However, in the opinion of one prominent Israeli archaeologist who is an expert on Ma‘arat ha-Machpelah these steps are almost surely Herodian—to a “95%” certainty.

Then why were the monks lowered by a rope if they could have walked down the stairs? This remains a puzzle, according to the Israeli archaeologist. Apparently the area was filled with dirt that took the monks four days to clean. With the dirt in place, the opening appeared much like a slanted shaft.

Why does the archaeologist think the steps are Herodian? Because they lead to another corridor at the top of the stairs. This upper corridor leads outside the enclosure. The upper corridor is blocked today after a mere half-meter. But enough could be seen to establish that it is of the same Herodian construction as the lower corridor. Therefore, the steps serving as part of this corridor system must also have been Herodian. The upper corridor probably led to an ancient Herodian—or even earlier—entrance to the caves from outside the enclosure.

But how can he know about the upper corridor and its Herodian characteristics? No comment. Apparently, at least one other Israeli, in addition to a 12-year-old named Michal whose entry during the Dayan exploration is described later in this article, has been down in the cave system.

But how did he get inside? As is recounted in the sidebar, even a thin soldier could not get through the shaft. That is why 12-year-old Michal was chosen by Moshe Dayan for the entry. Is there another, unknown opening? Or did someone briefly remove the floor slabs surrounding entry-shaft “B,” thereby exposing a shaft two feet in diameter in contrast to the 11 or 12-inch hole in the floor slab?—Ed.