Caves can be used for many things. This logic was already well understood some 2,000 years ago, in times that saw the flourishing of subterranean hiding systems of caves, dwelling caves, and storage caves. This trip offers a visit to two ancient villages and the affluence of caves that were dug in their surroundings. The hiking is easy and enjoyable for all the family members; just don't forget to bring a torch. The two-part route is circular, and it amounts to four hours
How to Arrive
Take Highway 1, which connects Jerusalem with Tel Aviv, and head toward the south in the Sha'ar Ha-gay intersection, to the direction of Beit Shemesh (road no. 38). The road passes next to Tsor'a and Eshta'ol that received their names after the Biblical story of Samson the Judge who was born between Tsor'a and Estha'ol.
After a short drive to the South, you'll pass in the skirts of Beit Shemesh that has been developing in recent years to great extent, as part of the framework of Dan's peripheral master plan. Continue south and pass in your way the Beit Jimal monastery until you'll reach the Ha-elah Junction. In this place, you can see the Valley of Elah stretches eastwards, and you could hear the echoes from the Israelites - Philistine fight, a battle that was finally decreed by the individual David-Goliath match, still resounding in your ears. Heading south, the road would wind, and then the sight of a Roman Milestones grouped together would be revealed to your right (westward). These five milestones are from third century AC, from the days of Marcus Eurelius, and in the time these stones were erected, an inscription with Cesar's name and his achievements, was etched on one of the milestones (…to the Cesar Luciius Septimus Severus the subduing of the Arabs…).
Continue south and pass Givat Yesha'ayahu. Two km south to the settlement, in Mitspe Masu'ah junction, you'd notice that whereas the road has a turn right to Masu'ah there is also a turn left (eastward) to the ruins of Madras and 'atari. Chose the turn left and continue with the paved road, which would eventually become a dirt road, and follow the helpful directing signs toward the ruins of Madras.
Some Background about the Period and the Bar Kokhba Revolt
The outset of the revolt of Bar Kokhba is dated to 132 – 135 AC, and the genuine reasons for its outbreak are still unclear. The hypotheses are that it started following to the ban the Romans set against on circumstances or following to Vespasian's decision, the Roman Cesar in that period, that ordered to rebuild Jerusalem as a Roman town and name it colonia Aelia Capitolina. Whatever the true reasons for its outset are, the revolt had taken place in the entire Judea district, and its leader was no other than Simon Bar Kokhba, whose memory is commemorated in the Lag Ba'omer's bonfires. (Lag Ba'omer is a holiday in the 33rd day after Passover, which celebrates the heroism of Bar Kokhba and in memorial of rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the author of the Book of Zohar). It's interesting to note that the name of Bar Kokhba was not ascertained until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Following to the discovery of the scrolls of Qumran, an extensive excavations had started in other wadis (wadi is a canyon in the desert, which is usually dry, except of occasional floods in the winter) in the north of Judea Desert. In one of them, inside a cave, a letter from Shimon Ben Gulgalta, the commander of the rebels in Ein Gedi region, to Shimon Bar Kokhba, the Chief Commander of the revolt was found. This is the only evidence that attests the genuine existence of Bar Kokhba. The outcomes of the revolt were disastrous: Judea was laid waste, many of its villages and towns were ruined, and in the slave market, a Jewish slave cost less than a horse. After the suppression of the revolt in the year 135 AC, Judea was decimated and most of its villages were put to desolation. Most of the remaining Jewish population lived in the Galilee area, whose participation in the rebellion was not as active as Judea's.
The JNF (Jewish National Fund) established in the Madras ruin, or Hirbe in Arabic, a well-organized hiking route and its completion takes 1.5 hours of pleasant walking among the many sites that populate the Hirbe. In a matter of fact, the Hirbe combines ruins of an ancient settlement, system of sepulcres (subterranean burial chambers), hiding caves, and the remains of an agriculture inhabitations, beginning in the II Iron Age (1000 BC) to the end of the Roman period (4 century AC).
Starting from the parking square, in which many picnic tables and benches were installed among a cherub forest, we will descend up the moderate gradient in the blue footpath marking system. Short time after climbing, the footpath splits: to your right you'll notice a green footpath-marking route, that later will lead us back to our starting point, but we'll take the blue marking. After several minutes of walking, we'll encounter the first attraction of the route, a spacious bell cavern. An entrance to a beautiful system of hiding caves is located in the bell cave's wall.
The Hiding Cave
The term bell cave derives from the cavern's bell-like shape. The ancient diggers used to start quarrying a small circle through the first hard Nari layer on the bedrock. This narrow opening was widen the moment the workers dug deep enough, passed the nari layer and reached the soft limestone (calcium carbonate, chalk). The many bell-caves that speckle the area were probably used as quarries for limestone, which was used as a building material. In the next paragraph, you'll learn about the secondary functions that bell-caves had as dwelling or storing places. The ceiling of the bell cave collapsed with the years and a big white hole was opened then in the ground.
A beautiful winding hiding cave from the Bar Kokhba revolt was dug from the wall of the bell cave. Actually hiding caves are a collection of chambers for varied uses, which are connected to each other by tunnels. Most of the chambers allow for standing tall but in the tunnels between the chambers, you should crawl on all your fours. The hiding cave served as a haven in times of danger and as a subterranean base for the warriors. The this region one can find many hiding caves that used also as storage room for food, oil and water. The cave is safe for crawling, and the route is circular and it takes 20 minutes to complete it. One must bring lamplights, and using candles is forbidden in order not to destroy and blacken the hiding system's walls. The crawling one-way route must begin in the upper hole in the bell-cave wall in order to keep an ordered one-way crawling. On the side of this page, you can find and print the hiding cave map and it is suggested that you'll take it with you…
After ending the hiding cave visit, we'll continue our way with the footpath uphill to the pike, and relish the many wild flowers in its skirts. You can count there st. Crown anemone, turban buttercup , corn poppy, Common Asphodel, sage-leaved rock rose and Cretan rock rose, Palestine buckthorn, Mastic tree, Kermes Oak, Eastern Strawberry Tree, Spiny Hawthorn and many more.
The Pyramid and the Sepulcre
We'll reach a pyramid in the pike, a large pyramid-shaped monument with several stairs. It is most likely that the pyramid was used as a mausoleum to the people buried bellows it. Its height is five meters, and there is no other structure like that in the country. In Arabic, it's called al-mantar, the scout. From the head of the hill, the beautiful scenery of the entire coastal plain is unfurled bellow.
We'll start our descending from the pike of the hill toward its other side, passing in our way near a hewn stonewall, probably of an ancient synagogue. We'll keep tracking our way and after a few minutes, the footpath would split. The red path continues toward Mitspe Masu'ah, and it's a nice route for those who want to enjoy an extra km of hiking; however, it's most rewarding to leave a vehicle in Mitspe Masu'ah. Notwithstanding, we'll pick the green footpath marking, and following its trace will bring us to the bottom of the hill and not far from there – to a remarkable sepulcre.
The sepulcre is an elegant system of subterranean burial chambers etched in the limestone. The original opening of the cave was from a square patio, from an open, which was covered with a burial stone, e.g. a mobile circular stone that runs on a track and enables the sealing and protecting of the tomb. The burial in the two-burial chambers sepulcre was initially consisted of two phases: an initial burial of the deceased, and some months later, a secondary burial after the body had decayed. The bones were removed from the burial place and were laid in an ossuary (a small chest-like casket), whose length equals the length of a femur, the longest bone in the human body. You can see the ossuaries, which are still inside the cave chambers.
The Columbarium Tale
From the sepulcre, we'll follow the green footpath until we'll reach the columbarium. We'll recognize it by the many concaved holes carved in its wall, whose shape also explains the name these of caves: columba in Greek is pigeon, and Columbarium is dovecote. Until our present days, the researchers are unsure about the genuine use of the holes, but it seems that one of the uses was for collecting dove-dung for organic fertilizer, as well as for using the meet for food. A nice tale explains the story of the columbarium:
Many years ago, there was a Hellenistic town, and in those times, each town had a sacred male or female god which were hallowed in that place. The sacred goddess of the near town, Maresha (Marisa, today in the collocation of Beit Govrin) was Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty and love. For many years, the people of the town had worked their goal toward collecting enough money to build an appropriate statue for their sacred goddess. Finally, it turned to be an outstanding statue, that was made from white marble, adorned with pinkish silk cloths, beautified by gold delicate sandals and embellished with gold jewelry and pearls, but most astonishing were the statue's eyes: two huge diamonds, and accordingly, they were very expansive. The marvelous statue was hallowed by the town people in this cave, to protect it from the cruel sunrays. Each morning before going to work and each evening upon returning from work the town people used to visit the cave and pray Aphrodite and to pray for good luck.
And in the same town lived a boy and a girl that were greatly in love, but likewise in so many other tales, this love wasn't simple. The girl was the village headman's daughter whilst the boy was merely a simple herdsman. In each evening, the two were meeting and secretly planning their future: where would they live, how many children would they have, and they even had names to call them… And each night in his bed, the boy was searching in his mind for solutions for his biggest trouble: how could he receive the father's permission to marry his sweetheart? How could he collect enough money to achieve his consent? May he sail the seas and search for his good fortune? – But then until his return, she would be married to another man, and if he would work harder in their town? Then too, it will take too much time until he would earn enough money to be an appropriate groom. He was immersed in thoughts but he couldn't find a solution. The time has passed and his sweetheart became impetuous. You don't really love me. If you were real in love, you had had a solution! For how long should I wait for you? What do you want me to do – to die as an old spinster?
The boy didn't know what to do.
One day at dusk, he went down to pray in the cave for Aphrodite. How could you, the goddess of love, allow such a thing to happen? Would money be the only thing that prevents our marriage? How could you allow that? The boy cried bitterly and suddenly he saw a spark in Aphrodite's eyes… sure, Aphrodite, are you willing to give me your eyes so that I can marry my lover? Thank you indeed; you are the true goddess of love!
Late at night when everybody slept in their beds, he sneaked to the cave, holding a hummer and a chisel in his hands, but the town people were prepared for such a possibility, and Aphrodite's eyes were glued stark well. However, he toiled much during the night and with the first light of dawn and with the twittering noise of birds, a diamond was in his hand. In exactly that moment he saw the glistering future glowing for him and his lover, but with daybreak the first worshippers have arrived and he was forced to quickly carve a small hole in the cave's wall. In there he buried and covered the diamond.
When the town people had arrived, they were startled with cries of awe: who dared to desecrate thus the holiness of Aphrodite? What shall we do now? How could we restore back the money needed for buying a new diamond?
And our boy participated in their agony, but secretly he was full with delight. In their nightly meeting, the boy was beaming with happiness: you'll see, in two weeks we shall celebrate our wedding! You can start sewing your wedding dress! but he kept his original more-detailed scheme in secret.
And in the next night, after everyone was leaving the cave, he entered it to locate his happiness. He dug a small hole, but the diamond wasn't there. He continued digging another one, but then again – nothing, until he dug many more holes, but found nothing. And he did the same thing again and again, night after night, but in the meantime, his girl married another boy, while he increasingly became older, and the diamond was never discovered. This is how all these holes were made, and the whisper goes that until this very day his spirit visits here every night and looks after the happiness he missed, and in each morning you can find a new hole…
From here, we'll simply take the new footpath to return to the parking square.
The ruins of 'Atari, like those of Madras, are also the remains of an old village from before and after the time of the Second Temple. The visit is short and beautiful and gives a vivid example of how life in the village was in that period.
From Hirbet Madras, we shall return [by car] until the place where we left to the dirt road, and continue eastward, guided by the reliable signs, until the parking square of Hirbet Atari.
The site was excavated in recent years by Dr. Boaz Zissu and Amir Ganor. The appropriation of the name 'Atari, which is not yet marked in the older edition of the footpath marking maps, is based on an ostracon (broken piece of clay) with the inscription 'Atra on it. It was found in the site and probably was used as a sort of agricultural receipt. From the parking square, take the green footpath toward the site of the village on top of the not-faraway hill. In our wanderings on the village's paths, we'll meet with the Cave of Embossments, a one-chamber hiding cave, which was adjusted to be a system of sepulcre with 3 embossed burial chambers. In our roaming around, we'll reach three Mikvahs (specific type of bath for ritual immersion in Judaism) that can attest for the size of the Jewish population in this village before it was demolished in the year 69 AC during the first Jewish-Roman war.
Later the place was reestablished during the preparation for the Bar Kokhba revolt.
Sixty years later the village was renewed with hiding systems and water collection systems. In the pick of the hill, we'll see a big complex of buildings that include a Mikvah, a large public building that maybe functioned as a synagogue or a meeting place, and a hiding cave system, whose opening is located in one of the corners of the big meeting place in the resident quarters. Not faraway from there, you will notice a big cistern (wine-press), whose pressing area and screw hole are still recognizable, both testify the advanced and refined technology that was used for the cistern, and the central place that vinery cultivation played in the economics of this place.
In our tour, we will encounter again with the costal plane's vegetation – as for example with the Clematis Cirrhosa and its white blossom. This plant is a climber with big dangling downward bell-like flowers, with which inclination downward can keep their pollen dry from rainfall. The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, Maimonides, a Jewish scholar and lawmaker) listed it as one of the medicinal herbs, which are good for virility.
Giv'at HaTurmusim - Blue lupin hill
During March-April, the flowers of the Palestine lupine are in full blossom, and it's much recommended to visit the nearby hill and to enjoy their purple beauty as a desert for our tour. For this matter, return back to the main road, that which had brought you. Turn right and driver 3 km to the Ha Elah junction]  In this junction, after the gas station take the right turn eastward in road no. 375. After approximately 2.5 km you'll meet with a dirt road  [to your right] with a blue footpath marking that will lead you to Giv'at Ha Turmusim (Tel Socho, Tel Sechvi) or Blue lupin hill. Simply leave your car downhill and follow the blue path uphill. Remember that Blue lupin is a preserved plant and picking it is forbidden.
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