The sanctuaries in which Jewish rebels hid from the Roman forces 2000 years ago

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The sanctuaries in which Jewish rebels hid from the Roman forces 2000 years ago in the Galilee were natural caves in the chalky cliffs Credit: Yinon Shavtiel

Caves in which Jewish rebels hid from Romans 2,000 years ago found in Galilee

As the First Jewish War raged in ancient Palestine, villagers would hide in impressively inaccessible cliffside caves as the Roman armies marched through.
By Philippe Bohstrom – Haaretz Contributor – Sep 28, 2016

While surveying natural limestone caves in the Galilee, scientists have discovered hundreds of limestone caves in which Jews hid when Roman troops came marching through 2,000 years ago, during the Great Jewish Revolt (66-70 CE).

Extensive embellishment such as baths and candle niches carved into the rock show that the caves had been prepared for extensive habitation.

Water cisterns carved into the rock, as well as pitchers, pottery shards, coins, and other artifacts dating to the 1st century C.E. were found in many of the cliff shelters, say Dr. Yinon Shivtiel from the Safed Academic College and Vladimir Boslove of the Israeli Cave Research Center. The work was funded by the Safed Academic College Research Foundation.

The Jewish historian Josephus wrote extensively about the Roman-Jewish wars. Some historians have wondered whether he didn’t embellish his role in the Jewish uprising, glorifying his own actions.  But the discoveries of the caves in the Galilee, which were made over a period of years, lend credence to his accounts.


When Josephus was ours

At least when the Great Jewish Revolt, a.k.a. the First Jewish War, began, the man born as Yoseph ben Matityahu was fighting on the side of the Jews, commanding the Jewish rebel forces in the Galilee.

The outmanned, “outgunned” rebels were facing the full might of the Roman army, under Vespasian and his son Titus.

Protecting the people of Galilee was an almost impossible task, since the Jewish soldiers he commanded were poorly equipped and lacked combat experience. Josephus’ defensive strategy involved adding walls and otherwise fortifying towns and caves in the vicinity: “Moreover, he built walls about the caves near the lake of Gennesar, which places lay in the Lower Galilee.” (The War of the Jews, (II, 572 – 576).


The sanctuaries in which Jewish rebels hid from the Roman forces 2000 years ago were natural caves in the chalky cliffs, which the rebels elaborated to live in over quite extended periods of time. Credit: Yinon Shavtiel

Five of six settlements that the Jewish general apparently fortified have been identified: Tiberias, Arbel, Akhbara, Meron and Caphareccho, which remains unidentified.

 “During my research, it became clear that the settlements mentioned in Josephus’ writings were located in close proximity to steep cliffs in which there were natural caves,” Shivtiel told Haaretz.

A dangerous climb

Much of the Land of Israel today sits on a prehistoric seabed, part of the bottom of the Tethys Sea. (That is why hikers in the hills find fossil seashells and the like, and a couple of plesiosaurs have also been found.) The rock comprising is largely chalky and soft. Throughout Israel, caves were easily carved out of the chalky sedimentary stone by nature, and by man.

Based on Josephus’ writings, Shivtel became convinced that the Jews hid in natural caves in the cliffside when fleeing from Roman forces approaching their villages. That may have been a precarious endeavor since, from the bottom at least, the caves can only be reached by rappelling down, or by climbing up using ropes or high ladders. Anybody seeking shelter in places that hard to reach had to have been desperate, he claims.


Looking down at the town of Migdal from one of the cliffside caves in which Jewish rebels hid from the Roman forces during the First Jewish War. Credit: Yinon Shavtiel

Or, a passage in Josephus book War of the Jews about King Herod’s cunning may hint at an alternative way to get into those caves.

Hundreds of years earlier, when the people of Galilee had risen up in rebellion against the despot king, Herod counterattacked and the rebels hid inside caves on Mount Arbel, situated on extremely steep cliffs towering above a very deep valley. So Herod constructed wooden chests, which he filled with soldiers. The boxes were lowered to the cave mouths from the top of the cliffs. Most of the people inside the caves were soon killed by Herod’s soldiers, who fired burning projectiles into the caves. (Antiquities, XIV. 413-430, The War of the Jews, I. 304-313).

Shivtiel suspects this could be how older men and women, and children, might have reach the caves in Josephus’ time. Perhaps it is what inspired Josephus in the first place to hide the people in the natural caves of the Galilee.

Hidden town in the cliff

What is certain is that the caves began naturally but were prepared for a long stay. Water cisterns were carved out of the bedrock, to collect water runoff from the vertical walls. Niches were hewn in the walls that still contain ash remnants from candles.

Coins, pitchers and cooking pots were also found. The clay plaster, coins and pottery could all be dated to the first century C.E.

Akhbara, one of the sites where Jewish rebels hid 2,000 years ago from Roman soldiers who had come to quell the Great Jewish Revolt. Credit: Yinon Shavtiel

At least some of the caves were huge, as much as four stories in height, and tunnels were carved out of the rock allowing access to other caves. Even balconies were discovered, enabling the cave dwellers to watch out for hostiles.

Another remarkable discovery was six ritual baths, one found in Akhbara and five in Arbela, that received at least some of their water from still-dripping stalactites. Channels were carved out to the external rock wall, so rainwater runoff could accumulate, and stairs leading to the baths were cut into the rock.

Preparing mikvehs goes far beyond the essentials needed to sustain life. That in and of itself indicates in Shivtiel’s mind that priests were hiding in the caves, it seems that Kohanim (descendants of Aaron) who lived in the Galilee before the revolt. (Then, cleansing or purifying in the ritual bath was not a requirement for the general Jewish community, but it was for the priests. In acknowledgement of God’s purity, priests and Levites were required, on pain of death, to wash their hands and their feet before sacrificing – Exodus 30:17-21).

Who is this Josephus anyway

A Roman arrowhead, right above the finger (bottom left), that became embedded in the soft rock of a chalky cave in which Jewish rebels took shelter some 2000 years ago, during the First Jewish War. Credit: Yinon Shavtiel

The most important documents on the history of the Great Jewish Revolt are Josephus’ books War of the Jews and Jewish Antiquities.

Josephus was born in Jerusalem 37 C.E. and in the 2,000-plus years since then, he has become a sharply controversial figure, based on the belief that he abandoned his brother Jews and joined the Romans as the revolt wound down in 67 CE. Moreover, some historians have accused Josephus of embellishing his histories and inflating his importance.

One difficulty in establishing his verisimilitude, Josephus’ critics charge, is that he is the only source on his part in the Jewish-Roman war. Another is that he wrote after the events, with the foreknowledge that war would end in disaster for the Jews, culminating in the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.

For one thing, what historian hasn’t written with hindsight. For another, where checkable, Josephus seems to have been an extremely accurate source regarding military actions in which he was involved.

Whatever the case, neither Josephus nor the Jews in the Galilee could withstand the Roman war machine, which broke down all resistance in the Galilee.

The researchers discovered dozens of flattened Roman arrow-heads that had been shot into the caves, some striking the cliffs and becoming embedded in the rock face. These findings certainly connect the caves with Roman-Jewish violence.

Yet Shivtel assumes that most of the civilians who took refuge in the caves survived. The Galilee could not have had flourishing Jewish communities in the second and third century C.E. if the population had been slaughtered, he points out.

Dr. Yinon Shavtiel in one of the caves in which Jewish rebels hid 2,000 years ago from Roman soldiers who had come to quell the Great Jewish Revolt. Credit: Yinon Shavtiel

The last stand

Josephus made his last stand not in some cave, but in Jotapata. In the spring of 67 C.E., a vast Roman army of 60 000 legionnaires, equipped with siege machines, battering arms and 160 throwing machines (catapults for spears, scorpio for arrows and ballista for stones) stood ready to assault the cliffside fortress in the Golan.

For 49 days the Jewish defenders held their own, despite being showered by stones, arrows and spears. Josephus, commander of the Jewish forces in Jotapata, described the battle as one of the bloodiest in the revolt.

When the fortress could no longer be held, Josephus escaped with a dozen companions and hid in a cave. They decided to help each other commit suicide in order not to fall in enemy hands, and drew lots to decide in order in which they should die.

Josephus however reportedly fiddled with the tickets to be last, and thus remained alive. Captured by the Romans, he was imprisoned and shackled, and would certainly have been put to death – except for his sycophantic prophecy, foretelling that Vespasian would became a great emperor.

The flattered Vespasian spared the Jewish general. When the prophecy was in fact fulfilled, in due time, Josephus was set free and showered with gifts – which Josephus “receipted” (acknowledged) by adopting the emperor’s family name, Flavius. And that is why he is known as Josephus Flavius to this very day.

A bit of contemporary trash at bottom of one of the caves in which Jewish rebels hid 2,000 years ago from Roman soldiers who had come to quell the Great Jewish Revolt. Credit: Yinon Shavtiel

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