Hiking during Hanukkah, three cavers decided to explore caverns in the Judean foothills of south-central Israel. Finding their way into caverns that also served as an ancient cistern, they found an array of engravings carved into the chalk bedrock.
Among the engravings they found a Second Temple, seven-branch menorah that, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), depicts the menorah that stood inside Temple two thousand years ago.
On the same wall, several feet away, is a Christian cross.
The area where the carvings were made is called the Shefla or Shephela. In biblical times, it was a traveler's gateway to Hebron, Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Located in south-central Israel, it is a rolling plain ideal for farming - and for fighting battles. Mentioned many times in the Bible, it is an area that, according to the Joshua, was given to the Israeli tribe Dan.
VIDEO OF MENORAH AND CROSS ETCHINGS FOUND IN SOUTH-CENTRAL ISRAEL. ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW.
The 21st century explorers who made the discovery are Mickey Barkal, Sefi Givoni and Ido Meroz. According to the IAA, they belong to the Israel Caving Club.
Their decision to go underground in the Shefla area of Israel was somewhat of a whim. "We heard there were interesting caves in the region," says Meroz.
Once there, "we began to peer into them," he continues. "And that’s how we came to this cave, which is extremely impressive with rock-carved niches and engravings on the wall. Just before we were about to return we suddenly noticed an engraving that at first glance seemed to be a menorah. When we realized this is an ancient depiction of a menorah, we became very excited. Its appearance was quite distinct. We left the cave and reported the discovery to the Israel Antiquities Authority”.
The IAA reports that the "menorah engraved on the wall of the cave has a base with three feet, and evidently portrays the menorah that stood in the Temple during the Second Temple period."
As for the cross, it "was engraved near the menorah."
Another carving "found on the side of the cave which seems to resemble a type of key that is characteristic of antiquity. Other engravings were [also] noted, some of which have not yet been identified.
The area was also used to raise doves used for sacrifices in the Temple.
"Alongside the cistern is a columbarium with dozens of niches that were used to raise doves in antiquity. During the Second Temple period doves were used as part of the sacrificial rites in the Temple," writes the IAA in its report.
The context of the find helps archaeologists understand the engravings.
Sa'ar Ganor is the District Archaeologist of Ashkelon in the Israel Antiquities Authority. The overall site, he explains, includes buildings used to hide refugees "from the time of the Bar Kokhba uprising (second century CE). There are also "buildings that date to the Byzantine period."
"It is 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.”
Ganor added, “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."
And the cross? Ganor speculates it "was etched later on, during the Byzantine period, most likely in the fourth century CE."
The IAA adds that "the menorah is a distinctly Jewish symbol of the Second Temple period. To date, only two engravings of menorahs are known in the region of the Judean Shephelah: one on an 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 IAA plans additional study of the site. To protect it, its precise location is not being published.
As for Mickey Barkal, Sefi Givoni and Ido Meroz, they have found a piece of biblical history hiding underground in the land of Israel. Honoring their discovery, the IAA says it plans to include them in upcoming surveys in the area.
This article by Brian Schrauger is based on the Israel Antiquities Authority published at http://www.antiquities.org.il/article_eng.aspx?sec_id=25&subj_id=240