Zedekiah’s Cave (also known as Solomon’s Quarries) is the largest artificial cave in Israel. It is located under the houses of the Muslim Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem and has been blocked from visitors for many generations. Furthermore, many traditions have been associated with the cave, the most famous of which is related to the escape of Zedekiah king of Judah from the Babylonians with the destruction of the First Temple. It was this tradition that gave the cave its name.
A Little More About Zedekiah’s Cave
The entrance to Zedekiah’s Cave is just beneath the Old City wall, between the Damascus Gate and Herod Gates, about 500 feet (150 m) east of the former. Beyond the narrow entrance, the cave slopes down into a vast 300-foot-long auditorium-like chamber. Drops of water, known as “Zedekiah’s tears”, trickle through the ceiling.
Beyond the “auditorium” are a series of artificial galleries hewn by ancient stonecutters into chaotic, sometimes bizarre, patterns and formations. Paths give access to every corner of the quarry system, which takes at least 30 minutes to explore thoroughly. Chisel marks are visible in many sections and in some galleries huge, nearly finished building blocks destined for some long-ago structure are locked into the rock where the stonecutters left them centuries ago. In a few places the stones are marked by Arabic, Greek, Armenian and English charcoal and engraved graffiti (e.g., “W. E. Blackstone Jan. 1889”). Several plaques explaining some of the myriad legends associated with the site have been mounted on the cave walls.
From the entrance to the farthest point, the cave extends about 650 feet (200 m). Its maximum width is about 330 feet (100 m) and its depth is generally about 30 feet (9.1 m) below the street level of the Muslim Quarter, although there are several lower levels and blocked tunnels too.
The History of Zedekiah’s Cave
Only the mouth of Zedekiah’s Cave is a natural phenomenon. The interior of the cavern was carved over a period of several thousand years. Herod the Great used the main quarry at Zedekiah’s Cave for building blocks in the renovation of the Temple and its retaining walls, including what is known today as the Western (Wailing) Wall. Furthermore, stone from the quarry may also have been used for the building projects of Herod Agrippa I.
Also worth noting that the subterranean quarry would have been usable in all seasons and any weather. In fact, the Roman Jewish historian Flavius Josephus writes about the “Royal Caverns” of the Old City, which may have been a reference to Zedekiah’s Cave. Suleiman the Magnificent (1494–1566); the Ottoman sultan who built the present walls around the Old City, also apparently mined the quarry, ultimately sealing it up around 1540 because of security concerns.
The Cave Discovery in the 19th Century
In 1854 the American missionary James Turner Barclay followed rumors of a cavern near the Damascus Gate, and, apparently with the help of his dog, discovered the entrance. Barclay and his two sons returned secretly at night and explored the cave. Then in the mid-1880s, the cave was occupied by a German religious sect that was eventually evacuated by the German Consul in Jerusalem after many of the group fell ill from living in the damp, unsanitary conditions.
Some minor quarrying occurred in 1907 when the stone was obtained to be used in the Ottoman clock tower over the Jaffa Gate. Otherwise, the site was not frequented again until the 1920s, when it began to be something of a tourist attraction.
Religious Associations and Legends
The most revered legend about the cave is that it served as the quarry for King Solomon’s First Temple. However, there is no historical or archeological evidence to support this. (The meleke limestone of the quarry – which is strong, well suited to carving, and resistant to erosion – is thought to have been used for royal buildings. The name meleke is derived from Hebrew and Arabic words meaning “kingly” or “royal”.)
Writing in the 10th century C.E., Muslim geographer and writer Al-Mukaddasi said:
“There is at Jerusalem, outside the city, a huge cavern. According to what I have heard from learned men, and also have read in books, it leads into the place where lie the people slain by Moses. But there is no surety in this, for apparently, it is but a stone quarry, with passages leading therefrom, along which one may go with torches.”Al-Mukaddasi,
The “people slain by Moses” refers to a story that appears in both the Bible and the Quran about a man named Korah who mounted a revolt against Moses and his brother Aaron, maintaining that they had led the children of Israel out of Egypt under false pretenses. According to the Old Testament, Korah and his fellow rebels were swallowed up by the earth.
The legend that the cave was a hiding place of King Zedekiah (Tzidkiyahu; a Judean king of the 6th century BCE) dates back to at least the 11th century CE. At that time, Biblical commentator Rashi wrote that Zedekiah tried to escape from the troops sent by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar to besiege Jerusalem. (The story was also repeated in the next century by the commentator Radak.) According to Rashi:
“There was a cave from the palace of Zedekiah to the plain of Jericho and he fled through the cave.”
He added that God sent a buck running along the surface on top of the cave as Zedekiah was walking down below. The soldiers chased the buck and arrived at the exit of the cave just as Zedekiah was coming out, enabling them to capture and blind him. Thus was born the legend and name of “Zedekiah’s Cave”.