Photo Credit: Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority
The Second Temple-period burial cave.

A 2000-year-old Second Temple-era burial cave designated “Salome Cave,” one of the most impressive of its kind discovered in Israel is being uncovered at Lachish Forest, some 50 miles southeast of Tel Aviv. The burial cave continued to be in use during the Byzantine and Early Islamic periods and became known as the Salome Cave due to a popular tradition that identified it as the burial place of Salome, the midwife of Jesus.

The excavation is carried out as part of the Judean Kings’ Trail Project led by the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Ministry for Jerusalem and Heritage, and the Jewish National Fund. The excavation of the courtyard uncovered a row of shop stalls that sold or rented clay lamps.

The Greek dedication inscription to Salome. / Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority

“In the shop, we found hundreds of complete and broken lamps dating from the 8th–9th centuries CE,” said Nir Shimshon-Paran and Zvi Firer, excavation directors in the IAA Southern Region. “The lamps may have served to light up the cave, or as part of the religious ceremonies, similar to candles distributed today at the gravesites of righteous figures, and in churches.”

Excavations in the cave forecourt. / Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority

The burial cave in the Lachish Forest was first exposed 40 years ago by antiquity looters, and then an archaeological excavation was carried out by Prof. Amos Kloner of the Antiquities Department. The cave comprises several chambers with multiple rock-hewn burial niches and broken ossuaries (stone chests), attesting to a Jewish burial custom.

The Jewish custom of secondary burial in stone ossuaries is well-known in the archaeological record, but the adaptation of the cave into a Christian chapel was surprising. Judging by the crosses and dozens of inscriptions engraved on the cave walls in the Byzantine and Early Islamic periods, the chapel was indeed dedicated to the sacred Salome.

Clay lamps from the eighth to ninth centuries CE. / Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority

“The name Salome (in Hebrew Shlomit) was a common Jewish name in the Second Temple period and was used by the Hasmonean and Herodian families,” say Paran and Firer. “According to a Christian tradition, Salome was the midwife from Bethlehem who was called to participate in the birth of Jesus. She could not believe that she was asked to deliver a virgin’s baby, and her hand became dry and healed only after she held the baby’s cradle.”

Following the excavation many years ago, now the IAA is exposing the elaborate cave forecourt, extending over 350 sq. m, and surrounded by ashlar stone walls, with stone slabs and mosaic floors. The entrances leading into the cave and the interior chapel have been exposed, as were some of the stones carved with fine decorative vegetal designs, including rosettes, pomegranates, and acanthus vases, characteristic Jewish features. The forecourt and the cave itself attest to the family tomb’s belonging to a wealthy Jewish family that invested much effort in renovating it. Usually, the entrance to burial caves was hewn out of the rock, and not elaborately built of ashlar masonry as in this forecourt.

Excavations in the cave forecourt. / Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority

The veneration of Salome and the use of the forecourt and the cave continued down to the ninth century CE, after the Moslem conquest. Some of the inscriptions are in Arabic, carved when the Christian believers continued to pray at the site.

“Salome is a mysterious figure,” say the researchers. “The cult of Salome, sanctified in Christianity, belongs to a broader phenomenon, whereby the fifth century CE Christian pilgrims encountered and sanctified Jewish sites. The name Salome may have appeared in antiquity on one of the ossuaries in the tomb, and the tradition identifying the site with Salome the midwife developed and the cave became venerated by Christians.”

Excavations in the cave forecourt. / Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority

According to Saar Ganor, the IAA Director of the Judean Kings’ Trail Project, “Once the restoration and development works are complete, the forecourt and the cave will be opened to the public. This trail that crosses the Judean lowlands is the backbone of the Jewish people’s cultural heritage, encompassing dozens of sites from biblical times through the Second Temple, the Mishnah, and the Talmud. In the excavations carried out along the Judean Kings’ Trail, the IAA is creating a meaningful deep-rooted connection for the general public between archaeology and the cultural heritage.”


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