The cave forecourt was excavated 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 * Evidence for centuries-long veneration of the site were uncovered indicating that an esteemed person from a prominent Second Temple-period family was considered to have been buried here
A 2000-year-old Second Temple-Period burial cave designated the Salome Cave—one of the most impressive burial caves discovered in the Israel—is being uncovered in the Lachish Forest. The excavation was 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 burial cave continued in use in the Byzantine and Early Islamic periods, becoming 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 of the courtyard uncovered a row of shop stalls that, according to the excavators, sold or rented clay lamps. “In the shop, we found hundreds of complete and broken lamps dating from the 8th–9th centuries CE,” say Nir Shimshon-Paran and Zvi Firer, excavation directors in the Israel Antiquities Authority Southern Region. “The lamps may have served to light up the cave, or as part of the religious ceremonies, similarly to candles distributed today at the graves of righteous figures, and in churches.”
The burial cave in the Lachish Forest was first exposed 40 years ago by antiquity looters who broke into the cave, following which an archaeological excavation was carried out by Prof. Amos Kloner of the Antiquities Department. The cave comprised several chambers with multiple rock-hewn kokhim (burial niches) and broken ossuaries (stone boxes), attesting to the Jewish burial custom. The Jewish custom of secondary burial in stone ossuaries is well-known in the archaeological record, but the surprise was the adaptation of the cave into a Christian chapel. Judging by the crosses and the dozens of inscriptions engraved on the cave walls in the Byzantine and Early Islamic periods, the chapel was dedicated to the sacred Salome.
“The name Salome (or in Hebrew: Shalom or Shlomit) was a common Jewish name in the Second Temple-period and was also known in 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 was only healed when she held the baby’s cradle.”
The cave itself was excavated many years ago, and now the Israel Antiquities Authority, is exposing the elaborate cave forecourt. The court, extending over 350 sq. m, is surrounded by ashlar stone walls, and has stone slab and mosaic floors. The entrances leading into the cave and the interior chapel were exposed, 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 that the family tomb belonged to a wealthy Jewish family who invested much effort into preparing the cave. It is noteworthy that the court leading into burial caves was usually hewn out of the rock, and not elaborately built of ashlar masonry as this forecourt.
The veneration of Salome and the use of the forecourt and the cave continued down to the ninth century CE, after the Moslem conquest. It is interesting that some of the inscriptions were inscribed in Arabic, whilst the Christian believers continued to pray at the site.
“Salome is a mysterious figure,” say the researchers. “The family tomb attests that its owners were a family of high status in the Judean Shefelah in the Second Temple period. 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 possibly have appeared in antiquity on one of the (no-longer extant) ossuaries in the tomb, and the tradition identifying the site with Salome the midwife developed, the cave becoming venerated by Christianity.”
According to Saar Ganor, the Israel Antiquities Authority Director of the Judean Kings’ Trail Project: “Once the restoration and development works are completed, the forecourt and the cave will be opened to the public, as part of Judean Kings’ Trail Project in cooperation with the Jewish National Fund and the Ministry for Jerusalem and Heritage. This trail, that crosses the Judean Shefelah, is the backbone of the Jewish people’s cultural heritage, and it encompasses dozens of sites from the time of the Bible, the Second Temple, the Mishnah and the Talmud. In the excavations carried out along the Judean Kings’ Trail, the Israel Antiquities Authority is creating a meaningful deep-rooted connection for the general public between archaeology and the cultural heritage.
Eli Escusido, Director of the Israel Antiquities Authority: “The Judean Kings’ Trail Project initiative is the result of effective cooperation with the Ministry for Jerusalem and Cultural Heritage and the Jewish National Fund, with the aim of enhancing archaeology and the development of cultural heritage sites for the benefit of the general public. The excavation of the Salome Cave is the result of productive cooperation with the Ministry for Jerusalem and Heritage and the Jewish National Fund, with the aim of enhancing archaeology and the development of heritage sites for the general public. The Israel Antiquities Authority is developing sites and making heritage trails accessible, as part of our understanding that archaeological sites in non-built-up areas are an integral part of the cultural landscape of the country. Many of these trails are located in the Israel Antiquity Authority Southern Region, as for example, the Judean Kings’ Trail, the Incense Trade Route, and the Knights Route. We aim to continue to develop new ways and initiatives in the coming years, in order to strengthen the bond between the public and the heritage and cultural landscape.”
Victor Halfon, Director of the Jewish National Fund Lachish Region: “Salome’s Cave is one of the many sites in the Jewish National Fund Lachish Forest and along the Judean Kings’ Trail. The Jewish National Fund support the development of cultural heritage sites in forest areas , as a means to attract the general public to the open areas. The cooperation over the last few years has led to the development of several interesting sites. After the excavations, Salome’s Cave will be a new focus of interest accessible to visitors.