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The Third Line of Defense

Ancient Hideaways in the Galilee

 By Yinon Shivtiel

 (ERETZ no 93. April-May 2004)

 The village of Jish is a serene Christian Arab village nestled in the pastoral landscape of the Upper Galilee. It is famous for its hospitality, its excellent restaurants specializing in Middle Eastern cuisine, and its willingness to permit hikers exploring the nearby riverbed to wander through the remains of the ancient synagogue and the old fig and olive groves in the area.

Those interested in seeing the other Jewish antiquities found in the village can visit the impressive mausoleum with a stone door that still turns on its original hinge. Located at the highest point of the western edge of the village, it is easily reached by car by driving upward in the direction of the Catholic church. About 300 meters before the church, there is a turnoff into the courtyard of a private home, beneath which is the mausoleum.

The remains of an additional synagogue, including interesting architectural elements, can be found in the vicinity of the church.

Gischala and the Great Revolt

Nearly 2,000 years ago, Jish was the site of the Jewish village of Gush Halav, better known as Gischala, the last bastion of the Jews in the Great Revolt against the Romans.

The residents of Gischala were reputed to be outstanding farmers and their olive oil was famous for both its quantity and its quality. A talmudic anecdote relates that the residents of a city in Lebanon sent an agent to Jerusalem to purchase olive oil. The Jerusalem residents sent him to Tyre, whereupon he was advised to go to Gischala. In Gischala, he purchased olive oil that more than satisfied the people who had ordered it.

In 66 CE, tension between the Jews and the Gentiles in the Land of Israel came to a head. The economic and social difficulties, the fanatical fervor, and the anti-religious persecution led thousands of Jews to attack their Gentile neighbors throughout the land. The Roman procurator, Gessius Florus, quickly called for assistance and some 60,000 Roman soldiers under the command of the top-ranking officers in the Roman army, Vespasian and his son Titus, came to quell what became known as the Great Revolt.

The Jewish leadership in Jerusalem understood that the Roman legions would arrive by way of the Galilee, either by crossing through Syria or by sailing into the port of Acre. Accordingly, they sent Yosef ben Mattityahu to prepare the Galilee for the revolt. He was about 30 years old at the time and had no military experience, but was known to be a skilled diplomat and was a member of an aristocratic family of the priestly class.

The Jews, as Yosef had expected, were unable to halt the Roman army, and he gave himself up to the Romans following a long siege at Yodfat, better known as Jotapata. His diplomatic skills not only saved his life but also won him a position as a historian, best known by his adopted name, Josephus Flavius. Many of his accounts, especially his precise geographic descriptions, are used as primary sources by researchers to this day.

His writings depict the work on fortifications in preparation for the revolt, including those in Gischala. He relates that a wall was built to protect Gischala by Josephus Flavius’s rival for the leadership of the revolt in the Galilee, Yohanan (John) ben Levi, a resident of the village.

 Josephus’s dislike for him is clear in his writings. He describes Yohanan as the leader of a gang of 400 thieves whose only interest was in enriching himself and weaving conspiracies against the revolt’s official leader, Josephus.

Gischala was the Jews’ last stronghold in the Galilee. According to Josephus, Titus went there and offered to cut a deal with its defenders: if they surrendered, he would not destroy the village or harm its inhabitants. Yohanan ben Levi, the city’s commander, promised Titus he would surrender, but asked that the villagers be left alone until after the end of the Sabbath. Titus agreed and retreated with his soldiers to Kadesh. On the night of the Sabbath, Yohanan fled with his troops and with many of the villagers. Their journey ended many days later in Jerusalem, with the group sustaining considerable losses.

It would appear that we could accept Josephus’s description of Yohanan’s behavior as a leader and a man, as well as his description of the wall, which was seemingly the only defense prepared against the onslaught of the enemy. However, other evidence in the vicinity, as well as a few slips of the pen by Josephus, show that the line of defense in Gischala and in most of the other Jewish communities in the Galilee was not confined to fortifications and cunning.

The Galilee communities that welcomed Josephus about seven months before the outbreak of the revolt had already prepared an additional tactic: refuge caves and hidden passageways, the latter similar to those found in the Judean lowlands. The hidden passageways in the Galilee may predate most of those in the Judaean lowlands, which are attributed to the Bar Kochba rebellion (though it may yet be discovered that the Galilee also prepared itself for the Bar Kochba rebellion).

 The Cave in the Courtyard

In recent years, the author of this article and other people have found dozens of hidden caves in the Galilee. Most of them are located underneath the courtyards of private homes in Arab villages. Some were found by chance in the course of earthworks and others were reported to us only after the residents were convinced that no harm would come to them if the caves’ existence was revealed.

We divided the caves into two categories: refuge caves and hidden passageways. The refuge caves are located atop high cliffs, which can be reached only by rappelling and rope-climbing. They have not yet been exhaustively studied since they are in sites designated as nature reserves. The hidden passageways are holes that were dug deep in the ground and have winding, mazelike shapes.

After intensive research and much combing of the area, accompanied by repeated reading of Josephus Flavius’s writings, a network of hidden passageways was recently discovered in Second Temple-period Gischala.

Josephus makes many brief references to caves in which Jews hid during the Great Revolt. In describing the end of the battle at Jotapata, he wrote, “In the coming days, they investigated the hiding places and slaughtered the people hiding in tunnels and caves.” After the battle, he wrote, the Romans found him hiding in a deep pit connected to a large cave, not visible to anyone standing above ground; in that cave, he discovered 40 people who had also been hiding.

In June 2002, I was invited to a house in Jish. At the entrance to the house, my hosts opened a wooden covering, revealing the entrance to a cave. I went into the cave and found myself crawling through a hewn passageway amazingly similar to those found in the Judean lowlands. It was about 25 meters long and other passageways branched off

from it. Large parts of the passageway were blocked by soil that had accumulated over the centuries.

Due to our hosts’ sensitivities, we refrained from mapping the passageway and made do with taking a few pictures. We know of at least 15 other homes in Jish under which hidden passageways exist.

In August 2002, we found an extremely interesting network of hidden passageways northeast of the ancient synagogue in the riverbed of Nahal Gush Halav. It has two openings, one above the other, both of them very difficult to enter.

The lower opening, hidden behind tangled, thorny vegetation, leads to a main tunnel-like hole with two more branching off from it. The upper opening leads to one main tunnel. Both openings were a result of natural processes of erosion, but the tunnels behind them bear signs of hewing. At this stage, it is difficult to determine if humans indeed prepared them specially or if the tunnels are a natural phenomenon that they simply utilized.

With the assistance of a crew from the Cave Research Center, we crawled through the lower tunnel in order to map it, and found that it is 27 meters long and cuts through to the other side of the cliff, leading directly to one of the springs whose water flows into Nahal Gush Halav. A preliminary map of this tunnel is printed above, but readers are strongly advised to stay out of it, since both tunnels are full of disease-bearing ticks.

The tunnels reveal that the defenders of Gischala not only surrounded the village with a fortified wall, but also prepared hidden passageways in the event of danger, which they could reach from a secret opening dug in their homes. In addition, there were also secret passageways that ran under the wall to the spring. This route would provide them with access to water during a siege, and perhaps even allow them to obtain food from people outside the village.

Josephus Flavius describes the use of this type of stratagem during the siege of Jotapata. He writes, “Via a narrow crevice that was difficult to traverse in the western part of the valley where the Romans did not look, he sent letters to Jews in distant places and received gifts from them, until he had many and various foods that the residents were already lacking.”

Could Titus have been the only one to be surprised by Yohanan ben Levi’s order to hastily abandon Gischala? Could the residents themselves have been equally surprised and therefore did not have time to use the cave hideaways that they had prepared? Thus the Romans conquered the last Jewish community in the Galilee that obstructed their path to Jerusalem.


The existence of the secret caves and passageways in Jish and other parts of the Galilee, signs of which are uncovered from time to time, strengthens the conjecture that most of the preparations made by the Jews of the Galilee for the Great Revolt have yet to be revealed. As noted, the hidden passageways in the Galilee are strikingly similar to those in the Judean lowlands that are attributed to the Bar Kochba rebellion.

We should not rule out the possibility that the Jews of the Galilee, some 60 years after the Great Revolt, in the tumultuous days of the Bar Kochba rebellion, also planned to fight the Romans. Additional research is needed to obtain a definitive answer to this question.

 Yinon Shivtiel is a lecturer at Safed College. He researches the history of the caves in the Galilee and is a member of the staff of the Israel Cave Research Center.




Entrance to the cave at Jish


Inside a hidden passageways in the cave


Entrance to the Jewish mausoleum in Jish


Working in the cave