A cross-regional initiative for the study of
monasticism in the late antique Near East
An investigation of the Dipinti Cave, located on the lowest terrace of the southern slope, was launched by the team in November 2012. It is the westernmost of the dwellings on this terrace, approximate coordinates 30°47'34.83" N, 34º46'21.50" E (click here for 1: 50,000 map and NIG coordinates).
The Dipinti Cave prior to excavation. As can be seen in the image, a considerable amount of rubble had accumulated in front of the cave and therefore the initial work of the team involved removing it in order to better expose the front room of the cave. Among the rubble were architectural elements from buildings along the upper terraces that had collapsed as a result of an earthquake in the early seventh century CE. For a useful perspective on seismic activity at the site, see the journal article by A.M. Korjenkov and E. Mazor published in Natural Hazards.
The Dipinti Cave during excavation. With the rubble cleared away, the team proceeded to remove the various layers of dirt and debris in the front room of the cave, notably against the main (northern) wall of this room (visible in the photo), which contained the majority of the dipinti. All of the buckets of excavated material were sieved for potsherds and other small artifacts. To see some of these small finds, click here.
Some features of the main wall (W1) in the front room of the cave, during excavation. The work focused on the eastern side of W1 (to the right of the doorway) and this side was eventually completely cleared to floor level. A small window—subsequently blocked up—was revealed on the eastern side of W1 , approximately 1 m from the upper doorway. Four longer and narrower rectangular windows run along the top of W1—two of these are visible in the photo. Among the dipinti visible in the photo are a Christian cross and a male figure (see below for additional details). The material in front of a second wall (W2), angling out from the easternmost end of W1, was also cleared. This wall is shared with the adjacent cave dwelling.
Western side of the front room of the Dipinti Cave. The buildup on this side (to the left of the doorway) was only partially cleared in order to ascertain whether any dipinti were present on the lower portion of the wall—none were found. However, one notes the presence of another Christian cross on the upper left side of the doorway in W1 (see below for further details).
The doorway area in W1 of front room. This area was excavated to provide easier access into the interior rooms for inspection and documentation purposes. However, some rubble was left in the doorway, largely as a safety measure, since the interior portion of W1 was somewhat unstable due to some missing pieces of stone. The rubble had most likely been placed there intentionally in late antiquity to block up the lower part of the entryway above the threshold, compensating for previously accumulated debris in front of W1, which had raised the floor level and threatened to flow into the interior rooms of the cave.
Notable dipinti in the front room (highlighted in yellow). Although there are quite a few red-painted dipinti in this room, mainly on W1, three are especially important for interpreting the cave and its possible association with Christian monks in the town:
Cross on upper left side of doorway
Cross on upper right side of doorway
Large male figure on upper right side of W1, adjacent to one of the narrow rectangular windows
Drawing by Avraham Hajian and Mark Konin, Israel Antiquities Authority
Drawing of W1 showing the positioning of the Christian crosses on either side of the doorway. Generally speaking, the dipinti do not seem to have been executed as a formal program of wall decoration, especially given the unfinished appearance and haphazard arrangement of some elements. However, there is a fairly clear indication of the intentional placement of these two crosses on either side of the upper doorway. This placement is apparently an attempt at symmetry, although the crosses are of somewhat different design and the cross on the left of the doorway is slightly higher than its counterpart on the right.
The cross to the left of the doorway is a version of the jeweled cross, or crux gemmata; the cross to the right is a Byzantine cross with bifid arms. Framing the doorway thusly can be interpreted as a marker of sacred space, similar to what is seen more formally in the monastic South Church at Avdat. Carved crosses are located on both doorjambs of the main entrance into this church—click here to see them. The use of the red-paint probably also had sacred significance, as this color is associated with divine light. Many of the carved decorative features in the South Church were likewise painted in red.
The large male figure on the upper right side of W1 measures approximately 45 cm in height. Although produced by a rather unskilled hand, the figure exhibits certain features (e.g., pointy beard) that are highly characteristic of portrayals of Saint Theodore, the warrior saint whose cult was maintained by monks installed in the South Church at Avdat. There appears to be a similar representation of Theodore in the Cave of the Saints on the western slope of Avdat—click here for a comparative analysis. Also compare these portrayals of Theodore with a roughly contemporary one on a textile from Byzantine Egypt, held in Harvard University's Arthur M. Sackler Museum. For a study of the warrior saint Theodore and his cult, see the journal article by the late Christopher Walter published in Revue des études byzantines.
Plan of Dipinti Cave, showing the two rooms beyond the front (first) room of the cave. Both of these rooms were investigated by the team and like the front room, the second room had a dipinti-intensive wall, which is indicated by the red x markings on the plan.
Room 2 of the cave, looking south towards the front room. Part of the dipinti-intensive wall (eastern wall) is visible on the left. The southern wall of Room 2 had been reinforced by positioning stone blocks up against the original wall. Based upon the construction technique, this was most likely done in the Byzantine period, when earthquake activity had undoubtedly weakened the original wall. Some of the blocks of this reinforcement wall were missing on the eastern side, adjacent to the exterior doorway, and therefore conservation measures were needed in order to stabilize it. These measures were undertaken by staff of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, who inserted replacement blocks into the empty spaces after the team's period of excavation had concluded.
Dipinti on central part of the eastern wall in Room 2. Numerous crosses were painted on this wall, perhaps signaling the use of this second room as an oratory or prayer space. The eastern wall of oratories served as an orientation point for prayer activities, based on the belief that east is the direction from which Christ will appear in the Last Judgment. Therefore, it is not uncommon to see Christian symbols, figures, and invocations on this wall. The other dipinti on this wall are more difficult to interpret, but the star-like elements may be imitations of the rosette decorations seen in Byzantine churches in the Negev, including the South Church at Avdat.
Plan by Avraham Hajian and Mark Konin, Israel Antiquities Authority
Dipinti at the the northern end of the eastern wall in Room 2. The northern part of the wall protrudes because the southern part was cut 30–35 cm more deeply into the rock—the resulting corner between the northern and southern parts is visible in the photo and it contains one of the four niches found in this wall. Two of the other niches can be seen in the northern part of the wall. The concentration of niches may also reflect the function of the room as a prayer space.
Southern wall in Room 2. To the right of the doorway leading from Room 1 is another large niche, which appears to have been highly decorated. This kind of decorative treatment of niches is commonly seen in monastic settings in Byzantine Egypt, especially in association with spaces that functioned as oratories. Above the niche are traces of dipinti, including possibly a Christian cross.
An important architectural issue arising from the November 2012 investigation concerns the articulation of the Dipinti Cave with a large stone building in front of it. One main wall of this Dipinti Cave Building still stands today and the next stage of the team's investigation involved excavating the rooms behind this surviving wall. The excavation was carried out in July 2016— click here for information.
Doorway in northern wall of Room 2, leading into Room 3. To the left of the doorway at ground level is a feature carved from the rock, which projects from the wall. Just above it are faint traces of red paint, perhaps a dipinto. The architecture of the doorway suggests that Room 3 may have originally functioned as a tomb chamber, since there is a notch on the right side typically associated with the use of a blocking stone. This idea is reinforced by some of the pre-Byzantine material culture found in Room 1, specifically the fragments of the unguentarium and lamp, which can be viewed in a funerary context.
Room 3 of the cave, looking north. This room is of an irregular shape and contains no dipinti, or at least, none survive. A large hole was cut into the eastern wall of this room, most likely in late antiquity, giving access to a disused cistern.