Hikers exploring a water cistern in a Judean Shephelah cave had a close encounter with history last weekend, when they came across an ancient seven-branched menorah from the Second Temple period engraving on its bedrock walls.
Three members of the Israel Caving Club – Mickey Barkal, Sefi Givoni and Ido Meroz – said they decided to explore caves in the lowland region of South-Central Israel after hearing about their beauty off the beaten path.
“We heard there are interesting caves in the region,” said Meroz on Tuesday. “We began to peer into them, and that’s how we came to this cave, which is extremely impressive with rock-carved niches and engravings on the wall.”
They serendipitously saw the engraving just before deciding to leave for the day, he said.
“When we realized this is an ancient depiction of a menorah, we became very excited,” Meroz added. “Its appearance was quite distinct. We left the cave and reported the discovery to the Israel Antiquities Authority.”
The engraved image has a base with three feet, and depicts the menorah that stood in the Temple during the Second Temple period, the IAA said. Another engraving by the menorah included a cross, and what appears to resemble a key that is characteristic of antiquity, as well as other engravings, some of which have yet to be identified.
Additionally, adjacent to the cistern is a columbarium with dozens of niches that were used to raise doves in antiquity, the IAA said, noting that during the Second Temple period doves were used as part of the sacrificial rites in the Temple.
Moreover, according to Sa’ar Ganor, the authority’s district archeologist of Ashkelon, there are buildings and hiding refuges from the time of the Bar Kokhba uprising (2nd century CE) at the site, as well as buildings that date to the Byzantine period.
“It’s rare to find a wall engraving of a menorah, and this exciting discovery, which was symbolically revealed during the Hanukkah holiday, substantiates the scientific research regarding the Jewish nature of the settlement during the Second Temple period,” said Ganor. “The menorah was probably etched in the cistern after the water installation was hewn in the bedrock – maybe by inhabitants of the Jewish settlement that was situated there during the Second Temple period and the time of Bar Kokhba.”
The cross, Ganor said, was etched later on during the Byzantine period, most likely in the 4th century CE.
“The menorah is a distinctly Jewish symbol of the Second Temple period,” the archeologist continued. “To date, only two engravings of menorahs are known in the region of the Judean Shephelah: One on oil press at Bet Loya, where the same style menorah is depicted, and the other in a burial complex in the vicinity of Bet Guvrin. Other menorahs are portrayed on clay lamps from Beit Natif.”
The discovery, Ganor said, “adds another important tier to the archeological information and knowledge about the region,” noting that the IAA will continue to study the site.
Meanwhile, the hikers who discovered the engravings will receive a good-citizenship certificate, and be invited to participate in an upcoming archeological survey that the authority is conducting in the Judean Shephelah region.