Israel's Good Name

Stalactites Cave & Tel Burna

In Israel, Judea on September 10, 2017 at 1:56 PM

Having already posted about the four weeks at the Tel es-Safi archaeological dig (see parts I and II), this post is dedicated to the two field trips that I took as part of the program. The first trip was at the end of the first week, to a site that I’ve been wishing to visit for quite a number of years, the Stalactite Cave (or, Soreq Cave) near Bet Shemesh.

Outside the Stalactites Cave (photo Rebecca Zami)

Leaving shortly after lunch on Thursday afternoon, the two buses drove the lot of us from our base camp at Neve Shalom to the cave. I was joined by several members of the Area J crew: Itamar, Rebecca, Meredith and Moshe. We disembarked and congregated at the entrance of the national park, and then made our way down the paved mountainside trail towards the cave opening. Stopping at the cave’s entrance, which is basically a door at the end of a short concrete chute underneath the cliff face, we listened to Prof Aren Maeir’s words of explanation about the cave and its discovery.

Within the Stalactites Cave (photo Rebecca Zami)

The cave was discovered accidently amidst quarrying efforts in 1968, opening up an underground realm of fantastic cave growths, called stalactites and stalagmites, that was yet unseen by the Israeli public. Tapping into the cave was risky due to its reliance on a specific environment, and, in efforts to ensure that the cave didn’t get ruined, the authorities closed it for several years. Eventually, having installed a system to regulate humidity, the Stalactite Cave was opened for visitors who continue to flock to the nature reserve in admiration of the otherworldly speleothems (cave growths). I happen to be a great lover of caves, and relish opportunities to go below the surface whenever I can, so I was quite excited to be visiting at last.


Entering the humid, yet cool cave was incredible. I was unprepared for the size and quantity of speleothems that I was to see. With a total surface area of about 5,000 square metres, the cave was much larger than I had anticipated. An elevated pathway snakes through, affording close-up views at many of the cave’s interesting growths. Our guide gestured here and there, using imaginative names to bring the growths to life, but I prefer to enjoy the natural wonders without someone else’s interpretations. That being said, I do think that this wall of speleothems looks like a Japanese jade carving, similar in style to this one I found online (HERE):

Curious cave growth

One might wonder why the cave is illuminated in coloured lighting, as did I, and the answer couldn’t be simpler. Traditional white lighting brings out blemishes and undesirable aspects, such a the growth of algae, so the coloured lighting not only hides the bad, but brings out the good in giving pieces their own identity. Another cave that I remember being lit with coloured lighting was the Carmel Caves, and at last I know why.

Interesting lighting of orange and purple

We continued along on the elevated walkway, pausing here and there to admire the mineral magnificence. At some point, the five members from Area J gathered together and were photographed, despite the inferior lighting conditions (the use of a flash is strictly prohibited).

Group photo within the cave

Less than a half hour after we entered the cave we reached the exit and pushed our way through the heavy metal doors to the brightness outside. Congregating once again, this time overlooking the old quarry and the city of Bet Shemesh, we learned a bit more about the history of the cave and then began the climb back up towards the buses. Thus ended the first of our field trips, and it wasn’t until the beginning of the third week that I took another.

Tel Burna

This time we were headed to a nearby archaeological dig, Tel Burna, located just eight kilometres to the southeast. I hadn’t heard of Tel Burna before this summer, but I never like turning down trip opportunities. I tagged along, Ben joining me in brotherly camaraderie. We were just a single bus on this trip, and we arrived at the site to meet our guide, Dr Chris McKinny. An alumnus of Bar Ilan University, Chris is a veteran of the Tel es-Safi expedition and now the a staff member of the Tel Burna dig. Chris led us along the dirt road to climb the tel, the afternoon sun brutally assaulting us from above. Plodding along mindlessly, we tried engaging in conversation to distract ourselves from the misery we put ourselves in. But, after all lows come highs, and we found ourself with a lovely view of the surrounding area. Because Tel Burna is an active dig, there were areas where we had to lift the sunshade that had been lowered mere hours before.

Chris McKinny explaining the excavations

After giving us up-to-date information on his dig’s progress over the last few years, including discoveries of both Late Bronze and Iron Age ruins (with some pretty cool finds), Chris gave us a lesson in local geography, pointing out nearby sites of interest. Due to its location in the Judean foothills, Tel Burna would have been a fortified border city during the Iron Ages; evidence points to the fact that Tel Burna was most likely Israelite, with Tel es-Safi (or, Gath), the Philistine capital, to the northwest.

Identifying nearby sites

Casting our eyes in the direction of Tel es-Safi, some swore that they could see the distinct white chalk patches of the tel off in the distance, but I failed in finding it. Looking to the southeast, past rolling golden fields spotted with hay bales, we spotted with greater ease the iconic apse of the Church of St Anne at Beit Guvrin-Maresha less than four kilometres away. Wrapping up our tour of Tel Burna, we trekked back down the hill and boarded the bus for a long, circuitous ride back to our base camp of Neve Shalom. For those interested in learning more about Tel Burna, the link to their website can be found HERE.

  1. […] we returned once again to Tel Goded. Located in the Judean lowlands, not far from Beit Guvrin and Tel Burna, the tel hosts mountaintop settlements ranging from the Bronze Era all the way until the Byzantine […]

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