Cave of Letters – Bar Kokhba


After 3 hours of climbing mountain Tzruya, we reached the top of the mountain on our way to the Cave of Letters, a distance of about 4km to the southwest. The discoveries from this Cave added much knowledge about the Bar Kokhba revolt that took place during the years 132-136. This was the last significant revolt of the Jews in Israel against the Roman rule. The leader of the revolt was Shimon Bar Kokhba, then known as Shimon ben Kusba, or Bar Kusba.

It’s interesting that the name “Bar Kokhba”, which means son of a star, was first mentioned by Eusebius, the famous archbishop of Caesarea, 200 years after the revolt. In documents found in the Cave, he is named: “Shimon Bar-Kusba, President of Israel.” Very little is known about him, according to the existing findings he lacks the suitable pedigree or assets, and despite this he reached the highest possible status, sometimes attributed to king David dynasty, and perhaps this is the reason for the absolute support he received from Rabbi Akiva who even declared him the Messiah.

The letters of Bar Kokhba, some in Hebrew and some in Aramaic, reflect a firm leader and a talented administrator. According to the letters found, Bar Kokhba’s leadership was undisputed, and such leadership was difficult to achieve at the time without broad support from all layers of the population.

Still, it is important to note that not everyone took part in the revolt, for example, the people of Galilee and the people of Tekoa. Tekoa is mentioned in 3 of Bar Kokhba’s letters where in one of them, the commanders are demanded under threats to recruit the Tekoa men to the army, but it seems that they were not enthusiastic about the revolt, and did not obey the leader’s orders.

It is difficult to talk about the Cave of Letters findings without an overview of the revolt. Apparently, a number of actions contributed to its initiation. If due to the decree forbidding Jewish laws, the desire to free oneself from economic bondage to the Romans, the expectation for the messiah and redemption, and perhaps the decision of the Roman emperor Hadrian to establish the pagan city of Aelia Capitolina in place of Jerusalem.

It is important to note that the revolt was carried out after years of detailed planning & preparations, which included among other things: stockpiling weapons manufactured for the Roman army with defects on purpose that disqualified them for use so Bar Kokhba people could adopt them. This BTW shows that the Roman had sufficient trust in the locals to let them built weapons for the Romans. The preparations also included the fortification of strategic sites, and the excavation of hundreds of underground hiding systems in Judea and Galilee.

Three locations were selected as key bases: the city of Beitar, which was close to Jerusalem in a suitable strategic location, served as the military and political center of the revolt.

Herodion which was built by Herod the great as his burial place was the administrative center, and Ein Gedi on the shores of the Dead Sea was selected to serve as a logistics port. Ein Gedi was an important economic center: close to Tzohar in the south, and to the land of Moab in the east where Bar-Kokhba had strong allies.

The revolt was a great success in the early stages. The rebels defeated the Roman army in Judea, took over large areas in the mountainous center of the country and established independent Jewish rule.

Bar Kokhba instituted compulsory enlistment in the army and punished the dodgers, he dealt with land leasing, which the Romans expropriated. Bar-Kokhba controlled the lands of Judea because he actually inherited the lands of the emperor, lands that were mostly outside the urban areas.

He pushed for more efficient tillage, overseeing the supply of grain, and distributing food to his soldiers. In addition, he issued coins with signs of sovereignty and used much more of Hebrew instead of Aramaic.

Roman rule failed to suppress the revolt in the early years, which began to affect the empire, including the concern from uprisings in other territories. So, emperor Hadrian took a significant step, and sent to Judea, at the end of 133CE the commander Julius Severus, who served as the Roman commissioner in Britain, along with forces of a magnitude that were not seen here before. Roman forces at that time, may have reached up to a third of the total military power of the Roman Empire. 28 legions while they required 4 legions to suppress the great revolt during the years 66-70CE. This indicates the strength of Bar Kokhba warriors & their fighting abilities.

The Romans led a cautious and destructive war campaign against the rebels. In the fall of 135, Beitar, one of the rebels’ last strongholds fell, and Bar Kokhba was killed. After the fall of Beitar, Jewish refugees – mainly army commanders, officials and their families – fled to refuge caves. The suppression of the revolt was apparently completed in the first months of 136. The destruction caused in the country was immense.

The result of the uprising – the cessation of Jewish governmental independence for nearly 2000 years until the establishment of the State of Israel. According to the testimony of the Roman historian Dio Cassius and I quote: “985 of their most important villages were destroyed. 580,000 people were killed in the battles, while the death toll from famine & plagues – they do not have a number “… and the continuation of the quote ….” Jewish prisoners were sold for the price of one serving of horse”. The slave market was simply flooded, more than 100,000 people, and another significant step, the name “Judea” district was deleted and replaced with “Syria Palestine”, adopting the Philistines name from the Bible in an attempt to disconnect between the people of Israel and the Land of Israel. The pagan city of Aelia Capitolina was built on the ruins of Jerusalem, thus fulfilling the plan that contributed to the revolt in the first place.

Regarding the continued existence of the Jews in the Land of Israel, I refer you to videos related to the playlists – Tzipori and Beit Shearim. The bottom line is that Jews relocated to the Galilee region after the emperor forbade Jews from staying in Jerusalem in addition to prohibitions of Jewish laws. Those who did not obey the orders were executed by torture, and from this period comes the main story of the ten royal martyrs.

We are about five kilometers southwest of Ein Gedi. The Cave of Letters is just below us in Hever brook. At the end of 135CE, with the conquest of Beitar and Ein Gedi by the Roman army, Jews from Ein Gedi, including women and children of Jonathan Ben-Baaya family, one of the revolt leaders, escaped to the cave below us. They brought with them valuables, important documents and supplies for long-term survival in the cave.

Roman Soldiers besieged the cave from this camp they had setup above the cave. You can see the low walls built of field stones. Based on the tent’s bases area, according to Yigael Yadin, a famous archeologist who led the excavation here in 1960, it can be estimated that a military force of 80-100 soldiers was stationed here. It is hard to imagine that anyone from the cave could have somehow broken the siege, whether up at the top of the cliff or down through the cliff to the creek channel, so what was at the end? Did everyone die of hunger and thirst, did some of them try to surprise the Romans and a battle took place in this place or perhaps they jumped to their death? We will not know the small details, but the remains of approx. 20 men, women and children were found in a side room in Hall C of the cave.

The cave has 2 openings in the direction of Hever brook, about 200 meters above the bottom of the stream. The openings lead to three large halls connected by tunnels. The area of ​​the cave is approx. 270 square meters.

A total of about 70 documents were found in the cave, most of them are part of two groups: Bar Kokhba Letters and Archive belongs to a women named Babatha.

Regarding the Bar Kokhba letters – a collection of 14 documents in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, were discovered. Twelve of the documents are letters sent from Bar-Kokhba to the commanders of Ein Gedi, Jonatan Ben Baaya and Misbla or Mishbla ben Shimon. Bar Kokhba signed the letters as “Shimon ben Kusiba the President of Israel”. The letters include instructions in a firm tone including threatening penalties. They were bundled in a leather case and tucked under a rock. Alongside the letters were found perfume bottles, beads, a mirror and make-up tools, so it is possible that the bundle belonged to the wife or sister of Jonathan Ben Baaya.

An archive of Babatha Bat Shimon was also found, which contained 35 private legal documents in Aramaic, Nabataean and Greek. Where does the Nabataean come from, so Babatha was born in about 104 as the eldest daughter or only daughter of wealthy parents named Shimon and Miriam in the town of Mehoza, near a village named Tzohar, on the southeast coast of the Dead Sea, meaning in present-day Jordanian territory. The village residents where both Nabataeans and Jews then in the territory of the Nabataean kingdom. Babatha inherited palm groves, and later she owned land in Ein Gedi, so she was very wealthy.

She escaped from Ein Gedi, apparently accompanied by several of her family members including the sister of Jonathan ben Baaya, the revolt leader in Ein Gedi. In addition to her documents, other findings related to her included: house keys, makeup supplies and tools.

She died during the Bar Kokhba revolt. From her archive, we learn that she was an independent woman. Among her documents, were deeds of sale, lease contracts, her marriage contract, guardianship agreements, and agreements related to rights of water use for irrigation purposes. Babatha’s independent financial status is reflected in the fact that she lent money to her husband. Other findings included a glass bowl and 2 small polished and well-preserved plates wrapped in palm fibers and tied with a rope. Remains of a stove & firewood were found, indicating that the cave residents were prepared in advance for a long stay. The remains of many fabrics that included clothing, prayer shawls and a rug were also found in the cave. The fabrics were dyed with various pigments and woven according to the Bible without “shatnez”. Just to clarify, that according to the Torah, it is forbidden to have a cloth structured of both linen and wool, this rule is named “shatnez” (for example in Leviticus 19, 19).

The coins in the cave included Bar Kokhba coins which were Roman coins re-minted by the people of Bar Kokhba.

The right cave is not connected to the Letters Cave, it was also partially excavated.

Until we visit more caves related to the Bar Kokhba revolt, a question for you – How many Roman soldiers were in a Roman legion at the time of Bar Kokhba revolt, the answer will appear at the end of the video.

How to get there?

Information Sources

  1. Book: The finds from the Bar Kokhba Period in the Cave of Letters, Author: Yigael Yadin, Publisher: Bialik Institute & the Society for the exploration of Israel and its Antiquities
  2. Book: The Land of Israel from the destruction of the 2nd Temple to the Muslim occupation - the archaeological and artistic find, volume 2, Publisher: Yad Yitzhak Ben-Zvi
  3. Article: The Bar Kokhba Revolt in light of the Last revelations, Author: Dr. Shmuel Abramsky, Machaniim, issue# 59, 1961

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