Zedekiah's Cave – also known as Solomon's Quarries – is a 5-acre (20,000 m2) underground meleke limestone quarry that runs the length of five city blocks under the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. It was carved over a period of several thousand years and is a remnant of the biggest quarry in Jerusalem, having once stretched all the way from Jeremiah's Grotto and the Garden Tomb – a traditional Protestant site of Jesus's burial – to the walls of the Old City.
Names: In addition to Zedekiah's Cave and Solomon's Quarries, this site has been called Zedekiah's Grotto, Suleiman's Cave, the Royal Caverns (or Royal Caves or Royal Quarries), and Korah's Cave. The Arabic name Migharat al-Kitan, or "Cotton Cave", has also been used; the cavern is thought to have been once used as a storage place for cotton.
Only the mouth of Zedekiah's Cave is a natural phenomenon. The interior of the cavern was carved by slaves and laborers over a period of several thousand years; precisely when quarrying began is impossible to determine.
Herod the Great (73 BC – 4 BC) certainly used the main quarry at Zedekiah's Cave for building blocks in the renovation of the Temple and its retaining walls, including what is known today as the Western (Wailing) Wall. Stone from the quarry may also have been utilized for the building projects of Herod Agrippa I (10 BC - 44 AD). The subterranean quarry would have been usable in all seasons and any weather.
When the Roman Jewish writer Flavius Josephus (37 - 100 AD) mentions the "Royal Caverns" of the Old City, it is thought that he is probably referring to Zedekiah's Cave.
The midrash known as Numbers Rabbah (1512) mentions (and exaggerates) the cave when it says that "One who observed the Sabbath in a cave, even though it be like the cave of Zedekiah, which was eighteen miles long, may walk through the whole of it...".
Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566), the Ottoman sultan who built the present walls around the Old City, also apparently mined the quarry, ultimately sealing it up around 1540 because of security concerns.
The site was then lost to history for over 300 years until, in 1854, the American missionary James Turner Barclay was walking his dog one day. According to the story, the dog, following a fox’s scent, dug through dirt near the Old City wall and suddenly disappeared through an opening. After nightfall, Barclay and his two sons, dressed in Arab garb and carrying candles, slithered through the newly opened crack to discover the vast cavern as well as the skeletons of previous visitors.
The Freemasons of Israel hold an annual ceremony in Zedekiah's Cave, and consider it one of the most revered sites in their history. (Masonic ritual claims that King Solomon was their first Grand Master — and some Freemasons feel that the cave is definitely Solomon's quarry.) According to Matti Shelon, head of the Israeli Freemasons, "Since the 1860s we have been holding ceremonies in the cave". According to the Supreme Grand Royal Arch Chapter of the State of Israel, the site "has special meaning for Mark Master Masons and the Royal Arch Masons in particular". Starting in the days of the British Mandate (1920s), the cave was used for the ceremony of Mark Master Masons. Although this practice was temporarily suspended between the years 1948 and 1968, the impressive ceremony of the consecration of the Supreme Grand Royal Arch Chapter of the State of Israel was commenced again in the spring of 1969, and ever since then the Mark degree has been performed in the caves on the average of once a year.
In 1873, French archeologist Charles Clermont-Ganneau uncovered a crude carving of a cherub in a small niche in the cave. It had two long narrow wings that opened like a pair of scissors, a curled tail and a bearded human head under a conical headdress. (The site is now marked by a plaque.) As cherubs were a popular Old Testament motif (especially famous are the two giant cherubs flanking the Holy Ark in Solomon's Temple), the cherub graffiti has been advanced as evidence that the quarry dates from the time of Solomon. In the mid-1880s, the cave was occupied by a German religious sect which was eventually evacuated by the German Consul in Jerusalem after many of the group fell ill from living in the damp, unsanitary conditions.
Minor quarrying occurred in 1907 when stone was obtained to be used in the Turkish clock tower over the Jaffa Gate. Otherwise, the site was not frequented again until the 1920s, when it began to be something of a tourist attraction .
- The most revered legend about the cave is that it served as the quarry for King Solomon’s First Temple. However, there is no historical or archeological evidence to support this. (The meleke limestone of the quarry– which is strong, well suited to carving, and resistant to erosion – is thought to have been used for royal buildings. The name "meleke" is derived from Hebrew and Arabic words meaning “kingly” or “royal”.)
- Writing in the 10th Century A.D., Moslem geographer and writer el-Mukaddasi said: "There is at Jerusalem, outside the city, a huge cavern. According to what I have heard from learned men, and also have read in books, it leads into the place where lie the people slain by Moses. But there is no surety in this, for apparently it is but a stone quarry, with passages leading therefrom, along which one may go with torches." The "people slain by Moses" refers to a story that appears in both the Bible and the Koran about a man named Korah (Arabic, Karun) who mounted a revolt against Moses and his brother Aaron, maintaining that they had led the children of Israel out of Egypt under false pretenses. According to the Old Testament, Korah and his fellow rebels were swallowed up by the earth; according to el-Mukaddasi, this occurred at what is now known as Zedekiah's Cave.
- The legend that the cave was a hiding place of King Zedekiah (a 6th Century BC Judean king) dates back to at least the 11th Century AD. At that time, Biblical commentator Rashi wrote that Zedekiah tried to escape from the troops sent by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar to besiege Jerusalem. (The story was also repeated in the next century by the commentator Radak.) According to Rashi: “There was a cave from the palace of Zedekiah to the plain of Jericho and he fled through the cave." He added that God sent a buck running along the surface on top of the cave as Zedekiah was walking down below. The soldiers chased the buck and arrived at the exit of the cave just as Zedekiah was coming out, enabling them to capture and blind him. Thus was born the legend and name of “Zedekiah's Cave”. (The considerable distance between Jerusalem and Jericho — about 13 miles (21 km) — reflects the legendary nature of the story.)
- In 1968, a Palestinian from East Jerusalem contacted the Israeli Ministry of Finance with a claim that, during the Ottoman period, his grandfather had buried three cases of gold in Zedekiah's Cave . He claimed he could show officials where the treasure was buried in return for 25% of the gold. The Ministry agreed, but, according to The Jerusalem Post, after digging a deep hole no gold was found.