Nestled in the lush green forest of southern Israel lies an impressive burial cave of a notable Jewish figure that archaeologists will soon open to the public.
According to Jewish tradition, the 2,000-year-old tomb contains Salome, “the midwife of Jesus,” the Israel Antiquities Authority said in a Dec. 20 press release. The site is known as Salome’s Cave.
Jewish tradition holds that Salome was called to help the Virgin Mary give birth to Jesus, archaeologists Nir Shimshon-Paran and Zvi Firer said in the release. However, Salome did not believe that she helped deliver the baby to a virgin. As a result, her hand became dry and only healed while holding the baby’s cradle, the researchers said.
Salome’s Cave was first rediscovered by looters about 40 years ago, experts said. Archaeologists excavated the burial cave and – most recently – an outer courtyard leading to the cave.
The massive courtyard covered about 3,700 square feet, the researchers said. Stone walls surrounded the area and stone mosaics formed the floor.
In the courtyard, archaeologists discovered stalls selling or renting clay lamps around AD 800, the press release said. “The lamps may have been used to illuminate the cave or as part of religious ceremonies, similar to candles placed at the graves of righteous figures and in churches today,” Paran and Firer said.
The excavation uncovered an entrance to the burial cave, as photos show. Surrounding the entrance were some stones carved with “distinctive Jewish features,” the publication said, including a stylized floral design known as a rosette, pomegranates, and leafy acanthus vases.
Inside, the burial cave has several rooms, as photos show. Arched doors and carved windows separated different chambers.
Inside the chambers, burial niches were carved into the rock walls, as photos show. Archaeologists also found remains of stone chests, a custom of Jewish burials.
Some of the walls in the cave were engraved with crosses and inscriptions dedicated to Salome, dating from the Byzantine and early Islamic periods, the publication said. The mix of Arabic engravings and Christian iconography suggested the cave was adapted as a Christian chapel, where people continued to pray when the region was conquered by Muslims, experts said.
The site is “one of the most impressive burial caves” found in Israel, the press release said. But “Salome is a mysterious character,” said Paran and Firer.
Archaeological authorities plan to open the courtyard and cave to the public after the restoration is complete, Saar Ganor, the project’s director, said in the release.
The Lachish Forest is about 30 miles southwest of Jerusalem.