Carved 43 feet deep into the bedrock of the grounds of the St. Étienne Monastery, this complex is typical of many First Temple period tomb caves throughout the kingdom of Judah: a central entrance chamber is surrounded by burial chambers; most of the burial chambers (3, 4, 5, 8 on the plan above) have benches lining three of the walls; generally, horseshoe-shaped headrests are positioned on the benches (3, 4, 5, 6); and under each right-hand bench, a hollowed out area for gathered bones extends under the left-hand bench of the next room (3, 4, 5, 6).
Although typical of eighth- to seventh-century B.C. tombs, this complex and Cave Complex 2 as well also have very unusual architectural and decorative features. In both complexes, the first room off the right wall of the entrance chamber is larger than the other chambers and has no burial benches. Here the body may have been prepared for burial, or the family may have gathered to perform a funeral.
Carved into the stone walls of the large entrance rooms of both complexes and some of the burial chambers are door frames, recessed panels and ceiling cornices, evidence that these tomb complexes were hewn by a wealthy or noble family. Some of these features appear in the photo above, framed by the doorway to the entrance chamber of Cave Complex 1.
On a rock-hewn threshold (above), just inside the entrance chamber of Cave Complex 1 at St. Étienne’s Monastery, two three-quarter-circle, carved sockets once held the hinges of a double door. A similar doorway was constructed in the eighth to seventh centuries B.C. in the palace of the Assyrian kings at Calah (Biblical Nimrud) and at the other Assyrian capitals. An artist’s reconstruction (below) shows the Nimrud entry threshold with large sockets that originally held hinges for immense wooden doors.
In the St. Étienne tomb, pushing open the double doors and stepping across the threshold brought the visitor into a large, almost square chamber with a ten-foot-high ceiling. In the photo below, five of the six doorways in the room are visible; each one leads to a burial chamber. Such a configuration of entrance chamber and surrounding burial chambers is typical of First Temple period (eighth to early sixth centuries B.C.) burial caves.
Built on a grand scale—the entrance room alone measures 17 feet by 14 feet—the tomb was decorated with raised door frames, cornices and sunken panels, all carved into the stone walls. Gabriel Barkay, an Israeli archaeologist who studied the St. Étienne tombs, shows a Dominican priest a cornice of two horizontal strips that runs along the entrance room’s walls where they meet the ceiling. Between the two doors on the wall facing the entrance to the complex is a sunken panel.
We read of such decoration in palaces and in Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, described as “paneled…with beams and planks of cedar” in 1 Kings 6:9, but because no palaces or any buildings at all from Iron Age II have been found with preserved walls, we had no idea until now how these decorations looked.
This 2,700-year old St. Étienne burial cave—with its stone walls mimicking the wooden trim once used on elegant buildings for the living (artist’s reconstruction, below)—shows us how some of the decorative elements in Solomon’s Temple may have looked.
Cave Complex 1 revealed several unique features in addition to the doorway sockets. An empty pit was discovered in the floor of the entrance chamber. Here, according to the report published by the tomb’s 19th-century excavators, a decorated metal box was buried. Now lost, this box may have held a foundation deposit set into the tomb’s entrance by its original builders. Finally, deep in the hillside, a special inner chamber of three sarcophagi was hewn, where the founders of the family were probably interred. The tomb complex was apparently designed to lead those who entered to this important, innermost chamber.
Most elaborate of the burial chambers in Cave Complex 1, two adjoining rooms, one behind the other (6 and 7 on the plan), are positioned nearly on a straight line of sight with the complex’s entrance doorway. The innermost chamber with its unique features probably held the revered remains of the family matriarchs and patriarchs.
Burial benches with horseshoe-shaped headrests line two sides of the chamber. Under the bench on the right of the photo above, a hollowed-out cavity, called a repository, holds bones that the ancients had collected from the benches each time a new generation was to be buried. It’s very likely that some of these bones are original burials from the First Temple period. With the discovery of these repositories we can understand such Biblical phrases as “slept with his fathers” and “gathered unto their fathers.”
Unlike other burial chambers in Cave Complex 1, which have three benches, this room has only two benches, and they are larger than the others. This burial chamber is also distinguished by its high ceiling and by the double cornice, which can be seen clearly at the juncture of walls and ceiling.
Steps lead up to the doorway in the far wall, opening into another, candlelit burial room (photo, above). In this innermost chamber of the St. Étienne burial caves, also seen, instead of benches, three rock-hewn coffins, or sarcophagi, were cut from the rock. A double cornice crowns the walls. The room has no repository; thus, archaeologists surmise that the family’s leaders were hid to rest here, not to be moved. But at some point, perhaps in the Byzantine period, the bones were removed. The lids of the sarcophagi are missing, although the ledge on the wall that held them in piece is still visible.