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A mystery for Tisha B'Av

Time and forgotten history have limited what is known about the secret of the "Cave," an ancient synagogue beneath the Temple Mount that was used by the Jews of Jerusalem. Still, scraps of information, crumbling historical documents, and existing research are gradually shedding light on one of the more intriguing mysteries in Jerusalem.

The only part of the synagogue's story about which there is consensus took place in the first half of the Hebrew month of Av in the year 1099, when Jerusalem fell to the Crusaders. Jews and Muslims fought shoulder-to-shoulder for the city, but were eventually defeated, and the Crusaders slaughtered the residents of Jerusalem. Until the Holocaust, rabbis noted the killings as one of the worst disasters to befall the Jewish people since the destruction of the Second Temple. Lamentations written to commemorate the violence were added to the Lamentations read on Tisha B'Av.

 "All the defenders fled along the walls of the city, and the Crusaders pursued them and killed them, cutting them down the entire way to Solomon's Temple," wrote one anonymous Crusader. "There, a slaughter took place until our people were wading ankle-deep through the blood of the enemies," he continued.

According to Gilo of Paris, a 12th-century poet, the Jews took the lead in defending Jerusalem and were the last to fall. Muslim historian Ibn al-Qalanisi says that the Jews of the city fled to the Cave Synagogue, where the Crusaders burned them alive, a story corroborated by the 12th-century Arab writer Sibt Ibn al-Jawzi: "The slaughter in the city was terrible. They gathered the Jews in their synagogue, and then set it on fire."

Historian Joshua Prawer says that nothing comparable had been perpetrated against the Jews since the Emperor Titus besieged the city. "When all hope was lost, the Jews shut themselves in the synagogue and waited for help from Heaven … the Crusaders burned the synagogues, with the Jews who fled inside, and they called out to God," he wrote. The most famous of these synagogues was the "Cave."

Archaeologist Dan Bahat, who excavated and researched the Western Wall tunnels, thinks that he has discovered the location of the Cave Synagogue.

He believes that it lies "in the area of Warren's Gate," underground, which is why it is known as the "Cave." Warren's Gate is named after the English researcher Sir Charles Warren (1840-1927) and is one of four gates that in the Second Temple Era led from the Western Wall to the Temple Mount. In the past, it opened to a tunnel that was dug eastward under the Mount and ended in stairs leading up to the Temple Mount plaza.

Bahat thinks that in the Early Muslim Period (638-1099), the Jews of Jerusalem established their main synagogue near the gate because of its proximity to where they believed the Holiest of Holies was located beneath the Dome of the Rock.

"For hundreds of years, it was the center of Jewish life in Jerusalem, but the Crusaders, who conquered Jerusalem in 1099, wiped out the city's Jewish community, blocked off the gate, and turned the synagogue into a cistern. That cistern is known in scientific literature as Cistern 30, one of a list of 38 on the Temple Mount." Subscribe to Israel Hayom's daily newsletter and never miss our top stories!

Bahat bases his statements mainly on a series of documents from the Cairo Geniza that were discovered about 120 years ago in the attack of the ancient Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo, along with a trove of old manuscripts, including some rare writings by Maimonides.

The documents relevant to the story of the "cave" are a series of papers from the 11thcentury CE that reference "the cave" and "the cave gate." Some of them document a request from the Jews of Jerusalem, that the Jews of Egypt provide them with money to refurbish the Cave Synagogue, which was destroyed in a major earthquake in 1033. "The documents show that Warren's Gate could fit the data about the location of the 'Cave,'" Bahat says.

"It sits at the point closest to the Holiest of Holies outside the Temple Mount, and the size of the area of the gate – about six meters by 30 [20 feet by 100 feet] – would allow a relatively large crowd to gather. When we checked the gate during the excavations of the Western Wall tunnels, it turned out that it dated from the time of the Second Temple. The threshold was put down by Herod, and the assumption is that its lintel was also from Herodian times, in the style of the Temple Mount gates from the same period – a straight lintel from a single stone. But at the top of Warren's Gate, there is a carved arch. Carving like that exists on one of the southern gates to the Temple Mount, which was built or refurbished in the 11th century. So it's reasonable to conclude that although the base of Warren's Gate is from the time of Herod, the lintel is from the 11th century, and was created or fixed 1,000 years later," the archaeologist explains.

Moreover, Bahat notes, to the north of the Warren Gate a 35-meter (115-foot) section of the Western Wall that was also rebuilt in the 11th century. He says that where that section ends, the Herodian construction that characterizes the wall as a whole continues. "These archaeological facts fit the references to rebuilding the 'Cave' and dozens of meters of the wall to its north after the 1033 earthquake that appear in documents from the Cairo Geniza," he says.

There are also the findings that Bahat and his colleagues have unearthed at the Warren Gate and in the Western Wall tunnels over the years, which also align with historical references in the Cairo Geniza documents.

Israel Hayom asks Bahat what is known about how the place came to be given to the Jews. "After the Second Temple was destroyed, the Romans and then the Christians forbade Jews to visit the Temple Mount. Conditions changed only when the Arabs conquered Jerusalem. At first, they allowed Jews to return to the Mount, but they quickly forbade it and allowed them to pray only at the gates. My guess is that in the time of [Caliph] Sulayman ibn Abd al-Malik, around the year 716, the Jews were given an opportunity to choose one of the gates as a place to pray. They opted for Warren's Gate … which at the time was still open to the Mount and closed only after the Crusader Era."

The historian Professor Elchanan Reiner agrees that Warren's Gate was the site of the Cave Synagogue, but the late Professor Ben-Zion Dinur disagreed, and believed that the synagogue lay farther south, near the Chain Gate.

The story of the Cave Synagogue is pertinent today, and not only because it was ruined in the month of Av, which began on July 22. First, the fact that Jews prayed to the east of the Western Wall, within the Temple Mount (if underground) has implications on Jewish law when it comes to whether Jews may or may not enter the compound now. Second, it could prove that Jews have been praying both as individuals and as a group at various places along the 488 meters [1,600 feet] of the Western Wall for over 1,000 years, and not only where today's prayer plaza stands.

A message from the Cairo Geniza documents, sent in 1035 by Shlomo Ben Yehuda, head of the Jerusalem yeshiva, to one Rabbi Ephraim in Cairo, asks for help in rebuilding the "cave," which had collapsed in the earthquake two years earlier. The yeshiva head said he needed 62 wooden beams and 600 planks.

Moshe Gil, one of the most important researchers in the field of Jewish history in the first centuries of Islamic expansion, also thought that the message referred to an underground cave at the Temple Mount and functioned as the main synagogue for Jerusalem. It's possible that the Cairo Geniza contains more documents that could solve the question of the "cave" once and for all.

Nadav Shragai