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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 62/April 1903/A Visit to the Quarry-Caves of Jerusalem



THE hill-country of Judea consists chiefly of one great anticlinal fold of a thick series of Upper Cretaceous strata, mostly limestones, the axis of the fold having a nearly due north and south trend. This series rises from beneath the slightly elevated and comparatively narrow Tertiary plain which borders the Mediterranean Sea, is broken by erosion into rugged hills and deep ravines, reaches, even in its present condition of great denudation, an elevation of about 2,500 feet, and then dips eastward. The angle of dip being greater upon the eastern than upon the western side of the axis, the whole series of strata is carried beneath the surface of the Dead Sea, which is only ten or twelve miles east of the axis in a straight line and more than 1,200 feet below ocean level. East of the western shore of the Dead Sea the geological structure is complicated by faults, but that matter need not be discussed. Jerusalem is situated upon the east side of, but very near to, the axis, and because of the presence of the great depression in the land surface called the 'Ghor' one gets good views from the hilltops that rise around the city upon and near the axis. Within range of distinct vision are the Wilderness of Judea, the Hills of Edom, and especially the Mountains of Moab with the Dead Sea and the lower end of the Jordan valley lying near their base. The great series of strata thus folded, consisting, as it does, largely of compact limestone, has furnished only a scanty, although fertile, soil by the natural process of disintegration, and that memorable land is, therefore, preeminently a region of stony ground.

The lithological character of those strata is favorable for the production of natural caves, and many such exist there as is well known from references to them in both sacred and profane history. All the drainage lines of the region, however, being short and most of them declivitous, none of those caves is of large size compared with the great caverns of other regions. Many of those small Judean caves have been artificially enlarged and adapted to use as store-houses, stables, tombs and even as human dwellings. Numerous rock excavations which are wholly artificial have also been made from time immemorial and for various purposes, but I shall refer only to those which have resulted from the quarrying of stone for building purposes, and especially mention only those which now exist at Jerusalem, and which are among the most important of their kind.

Much of the limestone of the Judean fold is suitable for common masonry and it is everywhere so used, hut one stratum which comes to the surface at Jerusalem is especially valuable. Its superior quality seems to be limited to the vicinity of that ancient city, for that quality has not been found in the equivalent stratum of the series elsewhere. It is a light gray limestone sometimes, and, not improperly, called marble, but locally it is known as Malaké or the Royal stone. It is of good appearance, great durability and of uniform texture, and is worked with comparative ease. The place of surface outcrop of this stratum within the city walls is now covered with compactly built houses, but all the good stone was doubtless removed from there long before the present city and its walls were built and its place filled with the accumulated débris of centuries. The first surface quarries of this fine stone must have been very ancient, and the condition of the ground surface just north of the present north wall of the city shows that they were extensive. But even in ancient times, the exposures at the surface of this valuable stone were inadequate to the demand, and the quarries were extended underground, following the dip of the strata, which is there about ten degrees. In this way the quarry caves were formed, the firm stratum above the Malaké making a good roof and the equally firm one beneath making a good floor. The so-called Grotto of Jeremiah, just north of the present north wall of the city, is one of those quarry caves. It is accessible to travelers for an entrance fee and attracts considerable attention because tradition says the 'Lamentations' were written there. But the most extensive cave of this kind exists beneath the Mohammedan quarter, or northeastern part of the city itself, and is not accessible except by official permission. From its location and historical references to it, I have no doubt that it was this cave which furnished at least the greater part of the fine stone for Solomon's temple and other great buildings of ancient Jerusalem. I do not know by what distinctive name it may have been called in ancient times, but it is now locally called by a name that signifies 'The Cotton Grotto.'

Through our American consul, a small party of us got permission from the Turkish governor of Jerusalem to visit this cave, and he detailed a very courteous officer to accompany us. We passed out of the city by the north, or Damascus gate, turned eastward and went about one hundred yards along the trail which encircles the city near the walls and came to a place opposite the 'Grotto of Jeremiah,' where a rock escarpment or low cliff forms the base of the city wall. The entrance to the cave is in the face of this escarpment, and it is so inconspicuous that I did not specially notice it when passing the place on former occasions. Though not originally large, the entrance has been narrowed by rude masonry and a wooden door placed therein. Our officer-guide opened the door by means of an ordinary key which he brought with him, an attendant furnished each of us with a lighted taper, and we began our march into the darkness.

The artificial character of the cave was at once apparent from the presence of numerous rude piers of the original stone which were left by the quarrymen to support the roof and that part of the city which rests upon it. The floor has the general eastward dip of the strata and, although not very even, it was nowhere difficult to traverse. The height of the roof above the floor differs considerably at different places, probably because of the varying thickness of the fine part of the Royal stratum. In some places it is hardly more than ten feet, but in others I estimated the height at twenty feet or more. We walked through the long rude corridors, mostly in a southerly and southeasterly direction, reaching a distance from the entrance that I estimated to be not less than a quarter of a mile. I made no estimate of the cubic contents of the cave, but its great size gave me a distinct impression that it is large enough to have furnished all the fine stone that was required for the grand buildings of the ancient city and of its successive rehabilitations.

As we progressed southward from the entrance the west limiting wall came occasionally into view. It appeared to be quite uneven and I detected there no conditions of the rock which I thought attributable to systematic quarrying such as those which I soon afterward observed in other parts of the cave. For that, and the other reasons already mentioned, I think all the Malaké stone which originally existed on the west side and extended to the surface in reverse direction of the dip, was long ago removed and its place supplied with rejected and inferior stone. When we reached the south and east limiting walls of the cave, we found them perpendicular and bearing abundant marks made by the quarrymen. The character of the great excavation and the peculiar quarry-marks which we found upon its walls left no room for doubt as to its great antiquity nor of the fact that it was wholly the work of human hands. What we saw also agreed with numerous well-known legends and with trustworthy historical references to quarry caves of this kind. The surfaces, which bear the marks referred to having never been exposed to the weather nor to extremes of heat and cold, have remained unchanged, and even those marks which were made by the cutting tools of the workmen are still plainly visible. Fragments of their burnt-clay lamps and water bottles are also occasionally found in the scanty debris, which was produced by their peculiar methods of quarrying. Dr. Cyrus Adler, of the Smithsonian Institution, upon the occasion of his visit there, was so fortunate as to discover a perfect lamp and a damaged water bottle, which he has deposited in the U. S. National Museum. The little niches cut out of the face of the rock to receive the lamps are still there, and far within the cave there is a small spring, the clear water of which now fills the little basin which was cut in the rocky floor centuries ago to receive it. Although it is not probable that any stone has been quarried in this cave since a period at least as remote as the beginning of the Christian era, so little has time affected the wrought surfaces of the rock since the last quarrying was done there, one might almost expect to see the old masons return to their work at any time, to hear at high noon the call from labor to refreshment and, in the dim light of their tiny lamps, to see them gather around the spring for their mid-day meal. Perhaps it was just here that, according to the legend, the grand master was murdered when he came to inspect the quarry work. The thought startled me, and I looked around half expecting to see hostile faces peering at us out of the darkness.

The principal method of quarrying that was practised in this cave was laborious but effective, and the same method is known to have been practised in other ancient quarries. It is a hand method, the effect of which is much like that of one now employed by aid of machinery in quarrying marble and massive limestones. A perpendicular face of the rock was prepared and the outlines of the desired ashlars drawn upon it. The principal tool used for the shaping and removal of such stones was a long slender chisel, a little more than an inch wide, which was struck on end with a hammer or mallet. A narrow groove or slot was thus cut on all the drawn lines and of sufficient depth for the full thickness of the ashlar. The latter was then removed by driving wooden wedges into the slots, the impact of which split the ashlar off at its back face and allowed it to fall upon the quarry floor. The split face was usually nearly even, because of the uniform texture of the stone, but any defect in that part of it would cause it to split unevenly. We saw one large ashlar lying where it had fallen, 'rejected of the builders,' because its back face had broken off obliquely.

In most places the quarrying of the Royal stratum appears to have been prosecuted as far as was intended, and the stones were all removed, but in one place, at least, the work was for same reason left unfinished. Some of the ashlars were only outlined and some partially cut out, the great stones still remaining in their original places. Perhaps the work was interrupted by a strike of the quarrymen and never resumed because of failure to obtain compliance with their demands. But workmen had few rights in those days, and that suspension of quarry work was more probably due to some deed of violence for, unfortunately, we now know that this cave has repeatedly been the scene of horrors that make the heart sick to contemplate. This method of cutting out ashlars was economical of material and it produced very little debris in the quarry. The stones were also cut so nearly of the desired shape that they required little dressing before taking their places in the building. This method of quarrying also agrees with the scriptural account of the precision with which the stones of Solomon's temple were prepared in the quarry.

Although we have now so much evidence of the true nature and great antiquity of this cave, from and after the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus it remained unknown for centuries. Its entrance became so covered with the débris which accumulated in the destruction and rebuilding of the city that all knowledge of its position, and even of its existence, became lost until the year 1852, when its only now known entrance was discovered by Dr. J. T. Barclay, an American missionary. Dr. Barclay gives a brief account of his discovery and exploration in his book, 'The City of the Great King,' wherein he estimates the length of the cave at rather more than a quarter of a mile, and its greatest breadth at less than half that distance. His estimate of its length agrees with my own, but Dr. Adler, in the Jewish Quarterly Review, for April, 1896, estimates it at about 1,000 feet. Its position is approximately indicated upon some lately published maps by an outline which shows a length of only about 500 feet, but this representation is too far from the truth to deserve consideration. The distance from the entrance of the cave in the north wall of the city to the south wall of the same is barely 3,000 feet, and by my estimate of the length of the cave it extends considerably more than one third the distance across the city. I am, therefore, of the opinion that it extends beneath the northwest corner of the temple area and consequently beneath the governor's residence, which is closely adjacent.

Sir J. W. Dawson, in his book 'Egypt and Syria' suggests that there was formerly a ramp or sloping tramway, leading from the quarry into the temple area by which stones were taken up to the building site of the temple. Nothing of that kind, however, has ever been discovered and the suggestion does not agree with the statements made by Professor H. Graetz in his 'History of the Jews.' Professor Graetz states that the stones used in the building of the temple were obtained from underground quarries by men who were compelled to labor there. He says that "Eighty thousand of these unhappy beings worked in the stone quarries day and night by the light of lamps. They were under the direction of a man from Biblos (Giblem), who understood the art of hewing heavy blocks from rocks and of giving them the necessary shape for dove-tailing. Twenty thousand slaves removed the heavy blocks from the mouth of the quarry and carried them to the building site."

Hard as was the lot of the workmen in the quarry-caves in times of so-called peace, it was not comparable in horror with that of the beseiged inhabitant who resorted to those underground retreats in time of war. The following paragraph from Josephus's account of what took place in the quarry-caves of Jerusalem at the time of its seige and destruction by Titus is frightfully descriptive of those terrible scenes. "The Romans slew some of them, some they carried captives and others they made search for underground, and when they found where they were they broke up the ground and slew all they met with. There were also found slain there above two thousand persons, partly by their own hands and party by one another, but chiefly destroyed by the famine; but then the ill savor of their bodies was most offensive to those who lighted upon them, insomuch that some were obliged to get away immediately, while others were so greedy of gain that they would go in among the dead bodies that lay on heaps and tread upon them, for a great deal of treasure was found in these caverns and the hope of gain made every way of getting it to be esteemed lawful."

As the centuries have passed away decay has so completely done its work there upon all organic matter that not even a bone of all that multitude of the dead has been found with the floor-dust of the cave. Even the air is not now oppressive, although there is apparently no other aperture or entrance than the one by which we entered. I also saw no appearance of fouling of the cave by seepage from the city water-pools nor from the surface drainage of the unsanitary streets and alleys overhead. As we turned to retrace our steps all was so peaceful and untainted it was difficult to realize that man's inhumanity to man was ever so terribly demonstrated there as credible historians have compelled us to believe.

Because of the great difference between the methods of modern and ancient warfare, the scenes which accompanied the various sieges and captures which Jerusalem has suffered can never be repeated; but if a hostile army should ever again camp before the city with intent to destroy it, an effort would doubtless be made to place a few tons of dynamite at the farther end of that anciently constructed mine. In the twinkling of an eye a more complete destruction would follow than that which was inflicted by Titus in his six months of siege and spoliation. Indeed, considering the present possibility of smuggling high explosives into that mine, and the wide prevalence of wanton anarchism, it would be prudent to guard it with special care.