A mysterious secret message has been discovered scrawled onto the walls of an ancient Jewish bathing chamber under a building site in Jerusalem.
The underground cave, which appears to have been used as a ritual bath, or miqwe, in the first century AD, had been plastered before being covered in symbols and inscriptions.
Written in mud, soot and scratched into the wall itself, the apparent graffiti includes Aramaic and Hebrew scripts, many of which appear to be names, alongside other symbols.
These include images that appear to be boats, plants, palm trees and possibly even a menorah – the branched lamp used in Jewish temples.
However, the meaning of the 2,000-year-old inscriptions remains mystery that is puzzling archaeologists who are studying the site. Royee Greenwald, excavation director for the Israel Antiquities Authority, said: ‘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.’
Alexander Weigmann, who is joint director of the excavation added that the symbols on the wall appear in common visual arts during the Second Temple period in Jerusalem.
He said: ‘On the one hand the symbols can be interpreted as secular, and on the other as symbols of religious significance and deep spirituality.’
Ritual baths, or miqwe, were used for cleansing before the Sabbath and holy days.
However, to find graffiti scrawled on the walls has baffled experts. They say while some of the symbols appear to be religious, others appear to be something else.
WHAT IS A MIQWE?
- Miqwe, or ritual immersion baths, were used for cleansing before the Sabbath and holy days.
- Jewish law required the ritual purification and cleansing before holy days and the Sabbath.
- They were also used for purification by women after childbirth and their period.
- The water for a miqwe is also not supposed to be drawn by hand and they were often filled with water from a natural spring or river.
- They were often cut from natural rock and used elaborate plumbing systems to carry water from a river or spring to the fill the bath.
They said the graffiti could be an attempt to convey a deeply spiritual and religious message or perhaps even a cry for help during the destruction of the Temple and war of 66-70AD.
For example, the image of the menorah is ‘exceptional’ because at the time people abstained from portraying such a sacred object.
The Israel Antiquities Authority, said researchers were now trying to unravel the relationship between the symbols and the inscriptions.
They are particularly puzzled about why they were drawn in the ritual bath, a place of religious significance in itself.
The ritual bath, along with an antechamber with stone benches, was discovered in a cave hewn from the natural rock beneath a construction site for a new nursery in the Arnona area of Jerusalem.
However, the drawings on the wall are so sensitive that they immediately began to degrade as soon as they were exposed to the air.
Experts at the Israel Antiquieties Authority have been treating the walls in an attempt to protect them before removing them from the ritual bath so they could be further conserved.
An ancient wine press was also discovered in the chamber.
Moshe Tur-Paz, head of the education administration at the Jerusalem Municipality said, ‘The large education system in Jerusalem is always in need of additional school buildings.
‘The unique find was discovered in a compound where two nursery schools are slated to be built.
‘The archaeological and historical site that was exposed is of tremendous value to our identity as a Jewish people which might shine more light on the lives of our ancestors in the city of Jerusalem.’
They noted that the drawing that may be a menorah is exceptional, because during that period Jews largely abstained from illustrating the sacred object which was located in the Temple.
“On the one hand, the symbols can be interpreted as secular; and on the other, as symbols of religious significance and deep spirituality,” the archeologists said.
In the meantime, Greenwald and Wiegmann said a number of perplexing questions now face researchers. “What is the relationship between the symbols and the inscriptions, and why, of all places, were they drawn in the ritual bath?” they asked. “Who is responsible for painting them? Was it one person, or several people?
“We will maintain contact with the IAA, and together we will examine how we can give educational and symbolic expression to the discovery that was found.”
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