Huge Underground Chamber Found--Early Christian Refuge?

Christine Dell'Amore
National Geographic News
June 24, 2009

A 2,000-year-old underground chamber has been discovered in Israel's Jordan Valley.

The largest human-made cave in Israel, the 1-acre (0.4-hectare) space is thought to have begun as a quarry. In subsequent centuries it may have served as a monastery, hideout for persecuted Christians, or Roman army base, experts say.

Archaeologists working in the valley found the cave this past March when they came across a hole in a rock face.

As they were about to enter, two fearful-looking Bedouins appeared and warned the team that hyenas and wolves inhabited the cave.

But science prevailed, said team leader Adam Zertal, and once underground, "our eyes opened to see something unimaginable."

The archaeologists peered into a huge hall lined with 22 thick pillars—giving the "impression of a palace," added Zertal, of the University of Haifa in Israel.

"We didn't have much light—it was complete darkness," he said. But "even with the torches, we saw how glorious it looks."

Etched into those columns were 31 Christian crosses, Roman letters, a Zodiac sign, and what looks like the Roman army's pennant—all of which surprised the researchers.

"It surely was not just a quarry," Zertal said.

Center of Activity

Around the first century B.C. and the first century A.D., when the chamber's creation likely began, the Roman-appointed King Herod the Great, who ruled the region from 37 to 4 B.C., had returned from Rome with plans to develop the Jordan Valley.

(Related: "King Herod's Tomb Unearthed Near Jerusalem, Expert Says.")

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