Funerary cave dedicated to Jesus' midwife, Salome, reveals treasures; will be open to the public

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Before opening a burial cave dedicated to Salome, the midwife of Jesus, to the public, archaeologists recently discovered a number of priceless artifacts in its courtyard, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced on Tuesday. The tomb is a secular Christian pilgrimage site located in the Lachish region of central Israel.

“According to a Christian tradition, Salome was the midwife of Bethlehem, called to attend the birth of Jesus,” said IAA archaeologist Zvi Firer. “She couldn’t believe she was asked to give birth to a virgin baby, and her hand became dry and only healed when she held the baby’s cradle.”

The burial cave was discovered in 1982 by antiquities looters and later excavated in 1984 by Prof. Amos Kloner of the IAA. But despite ample evidence of its use as a Christian holy place, it was never opened to the public.

Over the past two months, archaeologists have excavated an elaborate 350 square meter (nearly 4,000 square foot) courtyard at the cave’s entrance, filled with intricate stone carvings, soaring arches, a mosaic floor and the remains of a shop where pilgrims can having rented oil lamps to light the way inside the cave for their prayers.

“We found dozens of these lamps covered with pomegranate carvings and intricate geometric designs,” said Firer.

The lamps, including more than two dozen found intact, were found together in an area that archaeologists identified as a small courtyard market.

The Israel Antiquities Authority’s Zvi Firer holds carved oil lamps found in the courtyard of the burial cave, believed to have been rented out to visiting pilgrims, in Lachish, Israel, on December 20, 2022. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel )

“We believe that pilgrims came here, rented an oil lamp, said their prayers inside and went on their way. It’s like today when you go to the grave of a revered rabbi and light a candle there,” Firer said.

The cave was likely a Jewish burial cave for a wealthy family before its adaptation as a Christian holy site. The first burial cave room dates to the Second Temple period, which spans from the 6th century BC to AD 70. It has several chambers with multiple walls carved into the rock. kokhim (funerary niches) and broken ossuaries (stone boxes), which reflect a Jewish burial custom.

Local Christians first identified the site as the burial site of Salome in the Byzantine era and turned the site into a pilgrimage site, Firer explained. The inner rooms of the burial cave are from the Byzantine era, from around 300 to 600 AD. The newly recovered oil lamps are from the 8th or 9th century AD, in the early Islamic period.

Modern religious artifacts of people entering the cave to pray, although it is currently not open to the public. The burial cave is a pilgrimage sight in honor of Salome, the midwife of Jesus, in the Lachish region of Israel on December 20, 2022. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

Firer added that the name “Salome” or “Shlomit” was a common Jewish name in the Second Temple period in Hasmonean and Herodian families.

“The name Salome may have appeared in antiquity on one of the tomb’s ossuaries, and the tradition of identifying the site with the midwife Salome developed, with the cave being venerated by Christianity,” he said.

Salome (right) with the midwife “Emea” (left) bathing the baby Jesus is a common figure on Orthodox icons of the Nativity of Jesus; here on a 12th-century fresco from Cappadocia. (Public domain, via Wikipedia)

A trail built for kings

Work is underway to open the cave to the public for the first time as part of the Trail of the Judean Kings, a 100-kilometre (60-mile) trail from Beersheba to Beit Guvrin with dozens of significant archaeological sites.

The burial cave is covered in ancient graffiti, including the words “Salome”, “Jesus”, the names of pilgrims and crosses engraved on the wall. Most impressive is an inscription in Greek that reads “Zacharia Ben Kerelis, dedicated to Saint Salome”. Archaeologists believe that Zacharia Ben Kerelis was a wealthy Jewish patron who financed the construction of parts of the burial cave and courtyard.

Saar Ganon, director of the Judean Kings Trail project, points out the inscription ‘Zacharia Ben Kerelis, dedicated to Saint Salome’, in the burial cave in Lachish, Israel, on Dec. 20, 2022. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

“We are now working on ways to preserve all these ancient sculptures while opening the site to the public,” said Saar Ganor, IAA director of the Trail of the Kings of Judea Project. Current excavations are also being carried out in cooperation with the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the Jewish National Fund.

Some pilgrims still enter the tomb illegally, as evidenced by the modern icons and candles on the altars in the inner rooms, but Ganor hopes the official opening of the cave will allow more people to safely experience the site.

Inscription for ‘Zacharia Ben Kerelis, dedicated to Saint Salome’ in the burial cave in Lachish, Israel, on December 20, 2022. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

“This trail, which runs through the Judean Shefelah [flatlands], is the backbone of the cultural heritage of the Jewish people and spans dozens of sites from the time of the Bible, the Second Temple, the Mishnah and the Talmud,” Ganor said. “This is a very important trail that combines tourism, history and development.”

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