A recent study presents evidence that a cave system in Samaria was used throughout ancient times as a refuge from invaders, just as described in the Book of Judges. While the researchers believe Israelites fleeing Alexander the Great hid in the cave, a hoard of coins suggests that more recently, Muslims hid from the Mongols who were passing through on their way to Egypt.
El-Janab Cave, also known as the Usarin Cave, is a large cave system located about 11 kilometers south of Shechem (Nablus) in Central Samaria. The caves are classified as a karst system, formed from the dissolution of soluble rocks such as limestone. Archeologists led by Dvir Raviv from Bar Ilan University mapped out the 300-meter-long cave system in 2017-2018. The only access is a roughly 4-meter vertical shaft. Narrow tunnels connect three chambers. The researchers found signs of human use dating back 6,500 years from various periods up until the period of the Mamluks who ruled the region between 1260-1516.
“It seems that the cave’s geographical and morphological features—its location in an open but settled landscape and its complex structure of passages leading to spacious chambers—attracted distinct human activities in several periods,” Raviv wrote. “In some phases, it was used as a refuge in turbulent times.”
In his report, Raviv elaborated on this point:
“These caves are located in deep ravines and rugged terrain, at a considerable distance from the main settlements of the period,° he wrote. °The Iron Age I artifacts were retrieved from the cave’s inner, often difficult-to-access parts. This could support the hypothesis that they were used for refuge during times of trouble rather than for regular or daily functions (e.g., seasonal habitation or shelters for flocks).”
“Notably, these caves are unlike the many others associated with settlement sites, which were easily accessible, sometimes expanded by quarrying, and had large openings, sometimes with door-like designs,” he added. “So, it would appear that el-Janab Cave and maybe also the other caves mentioned above were inhabited by people escaping a raid or an invasion.”
Raviv noted a biblical precedent for this supposition:
The hand of the Midianites prevailed over Yisrael; and because of Midian, the Israelites provided themselves with refuge in the caves and strongholds of the mountains. Judges 6:2
Raviv theorized that, as the Bible described, the cave was used as a refuge.
“We suggest that Iron Age I archeological remains from el-Janab Cave and maybe also the other caves in Samaria should be interpreted as evidence of Israelite refugees, local inhabitants who fled in the wake of a war or a raid, the likes of which prevailed in the Samaria Highlands during the 12th–11th centuries BCE.”
This was reinforced by the pottery fragments.
“Use of closable pots represents storage,” Raviv wrote. “In the context of caves, lidded pots represent refugees. You won’t take a bowl to the cave if you’re fleeing [because everything will spill]. You want to take food, so you take a relatively big pot – not too big, though; you have to carry it. In other work, we noted that no big pithoi [clay vessels] were found in the cave from the Iron Age, but we did find cooking pots with lids.”
Researchers also found evidence that the caves were used as a refuge by Jews fleeing the Samaritan revolt against Alexander the Great in 331 BCE and, perhaps, the wars in the region in 312-301 BCE following his death.
Researchers also discovered 27 coins and pottery from the Late Ayyubid and Early Mamluk periods, dating between the 12th and 14th centuries CE, with one coin minted sometime between 1242 and 1259 CE. The survey also found two drachms minted in the East, at least one in Babylon from about 325 BCE. There were also two bronze coins from the Early Roman period, and 22 Islamic-era coins, all but one made of bronze, from the 13th and 14th centuries.
Reuven Amitai, professor of Islamic History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and chairman of the university’s Library Authority, who was not involved in the research, told Haaretz that these coins indicate that the cave was used by Muslims as a refuge from the Mongol invasion in 1256, adding the disclaimer that this was a theory that was not definitively proven by the evidence.
“Everyone – Muslims, Christians and Jews – would have done their best to stay out of their way, such as by hiding in a cave,” Amitai explained. “Nablus and the surrounding area is known to have been a mainly Muslim area by this time, and long before.”
The Mongols would have passed near the cave while traversing the Jordan Valley on their way to Egypt.