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Mystery in Jerusalem: Rare ancient message baffles archaeologists

Some of the inscriptions on the walls of the ritual bath

A rare ancient message, encoded in symbols and inscriptions, was discovered in an underground cave in Jerusalem, in a ritual bath dating to the Second Temple period. At this point in the research the inscriptions are a mystery, but may shed light on the lives of our ancestors in the city of Jerusalem.

iaa-arnona-mikve1 The front of the cave as exposed in the excavation

An extraordinary find that has fired archaeologists’ imagination was discovered about two months ago in the Arnona quarter during a routine archaeological inspection by the Israel Antiquities Authority of the construction of a nursery school being built in the Jerusalem Arnona neighborhood at the initiative of the Jerusalem municipality.

In the excavation an impressive ritual bath (mikve) dating to the time of the Second Temple (first century CE) was exposed inside an underground cave. An anteroom, flanked by benches, led to the bath. A winepress was excavated alongside the ritual bath.

The walls of the mikve were treated with ancient plaster and were adorned with numerous wall paintings and inscriptions, written in mud, soot and incising. The inscriptions are Aramaic and written in cursive Hebrew script, which was customary at the end of the Second Temple period. Among the symbols that are drawn are a boat, palm trees and various plant species, and possibly even a menorah.

According to Royee Greenwald and Alexander Wiegmann, excavation directors on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “There is no doubt that this is a very significant discovery Such a concentration of inscriptions and symbols from the Second Temple period at one archaeological site, and in such a state of preservation, is rare and unique and most intriguing.”

At this point in the research the inscriptions are a mystery. Some of the inscriptions might indicate names. The symbols depicted on the walls are common elements in the visual arts of the Second Temple period. In the meantime, the drawing that might possibly be construed as a menorah is exceptional because in those days they abstained from portraying this sacred object which was located in the Temple. According to the excavators, “On the one hand the symbols can be interpreted as secular, and on the other as symbols of religious significance and deep spirituality.”

Exposing the steps of the ritual bath
Copyright: Shai Halevy, courtesy Israel Antiquities Authority


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