The Bar Kokhba Revolt (132–135/6 C.E.) was one of the most disastrous events in the history of the Jewish people. The Jewish War of 66–70 C.E. ended with the destruction of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem and with major casualties, but the Jewish rural areas of Judea survived the disaster. Two generations afterward a new revolt started. The exact causes of this revolt remain unresolved. Little is known about the actual course of events during the revolt, called the Bar Kokhba Revolt. Its effects, however, were catastrophic. The Judean countryside was ravaged; hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed or sold into slavery and exiled. The name “Judea” was changed by the Romans to “Syria Palaestina,” thus obliterating the connection between the Jewish people and their land.

While the Jewish War was described in great detail by an eyewitness, Flavius Josephus, the Bar Kokhba Revolt lacks a contemporary, detailed record. Scholars of this period are compelled to rely on the epitome of Cassius Dio’s short account (Hist. Rom. 69.12–14), a few references in the classical sources, and some legendary descriptions transmitted in the rabbinic literature. According to most scholars, the account by the Roman historian Cassius Dio, which was preserved in an eleventh-century abridgment by the Byzantine monk Xiphilinus, is a fairly comprehensive and reliable overview of the revolt from a Roman perspective.

Dio attributes the motivation for the Jews’ revolt to the foundation of Aelia Capitolina and identifies the timing as when Hadrian (r. 117–138 C.E.) left the area. Afterward he reports on the reinforcement of militarily advantageous sites with fortifications, passages, and underground networks and the rebels’ tactic of avoiding head-on clashes with the Roman army:

"To be sure, they [the Jews] did not dare try conclusions with the Romans in the open field, but they occupied the advantageous positions in the country and strengthened them with mines and walls, in order that they might have places of refuge whenever they should be hard pressed, and might meet together unobserved under ground; and they pierced these subterranean passages from above at intervals to let in air and light."

Dio’s account is consistent with the finds in hideouts in Judea, which were prepared as secret bases for the rebels. An examination of the archaeological data supports Dio’s quantitative report (although the report may be exaggerated) of the large-scale destruction of the Judean countryside during the suppression of the revolt:

"Very few of them [the Jews] in fact survived. Fifty of their most important outposts and nine hundred and eighty-five of their most famous villages were razed to the ground. Five hundred and eighty thousand men were slain in the various raids and battles, and the number of those that perished by famine, disease and fire was past finding out. Thus nearly the whole of Judaea was made desolate."

The rabbinic literature contains several references to hiding in caves in connection with the Bar Kokhba Revolt. These later references, however, have to do with the end of the revolt and the subsequent prohibition of Jewish religious practices, and they almost certainly refer to refuge caves. Since the writings of Roman authors and the church fathers contain only brief accounts of the revolt, some of which are tendentious and contradict one another, the archaeological evidence is of great importance. Two main types of caves used by the Bar Kokhba rebels were identified: refuge caves and hiding complexes.

Refuge Caves.

Most refuge caves are located in the Judean desert, in the steep cliffs overlooking the Dead Sea and the Jordan Valley. These are basically large natural caves, located in almost inaccessible vertical cliffs, remote from any settlements. A few alterations made by humans, mostly built or rock-cut and plastered water-collection features, were studied in some of the caves.

Interest in the refuge caves arose following the discovery of the first scrolls at Qumran in 1947. The Bedouin continued their illegal searches and excavations in the Judean desert, initiating a rush of discoveries. By the end of 1951, documents written on leather and papyrus were found by the Bedouin in remote caves in Wadi Murabbaʾat, which served as places of refuge toward the end of the Bar Kokhba Revolt. The documents were sold to antiquities dealers in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. When examined by scholars, it became evident that these manuscripts were different from the Qumran scrolls: whereas the texts from Qumran are mostly religious, these writings were mostly administrative. Furthermore, the name of the rebels’ leader, Shimʾon bar Kosiba, appeared on some of them. From 1951 until 1963, 17 refuge caves were found and excavated by Roland de Vaux, Paul Lapp, Yigaאel Yadin, Yohanan Aharoni, and other scholars in the Judean desert, between Wadi Daliyeh in the north and Nahal Seאelim in the south. After these discoveries, there came a quiet period in the study of the refuge caves (1963–1979). A renewed period of exploration started in 1979 at Ketef Jericho and continued through 2009, led by Hanan Eshel, Amos Frumkin, Roi Porat, Boaz Zissu, and David Amit in the northern part of the Judean desert, yielding additional documents, fragments of scrolls, hoards of coins, and other finds.

The best-known refuge caves are the Cave of Letters in Nahal Hever and the caves in Wadi Murabbaʾat, which produced a wealth of written documents from the time of the revolt, including letters and documents sent from the headquarters of the leader of the revolt and mentioning his name: Shimʾon bar Kosiba. Many other caves are scattered in cliffs, mostly between Jericho in the north and En Gedi in the south. Artifacts found in the refuge caves include documents written in Greek and Aramaic on papyrus; fragments of biblical scrolls; bronze and silver coins, some of which were overstruck by the Bar Kokhba administration; assemblages of weapons and other metal artifacts; pottery, glass, and stone objects; textiles and other organic finds; food remains; as well as wood and bone objects. This wealth of finds makes it evident that the caves served as places of refuge for people from the Judean mountains and the Jordan Valley when they fled for their lives at the end of the Bar Kokhba Revolt. These finds have been summarized in two Hebrew books (Eshel and Amit, 1998; Eshel and Porat, 2009).

A few natural (karstic) caves situated in remote areas within the settled part of the country have been uncovered. It became clear that these caves were used by Jewish rebels as places of refuge during the Bar Kokhba War. The caves are located on top of the cliffs of Nahal Shiloh and Nahal Sorek, near ʾAbud in the Benjamin region, and at the Teאomim and Tur Safa Caves in the western Judean mountains.

The most impressive finds were uncovered at the Teאomim Cave. This is a large and complex natural cave, located on the western edge of the Jerusalem hills. The hard-to-reach inner section of the cave was explored in 2009 by a team led by Zissu and Frumkin. Hoards of coins, weapons, fragmentary human bones, pottery, and oil lamps from the time of the Bar Kokhba Revolt were discovered in situ. The highlights of the archaeological survey were three hoards of coins. Hoard A included 83 silver coins restruck by the Bar Kokhba administration. It is the only hoard of silver Bar Kokhba coins discovered in a controlled archaeological exploration (versus illegal excavations). Hoard B included nine silver coins and a bronze perutah (six Roman and four Judean coins). Hoard C included five Roman gold coins, 15 silver coins (13 Roman imperial and provincial coins and two Bar Kokhba denarii), and four Roman bronze coins of the city of Ashkelon. Two iron-shafted weapons, a typical Roman pilum and a spear manufactured by the rebels, were also found in situ.

These finds had been brought to the inner part of the cave by fighters and refugees at the end of the Bar Kokhba Revolt. This part of the cave served as the last place of refuge for a group of people who were very familiar with the secrets of the cave and knew how to enter this hard-to-reach section. The fragmentary human bones and the hoards of coins suggest that the fugitives met their death in the cave.

Hiding Complexes.

Most of the hiding complexes were hewn into the limestone bedrock under or near residential buildings in ancient settlements. They are found mainly in the Judean Shephelah (the area located west of the Jerusalem and Hebron mountains and known also as the Judean foothills). Other systems were detected in the Jerusalem and Hebron mountains, in the Beth-El mountain, and in the Galilee. The hiding complexes were prepared mainly before and during the Bar Kokhba Revolt. A few systems—mainly small, unsophisticated ones—have been dated to the time preceding the Jewish War against Rome (66–70 C.E.).

Throughout ancient Israel, especially in the Judean Shephelah, rock-cut underground chambers were created as part of the economic and physical infrastructure of towns and villages. The hewing technique was refined in the Hellenistic and early Roman periods. In hundreds of sites throughout the Judean Shephelah, constructed underground facilities have been discovered that fell into disuse when they were linked to form ramified complexes with narrow, winding burrows. Such complexes were first surveyed and documented by the British explorer Robert Alexander Stewart Macalister at Tell Zakarieh (biblical ʾAzeqa), Khirbat el-ʾEin, and Tell Gezer in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At the time the connection between the discovery and the Bar Kokhba Revolt was not yet understood.

Exploration of the hideouts resumed in the 1970s with Yoram Tsafrir’s excavations at ʾEin Arub and David Alon’s comprehension that the complexes were a widespread phenomenon. After a broad survey in the Shephelah in the late 1970s, Amos Kloner and Yigal Tepper identified the rock-cut complexes of underground chambers and narrow burrows as an archaeological phenomenon and coined the term “hiding complexes.” In their book The Hiding Complexes in the Judean Shephelah (1987), they investigated the significance, scope, and importance of the phenomenon and its historical connection with the Bar Kokhba Revolt. Their conclusions regarding the function, dating, and distribution of the hideouts were a breakthrough in the understanding of the revolt. By 2001, protracted research on this subject had added extensive information on hiding complexes in Judea.

Architecture of the Hiding Complexes.

Certain architectural components in the hiding complexes constitute distinguishing marks of their function.

Burrows.

The burrows link external chambers used previously as cisterns, quarries, ritual immersion baths, olive presses, storerooms and granaries, stables and rooms for raising animals, columbaria, and so on; connecting them made the chambers unusable for their previous function and purposely impaired the local way of life and economy. The burrows are low and narrow and can be traversed only by walking on all fours, sliding on the knees, or crawling; they tend to be around to 2 to 2.3 ft (0.6–0.7 m) wide and 2.3 to 3 ft (0.7–0.9 m) high. The burrows bend from time to time at various angles, and in some cases the height of the floor changes. Small side chambers were cut out of the walls of the burrows. In the floor of the burrows rock-cut openings lead to bell-shaped pits below, which were used for storing grain and other solids or liquids; a stone lid of the right size closed the opening.

Vertical shafts.

Shafts were hewn in the complexes for use as entrances or exits. The shafts had locks, and their entrances were camouflaged, usually inside a room or courtyard of a house in the aboveground locality. Shafts connecting burrows whose floors were at different heights were hewn vertically from the top down. It seems that such shafts were essential when the burrows did not meet at the exact same level; the shaft was an operative solution that made it possible to connect the burrows cut on different levels. Notches were often cut out of opposite walls of the shaft for use as footholds in climbing up or down.

Internal locks.

The entrances to rooms and burrows were closed, blocked, or cut off with various kinds of locks, such as a stone slab the same size as the burrow, a large round stone the size of the average opening, beams, and bars. The people hiding would lock the entrance behind them from the inside.

Air vents and openings for light.

To prepare a hideout and light lamps inside, one needed ventilation. Vertical shafts were hewn in the ceilings of the rooms for the removal of rubble from the hewing; once the complex was completed, they served as air vents and were camouflaged on the surface. Horizontal burrows cut into the walls of cisterns and other facilities admitted air and a little light into the hideouts. Sometimes air vents were used as alternate entrances. Some of the openings identified as vents may have been hewn when the hideouts were already in use in order to increase the air supply.

Niches for lamps.

Niches for oil lamps were installed in the sides of the burrows 3.3 to 6.6 ft (1–2 m) apart, generally near the ceiling and on the hewers’ left. The workers usually hewed these niches quickly, without worrying about their shape; lamp niches in large chambers were made more carefully.

The hewing method.

Keeping the burrows small made it possible to save time on hewing and minimized the amount of rubble. The work went fairly quickly in the local soft limestone. A group of workers would hew at least 3.3 to 16.4 ft (1–5 m) of a standard-size burrow in a day. The direction in which they worked can be seen by looking at the arched cracks left by their tools in the walls of the burrow as well as by the lamp niches cut out of the walls on the workers’ left side.

The hiding complexes linked underground chambers that were already being used by the local population, and their original function was eliminated. Blind burrows leading nowhere indicate mistakes in trying to link up with another burrow, a room, an underground facility, or an exit from the complex; these attempts were therefore abandoned. The advanced technique of hewing hideouts was the result of a long tradition of rock cutting and familiarity with the properties of the local rock.

At several sites, underground chambers were used for the disposal of rubble, perhaps in order to keep the hewing a secret. The people may have been in such a rush to create the burrows that they had to leave the rubble in unneeded chambers inside the complex instead of lifting it aboveground at great effort and risk.

A regular supply of water was crucial. Many hiding complexes in the Judean Shephelah were connected to cisterns. A burrow opened into the upper portion of the cistern a few feet above its floor so that water could be stored up to that point; thus, the people hiding in the complex had a steady supply of water that could be drawn secretly.

Typology of the Hiding Complexes.

There are a dozen main types of hiding complexes, which can be sorted into two main groups. This sorting is based on the sophistication of the complexes and their extent underneath the ancient settlements.

Family complexes.

Family complexes were of three main types: storage complexes, hideout and storage complexes, and complexes for hiding and storage with water facilities. A family complex would be hewn underneath a house or yard; access was via a vertical shaft whose upper entrance was hidden or camouflaged. From the bottom of the shaft, burrows led to underground storerooms that could be used for food storage and hiding. Some of the family hideouts were connected to cisterns so that the people could remain in hiding for a long time.

Public complexes.

Public complexes were of various types, including simple public complexes, public hiding complexes, escape routes connected to public buildings, and complexes incorporating large natural chambers. In the public complexes preexisting underground rock-cut facilities were connected by means of branched burrows, and their original function was eliminated. The public complexes had several camouflaged entrances, generally in houses at some distance from one another. They generally contained a cistern for use by the people hiding; this reflects an organized, professional effort by the local population. The public complexes had room for dozens of people; the largest could hold even more. There were also escape routes leading from these complexes out of the locality.

The Herodium tunnels are unique in that their shape and the dimensions of the passages enable a person to walk upright. The tunnels were carved deep into the mountain during the time of the Bar Kokhba Revolt, putting Herod’s mountain fortress’s cisterns out of use and turning them into underground junctions. The tunnels enabled large numbers of people to move around easily and unseen underground, and they seem to have had a defensive–offensive military function.

Dating of the Hiding Complexes.

Unfortunately, antiquities looters are active before archaeologists arrive. Many hiding complexes were looted systematically for decades, sometimes with metal detectors. Caves that remained in use in later periods were cleared of ancient artifacts. Few complexes found sealed can be dated by their content, although the absence of dated finds such as pottery, oil lamps, and glass vessels in undisturbed contexts hinders accurate dating.

Kloner came up with a relative chronology for the hiding complexes that distinguishes older underground complexes and facilities with prior functions from burrows, shafts, and air vents added around the time of the Bar Kokhba Revolt. When no clear chronology can be determined, burrows of the typical dimensions and shape are used as a fossile indicateur. Since the publication of Kloner and Tepper’s book (1987), a great deal of evidence has been discovered that enables more accurate dating of the hideout phenomenon.

It seems that the hideouts reached their peak of sophistication during the Bar Kokhba Revolt; this claim is supported by objects discovered in the complexes, such as 25 coins found by excavators at various sites, a lead weight issued by the Bar Kokhba administration, potsherds, fragments of glass, and oil lamps. We cannot rule out the possibility that some of the hoards mentioned by Leo Mildenberg (1984) originate in hiding complexes looted since the late 1960s. The hoards were named for the village of origin of the looters and dealers who reported them to him; their exact place of discovery remains unknown. Nevertheless, research has found indications of small, unsophisticated complexes from the beginning of the first century C.E. and perhaps even earlier. At Horvat ʾEthri in the central Judean Shephelah, small hiding complexes (e.g., complexes VI and IV) were found. These contain typical components: narrow, winding passages with floors at various heights, small rooms, camouflage arrangements, and means of blocking entry. These small complexes were hewn in the early first century C.E., when the houses above them were erected, were used in the Jewish War, and ceased functioning when parts of the site were destroyed during the Jewish War. Numismatic finds from the time of the Jewish War against the Romans have been discovered in complexes at Horvat ʾEthri, Susya, and Khirbat Zeita, pointing to their early use.

The Function of the Hiding Complexes.

Because the presence of hiding complexes in the Judean Shephelah is consistent with and corroborates Cassius Dio’s account, they can reasonably be dated to the time of the Bar Kokhba Revolt. The Roman historian’s description should not be interpreted as an exaggeration meant to excuse the difficulty the Romans had in suppressing the revolt. The hideouts are tangible evidence of preparations for a revolt or for actions during the revolt so that clandestine activity could be carried out when necessary. One should not assume that all the hiding complexes in the Judean Shephelah were hewn in the midst of the revolt; they were apparently cut earlier in preparation for it.

The architectural uniformity among many of the complexes seems to be evidence of orders from above, planning, and implementation in one short period of time, as a result of the military conception of the Bar Kokhba administration. Perhaps preparing the hideouts was part of the civilian population’s role in getting ready for revolt, subversive activity, and hiding in various stages of the war. Creating the hiding complexes was a sophisticated way of overcoming the difficulty of a head-on clash with the Roman legions. The complexes were meant to serve as hideouts for weeks or even months and as bases for the rebels. Food, weapons, and other supplies could be stored there secretly.

The small, narrow, winding burrows were meant to make it difficult for the enemy to infiltrate and advance in the underground maze. The burrows could be blocked and locked easily and efficiently, and parts of the complex could be cut off from the outside. An individual Roman soldier bearing arms and a lamp would have a hard time advancing on all fours or dragging himself along the ground in an unfamiliar burrow or vertical shaft, and he would be in an inferior, vulnerable position compared with the rebel lying in ambush for him. The shafts were designed to hinder or even stop movement along the burrows by changing the floor level, and they could easily be stopped up with rocks. Therefore, an enemy would lose the advantage of the trained military unit formed with frontal combat in mind.

Distribution of the Hiding Complexes in Judea.

Most of the hiding complexes were discovered underneath Jewish rural sites from the late Second Temple period and the time between the revolts. They were identified by means of distinctly Jewish “ethnic markers” such as ritual baths, stone vessels, ossuaries, Judean (“southern”) lamps, coins from the Jewish revolts, and epigraphic finds.

The complexes were generally made by residents who had knowledge, experience, and a long tradition of hewing. The idea was not a foreign import; it was a physical manifestation of the preparation of an entire region for revolt, keeping in mind local conditions, the quality of the rock, and the military conception of the leadership of the revolt. The complexes were created on farms and estates, in villages, and at fortified sites scattered throughout Judea, not necessarily controlling main roads.

More than 320 complexes in more than 125 Jewish sites are known, concentrated in the area from Nahal Shilo in the north to Nahal Shiqma in the south and from the Telem valley in the east to the slopes of the Shephelah in the west. One can delineate the boundaries of the settlement bloc in Judea between the revolts against Rome: from Antipatris in the northwest; eastward via Nahal Shilo, the toparchy of Aqraba, and the Alexandrion fortress (Sartaba); then south along the Jordan Valley and Dead Sea; and west to the area of Arad, ʾAroʾer, and the Beersheba valley. The line of settlements in the west extends to the fringes of the Judean Shephelah, where it meets the Coastal Plain. No hiding complexes with typical burrows have been discovered in non-Jewish localities.

Hiding Complexes in the Rabbinic Literature.

Several Halakhic passages in the rabbinic literature mention hideouts that served as long-term places of refuge for women and children from the time the settlement was captured until the enemy left it. As can be seen from these passages, the hideouts were safe and better hidden than just a pit or storeroom, and the likelihood of discovery by the enemy was low.

  • 1. m. Ketub. 2:9: “If troops of siege have taken a town, all the priests’ wives who are in it are unfit. If they have witnesses, even a slave, even a handmaid, they are believed. No one is believed as to himself.” The Babylonian Talmud notes an exception to this law: “If there is there one hiding place, it protects all priests’ wives” (Ketub. 27a, Soncino translation). It seems that the concern in the Mishnah is that the troops may have raped the women; consequently, the priests’ wives are forbidden to their husbands by the Torah. The Amoraim added that if there is even “one hiding place” in that city, the women may remain with their husbands. The “hiding place” is apparently a known place where women and others would hide during a war and the conquest of the city.
  • 2. m. Nid. 4:7: “But if the time of her fixed period was come and she had not examined herself, she is deemed unclean. R. Meir says: If she was in hiding and the time of her fixed period was come and she had not examined herself she may be deemed clean, since fearfulness suspends the blood-flow” (Danby translation). R. Meir disagrees with the original law in a case in which the woman was in a hiding place and was tense and afraid. The opinion of R. Meir, who lived at the time of the revolt, reflects a situation that was familiar to him—hiding and the anxiety that went along with it. It seems that even when hiding the Jews were careful to observe the laws of ritual purity.
  • 3. t. Yebam. 12:4, 5: In a discussion of levirate marriage and halitza, hideouts are mentioned three times. The context concerns two women who gave birth in hiding; the children were mixed up, and no one knew which woman was the mother of which infant. These accounts apparently refer to a hideout where the women stayed for some time and could give birth. This sounds like a hideout complex, where newborns could be mixed up as a result of crowding, darkness, and fear.

During the preparations for the Bar Kokhba Revolt or during the revolt itself, the Jews developed a concept of defense and hiding; the historical context of the exceptions to the law stated by the Mishnah regarding a besieged city is consistent with the time of the revolt. Physically and functionally, the Talmudic “hiding place” is identical to a hideout complex: both are within a town or village, they are not suited for combat inside them, they are intended for nonbelligerents, their rooms are small and dark, they are crowded, and there is a lack of privacy. If the town was conquered, the people hiding were beset by fear and emotional stress.

The discovery of refuge caves and hiding complexes used by the rebels during the war was a breakthrough in the study of the archaeological and geographical aspects of the Bar Kokhba Revolt. The study of these caves is of foremost importance to the understanding of the revolt.

[See also GALILEE; HERODIUM; QUMRAN; and SHEPHELAH.)]

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Boaz Zissu and Amos Kloner