Cave of the Saints

The Cave of the Saints is located on the lowest terrace of the western slope, approximate coordinates 30°47'38.95" N, 34º46'18.45" E (click here for 1: 50,000 map and NIG coordinates). It was initially excavated by Avraham Negev in the 1950s. The team has launched a reinvestigation of the cave to consider the evidence for associating it with monastic activity in the town.     

Cave of the Saints

The Cave of the Saints is actually a sizeable compound consisting of 6 rooms wholly carved out of the rock (Rooms 15-20), 1 room partly carved out of the rock and partly built with stone (Room 14), and 13 rooms built of stone (Rooms 1-13). Of the last, two main building phases can be distinguished. Avraham Negev drew up the plan reproduced here, based upon his initial excavation. Elements not related to the Cave of the Saints, which appeared in Negev's original plan, have been removed for the sake of clarity.

Room 14 of the Cave of the Saints looking towards the vestibule of Room 15. The dipinti, which were concentrated mainly on the eastern wall of the vestibule, have now faded to near invisibility. The modern staircase in the image was installed to better manage the flow of tourist traffic and leads to passageway created in modern times by breaking through the wall of Room 14 into an adjacent cave. 

Adapted from A. Negev, Architecture of Oboda: Final Report (1997), 158, fig. 25

Original entrance into the Cave of the Saints on the western side of Room 5. As the modern staircase suggests, the site is now part of the tourist trail at 'Avdat. The cave derives its name from now faded dipinti in Room 15 that appear to have depicted warrior saints.

The current signage at the site identifying the Cave of the Saints as a "dwelling and storage cave". Although the surviving archaeology certainly bears this out, the identification may need to be viewed in a Christian monastic context, especially in light of the various red-painted dipinti that once adorned the walls of Room 15.  

 Main dipinti
Room 15

The black and white photo (below left), taken by Avraham Negev in the 1950s, shows the numerous dipinti (figures, symbols, texts) on the eastern wall of the vestibule in Room 15; the color photo (below right), taken by the team in 2014, shows only a few faded traces of the dipinti. Most noticeable in the earlier photo are the Christian cross in a circle and the two, large male figures. Based upon the iconography, the figures are most likely representations of warrior saints (see below). One of the Greek texts on the wall is indeed an acclamation to the warrior saint, Theodore. The other texts are mainly requests for divine assistance and are of a very well-known type left by worshippers in churches, monasteries, and other holy places. These dipinti suggest that the space was being used for Christian devotional activities in association with the cults of warrior saints, principally Theodore. Since the martyr cult of Saint Theodore was apparently being perpetuated by monks installed in the South Church, it seems likely that the Cave of the Saints had some connection to monastic life.

Courtesy of Israel Antiquities Authority

A interesting comparison can be made between the male figure that used to be on the upper part of the wall in Room 15 of the Cave of the Saints (below, left) and the male figure on the upper part of the main wall in the front room of the Dipinti Cave (below, right). The figure from the Cave of the Saints is almost certainly a portrayal of a warrior saint, especially in light of the short Greek text on the same wall invoking Saint Theodore. This figure is seen holding a cross in his right hand, and perhaps the raised right arm in the figure in the Dipinti Cave was originally holding something—either a cross or spear, which is common in the artistic portrayals of warrior saints. The rectangular bodies of both figures are apparently simplified representations of the type of military dress often seen in warrior saint iconography. Moreover, the lower portion of the face in the Dipinti Cave figure has a distinctive V shape, which seems to be representing a beard of the kind associated with portrayals of Saint Theodore. It cannot be determined from the photo whether the figure in the Cave of the Saints was meant to have a beard; there seems to be traces of facial hair below the nose, which could have been part of a beard.

Further evidence that the Cave of the Saints was a place of Christian devotional activity can be found in the main portion of Room 15. The photo (below left) shows the southern end of the room. On the ceiling is a carved lamp holder in the shape of a Christian cross with red-painted decoration (detail below right).

Courtesy of Israel Antiquities Authority

The northern part of Room 15 (immediately behind the dipinti-intensive wall in the vestibule) was set off by a vaulted archway decorated with red paint (below left). Two niches were cut high up into the northern and eastern walls, and a bench was installed at the base of the eastern wall. The niche in the eastern wall had cuts in it to accommodate a shelf (below upper right). As in the southern portion of the room, the ceiling contained a lamp holder carved in the shape of a cross with red-painted decoration (below lower right)

That the Cave of the Saints may have been accommodating a sizeable male population is suggested by the installation in Room 11, which appears to have been a large-scale pissoir (photos below).

Area of Detail Photo
Detail Photo

Just below and to the left of the male figure is a Greek dipinto (highlighted in photo), which may provide an important hint about the nature of this compound and its connection to monastic life in the town. The anonymous writer of the dipinto conveys the prayerful wish of being "without envy and unharmed by the evil eye in your house." The word house (oikos) here may be a reference to a monastic-run religious house of the type we know existed in the region, especially to accommodate visiting pilgrims (see P. Nessana 3.79, lines 28, 35, 37, 43, 64, 66, 67 for other examples of the use of oikos in this context). Although Avdat was not a main stop along the pilgrim route between Jerusalem and the Sinai, the demand to accommodate worshippers of the popular martyr cult of Saint Theodore would have given rise to a more regional kind of pilgrim industry. Therefore, the writer of the Greek dipinto may have been a guest within the religious compound of the Cave of the Saints.



 Greek dipinto

                       © 2016 by SCOTT BUCKING

Unless otherwise noted, all photography by SCOTT BUCKING