Cave of Letters
The name Cave of Letters was coined after the 1960-61 explorations when letters and fragments of papyri were found that dated back to the period of the Bar Kokhba revolt 132-135 AD. Some of these were personal letters of correspondence between Bar-Kokhba and his subordinates, and one notable bundle of papyri known as the Babata or Babatha cache revealed the life and trials of a woman, Babata, who lived during this period of time.
The Cave of Letters is located in the desert near the border of Israel and Judea, in a ravine called the Nahal Hever, ~ 20 km south of the site of where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. It is a few kilometers south of En-gedi, and about 10 kilometers north of Masada, on the west shore of the Dead Sea.
It was first discovered by Bedouin of the Ta`amireh tribe and then it was explored in 1953 and 1955 by the then inspector of the Israel Department of Antiquities, Y. Aharoni. After the sale of some letters written by Bar-Kokhba, found in the caves of a canyon called Wadi Murraba`at, 18 km south of the Qumran caves and 3 km from the Dead Sea, an expedition was put together in 1953 to explore these caves. However the expedition instead went to Nahal Hever where there were reports of Bedouin activity. Upon arriving the team noticed that, directly above the cave now known as the Cave of Letters, was the remnants of a Roman siege camp. Another camp on the southern side of the ravine was also over a cave. In the Cave of Letters were Chalcolithic remains from the 4th millennium as well as artifacts from the period of Roman occupation. Further exploration of the cave was abandoned because of some boulders obstructing access to other parts of the cave, as well as the fact that the cave had already been explored by the Bedouins. It was not until 1960, when some more documents from the Bar-Kokhba Revolt were sold to scholars in Jordan, that the Israeli government approved an “all-out archeological offensive” . With the assistance of the Israeli Defense Forces, 4 groups of scientists and qualified experts began their exploration of the desert on March 23, 1960 with a two week deadline. Yigael Yadin led a team to search the northern side of the ravine at Nahal Hever.
The first was of a niche of skulls. Tucked away in a crevasse opening were remains of human skeletons, wrapped in textiles and covered in a large mat. One skeleton was covered by a colorful mat and other textiles, while the remains of a child dressed in a tunic were discovered in a leather lined basket. The textiles found were some of the earliest known of the Roman period and were dated around 135 AD, the end of the Bar-Kokhba Revolt. These textiles were of importance in showing the kinds of dyes and the weaving material used, but of greater importance was the acquisition of a complete set of clothes worn by Jews of the 1st and 2nd century. Other significance also discovered were the mantles of men and women, a child’s linen tunic, some un-spun wool dyed purple. Other finds of archeological significance were some coins inscribed on one side ‘Shimeon’ and on the other side of the coin, ‘of the Freedom of Jerusalem’. Some arrows were found at the entrance of the cave, and a basket of bronze vessels. They had been made with pagan images on them but the faces of the various pagan gods and creatures were defaced, allowing their Jewish owners to use them (their religion forbidding them from associating with graven images). The first bundle of letters from the Bar-Kokhba period was found in what appeared to be a woman’s bag (based on its contents of wool, cosmetic tools, beads, a perfume flask and a mirror).
The four slats of wood tied together with the other papyri was the only one of the letters that was titled “President over Israel”. The others were titled “Shimeon ben/bar Kosiba”. This letter is written in Aramaic and it addresses two subordinates ordering them to confiscate some wheat from a man and deliver the man and the wheat safely to him, and threatens to severely punish them if they fail. The letter also warns that no one should give shelter to any man from Tekoa. In the time of Nehemiah, the wealthier inhabitants of this city evaded national duties and this could be the recurring issue for which this warning is being made. This warning includes the description of the punishment; “Concerning every man of Tekoa who will be found at your place – the house in which they dwell will be burned and you [too] will be punished” .
Another letter concerned the arrest of Eleazar bar Ḥitta: “Shimeon bar Kosiba, to Yehonathan bar Be’ayan, and Masabala bar Shimeon, [my order is] that you will send to me Eleazar, bar Ḥitta, immediately, before the Sabbath”. Documents acquired later revealed that Eleazar bar Ḥitta was a wealthy land owner in En-gedi who didn’t cooperate with Bar-Kohkba. It goes on to describe what is to be done with his property; wheat and fruit are to be confiscated, the herds should not trample the trees ‘and as for the spice fields, no one is to get anywhere near it’. The forcefulness, with which the order is given, shows how valuable the spice fields in particular are, which is also supported in Pliny’s Historia Naturalis, Natural History (Pliny), describing the conquering of En-gedi during the First Jewish Revolt, where the Romans had to fight for every bush, as the Jews wanted to destroy them.
The next letter is a request from Bar-Kohkba to supply the “four kinds”, palm branches, citron, myrtle and willow, required for the feast of Succoth. The request is unusual, in that it is not addressed to his subordinates Yehonathan and Masabla, but to a third party whose name is Yehudal bar Menashe and because of the nature of the request, it has been interpreted as distrust between Bar-Kohkba and his subordinates.
A second letter that was found concerning the same request of the “four kinds”, except this letter was written in Greek. “The letter is written in Greek as we have no one who knows Hebrew [or Aramaic].” This passage of the letter is of particular interest to scholars because it might indicate that non-Jews were a part of Bar-Kohkba’s Revolt, a fact that is also supported by the third century historian Dio Cassius, ‘And many outside nations were joining for the eagerness of gain’. Or this could be a case in which no Jewish soldiers at this camp could write in Aramaic or Hebrew. This letter is not from Bar-Kohkba but someone else who was writing to Yehonathan and Masabla. The person that wrote this letter is telling Yehonathan and Masabla that he is sending to them a messenger, and they are to send him back with palm branches and citron.
The Second exploration, 1961
In the second search of the Cave of Letters, in a previously explored section of the cave, a hidden crevice was discovered and in it a number of artifacts were found in a palm basket. The first thing to be pulled from the basket was an empty jewelry box, with a barrel shaped top and a flat bottom that was painted with yellow and red dots. Some wooden plates and bowls were pulled from the cache and also an iron sickle. A pair of sandals was also discovered, one of which was examined by an orthopedic specialist who judged from the shape of it, that the wearer of the sandal must have had a limp. Among the rest of the artifacts discovered were six knives, a frying pan, a mirror similar to the one found the previous year and six reeds containing papyri rolled inside them, these were discovered to have been carried in a leather pouch along with two other documents. Another bundle of documents was discovered that would be known latter as Babata’s cache. After finding the Babata cache more artifacts were found, including a second coin from the "Freedom of Jerusalem" period. A cooking pot and a net for fishing was also found, the net measuring 6 by 10 meters in length. Another cache was found in a hidden cleft and in it were 6 iron keys, known in the Mishnah as ‘knee’ or ‘elbow’ keys, so named because they were shaped to fit through a small opening through the gate and engage the lock on the other side of the gate. The next discovery was of a large glass bowl, and two smaller glass plates wrapped in palm fiber packaging, as well as two willow baskets and a strip of papyrus with verses 7 and 8 chapter 20 of Numbers written in Hebrew.
The documents discovered to be part of the leather pouch dealt with various land transactions, some being dealt with by Bar-Kokhba’s administrators during his first year as President of Israel. Another one described the terms in which the lands En-gedi would be leased and included signatures of four of the leases.
The Babata cache
The Babata cache contains many documents covering a wide range of legal issues. One was the deed of a palm grove which contained details of the water rights in it, ‘one every Sunday, every year, for ever’. This particular document goes on to reassure the buyer of his rights and that of his heirs and contains many legal terms of the time. The cache also contained Babata’s marriage contract to her second husband Yehudah, as well as a document describing the conditions of a loan of 300 silver denarii to him by her. This document stated that if he refuses payment he would be liable under the law to pay her double the amount and damages. There is also a document where she petitions to become sole guardian of her son Yeshua, orphaned when her first husband died. Other documents were found concerning the splitting of her husband Yehudah’s property between various family members, including his daughter from his other marriage. Other documents were found concerning her second husband's property; the most interesting one is a summons by her, to her husband’s other wife. This document is dated 7 July 131, “In the presence of the witness … Babata [daughter of] Shimeon of Maoza summoned Miriam [Mariame] daughter of Be`ayan of En-gedi to come forth together with her and Haterius Nepos the governor wherever he may be present; since you [Miriam] plundered everything in the house of Yehudah son of Eleazar Khthusion, my husband and yours…” The last document is dated August 19, AD 132, the year of the Bar-Kohkba Revolt. In this document she uses a form of address, ‘Yeshua son of Yeshua my orphan son’, that suggests that her previous petition for guardianship of her son might have failed. The document is a receipt, ‘from you on account of aliments and clothing of the said Yeshua my son, six denarii of silver from the first of the month of Panemos [June] of the said 27th year [of Provincia Arabia] until the thirtieth of Gorpiaios [August] three full months’.
1 Yigael Yadin, Bar-Kokhba: The Rediscovering of the Legendary Hero of the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome, Random House New York, 1971, page 33
2 Yigael Yadin, Bar-Kokhba: The Rediscovering of the Legendary Hero of the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome, Random House New York, 1971, page 124
3 Yigael Yadin, Bar-Kokhba: The Rediscovering of the Legendary Hero of the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome, Random House New York, 1971, page 124
4 Yigael Yadin, Bar-Kokhba: The Rediscovering of the Legendary Hero of the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome, Random House New York, 1971, page 130
- Freund, Richard A. (2004). Secrets of the Cave of Letters: Rediscovering a Dead Sea Mystery. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books. ISBN 978-1-59102-205-3.
- Yadin, Yigael (1971). Bar-Kokhba: The Rediscovery of the Legendary Hero of the Second Jewish Revolt Against Rome. New York: Random House.
- “Return to the Cave of Letters: What Still Lies Buried?" Biblical Archaeology Review January/February 2001.