We had the opportunity on the third day of our trip to crawl through one of the caves used during the Bar Kokhba revolt. The caves were used as the base for Bar Kokhba’s guerrilla army, and eventually were their last hide-out from the Romans.
From 132 to 135 C.E. the Jews in Syria-Palestina conducted a full-scale revolt against the Romans. This is known as the Bar Kokhba revolt because it was led by Shimon Ben Koziba, who was called Bar Kokhba (the son of the Star). This was the second revolt of the Jewish people against the Romans (the first being between 66-75 C.E. ending with the famous suicides at Masada).
Sources such as the Jewish Virtual Library explain the Bar Kokhba revolt in the context of broken promises and mistreatment at the hands of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. This included the building of a Roman temple to Jupiter on the grounds where the Jewish Temple had been and a ban on various religious practises such as circumcision.
In classes where I have previously explored the Bar Kokhba Revolt, it was also framed within the context of a period of messianic expectation. This is closely related to the imperial rule over the Jewish people. The messiah the Jews were hoping and looking for was a political and military leader, one who would help them throw off Roman rule and establish the promised nation of Israel. Bar Kokhba fit this messianic description far better than other figures who emerged around the turn of the millennium, such as Jesus.
This was a highly organized revolt and it posed a great threat to the Roman Empire. One of the sources we read for this day was an article by Werner Eck explores this threat through the movements of military forces of the Roman Empire at this time. Danny, our tour guide, told us that eleven Roman legions were brought to the region to quash the revolt and an entire legion disappeared entirely from records afterwards. It is assumed that this was because it was entirely wiped out by the rebel forces.
I hadn’t realized it, but some of the caves were pre-existing and used by other communities before the revolt. The particular cave we crawled into had rows and rows of little alcoves carved into the walls and around the side of large pillars. Danny told us that this probably meant that the cave served as a columbarium before it was commandeered by the guerrilla forces of the Bar Kokhba Revolt. The top of the cave was probably open to allow birds to fly in and out and the tunnel was an entrance for people to collect birds, eggs, or other useful bird-products. The rebels would have closed it up and carved another tunnel in the rock to create an escape route if the Romans ever came in – or when they tried to smoke the rebels out.
The tunnel we crawled through was tiny, cramped and winding. Some of the group stayed behind because crawling through a tiny, cramped and winding tunnel was not their idea of a good time. Fair enough. I had a moment of fear when I thought I was almost stuck in a turn, but managed to make it both in and out. While crawling through the tunnel we had to navigate sharp turns and rough ground. This made it quite a slow process to go through the tunnels, and there was no space to turn around or pass each other. All these features made sense to me as security measures for the rebels hidden in the caves. By having a tunnel which did not take you straight in to the cave, it would be easier to hear someone coming. Furthermore, to get out of the tunnel into the cave, we had to maneuver from head first crawling to a feet first slide. We slid down from a hole a bit above the ground, using both hands to slide down. I felt that unless you had serious practise, it would be very difficult to get through the caves quickly, and to bring weapons with you. I could imagine an unsuspecting Roman soldier being sent through the tunnel, only to be greeted in the cave with weapons – perhaps one from a stockpile collected by the Jews before the revolt – at his throat as he slid out of the tunnel.
Learning about the Bar Kokhba revolt in class was always interesting – it’s an exciting story about the near-successful overthrow for Roman imperial power by a small underdog community of Jews. It’s also fascinating to learn about the changing meaning and expectations of a messiah for the Jewish people – that the expectation was for a nation-builder, a political and military leader, and Bar Kokhba fit this expectation much better than Jesus did. Learning about Bar Kokhba in the setting of modern-day Israel became interesting for other reasons on this trip.
By being in the tunnels and crawling into one of the caves, we were able to participate in this history. Watching the desert landscape pass us by as we drove to the cave on the bus brought the Revolt into my own life in a way that enabled me to understand it as I never had before.
Throughout our time in Israel, we saw numerous instances of Biblical history and Jewish history being brought into modern life in Israel and the Bar Kokhba Revolt was no exception. Hearing the way our guide, Danny, spoke about Bar Kokhba, seeing the coins that were minted during the revolt at the Israel Museum and looking at the shekels in my wallet and recognizing similar designs, I gained some insight into what the Bar Kokhba Revolt means to Jewish people and Israeli statehood and identity.
Perhaps it is because the narrative of the Bar Kokhba Revolt could be understood to closely reflect the way in which the State of Israel was established. It is part of a long history of Jewish people living under the territorial rule of an other and struggling – often violently – to establish their own rule. The Bar Kokhba Revolt failed, but its coinage, which Donald Ariel argues was minted on the Temple Mount itself, reflects the ideas behind the revolt. One silver shekel reads: “Year 2, Shekel of Israel” and on the other side “Jerusalem the Holy.” The money of modern day Israel is still called the shekel and is itself tied to this history. The establishment of the State of Israel is, in this line of thought, almost understood as a fulfillment of the messianic leadership of Bar Kokhba in the 2nd Century C.E.
This was an early experience on the trip that showed us a glimpse of how the history and the present of Israel and of the Jewish people are all intrinsically woven together and how very ancient history influences how the day to day of modern life is lived.