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Rock-Cut Tombs in Ancient Israel

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Rock-Cut Tombs in Ancient Israel


Basic Information

Location Jerusalem, Israel
Country Israel
City Jerusalem

General Information

Open to visitors yes
Need appointment no
Handicap accessibility no
Geographical Coordinates 31.76832,35.21371


Hundreds of rock-cut tombs were constructed in Israel in ancient times. They were cut into the rock, sometimes with elaborate facades and multiple burial chambers. Some are free-standing, but most are caves. Each tomb typically belonged to a single, wealthy family. Bodies were laid out on stone benches. After a generation, the bones were moved to a bone chamber or, later, into ossuaries and the benches used for new burials. Rock tombs were the province of the wealthy; the common people were buried in the ground.

The tombs date from several periods. The earliest Canaanite cut-rock cave tombs date from 3100–2900 BCE, but the custom had lapsed a millennium before the earliest Israelite tombs, which date to the 9th century BCE in Jerusalem. There are a great many Jewish tombs dating to the Second Temple period, and others in the late Roman or early Byzantine period.

History and time period

Canaanite period

Early Canaanite I (3100-2900 BCE) period tombs are the earliest rock-cut tombs yet discovered in Israel; several have been found beneath the Ophel in Jerusalem. The custom had lapsed by the second millennium.

Biblical tombs

Tombs of the Kings (Jerusalem) from a 19th-century lithograph by William Henry Bartlett. Traditionally thought to be the tomb of the biblical kings, now believed to be the tomb of Queen Helene of Adiabene

A number of rock-cut tombs are mentioned in the Bible. The first was purchased by Abraham for Sarah from Ephron the Hittite (Gen. 23:20). Traditionally, this tomb, which may have been either a rock-cut or a natural cave, is identified with the Cave of the Patriarchs (also called the Cave of Machpelah). According to very old traditions, Abraham, Rebekah and Isaac, Jacob and Leah were also buried there (Gen. 25:9; 49:29-32). In Acts 7:16, it is said that "Their (Jacob and his family) bodies were brought back to Shechem and placed in the tomb that Abraham had bought from the sons of Hamor at Shechem for a certain sum of money." Mentions of rock-cut tombs are also found in the Judges 8:32; 2 Samuel 2:32; Second Kings 9:28; 23:30; 21:26; 23:16; Matthew 27:60). First Temple period Remnants of the Monolith of Silwan, a First Temple period tomb.

One of the major collections of rock-cut tombs in Israel is the necropolis of the ancient Kingdom of Judah, which had its capital in Jerusalem. These were cut between the 9th and 7th centuries BCE. The necropolis is located on a rocky ridge across the Kidron Valley from the city. The Arab village of Silwan was later built atop the necropolis. Although the existence of ancient tombs in the village of Silwan had been known since the 19th century, the first careful survey was not performed until 1968. Charles Warren, who was thwarted in his efforts to carry out a full survey of the tombs, in some of which villagers were living, attributed this to "the hostile nature of the villagers" whom he described as "a lawless set." All of the tombs were long since emptied and their contents removed. A great deal of destruction was done to the tombs over the centuries by quarrying and by their conversion for use as housing, both by monks in the Byzantine period, when some were used as churches, and later by Muslim villagers: "When the Arab village was built; tombs were destroyed, incorporated in houses or turned into water cisterns and sewage dumps."

The necropolis, or ancient cemetery, is an archaeological site of major significance. It contains fifty rock-cut tombs of distinguished caliber, assumed to be the burial places of the highest-ranking officials of the Judean kingdom. Tomb inscriptions are in Hebrew.[3] The most famous of the ancient rock-cut tombs in Silwan is the finely carved monolith known as the Monolith of Silwan.

Seven of the tombs feature gabled ceilings and extremely fine stonework. David Ussishkin describes them as "among the most beautifully rock-cut tombs known in the Jerusalem area even when compared with tombs of later periods." In contrast with the extensive family tombs of later periods, these are for single or double burials, with only one of the seven having room for three bodies. Later destruction has effaced the original doorways.

A second tomb type described by Ussishkin has flat ceilings and 1, 2 or 3 chambers of well-dressed stone carefully squared into spacious rooms. One features a rear chamber of especially "impressive" scale and quality. Three "magnificent" tombs in the northern part of the village had been carved to create free-standing buildings above the underground burial chambers. Hebrew inscriptions survive on these three tombs; these are the only ancient inscriptions that survive in Silwan. The Monolith of Silwan is the only one of the three in which the above-ground chamber survives, although the pyramid-shaped roof is missing because it was quarried for stone. The ceiling is gabled.

Another former monolith was first described in 1968 by Ussishkin. At that time it was located under the courtyard of a modern-period house serving as a cistern. It has "the finest and most delicate stone dressing in the Silwan necropolis." The upper story was destroyed for use as quarried stone in the Roman/Byzantine period. Only a small section of the inscription survived to be recorded by Ussishkin. The first line is "[This is the] burial of Z ...". The second line "(the one) who op[ens] (this tomb) . .." The third line was illegible.

The architecture of the tombs and the manner of burial is different "from anything known from contemporary Palestine. Elements such as entrances located high above the surface, gabled ceilings, straight ceilings with a cornice, trough-shaped resting-places with pillows, above-ground tombs, and inscriptions engraved on the facade appear only here." The stone benches on which bodies were laid out and the small square entrance doors are similar to those found elsewhere in Judah. Ussishkin believes that the architectural similarity to building styles of the Phoenician cities validates the Biblical description of Phoenician influence on the Israelite kingdoms.

All of the tombs in the necropolis were emptied long ago and their contents removed. If the ancient Israelite kingdoms followed the practice of other west-Semitic kingdoms, the kings themselves would have been buried within the city walls, underneath the royal palace.

Tomb of the Royal Steward Lintel of Shebna-yahu's tomb

Another notable tomb, called the Tomb of the Royal Steward, is now incorporated into a modern-period house in the main street of the village. At one point plastered for use as a cistern, in 1968 it was in use as a storage room. It was discovered in 1874 by Charles Simon Clermont-Ganneau.

The ancient inscription reads "This is the tomb of... ]yahu who is over the house. No silver or gold is here but (his bones) and the bones of his Amma. Cursed be the man who opens this." The first part of the Hebrew name is effaced, but it refers to a Judean royal steward or chamberlain. Clermont-Ganneau shipped the tomb inscription to the British Museum, but it was only deciphered in the 1950s by Nahman Avigad. Some scholars believe that this is the tomb of the biblical Shebna (Shebanyahu), the steward and treasurer of King Hezekiah (727-698 BC). According to David Ussishkin, the tomb contained two chambers, the outer chamber with a probable double bench for the occupant and his wife, and an inner chamber with a single burial bench for a relative who may be referred to in the second inscription fragment. The Book of Isaiah (22:16) reproaches Shebna for his presumption: "What hast thou here and whom hast thou here, that thou hast hewn thee out a sepulchre here, as he that heweth him out a sepulchre on high, and that graveth an inhabitation for himself in the rock?"

Second Temple period Detail of the Tomb of Benei Hezir

During the Second Temple period, rock-cut tombs were built outside the walls of the city of Jerusalem in every direction. The tombs extend as far as 7 km from the city walls, with the more prestigious tombs located close to the city.

Among the notable tombs are the Jason's Tomb, a large, elaborate, family tomb with multiple chambers and inscriptions in both Hebrew and Greek.[8] The most elaborate group of tombs, and apparently the most prestigious location, was in the Kidron Valley beneath the tombs of the ancient Kings of Judah on the ridge where the village of Silwan now stands. These include the Tomb of Benei Hezir, the Tomb of Zechariah and the Tombs of the Kings which, ironically, is the tomb not of kings, but of a queen, Queen Helena of Adiabene.

Tombs of the Sanhedrin

The elaborate Tombs of the Sanhedrin lie to the north of the city.[8] They were so called by later generations because the largest of them contains 70 chambers with burial benches, and the Sanhedrin had seventy members. Each of the three tombs would actually have contained the burials of a single, multi-generational, wealthy family. They were constructed between the reign of Herod and the year 70.

Tomb of Jesus The Garden Tomb.

According to the Gospels, Jesus was laid out in a rock-cut tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea. Proposed candidates for the tomb include the rock-cut chamber underneath the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Talpiot Tomb, and the Garden Tomb.

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