Zedekiah’s Cave, an ancient cave located next to the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City, is surrounded by a fog of intrigue, religious theories, and biblical legends.
The history of this 230-meter-long cave is complex and highly disputed.
In 1854, during Ottoman rule of Palestine, an American scholar, Dr. James Turner Barclay, was walking with his dog through the streets of Jerusalem. The dog ran off and began barking at something on the ground. As Barclay approached the dog’s area of interest, he realized that he had stumbled upon something unique. After a closer inspection, he uncovered a quarry that had been sealed up for several hundred years. This story of how the cave was discovered is one of the many colorful tales surrounding this mysterious cave.
After archeological and historical inspection of the cave, there are several theories as to its historical usage. One theory claims that the cave was used by King Solomon as a quarry during the building of the first temple, hence, some refer to the cave as “King Solomon’s Quarries”.
The cave’s other name, Zedekiah’s Cave, is based on the legend that Zedekiah, the Judean King, fled Jerusalem to Jericho, while Jerusalem was under siege by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, through this cave.
Based on archeological evidence, some say that the cave was not in use during the First Temple era. Rather it was used during the Second Temple period and is connected to the massive building projects of King Herod.
There is another legend that states that when the Roman legions, under the command of Titus, placed Jerusalem under siege, the priests of the Temple hid the holy utensils and instruments of the Temple in the cave.
The date when the cave was closed off, is also disputed. Some researchers think that it was sealed during the rule of Suleiman the Magnificent, who built the walls around the Old City, from 1535 to 1538. However there is no certainty behind the date, and others claim that it was closed off in the 11th century.
After the cave was discovered in 1854 it was briefly used as a quarry. Based on the belief of the British freemasons, that King Solomon was the first freemason, they conducted secret rituals in the hall from 1854 with the permission of the Ottoman Empire. It was the idea of the famous archeologist and discoverer, Charles Warren, to hold the rituals in the cave as he was also part of the freemason society. Today when you walk through the cave you reach a hall called the “Freemasons Hall,” named after these secret rituals held in the cave.
The last time that the cave was used as a quarry was in the late 19th century when stones were cut by the Ottoman Turks for the clock tower in Yaffo.
What is unique about the cave is that it is the largest artificial cave discovered in Israel, which also happens to be the only undisputed fact about the cave. The cave extends underneath the houses of the Moslem quarter, covering a total of 9,000 square meters. The average height of the cave is 15 meters.
Beyond the Freemason Hall, further along inside the cave, is Zedekiah’s spring, which is still working today. It is called by some, “the spring of King Zedekiah’s tears,” based on the folktale that it is made up of the tears of King Zedekiah and his sons.
There are several theories as to why such a cave was built in this spot in the first place. The first reason is to protect the stone cutters from the sun in the summer and the rain in the winter, providing them with a productive work environment. Second, the cave is made mostly from one of the most precious types of stone, called Melche – from the Hebrew word for royalty, connoting that the stone is fit for royal structures. The third reason is the location of the cave and its close proximity to the city’s main building sites. All of these reasons made it the most important cave for Jerusalem stone-cutters in the past.
Over the years the cave was closed and reopened to the public several times. During Jordanian rule over the old city, it was closed, and it has been open from 1967 until today. In order to film at the cave you need to obtain a permit and it is recommended to bring extra lighting.