Ancient Inscriptions in Elijah the Prophet's Cave Are in Danger

The Haifa grotto, sacred going back to the days of Baal, had been so neglected it even became a venue for bar mitzvahs. Only now is Israel starting to consider protecting it.

Ran Shapira
Ran Shapira
A Hebrew inscription reading "Isaac bar Koma" on the wall of the Propher Elijah's Cave.
A Hebrew inscription reading "Isaac bar Koma" on the wall of the Propher Elijah's Cave.Credit: Asher Ovadiah
Ran Shapira
Ran Shapira

A small cave sacred from the time of Baal, where Elijah the Prophet is believed to have spent the night before going into battle, boasts inscriptions carved into its walls over millennia – which are in imminent danger of disappearing forever.

"The place should be favourable to my son Kyrillos, who will not be affected by fever anymore," wrote Elios, apparently an official living in Acre during the Roman era (first or second century BCE). The "fever" may have meant malaria, and the "place" in question was the Cave of Elijah the Prophet, a grotto some 40 meters up the slope of Mount Carmel, smack in the middle of the city of Haifa.

While about it, writing in Greek, Elios added a strict injunction against desecrating the cave.

Neither prior nor subsequent generations evidently thought much of that exhortation. Elios' inscription, a dedication to his son, is just one of about 180 Greek inscriptions, as well as 44 Hebrew, two Arabic, and one Latin, carved into the stone walls of Elijah's Cave. The youngest writing is modern and the oldest apparently dates from the late Roman era of control over the Holy Land.

But left unprotected for all these thousands of years, and with the walls of the cave "redone" by anybody with the urge over that time - the unique inscriptions seem slated to disintegrate once and for all, as the faithful and the curious continue to ply the place, a practice observed over thousands of years. Now the Israeli government finally has a plan in place to fix up and preserve the cave and is working on putting together a budget from various governmental resources.

Inside the Elijah the Prophet's cave: Note the separation of men (to the right) and women (left).Credit: Asher Ovadiah

Elijah slept here

This is the cave where Elijah is believed to have stayed before his epic battle with the prophets of Baal. Some experts believe that prior to any visit by the Israelite prophet, the cave was a shrine to Baal himself.

The western wall of the cave bears a carved figure of a man that had been vandalized some time in the last thousands of years; today it's covered by the photo of a rabbi anyway. Prof. Asher Ovadiah thinks the image may be of the god Baal Carmel, who was worshipped in the Carmel region until the 9th century BCE – the time of King Ahab of Israel, which is exactly when Elijah the Prophet was active.

Inscriptions on the western wall, including the Roman period decoration of Ba'al Carmel.Credit: Micha Pen

Another indication of the cave's use in ancient worship is a massive marble foot found in 1933 in the garden of the Carmelite monastery Stella Maris, above the cave on the mountain. The rest of the statue is missing but would have been about 10-11 feet in height.

The question is whose foot it is. Ovadiah thinks it came from a statue of Baal that may have been situated inside the cave. However, the Roman historian Tacitus writes that there were no statues of the god, or temples to Baal: he was worshipped at altars. That could indicate the foot belonged to a statue of Zeus: on the Carmel, ancient worship of Baal was subsumed by worship of Zeus, say experts.

Buildings to serve the public visiting Elijah's Cave, some 40 meters above sea level on Mt. Carmel.
Giant foot of Baal, or Zeus, once part of a statue associated with Elijah's Cave.
Menorah carved into Elijah's Cave, Haifa: It does not have the "regulation" number of arms.
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Buildings to serve the public visiting Elijah's Cave, some 40 meters above sea level on Mt. Carmel.Credit: Avi Deror, Wikimedia Commons
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Giant foot of Baal, or Zeus, part of statue found in Haifa.Credit: Asher Ovadiah
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A menorah carved into the chalky wall of Elijah's Cave on the Mt. Carmel, by an unknown person, at an unknown time. Credit: Asher Ovadiah
Cave of Elijah the Prophet

According to the Masoretic text, the Prophet Elijah took particular exception to Baal worship on Mt. Carmel and was constantly squabbling with the priests. Ultimately, according to the legend, Elijah and the pagan priests each sacrificed bulls, but did not light the customary fire: Instead, each prophet called on his lord to ignite the wood. The importuning by the Baal priests proved futile but, when Elijah prayed - "Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench" (1 Kings 18-36) and that was that.

Over time, says Ovadiah, it seems Baal worship in the cave was supplanted by adoration of others. The association of the cave with Elijah himself apparently only began during the Byzantine era (4th to 7th centuries). But it is clear that members of all three great monotheist religions have since plied the cave, leaving behind their marks beseeching for health, wealth or salvation – a practice that continues to this day.

There is evidence that the cave was sacred in the Hellenistic period too (4th-1st centuries BCE). Back then, Mt. Carmel was part of the Phoenician settlement ruling what is today the coast of Lebanon and Israel.

A photo posted by Karin mordehay (@karin_mordehay) on May 13, 2015 at 6:11am PDT

Worshipping at the Cave of Elijah the Prophet

The Roman revolution: Cave graffiti

The inscriptions themselves however are from a more limited period, starting apparently in the late Roman period and up to the 19th century. The writing on the cave wall was first noticed by science in the 19th century, but went unremarked until 1949, when this time they were observed by Israeli researchers. Seventeen years later, in the summer of 1966, Prof. Asher Ovadiah of Tel Aviv University devoted half a year to cleaning, revealing, documenting and interpreting these messages from the past.

Most of the writing is an ancient Greek, concluded Ovadiah after years of work, in a recent paper on the inscriptions co-authored with the monk and fellow classicist scholar Rosario Pierri.

There are also 44 inscriptions in Hebrew, written in script typical of later periods (the 18th-19th centuries), and one message in Latin including three proper names – Calvus, Monicus and Mettia or Mettius. There are also two even later inscriptions in Arabic.

The inscriptions shed light on the socioeconomic and cultural status of the pilgrims plying the site. Many of the writings are dedications to family and friends; some were pleas to the divine powers for healing on behalf of others (like the case of the Kyrillos) or the self. Some just wished success to others in their endeavors. In any case, the alphabets, turns of phrase and the artistic motifs provide a window on the dates of the writing, Ovadiah suggests.

The Hebrew names on the walls are apparently mostly late additions, belonging to Jews living in Acre in the 18th and 19th centuries. Carving their names into the walls may have been a way to importune the deity for good health and success in business, as well as protection against the "evil eye".

A photo posted by kobi-sharon (@kobi_sharon7) on Aug 25, 2014 at 5:03am PDT

Two seven-stemmed menorahs have been carved into the northern wall of the cave, which are very similar to menorah images on a mosaics found at various synagogues dating to the 4th-6th centuries CE. The carvings indicate that Jews plied the cave – and probably paid professional stonemasons to create the menorah motifs, as was done in the Roman era.

Early Christians leave their mark

Early Christians also left their mark in Elijah's Cave. The northeastern corner sports a equilateral cross of impressive dimensions inside a circle, probably carved into the wall during the early Byzantine era (4th-6th century CE). Centuries later, Muslims and Druze would also begin to make pilgrimages to the cave – as they do to this day.

In the decades since his mammoth project documenting Elijah's Cave, Ovadiah has continued to visit it, and has had a first-hand view of its accelerated disintegration, which was presumably not helped by the fact that the sacred cave has come to be treated as a venue for bar mitzvahs and other such private bashes. Just this last summer, Ovadiah observed a private party of dozens of people. Some visitors come to pray at the cave but others seem oblivious to its status, let alone the existence of the ancient inscriptions, says the professor.

And indeed, without prior knowledge and expertise, the writing is hard to notice beneath the accrued layers of dust, dirt and candle wax coating the walls. Yet other inscriptions have simply been covered up by portraits of famous rabbis and kabbalists hung by the faithful on the cave walls, in ignorance of what lies beneath.

A photo posted by Lauren לורין لورين (@laurensfine) on Apr 21, 2013 at 4:41am PDT

Finally, a toilet

Yet its situation now, for all the pictures on the walls, indiscriminate visitors and grime, is an improvement, says Rabbi Yosef Schwinger, director of Israel's Holy Sites Authority at the Ministry of Religious Affairs. "When I took office, a little after the year 2000, the cave was in terrible condition," he told Haaretz. "Since then the infrastructure has undergone minimal improvement. For instance, new toilets were installed."

More helpfully, the Holy Sites Authority has a major two-year plan in place to restore the cave, in collaboration with the Antiquities Authority and the National Heritage Sites foundation. Of course, implementing the plan will take a lot of money; Finance Ministry officials are considering how to create a pool budget. Yet Schwinger says he's confident works can begin this September.

Meanwhile, Haifa officials have long been aware of the cave and its condition, and were involved in planning the renovations (including access for the disabled), but there's only so much they can do. "The Cave of Elijah the Prophet is a sacred, important site in the heart of Haifa, but regrettably, the municipality has no jurisdiction or responsibility for its maintenance," commented the city spokesman. "The responsibility for rehabilitation and maintenance of the site belongs to the Holy Sites Authority, at the Ministry of Religious Affairs."

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