Tag Archives: caves

Mount Arbel

Rising majestically above the western shore of the Sea of Galilee (in Hebrew, Kinneret) are two sheer limestone and dolomite cliffs, facing each other. The Arbel stream flows in the valley between them past Migdal (the home town of Mary Magdalene). Part of a national park and nature reserve, it’s a great place to hike.

The higher mountain is Mount Arbel, 181 meters above sea level but since the Kinneret is the lowest freshwater lake in the world at 209 meters below sea level Arbel is actually 390 meters above the valley and lake below. The second mountain, north of the stream, is Mount Nitay (98 meters above sea level) but this part of the reserve is closed to visitors to protect the flora and fauna. Looking down over the cliff it is easy to forget that you are standing on a broad plateau and not flying over the valley.

As early as the Hasmonean period there was a town Arbel that overlooked the ancient road from Galilee to the town on the Kinneret. The sage Nittai of Arbela, one of the Tanaim is recorded in Mishna Avot 1,7 where he advises “Keep far from an evil neighbor and do not associate with the wicked and do not lose belief in retribution”. Josephus mentions Arbel when he describes the battle in 37BCE between Herod and Jewish rebels who barricaded themselves in the caves in the cliff. Because the access to the caves was by extremely narrow paths, Herod had soldiers lowered over the cliff in baskets to reach the caves. In the early first century CE, Jesus of Nazareth performed miracles at the foot of the Arbel, moving between Migdal and Capernaum with his followers.

Outside the park, closer to Moshav Arbel are the remains of an ancient synagogue from the 4th century . It was first discovered in 1852 by the explorer and scholar Edward Robinson (who also recognized Herodium, Ein Gedi and Masada and after whom the arch at the the southern end of the Western Wall is named). Situated in the center of the village, it was built from large limestone blocks, in contrast to the other buildings which were of black basalt common to the region.

Drawing of Arbel synagogue by Leen Ritmeyer

The synagogue’s facade faced east which was rare for Galilean synagogues. The entranceway was cut out of a single large stone – three quarters of the frame remain in situ.  The synagogue consisted of a main hall with three rows of columns topped by Corinthian capitals in the shape of a “U” that supported a second-story gallery. The hall was lined with stone benches and the floor was about 1.5 m lower than the threshold alluding to Psalm 130 “Out of the depths have I called you O Lord”.

The building seems to have been destroyed and rebuilt in the 6th century. At this time the orientation was changed – a doorway in the northern wall, a round niche in the southern wall facing Jerusalem for the Torah scroll and a platform for Torah reading were added. This synagogue was apparently destroyed by a fire in 749CE, conceivably resulting from the devastating earthquake that destroyed Bet Shean, Zippori, Sussita and other sites.

Jerusalem Underground

Jerusalem and the Old City are great places to walk around but there’s also a Jerusalem underground (not to be confused with the light rail :-) ). Remember that in archaeological sites as you go to lower layers you go back in history, for example, under Damascus Gate from the Ottoman period is the Roman gate to the city from the time of Hadrian. Not far is Zedekiah’s Cave, also known as Solomon’s Quarries, a 5-acre (20,000 m2) underground meleke limestone quarry that runs under the Muslim Quarter as far as the Sisters of Zion. According to legend, King Zedekiah escaped from the Chaldeans who had surrounded Jerusalem by fleeing through the cave all the way to the plains of Jericho.

If you like caves, there is also a very fine stalactite cave not far from Jerusalem, Soreq cave in the Avshalom Reserve that you can visit about 2 km from Beit Shemesh. Since you will be nearby this would be a good opportunity to visit Tel Maresha and explore underground, the caves, columbarium and tombs from the Hellenistic period.

Herodium has a series of tunnels dug in the mountain during the Great Revolt and then extended during the Bar Kochba Revolt. Near Herodium in Nahal Tekoa the Haritoun Cave is great for spelunking.

In the Jewish Quarter go underground to the Wohl Archaeological museum to see the remains of mansions from the Second Temple period. You can also take a guided tour of the Western Wall tunnel (you must reserve places in advance) that uncovers the part of the western support wall of the Temple Mount built by Herod that runs under the Muslim Quarter. Afterwards walk down the Via Dolorosa and enter the Sisters of Zion to see the Lithostratus and Struthion pool, from the time of Hadrian.

If you like tunnels, exit Dung gate and walk over to the City of David. There you can walk underground in the passageway from the Canaanite period – then you have 2 options: 1) walk the Canaanite tunnel (dry) and exit in Area E park 2) wade through Hezekiah’s tunnel (wet) and exit at the Byzantine Siloam pool. This site contains a lot of history and archaeology and is worth doing with a knowledgeable guide.

Theses are some ideas for exploring underground Jerusalem. Contact me if you would like me to take you exploring.