Mikveh Proves Earliest Jewish Presence in Ein Karem

Amiram Barkat
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Amiram Barkat

Local researchers claim they have found the first evidence of Jewish settlement in the village of Ein Karem, on the western side of Jerusalem, during the Second Temple period (the village was incorporated into the city a few years ago).

The researchers claim that a water cistern that was uncovered a number of years ago in the cellar of the village's Church of St. John the Baptist is none other than a mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath, from the Second Temple period (from 536 B.C.E. to 70 C.E.). This discovery could be important for Christianity as well, since the cistern is the first evidence to support the traditional view that Zachary, St. John the Baptist's father, lived in Ein Karem.

Graves, wine presses and other evidence discovered in Ein Karem testify to settlement at the site from the time of the Canaanites (3000-1200 B.C.E.), but until now no evidence has tied the village to the era of the New Testament.

Father Sahler, a Franciscan monk and archaeologist who ran digs in the village in the 1840s, found a mysterious hole in one of the cellars of the monastery there. The hole was not far from St. John's birthplace, according to Christian tradition.

Sahler did not attribute any importance to the discovery and assumed it was a water hole.

A few months ago, the monks allowed Israeli researchers Dr. Moshe Amirav and Tamar Hirdani to see the hole. Amirav, an Ein Karem resident and lecturer in political geography at the University of Haifa, said "As soon as we saw it, we thought it looked like a ritual bath."

Prof. Ronny Reich, an expert on Second Temple-period ritual baths and the chairman of the University of Haifa's archaeology department, verified the researchers' assumption. Reich recognized a number of elements at the site that were unique to the ritual baths at that time.

According to Amirav, discovery of the mikveh proves that a priest lived at the site, as the priests had to immerse themselves in the baths three times a day. However, the monastery's abbot and his deputy do not accept this analysis and maintain it is merely a regular cistern. It is possible Amirav's approach has contributed to this position, as he has called on the monastery at the site to discuss allowing visitors free access to it.

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