CAVES IN PALESTINE:
By "me'arah" () the Hebrew designates natural caves. The mountains of Palestine, which for the greater part are formations of soft limestone, abound in natural caves and grottoes. Most of these have developed from an initial fissure or crack in the rock, which, widening, in time became the channel of a subterranean stream. But as the latter changed its bed in the course of years, a large, dry, hollow passageway was finally left. In many places the skill of man has completed the work of nature. This has been the case more particularly east of the Jordan, and especially in the Hauran. In the latter district, artificial caves are very numerous (see Wetzstein, "Reisebericht über Hauran und Trachonitis," pp. 22, 44 et seq., Berlin, 1860).Caves in Prehistoric Times.
These caves are historically of the highest interest. Undoubtedly they served for the original habitationsof prehistoric man. In the cave where the Nahr-al-Kabir takes its rise, in the grottocs at the bridge across the river near its mouth, and again in the Ferraja grotto in the district of Kesrawan, etc., flint knives, arrow-heads, and fragments of pottery have been found, of essentially the same kind as those unearthed in Europe; while the remains of animals are largely of species that are now extinct or have disappeared from the region. This circumstance points to a time when the climatic conditions were evidently different from those now prevailing; it presupposes a temperate, if not a semi-arctic, climate. Formerly it was the common opinion that the entire people of the Horites, who, anterior to and contemporaneously with the Edomites, inhabited the mountain of Seir (Deut. ii. 12, 22; Gen. xxxvi. 20), were troglodytes, their name being connected with "ḥur" (hole, cave). It is not probable, however, that this may be applied to a whole people, and it is certainly more correct to identify , "Ḥori," with the Egyptian "Haru," the designation of southern Syria.Caves in Historic Times.
Caves were used: (a) as dwellings, and (b) as burial-places. (a) Even in historic periods, long after houses had become the common abodes, caves served, especially in time of war, as places of refuge or as natural fortresses (compare Josh. x. 16 et seq.; Judges vi. 2; I Sam. xiii. 6; Ezek. xxxiii. 27; I Mace. i. 56). Robbers made them their hiding-places; shepherds used them for folds, and as dwellings when the flock was at large; and travelers rested in them at night.
(b) The custom of using the caves for burial-places dates from the earliest times. The entrance was closed with large stones in order to protect the bodies against men and animals. Perhaps the best known of these burial-places is the Machpelah cave at Hebron, which Abraham bought from the inhabitants for a burial-plot for himself and his family (Gen. xxiii.). The descendants of David had their plot in the caves on Zion. Even to-day a large number of vaults in the rocks around Jerusalem show how wide-spread was this custom among the ancient inhabitants of Jerusalem (see Burial).Important Caves in the Bible.
Tradition locates the so-called Machpelah cave in the eastern part of the present Hebron, on the edge of the valley, and the mosque which now stands there is supposed to enclose it. It is certain that this refers to a holy spot of great antiquity, whose associations antedate Josephus (compare Buhl, "Geographie des Alten Palästina," p. 161). There is some difficulty in reconciling the Machpelah tradition with that of the Mamre oaks at Hebron, and it is not improbable that these two traditions date from different epochs (ib. pp. 160 et seq.).
The cave of Makkedah (Josh. x. 16 et seq.), where five kings are said to have hidden in the days of Joshua, is probably identical with one of the caves near the village Al-mughar, southwest of Ekron. That of En-gedi, where the encounter between Saul and David occurred (I Sam. xxiv.), can not be definitely located. On the old road northwest of Engedi (I Sam. xxiv. 2) several caves may be seen today; e.g., Magharat al-Nasraniyyah and Magharat al-Saḳf. It is probable that the cave of Adullam () owes its name to a scribal error, the true reading of the passage, I Sam. xxii. 1, 4 being or (compare I Sam. xxii. 1, 4 and II Sam. xxiii. 13, 14).