Maresha/ Beit Guvrin PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
Article Index
Maresha/ Beit Guvrin
"Market" cave
Olive cave
Burial caves
Beit Guvrin
Bell Caves

The "Market" Cave

In the 3d century BC, when the people of Maresha planned houses in the area around the acropolis (tell), they first dug directly beneath their future floors for the building stones, chiseling out each layer at brick height. They were able to do this without great expense because the stone that covers the Shephelah has peculiar qualities. It is a relatively soft chalk deposited at the bottom of the sea that once covered this country, in a period geologists call the Eocene. There are almost no intruding layers of flint (such as abound in the desert east of the mountain), and so people could dig caves without interruption. They dug thousands throughout the Shephelah. 

On the surface a brittle crust developed, one to two yards thick, called nari. The quarriers made a small hole in the nari until they reached the thick layer of chalk below. Here they chiseled in an ever widening bell-shape, leaving vaults to prevent collapse. The nari hole was kept small so that the stone beneath would retain its moist, soft quality.

There are 153 cave-networks around Maresha. Many caves served as cisterns in this spring-poor region, others as columbaria (dovecotes), chambers for olive-pressing, and tombs. Caves elsewhere in the Shephelah may also have served as places to conceal wealth from the tax man, and earlier – during the Bar Kokhba revolt – as hideouts from which one could attack occupying soldiers and disappear into the earth.

At Maresha the most striking cave is the so-called "market" (shuk). There are just a few traces of the house to which it belonged, but we descend, turn a corner, and are confronted with this:


The first question to arise is usually: What were all the niches for? There are almost 2000 of them in this cave. In Rome, urns with ashes of the dead were placed in niches, but no trace of such has been found here. Besides, cremation is not attested in the literary sources for the land. And they would have been very small urns – each niche is only about 9 inches wide by 10 deep.

Some think the cave was a columbarium – a place to raise doves. These were valued in the ancient world, both for the excellent fertilizer they produce and as a good source of protein. (Lacking refrigeration, people slaughtered a four-legged beast only when lots of diners were on hand; small sources of protein like doves and fish were crucial for the everyday diet.) In nature, rock doves (pigeons) nest in cliff sides or caves. The theory for this cave goes as follows: the owners opened the small holes in the ceiling (there are two in the photo above), threw in some young doves that hadn't yet mated, added grain and nest-building materials, then closed the holes. Within a month or so, mating occurred and nests were built in the niches. Then the holes in the ceiling could be opened, and the birds would remain. The males flew out each day to gather grain and seed in the fields, bringing these back to their females and offspring in the cave. Thus the columbarium became self-sufficient.

To build and maintain a columbarium with 2000 niches would have cost much more than to dig it out of the soft limestone.

The pigeons would not ordinarily have sat in the niches, rather on crossbeams. Regularly the owners would have come in and removed their valuable excrement. We see no niches in the lower portion – the idea was to keep the nests high enough off the floor that predators, such as snakes, could not get at the younglings. Note too, in the photo above, that the first opening in the ceiling is located above a cistern in the floor: doves must drink to digest their seeds and grain.

So many things fit together that the columbarium theory seems irresistible. Yet, reports Kloner, mineralogical and chemical analyses detected no traces of dove excrement in soil samples. One might explain this absence by noting the brevity of the dove business at Maresha; it seems to have ended for some reason after only half a century. The cave was then put to other uses. Accumulated bones of goats, pigs and sheep were found. Some of the niches contained ceramic bowls. Numerous sherds, dating from the 3d to the mid-1st centuries BC, were heaped in the corridors. The former columbaria were variously used, it seems, as stables, bathhouses, ritual halls, and storerooms.

Some 50 pigeons live in the "market" today. About 60 caves of this type have been found at Maresha, with a total of roughly 50,000 niches.