Cave Where Generations Hid for 6,000 Years Found in West Bank
Cave Where Generations Hid for 6,000 Years Found in West Bank
Inside el-Janab Cave near Nablus, archaeologists have found first-ever solid evidence of Muslims fleeing Mongol forces sweeping through the Levant in 1260
February 09th, 15PM February 09th, 15PM
For the first time, archaeologists have found evidence substantiating the historical accounts of terrified Muslim refugees fleeing Mongol forces riding into what is today Israel, as the attackers headed for Egypt in the 13th century.
That quest failed, though the Mongols did seize Levantine coastal cities as far south as Gaza and sent forays into the Galilee before being defeated there by the Mamluks in the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260. The Mamluks’ victory, which surprised everybody, ended the Mongols’ Middle Eastern ambitions for the time being.
The evidence that the locals really did go scurrying is a coin found in a cave that apparently served as a haven from marauders for as long as 6,000 years. The artifact was one of 27 coins found in the cave, along with pottery, during a survey of el-Janab (or al-Janab) Cave in the West Bank.
The survey was published by Dvir Raviv of Bar-Ilan University, Rafael Lewis and colleagues in the Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology, and an analysis of the coins was published in the journal Israel Numismatic Research.
The cave was explored from 2014 to 2017 as a joint southern Samaria survey project by Bar-Ilan and Ariel universities and Israel’s Staff Officer for Archaeology in Judea and Samaria, in cooperation with the Israel Cave Research Center of Hebrew University.
Down the fig tree
El-Janab lies about 11 kilometers (6.8 miles) south of Nablus as the bird flies, or 42 kilometers by car. The rocky hills around the cave are terraced for agriculture.
Naturally carved out of the limestone bedrock over eons near the village of Usarin, the hillside cave is spacious, but the only way to get in and out is a roughly 4-meter vertical shaft.
You can get in there by shinnying down a fig tree growing from the cave floor, Raviv says. How refugees fleeing the foe accessed it in antiquity is unclear. Maybe there was a tree then too, or a ladder. Or ropes. Inside, the cave has three main chambers connected by narrow passages, some of which require crawling.
Although the region has been settled since time immemorial, the cave’s inconvenient access, the unpleasantly damp interior, the location of the artifacts mostly in the pitch black, the hard-to-reach inner chambers, and the absence of furnishings suggest that el-Janab served mainly as a place where people fleeing attackers would scurry.
The earliest items found in the survey date to the Late Chalcolithic 6,500 years ago, and the latest are from the period of the Mamluks, who ruled this land from Egypt between 1260 and 1516 C.E. It’s not hard to imagine knowledge of this refuge passing from generation to generation, Lewis says.
But, based on pottery and coinage, it’s clear that the place was mainly used during three periods: the late Persian/early Hellenistic, the Early Roman, and the late Ayyubid/early Mamluk period, which is where the Mongols enter the story.
In the late Persian/early Hellenistic period, the cave may have sheltered as many as dozens of people, based on the plethora of pots and their distribution throughout the space. These folks would have been fleeing the Samaritan revolt against Alexander the Great in 331 B.C.E. and/or the wars from 312 to 301 B.C.E. following Alexander’s death.
The Early Roman finds are thought to have been brought by Jews during the First Jewish Revolt, the Bar Kochba Revolt, or both.
The key finds that speak of Muslims fleeing the Mongols and seeking shelter in el-Janab are coins and pottery from the Late Ayyubid and Early Mamluk periods, dating between the 12th and 14th centuries C.E., with one coin minted some time between 1242 and 1259 C.E., the year before the Mongols arrived.
The suggestion that one of the small coin hoards found in the cave was hidden (and forgotten) due to the Mongol raiders in the Nablus area is reasonable, albeit unprovable, says 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.
Enter the Mongols
Until now, the locals’ terror as the Mongols advanced in the Levant in the mid-13th century was known only from histories, Lewis notes.
What in the world were the Mongols doing all the way over here? After all, a monumental struggle for the Holy Land was going on between the Muslims and the Crusaders, who, after being crushed in the Battle of Hattin in 1187, had returned to regale us with their Third Crusade. (The highland region was controlled by the Ayyubids and the coast was part of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, Lewis explains.)
“The heavens had given Chinggis/Genghis Khan and his family a mandate to unite the Mongols, then all the nomads of the Eurasian Steppe, and finally to conquer the world,” Amitai explains in an email. “And they were doing a pretty good job of it.”
The Mongols entrenched an administration system in Syria and planned to ride via the Levant into Egypt with its rich agriculture (meaning lots of potential taxes and other tribute), Amitai says. The Mongols’ Armenian Christian allies (or vassals, rather) would have coveted the Holy Land, and the fact that some Mongols were Christianized may have whetted their interest.
Christianity among the Mongols would not have reassured anybody, despite reports that here and there they spared Christians and Jews; for instance, in Baghdad and Aleppo. Given their aggression in general, their earlier invasions of Poland and Hungary in 1241 – where they completely destroyed any opposition – and their belligerent letters to the pope and other rulers in Europe, the Crusader leaders in Acre in 1260 would not have been sanguine, Amitai says.
By the way, Hulegu’s wife Dokuz Hatun was a Nestorian Christian but he himself was a shamanist, maybe with some attachment to Buddhism, Amitai says.
“Everyone – Muslims, Christians and Jews – would have done their best to stay out of their way, such as by hiding in a cave,” he adds. “Nablus and the surrounding area is known to have been a mainly Muslim area by this time, and long before.”
So, in 1258, Mongol warriors under Hulegu rolled over Baghdad, and, reportedly assisted by Christian mercenaries from central Europe, rode into Syria, thence to the coast of Lebanon and Israel. The raiders forayed inland, reaching Samaria – today the northern part of the West Bank – and possibly even Jerusalem, Raviv and Lewis of Bar-Ilan University say.
At a later stage, the Christian world tried to reach an alliance with the Mongols in the Near East. Despite the 15 Mongol delegations between 1262 and 1310, nothing ever came of this idea, Amitai adds.
And thus a coin from 1259 was found in the cave that, Raviv notes, had a small spring inside. The cave was also conveniently located on the Mongols’ route to the Jordan Valley. And probably in the course of their raids, one route they took passed just a few kilometers from the cave where people were quaking – and losing their coins in the dark.
You can’t schlep a bowl while you’re fleeing
Once you clamber down the shaft, you’ll see two chambers to the left and two to the right. The coins were found chiefly in the inner chambers.
Coinage is believed to have emerged around 2,600 years ago in Lydia in what is now western Turkey. This renders the fourth-century-B.C.E. Phoenician half shekel featuring a war-galley on one side, found in the cave, an early example of currency.
The survey also found two drachms minted in the East, at least one of them in Babylon from about 325 B.C.E. 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.
“For the 14th century it is only possible to point to general political instability,” Raviv and the team say in their paper, but regarding the 13th century collection, there’s ample evidence of fighting in the central hill country. The region was already in turmoil, and then the Mongols added to the stew – until the fateful battle they lost at Ain Jalut on September 3, 1260.
“Nobody thought the Mamluks could win at Ain Jalut, especially after the Mongols conquered Baghdad,” Lewis says. Which begs the question of why the mighty Mongols did lose.
The answer boils down to intra-Mongol power struggles. Hulegu indeed advanced toward Palestine from Syria heading a major force in early 1260, but he got no further south than Aleppo before heading home with most of his force. He left behind a garrison to control Syria and the Levant until he could return and revive his ambition to conquer Egypt.
Why did he do this? “Some modern scholars have suggested logistical reasons: Syria just didn’t have enough pastureland for an army composed of maybe 100,000 cavalrymen,” Amitai says.
But mainly, the Great Khan Mongke, Hulegu’s brother, died, triggering a succession struggle pitting Hulegu against his cousins, leaders of the Mongol entity in southern Russia and the Ukraine – what would be later known as the Golden Horde. And indeed an internecine battle over the Great Khanship ensued in the winter of 1261-2 in Azerbaijan.
Taking perhaps 100,000 men with him, Hulegu left behind only about 10,000 to 16,000 fighters in the Levant. If he hadn’t, history would probably look quite different, Lewis surmises.
Note that the el-Janab may have had uses in addition to quailing in quiet as armed hordes rode by. It may have been a place for short habitation too, such as secret rituals.
Raviv stresses that all we know is where the cave is, how it’s structured and how hard it is to access parts where finds were made. Archaeologists also know of other caves that seem to have been used for ritual purposes in prehistory, like the Nahal Heimar cave in the southern Judean Desert, where stone masks were found from the Neolithic period.
Of course we don’t know what people were doing with stone masks 9,000 years ago, and el-Janab is more characterized by pottery: storage pots and cooking pots. With lids.
“Use of closable pots represents storage,” Raviv says. “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.”
As the Mongols bore down, probably anyone with means escaped Samaria to Egypt. Maybe some Muslims sought shelter under the wing of the Crusaders, and those short of means probably hid in places like el-Janab. But, Lewis points out, the Mamluks not only made history in causing the Mongols to retreat: they showed that if you overcome your greatest fears, you can overcome your enemies.