Israel can now lay claim to the longest salt cave in the world, beating an Iranian record. The Hebrew University’s Cave Research Center and the Israel Cave Explorer Club announced that after remapping Malham Cave, at Mount Sodom in southern Israel, it now holds the title. The cave, whose name is the acronym for the research center’s name in Hebrew, is more than 10 kilometers (6 miles) long, 3.5 kilometers longer than the erstwhile record-holder, the 3N cave in Qeshm, Iran.
Malham is one of 150 caves in Mount Sodom, at the southern part of the Dead Sea, that are made of pure salt. It’s been known to Western travelers since the end of the 19th century. In the 1980s, preliminary mapping of this cave was done by Amos Frumkin, the founder of the Cave Research Center. Already then it was recognized as the largest in Israel. Its length was estimated at 5 kilometers, making it the longest salt cave in the world at the time.
In 2006, Iranian researchers published a map of the 3N cave, with a length of 6.5 kilometers, longer than the one in Israel. Israeli speleologists knew that Malham was longer, but they lacked the resources for a more extensive survey.
Two years ago, members of the research center and the club met with counterparts in Bulgaria, and it was decided to attempt a new survey. This was conducted by speleologists from Israel, Bulgaria, France, Britain, Croatia, Romania and the Czech Republic, with the support of the European and Bulgarian speleological federations.
Teams spent long days in the cave, mapping it with laser distance meters. Other teams scoured the surface, looking for shafts allowing entry from above. “We looked into every crack, looking for additional entrances,” says Yoav Negev of the Israel Cave Explorer Club. Dozens of corridors, rooms, large spaces and passages were discovered, some of them so small the explorers had to crawl to navigate them.
According to international standards, the official total length of a cave includes all the spaces a person can pass through and that include a separated floor and ceiling. Several levels in one space are not included in calculating distances. By last year, researchers realized the cave was larger than the Iranian one, but they waited for further measurements before determining that it is indeed significantly larger.
Despite settling on 10 kilometers, they believe there are passages that have not yet been investigated and which could further increase the total length.
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“After 13 years in exile, we again have the longest cave. We have nothing personal against Iranian speleologists, we meet them at conferences and are on friendly terms. We believe the competition increases overall knowledge. It’s a healthy competition between two organizations that respect one another,” says Boaz Langford, a geology student at the Hebrew University and a speleologist who took part in the survey.
“New methods that have developed over the years make the effort worthwhile. 30 years ago, we worked with measuring tapes, a compass and a clinometer. Now we use lasers that connect directly to tablets. This allows more accurate and reliable work” says Frumkin.
The highlight of the cave are the thousands of salt stalactites. Like the better-known ones near Jerusalem and in the Galilee, these too were formed by the melting of the overhead rock by rainwater. The water percolates through cracks and deposits salt on the cave’s ceiling.
Salt stalactites form much more quickly than their limestone counterparts, at rates that can reach dozens of centimeters a year. Most are thin and made of pure salt. One space was nicknamed “the wedding hall,” with a ceiling covered in hundreds of stalactites. It’s considered the most spectacular one in Mount Sodom.
Another is called “the guillotine,” due to a gigantic salt boulder that collapsed between two other rocks. A third space is called “the Commandment Tablets” because of two square-shaped boulders. Researches called two other spaces “the re-birth canal” and the “breech birth canal” due to the need to remove helmets and often pants in order to crawl through them.
The age of the cave has been estimated at only 7,000 years, considered very young in comparison to far more numerous limestone or dolomite caves.