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Monday, July 18, 2011

The Cave Of Tzidkiyahu©

By Vardah Littmann
Under the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, the cave of Tzidkiyahu or Zedekiah's Cave spreads across five acres with the length of five city blocks of five city blocks. This is the largest man-made cave in Israel and contains the remnant of a giant  underground limestone quarry. The cave has many names. The English called it Solomon's Quarries. The Arabic name is Migharat al-Kitan or "Cotton Cave", as it was probably was used as a storage place for cotton. It’s additional names are Zedekiah’s Grotto, Suleiman's Cave, the Royal Caverns (or Royal Caves or Royal Quarries) and Korah's Cave.
The entrance to the cave is outside the Old City wall, in-between the Damascus and Herod Gates (Shaar Haprachim).
Beyond the narrow entrance, the cave slopes down steeply to reach a vast 300 foot long auditorium-like chamber known as ‘The Freemasons Hall.” From here paths give access to every corner of the quarry system, which takes at least 30 minutes to explore thoroughly.
“Zedekiah's tears” trickle through the ceiling and down a wall into a small fresh water pool. From its entrance to the furthest point, the cave extends about 650 feet (200 m). Its maximum width is about 330 feet (100 m) and its depth is generally about 30 feet (9.1 m) below the street level of the Muslim Quarter.
Only the mouth of Zedekiah's Cave is a natural phenomenon. The interior of the cavern was carved out by slaves and laborers over a long period of time. When precisely quarrying began is impossible to determine. Many chisel marks are visible around the cave. In some of the galleries, huge, nearly finished building blocks destined for some long-ago structure are locked into the rock where the stonecutters left them centuries ago
Whether or not this is the cave Zedekiah used to escape is up for conjecture. Most hold that this is not the cave since Jericho is in a different direction.
Herod the Great (73 BC – 4 BC) certainly used the Zedekiah's Cave quarry for stone in the renovation of the Temple and its retaining walls, including perhaps the Western Wall (the Kosel).  
The Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566) who built the present walls around the Old City, apparently also mined the quarry, eventually sealing it up around 1540 because of security concerns.
The site was then forgotten for over 300 years. In 1854, the American missionary James Turner Barclay was walking his dog. The dog, following a scent, dug through dirt near the Old City wall and suddenly disappeared through an opening. After nightfall, Barclay and his two sons, dressed in Arab garb and carrying candles, slithered through the newly opened crack to discover the vast cavern as well as the skeletons of previous visitors.
Marked by a plaque, is the small niche where French archaeologist Charles Clermount-Ganneau uncovered a simple carving of a cherub in 1873. This cherub has been advanced as evidence that the quarry dates from the time of Shlomo HaMelech. The meleke limestone of the quarry is strong, well suited to carving, and resistant to erosion. It is thought to have been used for royal buildings. The name "meleke" is derived from Hebrew and Arabic words meaning “kingly” or “royal”.
In the mid-1880s, the cave was occupied by a German religious sect. The German Consul in Jerusalem eventually evacuated the group after many of them became sick from living in the damp, unsanitary conditions of the cave.
In 1907 stones form the cave where quarried for the Turkish clock tower over Jaffa Gate. The site was not used again until the 1920s, when it began to be something of a tourist attraction.
In the mid-1980s, the Jerusalem Foundations, built paths and installed lights throughout the cavern, facilitating tourist access.

The cave is open from 9 am until 5 pm, and an entrance fee is charged.

Published in "The English Update" 23 July 2011
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