey Barkal)
A columbarium is located alongside the cistern. It contains dozens of niches that were used to raise doves. These birds were used in ritual sacrifices during the Second Temple period.
Remains of buildings and hiding places dating back to the time of the Bar Kochba revolt were also found at the site, as well as structures from the Byzantine period.
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IAA officials have not disclosed the exact location of the site in order to protect it, as well as for the safety of hikers. However, they plan to study the cistern in depth. “It is rare to find a wall engraving of a menorah, and this exciting discovery that substantiates the scientific research regarding the Jewish nature of the settlement during the Second Temple period,” concluded Ganor.
Hiker Mickey Barkal at the site. (Ido Meroz)
Top Image: A columbarium with dozens of niches which was found alongside the cistern at the site. (Saʽar Ganor, Israel Antiquities Authority) Insert: Engraving of a seven-branched menorah and the engraving of the cross found in the cave. (Saʽar Ganor, Israel Antiquities Authority)
By Sam Bostrom