Scratch the surface anywhere in Israel, and you are apt to find level upon level of history – from the dawn of time, through bibilical eras, perhaps past some knights in the Middle Ages, and into our own recent centuries.
Just outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, not far from Damascus Gate, there is a simple iron door in the wall. A small white metal sign with green letters in Hebrew, English, and Arabic tells you that this is the entrance to King Solomon’s Quarries (Zedekiah’s Cave). This modest entrance in no way offers a glimpse of amazing underground wonder that lies just beyond its portals.
Zedekiah’s Cave is known by many other names as well – Zedekiah’s Grotto, Suleiman’s Cave, and the Royal Caverns, and Korah’s Cave, to name a few. Each name links the site to a different period in its long history. The 5-acre site stretches over five city blocks, deep underground, beneath the Muslim Quarter in the Old City. Carved out of the meleke limestone that is so familiar to visitors to the city, this large quarry was developed over a period of several thousand years, a remnant of the largest quarry in Jerusalem.
Entrance to the cave
Beginning as a natural cave, formed by time and erosion, once discovered, it proved to be the perfect source of high quality building stone. The location couldn’t be closer to Jerusalem’s building sites. Some archaeologists believe that the quarry was first developed for the building of the First Temple – Solomon’s Temple, three thousand years ago.
Biblical history (2 Kings 25) tells us that centuries after it was first built, Solomon’s Temple was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar II in 587 BCE, centuries after the time of the great builder king, known for his wisdom. As the Babylonian troops marched toward Jerusalem, Judea’s King Zedekiah and his family made their escape.
Legend has it that Zedekiah hid in the caves, as he made a plan to escape to Jericho. Eventually, the Babylonian soldiers captured him and dragged Judea’s last king off to Babylon where he was blinded and eventually killed, but only after seeing his sons killed before him. At one of the deepest parts of the Cave, there is a constantly dripping natural spring that today is known as Zedekiah’s Tears, weeping not only for the death of his sons, but for the fall of Jerusalem. Zedekiah would be the last king of Judah.
Seventy years later, the Hebrew people were allowed to return home, and work began on a second temple. Once again the local quarries were put to work, supplying the workers with high quality stones for its construction. The work was completed under the leadership of the last three Jewish Prophets, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, with Persian approval and financing.
During the Second Temple Period (516 BCE – 70 CE) the people found themselves under various other ruling nations including Persia, Greece and Rome. It was under the rule of Herod the Great, Roman client king of Judea, that work was begun to rebuild the second temple. Geologists today have been able to
identify stones from the Western Wall with specific areas of the quarry in Zedekiah’s Cave. The Roman Jewish historian Flavius Josephus writes about the “Royal Caverns” of the Old City.
Recent further excavation of the cave under the public area has uncovered a 12th century building erected by the knights templar. It is not known yet what the purpose of the structure was. Once the knights had been defeated and driven from Palestine, the Ottoman sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, rebuilt the walls of the Old City, using stone from the cave.
Then in 1540, to prevent the cave from possible use by adversaries, he closed and sealed up the quarry, probably for security reasons. The cave quarry remained locked away for the next three hundred years.
In 1854 an American missionary and physician, James Turner Barclay, was out walking in Jerusalem with his son and their dog. The story goes that the dog ran ahead and disappeared. Following the sound of the dog’s barking, Barclay and his son discovered that the dog had fallen into a hole in a ditch. Peering into then hole, they saw that it opened up to a much larger cave or tunnel. They returned home, and the next day, dressed as locals, and canceling torches and ropes under their garments. The next day, dressed in clothes of the locals, the Barclays went back to the site where the dog had vanished, and slipped into the cave. Realizing what he had discovered, James Barclay notified his friends at the Palestine Exploration Fund, and exploration of the cave began.
Minor quarrying occurred in 1907 when stone was obtained to be used in the Turkish clock tower over the Jaffa Gate. Later, the Jerusalem YMCA building was also constructed of stone from the cave. Tourism began in the 1920s and in the late 20th century, the East Jerusalem Foundation carried out restorations of the c ave. After this, The Jerusalem Foundation built paths and installed lights throughout the cavern, facilitating tourist access.
The Freemasons, the fraternal organization tracing their origins to local fraternities of stonemasons, consider King Solomon the first mason, and trace their origins to those workers who built Solomon’s Temple. In 1868, the first meeting of the Freemasons in Ottoman Palestine was held in the cave. Continuing down to today, there is an annual ceremony of Freemasons held in the large underground chamber of Zedekiah’s cave.
Today, the cave is a fascinating tourist spot as well as a major venue for cultural events and concerts. Individuals and groups can tour the cave. Winter hours are Sunday through Thursday, 9:00am to 4:00pm. In Summer the cave is opened an hour longer, closing at 5:00pm.
For more information on Zedekiah’s cave, and how you can see it with your own eyes, visit www.regina-tours.com or call us at 1-800-CATHOLIC
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