Impressions from a 1st-century underground quarry

Impressions from a 1st-c

cave 248.88 (photo credit: )
cave 248.88
(photo credit: )
On the drive through the Jordan Valley toward Jericho, the taxi driver mentioned to me that the city is the world's oldest, still standing and growing after eleven thousand years. I asked myself, how is that possible to quantify, to prove today? Despite a layman's knowledge of the stated data, the age of the area is impressive to ponder, and it's worth believing considering the depth of historical evidence available from the region. Israel is filled with sites that fire the imagination solely by their age. One example of such a site is the latest discovery by Prof. Adam Zertal. A cave which is within eyesight of Jericho, the find could possibly be Gilgal, an ancient quarry used during the Roman and Byzantine eras. According to Prof. Zertal, while Gilgal has until now been referred to as "Twelve Stones," in connection to the biblical verses that describe the stones the Children of Israel placed in the cave, it could also be named after a Byzantine term used to refer to the quarry. Regardless of its name, the site maintains a religious significance. "During the Roman era, it was customary to construct temples of stones that were brought from holy places, and which were therefore also more valuable stones," the professor explained. "If our assumption is correct, then the Byzantine identification of the place as the biblical Gilgal afforded the site its necessary reverence, and that is also why they would have dug an underground quarry there." Entering down on the makeshift slope of rocks that are fashioned as stairs descending into the cave, I carefully balanced myself in order not to fall. I proceeded gingerly, so as not to lose my step, and I entered a gaping hole into the heart of the darkness. Were it not for the temporary lighting hanging through the site, I would've been standing in pitch black. The air considerably cooler than the dusty, remote Jordan Valley just a few steps away, the group I was with had just entered a world that had remained untouched for nearly two thousand years. Within the raw, unpolished one acre quarry, were various etched markings on the walls and on some of the 22 brute pillars. Among the markings were crosses that were carved into the stone, which Prof. Zertal explained were an indication of the site's possible former function. According to his assessment, the site had once served as a monastery or place of refuge between the years 1 - 600 CE. Thereafter, 31 other engravings testified to the presence of those who dwelled in the space following its Christian usage. Some of the symbols, Prof. Zertal explained, were possibly reflective of the Zodiac, while others were likely Roman letters. Walking among the ancient writing, I was reminded of graffiti which I've seen sprayed on structures in cities throughout the modern world. Had the former inhabitants of this cave also intended to leave a reminder of their presence for the generations to follow? Throughout the tour of the cave, I had to navigate my steps around the bones and partial jaws of what I presume were ancient jackals or dogs that also once used the cave as a place of refuge. Prof. Zertal explained that when he originally began working on the cave, several Beduin approached his team and warned that there were evil spirits within. "Two Beduin approached and told us not to go in as the cave is bewitched and inhabited by wolves and hyenas," said Prof. Zertal. It was quite jarring to see the bones of animals laid out indiscriminately across the dirt. I suppose this proves time is not prejudiced. As I stood looking around at the pillars, walls, etchings and piles of rocks that dress the quarry, I found the experience to be profound in that I was standing in such an ancient place. I was constantly reminding myself how old the site actually is and how few people have actually seen the location. For that, with each passing second the experience resonated on a deeper level.