Zedekiah’s Cave a.k.a. Solomon’s Quarry and the Macabre Story not Often Told
Entrance to Solomon’s Quarry below Today’s Northern Wall of Jerusalem.
Beneath the Muslim Quarter of the old city of Jerusalem, north and west of the Temple Mount, there lies five acres of quarried out passages that extend over five city blocks. Known both as Zedekiah’s Cave and King Solomon’s Quarries, they are the underground area where the “Royal” Meleke limestone was quarried out to erect King Herod’s buildings in the first centuries BCE and CE. Meleke means “kingly” or “royal” in Hebrew. The entrance at the surface was a natural cave, but today is reduced to a single gated door entrance that helps control tourism (see above). For a small fee one can enter the underground chambers and explore far into its depths. The passageway descends gradually as one walks south (see below), because the rock layer that was mined dipped in this direction. The miners had to cut slowly deeper to follow the desired layer of the high-quality building stone. The large blocks then had to be pulled uphill to bring them out of the quarry. This was facilitated with wooden rollers and steps cut in the rock that also had a smoothly rising ramp cut along each side. One could also imagine if one were deep in the mine with a lamp that had gone out, that these steps would allow one to find one’s way out in the dark. Just stay on the steps going up (out) and if you strayed too far to the right or left your feet would feel the smooth cut ramp. Normally moving in a cave without a light source (caves are notoriously pitch black) is extremely dangerous, as one can easily trip and fall and break an arm or ankle.
Steps and handrails installed for visitors near the entrance.
The history of this quarry is partially known and partially inferred. What is known for sure is that was rediscovered in 1854 by the American missionary James Barclay and his dog, who fell into a shrub-covered opening at the surface. Archaeological work has shown much excavating was done during King Herod’s building program, and to much smaller extents in later eras. The belief that this quarry was started by King Solomon to extract stones to build his temple cannot be proven, but the story is certainly possible. Stories also say that during the siege of the Babylonians in the 6th century BCE the then reigning King Zedekiah of Judea hid in the cave at the end of the siege. His location was discovered, however, and he was captured as he emerged and tried to flee the city. Zedekiah was eventually blinded as a punishment by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Tiny drops of water that still drip from the ceiling today are known by the locals as Zedekiah’s tears.
Deeper in the quarry with narrower tunnels.
And now for the part of the quarry’s history not often told. The quarry was not only a place of hiding during the siege of Babylon in 587 BCE, but also during the Roman siege of 70 CE. Josephus records that before the siege hundreds of thousands of Judeans had fled to Jerusalem not only to escape the Romans, who had been raping and pillaging towns across the countryside, but also to attend Passover that year. The Roman legions showed up right after Passover when the city was still very full of people. What was worse was the Jewish factions within the city had been warring with each other, and in a very short-sighted tactic had burned each other’s food supply. So the city was not only under siege for months, but was very short on food, especially considering the brimming population. To avoid the fighting during the last weeks of the siege, tens of thousands of citizens sought shelter beneath the city in the quarry. Untold thousands ended up dying there of starvation and disease, the dead bodies likely being taken into rooms where they piled up. And history then repeated itself. Simon bar Giora, one of the rebel leaders, rather than surrender to the Romans after the walls were breached and city mostly burned, fled to the cave to hide. There he (and later Josephus) discovered the mass death scene. And like Zedekiah, Simon was captured there by the besieging forces. Simon was later taken to Rome and paraded before the city and killed by being thrown off the cliff at the Tarpeian Rock, an infamous method and place of execution of traitors to the Empire.