If you love history, geology, landscapes and stories, then this episode is for you!
I decided to share the story here on my website also in written form for those who prefer to read!

This is what shaped Palestine

If you look at a map you will see that Palestine is on the Mediterranean sea. The land close to the sea is low land, the coastal plain. Driving from the sea towards the east you will notice that slowly the road starts climbing up a bit and there is an area of rolling hills. In the Bible this area is already mentioned as the Shephelah. And then you reach the higher hills, the mountains. The mountain ridge has mountains as high as 1200 meters but most are between 700 and 900. And these mountains are all connected, they form a mountain ridge, from north to south in one line. This is the result of tectonic plate movement of the Asian plate and the African plate. This is also why on the other side of this mountain ridge the land goes down steep towards the Dead Sea. From 900 meters above sea level to about 300 meters below sea level. This is the Jordan Rift valley. Also result of the tectonic plate movement. This has created the mountains and the deep valley.

The mountains of this mountain ridge are of a rock or stone that is called ‘limestone’. Limestone is a stone that was formed on the seafloor of marine fossils. It is rich in calcium carbonate. Millions of years ago, there was no land where Palestine is now, there was sea. And with the movement of the continents and the tectonic plate movement pushing up the limestone that was formed on the seafloor, the rocks of the mountain ridge came high above sea level.

Limestone is the perfect stone for forming caves. Because rainwater that picks up carbon dioxide from the air, will turn the soil into a weak acid that then slowly dissolves away the limestone. The cavities can grow over time into really large caves.

In prehistoric times, which means in the time that people did not know how to write yet, people would not be concerned with much else than finding water and food! Our basic needs are food and shelter.

Imagine you are a prehistoric person and you are looking for a safe place to sleep. A shelter from the wind, the rain, the hot sun. From wild animals. Then what else is more exciting than finding a natural cave where you can just bring your whole family and move in, without having to build anything?!

In the year 1928 a British female archaeologist, called Dorothy Garrod, came to Palestine to do excavations. And she found a cave, called the Shuqba cave, and what she found there was a new, yet undiscovered, unique, stone age period culture. What she found was a lifestyle of a people that had not yet really developed agriculture but they were definitely experimenting with growing their own food and domesticating animals. They were not like the hunters and gatherers moving around as nomads to search for food. They lived in and around this Shuqba cave.

In this big cave, that was about 18 meters high, there were two chimneys, which means they used to make fire inside the cave. And there were hundreds of pigeon holes dug into the cave wall. So that means they had pigeons for their eggs and meat. They actually domesticated these pigeons. They used tools that had not been found from earlier hunters and gatherers. For example they made stone sickles for harvesting grain and they used stone mortars and pestles to grind the wheat. Which means they were growing wheat somewhere close to where they were staying. They lived in AND AROUND the caves in small round shaped huts.

As the Shuqba cave is located in a valley that is called Wadi Natuf, Dorothy Garrod, the archaeologist, coined the term Natufians for these people. And in later excavations in other sites they have found similar lifestyles and habits around the same period in the Middle Stone age. That is the period more than 10.000 years ago, and they called them the Natufians.

These Natufians also had interesting habits when it came to the burial of their dead. First of all the hunters and gatherers, who were always on the move, would probably bury their dead wherever they were at the moment of their death and then they would move on. But the Natufians started actual burial sites. Like a cemetery. With a wall around it to separate it from the living area. They found that the Natufians buried their dead with personal ornaments, or as they are called ‘grave goods’. So they used to make necklaces and bracelets and earrings of marine shells, animal bones or animal teeth. These decorations were found mainly on the skulls of the persons. It was also common to remove the skull. The body would be placed in a strange, curled up position. All of this means that they had rituals, that they had their own habits and traditions.

The Natufians are the first ones we know about, who USED the caves. But after them, there are SO many stories in Palestine that are related to caves.

Close to Bethlehem for example is a cave called the Um Qadfa cave in Wadi Khreitun. This is very close to Herodion, Herod’s summer palace, on the edge of the desert. In this cave they discovered big blocks of stone that were set up in a circle, dating back from around 500.000 BC and suggesting that they were sitting around a fire. The first traces of use of fire in Palestine. And if they sat there around that fire, they may have had a language to speak and communicate with each other. We won’t know. It is an intriguing idea that the same cave that we can visit today on a hike in the Khreitun valley, already had people staying in it 500.000 years ago.

Wadi Khreitun, by the way, is named after a hermit, a monk, who lived on his own in this valley, and guess where he stayed? Of course! In a cave. His name was Chariton. And he was a quite famous monk and he had followers, who kept following him. From cave to cave. He wanted so badly to live a life alone as a hermit in the desert, but he couldn’t shake them off, these disciples. So eventually he decided to get up into a hanging cave, probably using a kind of ladder that he could then pull up, so he could be completely on his own, without people entering into his cave.

Many of the biblical stories also evolve around caves. I may completely shock some of you with this information, but in Bethlehem nobody believes that Jesus was born in a wooden stable and laid in a wooden manger. They all KNOW that Jesus was born in a cave. According to the locals in Bethlehem what happened was that Mary and Joseph did not find a place to stay in Bethlehem when they went to register for the Roman census. Joseph must have had family in Bethlehem to stay with, but because it was so busy, his family members had no place in their guestrooms. That’s how Mary and Joseph ended up in the lower part of the house, which was the place where the animals usually stayed in winter time. And which was often built right in front of a cave so that the space inside the cave could be used as well. That explains why Jesus was born surrounded by the animals.

Today, if you visit the church of the nativity, you will see that the church was built over this cave. Once you are inside the church and you proceed towards the end of the nave, there are stairs down under the choir that lead to the birth cave of Jesus.

Another church in close proximity to the famous church of nativity in Bethlehem is the Milk GROTTO church. This church was built over the cave where according to the local Palestinian Christians Mary is said to have nursed baby Jesus. When a drop of her milk fell on the caves’ floor the color of the stone in the cave turned miraculously to a white milk color. Many Palestinian women, both Muslims and Christians, venerate mother Mary, either as the mother of the son of God or as an important prophet, for Muslims. They come to this milk grotto cave to take some of its stone and crush it into a powder that they drink with water or milk in order to get pregnant.

I know, it sounds like an unlikely thing to happen, from cave stone and I would not believe it myself, if I had not personally experienced this miracle. When I got married to my Palestinian husband seven years ago, my parents came over for the big wedding party and I took them to visit this milk grotto and as I was explaining to them the same story I just told you, I swiped my finger over the rock and licked my finger for a more lively example of the miracle story. And guess what… six weeks after the wedding, I WAS pregnant!

Related to the birth story of Jesus, another cave is very relevant to mention. The cave where the shepherds were attending to their sheep when the angel appeared to announce the birth of Jesus. This happened only 2 kilometers down the hill that Bethlehem is built on, in a place that is known as Beit Sahour. This is the town where my husband and I run a Cafe and a Bar. The name of the town means the house of vigilance, meaning to keep careful watch, which is what the shepherds did, while watching their flock. It’s quite funny that today there are two locations that are called Shepherds Fields, one with a Catholic and the other with an Orthodox church, but both have a venerated cave.

For Muslims there is also a very important cave, in Jerusalem. In the Koran there is mention of the “Night Journey of Mohammad”, the Isra’a and Mi’raj. In this story, Mohammad is transported by night on a white, winged horse, named al-Buraq, from the Great Mosque in Mecca to the “Furthest Mosque” (which in Arabic is Al Aqsa). After praying in a CAVE beneath the nearby “Foundation Stone”, the Prophet continued on to heaven, before returning to Mecca the same night. Even though in the Koran the site of the “Furthest Mosque” is never mentioned, it became the tradition that prophet Mohammad reached JERUSALEM. And the Dome of the Rock and the Aqsa mosque were built, on the cave and the foundation stone.

You see, caves are fascinating and they have amazing stories to tell.

The longer I live in Palestine and the more I learn at the tour guide program of the Bethlehem Bible College, the more I feel connected to this place. As if I am reconnecting to something. Maybe I once lived in one of these caves here, who knows.

If YOU want to come and explore some caves in Palestine, then put a visit to Palestine on your bucket list! We can make it happen. I can help you with logistics, finding accommodation that suits your wishes and your budget and I can either be your tour guide or hook you up with a Palestinian guide, such as Ibrahim Khair!

Links to interesting sites to read more:

The last cave dwellers in Palestine, still living in caves today

Shuqba cave in Wadi Natuf

Shuqba cave on world heritage list UNESCO
Milk Grotto in Bethlehem

Shepherds fields in Beit Sahour

Qumran caves
Nativity Church in Bethlehem

Aqsa mosque cave by foundation stone