The Secret in the Cliffs: The Discovery of the Bar Kochba Letters

Chief of Operations during the Israel War of Independence in 1948, and later Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, YIGAEL is today the ranking archaeologist on the staff of the Hebrew University. He has made many important discoveries in the Judean Desert and cares. His latest report has been edited and abridged for us by Dr. Carl C. Seltzer of the Peabody Museum, Harvard University.

AN ERA in history shrouded in legend for more than eighteen hundred years is now coming to life through the efforts of modern archaeologists in a country rich with the remains of all ages and all peoples, Israel. The revolt in 132 C.E. of Bar Kochba, leader of the Jewish, fighters against Roman rule in Palestine, has through the centuries been an inspiring episode in the life of the Jewish people and of tantalizing interest to historians. The revolt of Bar Kochba’s “freedom fighters” took place at a crucial time, when the might of Rome was threatened by fiercely fought, though largely unsuccessful, national rebellions. But information about this Jewish rebel has been extraordinarily scanty and limited to references in the Talmudic literature, in the writings of Church fathers, and in inscriptions on ancient coins. Only the fact that there was a revolt under the leadership of Bar Kochba and its duration seemed firmly established. Now, however, our recent archaeological findings in the Judean Desert give dramatic illumination of the figure of Bar Kochba, his activities, and the life of the times.

What follows is a chronological account of the discoveries made in 1960 and 1961 of Bar Kochba documents and other materials found in a large cave in Nahal Hever near En-Gedi, on the western bank of the Dead Sea.

Our explorations were brought about by earlier reports of certain fragmentary finds made by Bedouins in a cave of Nahal Tze‘elim, north of Massada, in Israeli territory. After confirmation of these reports had been obtained by Dr. Y. Aharoni in preliminary survey missions, we decided to launch a major expedition into the area. The expedition was carried out by various agencies — the Hebrew University, the Israel Exploration Society, the Government Antiquities Department, and the Israel Defense Forces. The aid of the Army was indispensable in traversing the wild and desolate terrain, in providing communications, and in reconnaissance. The preparations resembled the planning of a complex military operation, the enemy being the rugged mountains and steep precipices of the Judean Desert.

Planned and organized with the special assistance of Yosef Aviram, the honorary secretary of the Exploration Society, the expedition set out on its task on March 23, 1960. After preliminary photographs of the sheer cliffs overhanging the Dead Sea were made from a helicopter, the arduous trip from Beersheba through the desert and mountain areas to the caves near En-Gedi was undertaken and completed by our convoy, consisting of squads of students, kibbutz members, scouts, army engineers, and amateur and professional archaeologists.

A squad under my direction first explored a cave cut into the cliffs of Nahal Arugot, which we dubbed “Cave of the Vulture” because of the large nest of vultures at its entrance. While this particular cave yielded nothing in the way of papyri fragments or materials, nevertheless it was of great value to us, for we learned how difficult was a descent down the 300-foot wall of a steep cliff, and how cautious one must be. All of the cliffs in this area, composed of loose stones and brittle rock, made exploring extremely dangerous. Any false step might be followed by a tremendous avalanche, and thus the climber had to be suspended by ropes in front of a crevice in the rock and hurl himself inside at exactly the right moment.

THE FIRST SIGNS OF BAR KOCHBA

Our first real discovery was made by another squad, exploring the large cave of Nahal Hever in the side of a cliff, on top of which still could be seen the ruins of a Roman camp, two thousand years old. This cave (to be called the “Cave of Letters”), 150 yards in depth, was made up of three vaults, each of which could be reached only by crawling through rocky gaps on one’s stomach. In the last of the three bat-infested chambers cut into the side of the rock, we found a collection of baskets overflowing with human skulls, and layers of large mats covering human bones.

It was a grim sight. Before us were the remains of Bar Kochba’s fighters, buried in this strange manner. How did they die? Perhaps from famine or thirst, with Roman soldiers besieging them from above. Further clues we found consisted of a small coin inscribed with the words “Leherut Yerushalayim” (“For the freedom of Jerusalem”) and an almost intact arrow, its triangular head still embedded in a stick.

Since the coin and arrow led us to believe that other small metallic objects might still be buried in the cave, we took advantage of the use of a mine detector offered by the Israel Defense Forces. The plan was to start from where the coin had been found and gradually to work through all the chambers.

I had been inside the cave for a few hours when a worker suddenly appeared and asked me to come immediately. In the first chamber, about fifty feet from the entrance, along the left wall, the mine detector was reacting violently. Curiously enough, there was no sign of metal. The only thing visible was the top of a woven object embedded in the earth at a depth of about twenty inches. After about thirty minutes of work the object began to take on the appearance of a basket, of the type in which the skulls had been placed in the inner chamber.

When the debris had been cleared, we saw that the basket was on its side, both handles tied together with a rope. I untied the knot and inserted my hand. Inside I found a copper jug, completely intact, virtually in pristine condition. One surprise followed another. I removed large and small jugs, some of them engraved near the handles with heads of birds, others with palmlike motifs. Out came three incense shovels of varying sizes. It was clear that we had before us cult objects.

Following the shovels came a kind of pan (Latin, patera), a fine work of craftsmanship, engraved with a ram’s head; with the handle it resembled the Roman battering-ram. Next I drew out a five-pronged key typical of the Roman period, then two large bowls, one wondrously preserved.

The question immediately presented itself, What was a cache of this nature doing in the cave? The answer was apparent. It is known that Roman legions went into battle carrying all the equipment needed for ritual purposes. But I had also noticed that some of the figures of Roman deities stamped on the handles appeared to have been deliberately rubbed out and filed to a point where the faces were deeply scratched. What we had found, then, was possibly booty taken from a Roman camp by Bar Kochba’s soldiers before they were forced to flee to the caves. During this time, the faces of the engraved gods were damaged.

MANUSCRIPTS ARE FOUND

Following a day of rest, we returned to work with renewed vigor. An hour later one of the workmen shouted to me, “Yigael, come see what I found!” Resting on the trembling palm of his hand was a fragment of a scroll. The fragment was small, made of nicely worked animal hide, but inferior in quality to parchment. The writing was exceptionally clear, and I began to read, “Yagur be‘ohlekha,” then, “ Tamim ufo’el tzedek.” A worker cried out, “Psalms!”, and another added, “Chapter 15!”

As the verses were arranged in regular cadence, and as the words “Mikhtam le-David” (the opening of Chapter 16) were just visible at the bottom, it was a simple matter to reconstruct the original width of the scroll. From the type of script employed, I would date this manuscript between the Qumram Scrolls and the Bar Kochba period — in other words, the second half of the first century C.E. At last, a Hebrew fragment from the Book of Books!

Toward noon of the same day, one of the workers called me into the innermost cave. “Yoram’s down there, and he’s found something!” When I had struggled down a slit next to the wall for about six or eight feet, I saw Yoram below me, compressed into a tiny enclosure. At his feet was a large, ripped goatskin water bottle. Since it was so fragile, we decided to empty it of its contents and then hoist it to prevent disintegration.

When we examined the contents, we found to our astonishment all manner of goods — colored raw wood, beads, a bone spoon, and numerous smaller packages, which contained such things as a salt stone, a peppercorn, and other materials which we could not immediately identify. Clearly, we had before us some woman’s carefully concealed treasures. Yoram then handed up a small package tied with cords. I looked at the bundle. Incredible! It was a collection of papyri tied with two cords, one thick and one thin. Between the papyri I made out slots of thin wood containing written inscriptions.

I dared not breathe aloud the hope of having found important documents, but carefully placed the bundle in my kit with the copper cult objects. The matter of the papyri would have to await our return home. We finished with the cave and broke camp.

On returning to Jerusalem I began the process of checking the contents of the packet. Clearly visible at the end of the wooden slats were letters in cursive script. I stared in amazement as I read, “Shimon Bar Kosebah hannasi al Yisrael” (“Shimon Bar Kosebah, Prince over Israel”). After I had shared this find with my excited colleagues, Professors Avigad and Mazar, and Aviram, it was decided not to make any announcement until all the papyri were opened.

The delicate task of opening the packet and unrolling the papyri was assigned to Professor James Biberkraut, the man who had painstakingly unfolded the Dead Sea Scrolls. His wife, Helena, photographed each step of the operation and all elements in the packet. The four slats, when joined together, constituted a single board, 17.5 by 7.5 centimeters, covered with two columns of writing totaling seventeen lines. It was an order from “Shimon Bar Kosebah” to “Yehonatan and Masabala” to confiscate the wheat of one Tahnun Bar Yishmael and send it to him (Bar Kochba) under guard, and to deal with the people of Teqoah, in the Desert of Judea. Each order carried with it a threat of punishment. Third, the two men were ordered to take prisoner one Yeshua Bar Tadmoraya and send him to Bar Kochba. The order was signed by Shmuel Bar Ami, who we assume served as a Bar Kochba adjutant.

THE PAPYRI

The unfolding of the papyri by the Biberkrauts involved the most meticulous procedures, and was accomplished on four different dates. When the task was completed, we had a total of fifteen documents — four in Hebrew, nine in Aramaic, two in Greek — all letters from Bar Kochba, most in an excellent state of preservation.

One of the initial group, of four papyri, contained explicit instructions commanding Yehonatan Bar Be’ayan to do whatever Elisha commands. Shimon goes into no details, perhaps because the matter was secret, but we learn from this letter the nature of the chain of command by which Bar Kochba transmitted orders and how the orders were formulated. They are marked by simplicity, directness, and brevity.

The third letter of the second group is small and closely written, containing thirteen lines of script and two of signature, all completely preserved. Here Shimon commands Yehonatan and Masabala to reap the benefits of the property of one Elazar Bar Hittah. This letter is signed, as is the one in wood, with a name other than Bar Kochba.

In the next group, there is a small document which deserves attention. In it Shimon again writes to Yehonatan and Masabala and commands them to harvest the wheat in the areas under their jurisdiction. It may be assumed that all these letters were written before Yehonatan and Masabala fled to the caves, at a time when Bar Kochba was still commanding his forces. The assumption that these men controlled an area including wheat fields is fortified by the documents found in Jordan, which contained deeds for the sale of houses and fields. If this reconstruction is correct, then we may be more certain that these two men brought this packet of letters with them upon taking refuge in the caves.

In the final group of documents opened, we found the treasure of the entire lot. It is a large text, 19 by 10 centimeters, written in two columns of Hebrew. Three of the letters unrolled earlier were in Hebrew, but all had been badly damaged. The principal interest of this letter hes, however, in its answer to a question which had plagued us from the outset: Where were Jonathan (Yehonatan) and Masabala when they received these dispatches? The first two lines of this text read, “From Shimon Bar Kosebah to the men of EnGedi, to Masabala and Yehonatan Bar Be‘ayan: Greeting!”

This aids greatly in explaining certain mysteries left by the letters unrolled earlier. In the one on wood, Bar Kochba speaks of the men of Teqoah, which had always been an important military and agricultural center. The city is mentioned in Nehemiah (Neh. 3:5) and in connection with the Maccabean war. Since Teqoah is mentioned twice in letters to Jonathan and Masabala in a way that indicates command, we may suppose that the two men commanded an area extending at least from En-Gedi on the east to Teqoah on the west and comprising the central sector of the Judean Desert and the coast of the Dead Sea.

This also clarifies the order concerning Elazar Bar Hittah’s property, since this fertile En-Gedi land was under the aegis of Jonathan and Masabala. Further, we can deduce from whence had come the fighters who were left after the suppression of the revolt. The cave where the letters were discovered lies about three and a half miles from En-Gedi. It is most likely that the men of EnGedi took refuge in this cave. Last, we can now be sure that En-Gedi was an important center for Bar Kochba’s army.

As we have already seen, Bar Kochba was not always satisfied with the actions of Jonathan and Masabala. The present letter is more specific: “You sit and eat and drink of the property of the house of Israel, and care nothing for your brothers,” he complains. These remarks are strikingly direct, bringing us into immediate contact with the personalities and vagaries of the revolt.

The rest of the Hebrew letter is of equal interest. Bar Kochba goes on to order Jonathan and Masabala to take charge of the cargo of a ship which has stopped in their port. En-Gedi, then, also imported provisions; presumably the agricultural products from the areas south and east of the Dead Sea were concentrated here. Without doubt, En-Gedi was one of the military and economic bastions of Bar Kochba.

THE “FOUR KINDS”

The very last papyrus, five lines on a 23 by 6 centimeter area, turned out to be one of the most intriguing of the lot, and it contained a surprise. Instead of being addressed to Jonathan and Masabala, this was a letter to “Yehuda Bar Menashe,” and the address was “Qiryat ‘Arabaya.” The letter says, “I have sent you two donkeys, so that you may send two men with them to Yehonatan and Masabala to load them with palm branches and citron and send them back to your camp. You, on your part, send others [men] to bring you with willows and myrtle . . . and send them to the camp.”

The first question which presented itself was the location of Yehuda Bar Menashe’s camp. Given that Jonathan was at En-Gedi and Bar Kochba near Jerusalem, Qiryat ‘Arabaya was probably somewhere in between. The name does not persist in any modern place names, but it seems to us that we can identify it, as Mazar proposes, with Birath ‘Areva of Bethlehem of Judea.

This place is mentioned in the famous legend of the birth of the Messiah. In the text of the Midrash there is preserved the story that a certain Jew was plowing his field when his cow lowed. An Arab came along and told him to set his bullock free and untie his plow because the Temple had been destroyed. When the cow lowed a second time, the Arab told him to harness his bullock and plow because the King-Messiah had been born. When the plowman asked the name and birthplace, he was told that the name was Menahem Ben Hizkiyahu, and the birthplace, Birath ‘Areva of Bethlehem of Judea. This and other references would place the village south of Bethlehem, near Urtas.

It is clear now why this letter was among the collection sent to Jonathan and Masabala. Yehuda Bar Menashe had sent the donkeys and men to Jonathan and Masabala according to instructions, with the Bar Kochba letter as confirmation of the order. Almost certainly this letter had been written concerning preparations for the feast of Sukkoth, in order to supply the soldiers at Bar Kochba’s camp with the requisite “four kinds” of plants for the celebration of the feast.

It is interesting to note that Bar Kochba found it necessary to send two of his own donkeys for the transportation of the supplies; presumably, transportation was difficult to obtain. Finally, the topography of these events becomes clear when we see Jonathan and Masabala at the fertile oasis of En-Gedi, Yehuda Bar Menashe in the vicinity of Urtas, and Bar Kochba himself with a camp somewhere near Jerusalem.

OUR study of the finds of the spring of 1960 made it clear that we would have to renew our search in the same area for whatever additional information we could obtain concerning the Bar Kochba period. We were equally certain from our previous experience that no significant largescale scientific exploration of the Judean Desert canyons and rugged terrain could be carried out without the help, again, of the Israel Defense Forces.

This second venture, coordinated by Yosef Aviram, was broken down into four subexpeditions, under Nahman Avigad, Yaharon Aharoni, Pessah Bar-Adon, and myself. After picking up our volunteers in Beersheba, on March 14, 1961, we set out for our various destinations — Avigad for EnGedi, Bar-Adon for Nahal Mishmar, Aharoni for the southern bank of Nahal Hever, and I for the Cave of Letters on the northern bank of the same Nahal Hever.

We did not expect to uncover very much in this cave, since we had gone over it the previous year. We therefore considered it a good omen that, soon after we had begun to work, two members of the group turned up a piece of stamped clay tied to a string, from the same niche which had produced the letters.

The clay was obviously a seal with which one of the letters had been bound. Later, in Jerusalem, a photographic enlargement of this seal showed it to be of some foliage, either a lulab palm frond or a myrtle branch, both part of the ritual equipment of the Feast of Tabernacles.

That afternoon I was working in the first chamber when a member of the team came hurrying in from the third chamber to report that in moving around he had stepped on a rock that ‘’moved suspiciously” and had lifted the rock to discover a niche containing “a basket full of all sorts of things.” I hurried back with him to the niche, and after examining it decided not to move anything until we could get the expedition photographer to take pictures of the site and each of the finds as it was removed.

When we started to remove the objects from the site, the first article extracted from the basket was a semicircular wooden box, now empty, but which had once apparently contained a lady’s jewelry. Then came a number of wooden plates in an excellent state of preservation, followed by a sickle, also in excellent condition, of the sort which to this day is used in the area by Arab peasants.

Next came a pair of women’s sandals; we were startled at their resemblance to the so-called “Eilat Sandals” of our own day. We also brought up two keys on a ring, followed by a group of wood-handled knives, including one “freshly” sharpened knife.

Beneath the basket containing all these articles lay a large waterskin, much like last year’s skin containing the letters, but in a very bad state of preservation. Before dealing with this, however, we decided to clear out the objects lying around it — a brass pan with two large handles, two little brass flasks, and a mirror. We seemed to be repeating last year’s finds, and this, of course, quickened the hope in us that, as happened last year, we would turn up a treasure of documents.

Even as this thought struck me, my eyes fell on a scroll, neatly rolled and bound. Carefully we tucked it away in a bed of cotton in a box. Then I caught sight of a strange object, a reed about 30 centimeters long. For a moment I thought we had found an ancient flute, but on examining it I could clearly see through one end of the reed that it contained a tightly rolled papyrus.

Now I turned to the pile of cloth and the damaged waterskin. Reaching in, I picked up a cigarshaped papyrus, and then five more papyri, all lying together in a small leather pouch beside the waterskin. Then we removed the waterskin — or, rather, as we later learned in Jerusalem, the remnants of three waterskins.

We continued emptying the cache, removing bundles of tatters — sacks, shirts, and a whole variety of material a woman might need for mending the family clothing. Then I reached down and fished up another bundle; more rags, I thought. But this one was nicely bound, and it proved to contain the treasure we were looking for. There, in an opening in the bundle’s wrapping, I could make out dozens of papyri, tightly rolled and packed — apparently the biggest single hoard of documents yet found in our cave or in any of the Jordanian caves.

Exhilarated, we made our way back to camp that evening and sent the papyri to Jerusalem for unraveling. But the expedition still had more than a week’s work laid out for it, and in this week many other objects were discovered, all buried carefully under the blocks of stone.

THE FIVE PAPYRI FROM THE LEATHER POUCH

Directly after our return from the desert, I had my first glimpse of the five papyri at the Biberkrauts’. Although I had been told they were written in a fine hand, the beautiful script I saw was superior to anything previously found in secular documents from this period. It was the work of a professional scribe and resembled the script of the Biblical fragments from Wadi Muraba‘at and the Cave of Letters. The lines were perfectly straight, even though no ruler had been used, as was the practice in Biblical scrolls.

The first document, written on a 27 by 10 centimeter papyrus, contained twenty-seven lines of text and seven signatures, intact except for lacunae where the papyrus had been folded.

The first line began, “On the 28th of Marheshvan year three of Shimon Ben Kosibah Prince of Israel ... in En-Gedi.” Here was irrefutable proof that the place named after the Bar Kochba dating designated where the contract had been signed and not the headquarters of Bar Kochba.

This document turned out to be a contract, in which land previously leased to four men in common is now divided by them into two parts. The lessor is “Yehonatan Ben Mahanaim, administrator of Shimon Ben Kosibah, Prince of Israel, in En-Gedi.” State lands, therefore, were leased to residents of the country through heads of the various administrative centers — in this case, En-Gedi.

The deed stipulates the amount each pair shall pay to the state treasury for their part of the land leased. Payment was made in dinars, the Roman currency, which is also called “zuz" in our documents. The value of the dinar in Jewish currency is given as one sela to four dinars, the same formulation that appears in the Mishnah.

The contract concludes with the signatures of the parties and the witnesses, some signing themselves and some by proxy. Thus, it was a pleasant surprise to find Masabala Ben Shimon, to whom many of last year’s letters were addressed, as a proxy signer for one of the parties to the deal. This Masabala served as military and civil head of the En-Gedi sector, together with Yehonatan Ben Be’ayan.

The contract is a type called an “unfolded” deed in the Mishnah, as opposed to a “tied-up” deed. The Mishnah states that in unfolded deeds the witnesses signed their names at the bottom of the text, while in the “tied-up” ones they signed on the back.

The second and third documents in this group, written in Hebrew, represented again leases of land and are dated “on the second of Kislev” of the same year, only three days after the first deed, and also from En-Gedi.

These three documents shed interesting light on several important aspects of the period of Bar Kochba’s rule. We learn first that lands of the state were nationalized and were considered the property of Shimon Ben Kosebah, Prince of Israel, who, in fact, assumed all the prerogatives of the Roman Emperor. Furthermore, this rule was tightly organized, and his administrators in the centers of his dominion and in the various cities and villages had charge of the civil administration and supervised the leasing of lands and the collection of taxes for the state treasury.

We also learn the manner in which legal documents were drawn up, the method of payment, and the topography of the Dead Sea and En-Gedi areas. The Hebrew language in the documents, closely resembling that of the Mishnah, contributes rich new linguistic material and reflects, in general, the popular usage of the time. The two other documents of this group are written in Aramaic and date to Bar Kochba’s first year.

The fact that the documents from Bar Kochba’s first year are written in Aramaic, while those from his second and third years are in Hebrew, suggests that he made the use of Hebrew obligatory upon his deputies in official documents as soon as his government became firmly established.

Found inserted in the reed was a deed of sale, which a noted Jerusalem neurosurgeon successfully extracted. The deed, written in Aramaic, was for half a vegetable garden in En-Gedi. This papyrus was badly damaged and not complete, and is still being deciphered.

THE CACHE OF THE WATERSKIN PAPYRI

The opening of the large packet of papyri found in the waterskin under the basket did not prove difficult; the cords parted easily, revealing an impressive sight. Many papyri fell out, some tied together in groups and others, large papyri, folded separately. Many were badly eaten by moths and worms.

It was immediately evident that these differed from the documents described above. They predated the revolt and were written partly in Greek, partly in Aramaic, or in a combination of the two, as well as in Nabatean. In all, there were thirtysix documents in this packet. They constitute a full archive and shed light on many phases of life in Judea and the Dead Sea areas on the eve of Bar Kochba’s revolt.

Since space does not permit any detailed description of the contents of these documents, it is only possible here to touch on a central theme — namely, the figure of Babata Bat (“daughter of”) Shimon, owner of the archive.

The earliest Aramaic document, written in large cursive letters and dated the twenty-fourth of Tamuz (July 14), 120 C.E., presents the beginning of the family history of Babata. It is a “gift deed” in which Shimon Bar Menahem grants his wife, Miriam, daughter of Yosef son of Menashe, all his property as a life gift. Aside from its rich legal terminology, this document informs us that Shimon is a resident of the village Mahoza, in the territory of Zoar at the southern tip of the Dead Sea in Provincia Arabia. It tells us that Shimon and Miriam are Babata’s parents, lists in detail Shimon’s possessions, and stipulates that if his and Miriam’s daughter becomes a widow, she may take possession of one of the storehouses for as long as she remains a widow.

It is of interest to note here that this document is one of the finest and most complete examples of the double document which the Mishnah calls the “tied-up” deed, the witnesses signing on the back and against the direction of the text.

From further documents we learn of Babata’s marriage to Yeshua son of Elazar, and that the couple had a son also named Yeshua. Babata becomes a widow and remarries one named Yehuda Ben Elazar. Meanwhile, Babata becomes involved in a number of complicated legal tangles, among which is litigation with two guardians, “A Jew and a Nabatean,” appointed for her son by a Petra Council decision. On October 12, 125, Babata files a claim with the Roman provincial governor for the payment of money owed her son by his guardians, and is represented here by her second husband, Yehuda Ben Elazar. Babata wins her case, for in another document she requests and is granted the trusteeship of her son’s money held by the guardians.

The next two years seem to have passed quietly for Babata. Then, in the winter of 127, she travels with her second husband, Yehuda, to the headquarters of the commander of the Roman cavalry unit in Rabbat Moab to declare her property for a land census taken that year by the governor of the province of Provincia Arabia. But marital misfortune befalls her again, for in a document of September 11,130, Yehuda is referred to as Babata’s late husband.

The death of her second husband is followed by further acrimonious litigation with the guardians of the orphans of her first husband and with a certain Miriam of En-Gedi, who allegedly “stole property from the house of Yeshua son of Elazar Khetushyon, your husband and my husband.”Miriam does not let this pass, but replies through a notary: “I have already asked you to keep your hands off my property.”

The problem of how Babata and her family reached the Cave of Letters, where Yehonatan son of Be’ayan and Masabala (the rulers of EnGedi) took refuge, is at last solved. Miriam’s full name is given as Miriam, daughter of Be‘ayan. In other words, she is the sister of Yehonatan Ben Be‘ayan, to whom Shimon Bar Kosebah wrote during the revolt. When Yehonatan fled to the caves, he must have brought with him members of his family.

Apart from the saga of Babata, a document of May 6, 124, is of special importance. It is the only Greek one written in En-Gedi and deals with Yehuda, son of Elazar Khetushyon, a year before he marries Babata and moves to Mahoza. For the first time we are given information on the course of Bar Kochba’s revolt in this region and on the status of En-Gedi in Hadrian’s time, which is here referred to as a village of the Emperor.

Yehuda borrows sixty Tyrian silver dinars from Valens, centurion of the First Thracian Cohort of Thousand Infantry. He pledges to repay the loan plus one per cent monthly interest in eight months, and as security pledges the “compound belonging to my father Elazar.” The boundaries of this compound are given: “to the east — tents; west — tents and the workshop of that same Elazar my father; south — the market; and north — the road and the fort.”

Even before the revolt, then, a company of a hundred Thracian auxiliaries encamped at EnGedi. The cohort to which it was attached was probably organized during Trajan’s reign, but its presence here was unknown before the discovery of this document. Documents from centuries later mention that this cohort was stationed in the vicinity of what is today Amman, the capital of the kingdom of Jordan.

With the outbreak of the revolt, the people of En-Gedi apparently fought against this Roman unit. It is possible that the cult objects found last year belonged to these Romans. Other units were stationed nearby, and it may have been this cohort which afterward besieged the Cave of Letters and the Cave of Dread from camps located on the precipices above.

From this document, and from the other Hebrew documents of the Bar Kochba period which list names, we may one day be able to draw a map of En-Gedi, its lands, its buildings, markets, and citadels, nearly down to the last detail.

It has been over a year since the collection of letters was discovered in the cave of Nahal Hever. However, the deciphering has only just begun. When it is finished, the philologists, historians, geographers, and other scholars will have available a new source of knowledge of the Bar Kochba period.

Light is also shed on the three languages Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek at this stage of the development of each, and it is interesting indeed to find that all three could be used for military dispatches. Every detail, even the names of places and persons, will allow us to reconstruct that much more of the setting of the period, to establish how the war was waged by Bar Kochba, and how power was managed during the short war against the Roman Empire.

Of even more poignant interest to us was the fact that the persons who had so carefully stored all these documents and personal and household articles in the caves had obviously hoped to come back and retrieve them for further use. Then, as we searched amid the ruins of the Roman camp, it occurred to us that we, who were unearthing the remains of the warriors of the cave in the cliffside below, were operating from a camp which had been set up by members of the Israel Defense Forces near the site of the old Roman camp. Israel’s soldiers of today were helping to restore to life, as it were, their comrades-at-arms of eighteen hundred years ago. The symbolism of it all was something which not even the most hardened cynic could gainsay.

With us in the Roman camp ruins then was a Jewish visitor from abroad. As he stood on the precipice, observing the scene, he blurted the old Hebrew formula: “ ‘Am Yisrael hai!” (“The Jewish people lives!”) He expressed what all of us felt.