Three hikers discovered rare engravings of a seven-branched menorah and a cross in an ancient water cistern in south-central Israel over the weekend. The spelunkers, members of the Israel Caving Club, were exploring in what is called the Judean lowlands.
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“We heard that there are interesting caves in the region," said Ido Meroz, one of hikers. "We began to look about and came upon this cave, which is extremely impressive with rock-carved niches and engravings on the wall. Just before we were about to leave, we suddenly noticed an engraving that at first glance seemed to be a Hanukkah lamp.
"When we realized that it was an ancient depiction of a menorah, we became very excited. It had quite a distinctive appearance. We left the cave and reported the discovery to the Israel Antiquities Authority,” Meroz added.
In addition to the engravings of the menorah (with seven branches, as opposed to a Hanukkah lamp, which has nine) and a cross, the trio – Meroz, Mickey Barkal and Sefi Givoni – discovered one that looks like an elongated key, characteristic of the Second Temple period (from 530 B.C.E. and 70 C.E.), and other unidentified images, according to the IAA.
Near the cave, which was cut into the bedrock and used to store water, was a dovecote, with dozens of niches where doves were raised; the birds were typically used in sacrificial rites in the Temple in Jerusalem during this era.
The menorah engraving features a three-footed base, and evidently depicts the candelabra that stood in the Temple during the Second Temple period. This menorah is different than the one appearing on the Arch of Titus in Rome, which was built in 81 C.E.; the latter menorah, with its solid, stepped base, was used as the model for the emblem of the State of Israel.
IAA officials have not disclosed the exact location of the site in order to protect it, as well as for the safety of hikers. They plan to study the cistern in depth.
“It is rare to find a wall engraving of a menorah, and this exciting discovery, which was symbolically revealed during the Hanukkah holiday, substantiates the scientific research regarding the Jewish nature of settlement [in the area] during the Second Temple period,” said Sa’ar Ganor, chief archaeologist of the IAA's Ashkelon district.
“The menorah was probably etched in the cistern after it was hewn out of the bedrock – maybe by inhabitants of the Jewish settlement during the Second Temple period and at the time of [Shimon] Bar Kochba," he added, referring to the leader of the Jewish revolt against the Romans in 133-135 C.E. "And the cross was etched later on, during the Byzantine period, most likely in the fourth century C.E.”
Remains of buildings and hiding places dating back to the time of the Bar Kochba revolt were also found at the site, as well as structures from the Byzantine period.