Columbarium cave from ancient times


We are in the ancient city of Maresha. When you scan the Judean Lowlands from a geological perspective, you can see the uniqueness of Maresha by its area being covered with chalk rocks and I will expand a little more in few minutes.

The caves in Maresha can be divided into five groups according to their shape and function:

Let’s start with bell shape caves, they are called that because of their shape. Their diameter is wide at the bottom and narrow at the top. The depth of some of such caves reaches up to 25 meters. The caves contained quarries of chalk rocks that was used for the cement industry or for the production of bricks.

The second type, cisterns, are very similar to the bell caves, and what is characterizing them is the staircase that the carvers left along the sides of the cave, and in addition they have stone railings.

The third type are caves of various shapes that were used as craft and agricultural facilities such as winepress facilities, textile houses, wineries, and stables.

The fourth type are burial caves., The best-known burial caves in Maresha are the Sidonian burial caves. The burial caves were used from the third century BCE to the sixth century CE.

And now to the reason we are here – the fifth type are columbarium caves: the meaning of the word is the dove house. Dozens of caves of this type in the vicinity of Maresha were installed from the beginning as columbaria, which is the plural of columbarium, and this is in contrast to caves in other places in the lowlands and to individual caves in Maresha where the columbarium was added at a later stage on the sides of the caves. The most famous columbarium around Maresha is the one we are visiting in this video, the most impressive Columbarium cave in Israel. The cave includes about 2000 small cells that are in the cave walls. The shape of the cave is of a double cross with a total length of about 28 meters. It has a main corridor and two smaller corridors crossing the main one. The dimensions of the small cells – height, width and depth, are similar to the dimensions of cells in other columbaria, that is between 20 and 25 centimeters on average.

Regarding the role of the columbarium in the Land of Israel and in Maresha, two main hypotheses were put forward:

The first, the columbaria, were used to keep the ashes of the dead after they were cremated, as was customary among populations that used to cremate their dead. This type of columbaria was discovered in Italy, mainly in Rome.

2nd hypothesis – the columbaria were used for breeding pigeons, with the purpose being ritual activity, or for food and to produce pigeon manure. I must add a note here about pigeon droppings or guano – a common term for bird’s manure. Why do you need pigeon droppings or guano, so it is important to know that guano is the most effective natural fertilizer. It contains nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, the three main elements which without them the plant’s development will be limited, and this was already understood in ancient times. And one last piece of information on the subject, one pigeon produces about 10 kg of manure per year.

What is interesting is that the examination of the material at the bottom of the cave did not reveal anything to confirm any of the hypotheses. For example, regarding the first hypothesis, no remains of teeth or human bones were found. As for the second hypothesis, no pigeon droppings were found in the soil samples taken from the cave.

With that said, and even though the mineralogical and chemical tests of the soil samples taken from the cave did not find remains of pigeons droppings, it should be noted that the find in the cave is from the last stages of its use and not from the period of its first excavation and installation, so it can be assumed that if the small cells were indeed installed in the columbarium for use as pigeonholes, this use was common at the end of the 4th century and the 3rd century BCE, while after that, during the second and first centuries BCE, there was another use of the columbarium that its purpose is not clear to us.

It is important for me to add one more piece of information regarding pigeon breeding: it is an agricultural branch that was one of the most important in ancient times. The pigeons were put into a cave with limited light, with food and drink for two weeks. After two weeks the hatch was opened, and the pigeons were released.

During the time they stayed in the cave, each pair of pigeons found a pigeonhole, and treated the place as their new home, to which they would return when it got dark. This function of the cave gave it the name columbarium which means pigeon house.

How the cave was carved? – in the first stage, the cave was carved through two vertical openings that were installed in the upper Caliche layer. The Caliche layer, which is a type of white and stiff crust, covers the chalk rock. The chalk rock on the other hand, is a soft rock that is easy to dig, and it is waterproof. The chalk rock below the Caliche layer was dug out of the cave and was removed through these two openings. In the first phase of the cave excavation, about 200 small cells were installed along the walls. It seems that these cells and their use were the reason for the existence of the cave.

In Maresha, between 50,000 and 60,000 small cells were found in the entire columbaria.

About 85 columbarium systems were discovered around the National Park.

We reached the end of this video, and as usual, a question for you – where do they still breed pigeons in large numbers and for what purpose, the answer appears at the end of the video.

How to get there?

Information Sources

  1. Book: Israel – Sites and Places, Publisher: Ministry of Defense
  2. Biblical encyclopedia, Publisher: Bialik Institute-Jerusalem
  3. Qadmoniot: Magazine for the Antiquities of Eretz-Israel and Bible Lands No. 23-24, Publisher: Israel Exploration Society Jerusalem

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