Huge cavern may answer biblical questions

The largest man-made cavern in Israel has a ceiling supported by 22 huge columns bearing various carved symbols.

bible cavern 88 248 (photo credit: )
bible cavern 88 248
(photo credit: )
"Then Moses and the elders of Israel charged all the people as follows: 'Keep the entire commandment that I am commanding you today. On the day that you cross over the Jordan into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall set up great stones and cover them with plaster. You shall write on them all the words of this law when you have crossed over." (Deuteronomy 27:1-3). Built on the foundations of an ancient Byzantine church, the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George is home to the oldest, most precise map of biblical Israel and the surrounding areas. The church is northwest of Madaba, a provincial town of the Roman Empire that is now a Jordanian village. During the reign of Justinian (527-565 CE), the long central hall of the cross-shaped Byzantine structure was covered from wall to wall by the Madaba Map, which originally spanned 94 square meters, though only 25 are preserved. The map (see Page 36) identifies Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley with astounding accuracy, and depicts a site called Galgala near Jericho. The Greek inscription next to Galgala reads Dodekaliton, which translates as "Twelve Stones." The inscription was believed to refer to the 12 stones the Israelites carried from the Jordan River bed and set up in Gilgal (Joshua 4). However, it is also possible that these stones are those mentioned in the above passage from Deuteronomy. In that passage, Moses commanded the Israelites to inscribe "all the words of this law" on large plastered stones after they crossed the Jordan near Jericho. Galgala, so accurately located by the Madaba Map, is believed to be the site recently discovered by Prof. Adam Zertal and a team from the University of Haifa which has been surveying the region since 1978. They unearthed a huge man-made cavern 30 feet underground, which they believe may have been a quarry that was already sacred to ancient Christians. The largest man-made cavern in Israel, the excavation is about 100 yards long, 40 yards wide and four yards high. Inside, Zertal and his team found a ceiling supported by 22 huge columns bearing various carved symbols. Thirty-one crosses were discovered, in addition to a possible zodiac and the symbol of a Roman legion. Recesses for holding oil lamps were found in the columns, along with holes to which animals hauling stones out of the cavern could have been tied. The column carvings and fragments of pottery enabled Zertal to date the cavern back at least as far as the beginning of the Common Era, and the multitude of crosses leads him to believe it might have also functioned as a monastery and hiding place. Rumored to be haunted, the cave had been known to local Beduin for centuries. Zertal explained that one of the first visitors to the cave contracted "cave fever" or a parasite, which may have been the reason the Beduin thought the cave was bewitched. Working on the theory that the site may have also seen use as an ancient quarry, Zertal and his team are examining microorganisms in the stones to determine where they might have been transferred. Their next move is to date the symbols on the pillars and compare them to other Jewish, Roman and Christian sites in the Jordan Valley. According to the Civil Administration for Judea and Samaria, Zertal has only received a permit to survey the northern part of the Jordan Valley, and the cavern is south of the survey boundaries. In order to begin excavating, Zertal says his team will have to raise NIS 1 million. Once excavation is permitted, his next step is to examine the rubble on the floor before removing it, hopefully to reveal coins. Though he would like the cave to open to the public, Zertal appreciates the great amount of work this would require. "We would need to build a road and an entrance, install electricity, and raise money for a visitor's center," he says. THE MOST perplexing question, according to Zertal, the answer to which might support the notion that this is where the "great stones" described in Deuteronomy were quarried, inscribed and left for safekeeping, is why anyone would dig such a large quarry with such a narrow entrance so far underground. The Madaba Map may shed some light on this mystery. Zertal explained that scholars had always supposed that "12 stones" referred to the biblical story of the stones removed from the Jordan River bed to commemorate the miracle that the river stopped flowing when the Israelites passed over it. However, the discovery of this cave suggests that the "12 stones" inscription on the map may refer to the location of the "master copy" stones of Deuteronomy and Joshua 8. Though this theory appears to provide a logical reason for the quarry being constructed underground, Zertal points out that "it is just a theory" and "much more research needs to be done." Rabbi Menachem Leibtag of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Gush Etzion doesn't think the 12 riverbed stones are connected to the cavern at all. "The 12 riverbed-stone memorial was built in Gilgal, nearby and a bit to the east of Jericho, but by now it is long gone. The cavern found in the Jordan Valley is clearly not connected to it. It's simply a quarry from thousands of years later that had a possible secondary use as a monastery," he said. Like Zertal, Liebtag believes that "it would not be surprising if in Byzantine times they named a site near the Jordan River Gilgal." He explained that the Byzantines tried to identify many sites of the Bible and build churches in those areas, but the naming was usually not based on careful archeological study, but rather on "assumption or ancient traditions." Leibtag, however, highlighted a key difficulty with conjectures that the cavern may be where the "master copy" stones were left for safekeeping. He notes that Joshua is described as having constructed an altar out of special stones on Mount Ebal near the city of Shechem (Joshua 8:30-35) 10 years after the death of Moses. Zertal claims to have found Joshua's altar, but the site is far from the recently discovered cavern and devoid of inscribed stones. Discovering the stones from either story would be an archeological feat of epic proportions, heavily supporting those who, like Zertal, believe that all the events in the early books of the Old Testament happened and can be proven. Opposing Zertal's camp are the biblical minimalists, who claim that the Old Testament is literary rather than historical. A third group tries to bridge the gap and believes the Bible to be folk memory converted into myth, a fusion of fact and fiction. Religious Studies Prof. Michael Satlow of Brown University, who specializes in early Judaism, thinks such a discovery "would be a terrific find from the point of view of biblical scholarship." However, he is not convinced that it would have any ramifications regarding religious beliefs. "Archeological discoveries really have little impact on living religions," he said. "Think about how the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls might have changed the Judaism of your parents or grandparents. I'm sure it didn't." The writer, a Jerusalem Post intern, is an English major at Brown University in Rhode Island. This article first appeared in the print Jerusalem Post Christian Edition