On shabbat this last weekend I went on an adventurous expedition to Zedekiah’s Cave with three awesome people who work for JUC, Cameron, Dan and Paula. This cave is an ancient stone quarry. It is unknown what period it was first used in though legends say that King Solomon had the stones for the 1st Temple quarried from this place. Rather than an open quarry, those who carved out this cave dug under the ground, creating a large complex of tunnels, the largest of which are four stories high.
The cave entrance is just east of the Damascus Gate in the northern wall of the Old City of Jerusalem. From that entrance the cave extends beneath the Muslim Quarter of the Old City for around 755 feet. The stone between the roof of the cave and the streets of the Muslim Quarter above measures around 30 feet thick.
Where does the name come from?
“Then the city wall was broken through, and the whole army fled. They left the city at night through the gate between the two walls near the king’s garden, though the Babylonians were surrounding the city. They fled toward the Arabah, but the Babylonian army pursued King Zedekiah and overtook him in the plains of Jericho. All his soldiers were separated from him and scattered, and he was captured.” —Jeremiah 52:7-9a
The name comes from a Jewish legend of the 11th century CE. A Jewish historian named Rashi wrote “And a cave extends from the house of Zedekiah to the plains of Jericho, and he fled through the cave, and God summoned a hart, which went on the roof of the cave outside of the city. The Babylonians pursued the hart and when it reached the cave opening in the plains of Jericho, Zedekiah came out, and they saw him and captured him.”
Thus, even though this cave does not lead to anywhere, Jews have maintained this tradition for centuries and the name has stuck until today.
Less ancient history of the cave
At some point the entrance to the cave was blocked by construction and its location became unknown. No one today is sure when this happened, but many suppose that it was when Suleiman the Magnificent rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City in the 1540s. It would have been blocked at that point to keep invaders from undermining the city. It was rediscovered in 1854 by Dr. James Turner Barclay. Check him out on the Early Historical Geographers tab on the Introduction page. He and his son were walking around the Old City of Jerusalem with their dog when it suddenly vanished. They heard its barks and eventually discovered that it had fallen into a hole at the foot of the Old City’s northern wall. This hole was the entrance to Zedekiah’s Cave.
Not many years after Barclay’s dog rediscovered Zedekiah’s Cave the Ottomans who ruled this region at that time, forbade anyone to enter the cave to prevent enemies of the government from hiding out there.
Once the Ottomans were driven out and the British Mandate took control the cave was reopened. (See the Timeline on the Introduction page for more information on this transition.) The British constructed a concrete wall at the front of the cave and columns inside the cave to prepare it for use as a shelter in case the Germans and Italians should try to bomb Jerusalem during World War II. After the State of Israel was created in 1948 the cave was under Jordanian control. The Jordanians closed the cave to the public. It was not until the Six Day War (1967) that Israel gained control of the cave and reopened it for tourism. It has remained open until this day.
The Ark of the Covenant
Towards the end of the 20th century a guy named Ron Wyatt claimed to have discovered the Ark of the Covenant within Zedekiah’s Cave. However, he was unable to remove the Ark from the cave because only he was able to come to the place where it was. According to Wyatt, the chamber of the cave which contains the Ark is directly below Gordon’s Calvary, which is just northeast of Damascus Gate and the entrance to Zedekiah’s Cave. This worked really nicely for Wyatt because he said that on the Ark he saw blood and this blood had dripped down through a crack in the ceiling above. This crack began at a spot where Wyatt claims he found the hole which Jesus’ cross was set in. So, Jesus was crucified directly above the Ark of the Covenant and when he died the earth split and his blood dripped down through the earth, onto the place where God’s presence had once resided on the Ark of the Covenant. It is a nice picture, but there is absolutely no evidence to back up any of Wyatt’s claims besides his own account of what he saw. While it is possible that Jeremiah or some other person hid Ark in this cave to keep it from the hands of the Babylonians, I do not believe the Ark will ever be found. It was made of wood, plated in gold. By now the wood will have rotted and if it were found, what would happen to Judaism and Christianity? If the Ark were to be discovered it would be the greatest relic in the world. Christians and Jews would do ridiculous things in order to obtain it for themselves.
My visit to Zedekiah’s Cave
It is extremely hot and moist inside of this cave. The main passage that the tourist path goes down is interesting, but to really have some fun in this cave you have to jump the chain draped across the entrance to other parts of the cave and go exploring.
I found that the “Do Not Enter” signs are really helpful in finding great places to go exploring. Dan, Paula, Cameron and I proceeded to jump the chain and find one of these signs which was set over a hole through which we dropped about 5 feet down into a small chamber. There were cockroaches all over the place. From that small chamber went three tunnels. The first one we tried went for a little way but ended in a pile of rubble. The third tunnel ended really quickly. The center tunnel was the one we wanted. It led us in a giant loop with a lot of side tunnels for exploring.
At one point we came across a house inside the cave! I have no idea why someone would have ever built a house down here. At another place in the tunnels we climbed a giant pile of dirt, possibly ancient dried up sewage, and found a blocked up entrance to the cave. It appeared to be the underside of the basement floor of one of the houses in the Muslim Quarter.
We did a lot of crawling and exploring on all fours. There were no lights except our flashlights. It was awesome. Eventually we saw the lights of the main passage of the cave and snuck past another “Do Not Enter” sign and back into the lighted passage without anyone noticing.
If you ever spend a week in Jerusalem and are up for scrambling through some caves and having some fun exploring the way the first Western explorers of Jerusalem did, then I highly recommend visiting Zedekiah’s Cave. Just be careful, bring a good flashlight with fully charged batteries, clothes that can get really dirty, and be in good physical shape.