Israel's ancient rebel caves, a hidden adventure

Tue Aug 30, 2011 12:16pm EDT
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By Ari Rabinovitch

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - You'll need a headlamp, a tight waistline and no fear of the dark in order to enjoy one of the most extreme, yet lesser known, archaeological wonders of the Holy Land.

Still, even with the proper equipment and intestinal fortitude, it is easy to lose your cool when crawling through the expansive ancient tunnel systems dug by Jewish rebels to fight the Roman empire.

The hundreds of hideouts, ranging from just a few meters deep to seemingly unending labyrinths, are popular among Israeli archaeologists and adventurists. But the subterranean mazes, which date back as early as the first century BC, are virtually unknown to foreigners.

Even if you go looking for them, as designed, they are easy to miss.

The systems were often reached through trap doors in Jewish villages, some of which are now archaeological sites, others have been completely destroyed. Today, they may be no more than an indistinct, shoulder-width opening in the ground or hillside.

You may have to crawl, even slither, for a few minutes through a pitch-black burrow -- too cramped for a fully armed Roman legionary. Turns can be so tight you may have to back up to a spot where you can flip from head to feet first in order to continue.

Your headlamp will illuminate niches where oil lamps once lay and other carvings in the rocks. And suddenly you may come to an expansive columbarium, with hundreds of holes in the wall once used to raise pigeons, or perhaps a decorated storage room.

From there, the system may tunnel off in different directions, giving the sense of how the Jewish rebels lived and fought during two revolts against the Romans -- the first around the time the great temple was destroyed in Jerusalem in 70 AD, and one decades later under legendary leader Bar Kochba.   Continued...

<p>A tourist visits Hirbet Madras archaeological site, featuring ancient rebel hideouts, at the foothills of Jerusalem around the ancient city of Beit Guvrin August 23, 2011. REUTERS/Baz Ratner</p>