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E04576: The so-called Cave of Elijah on Mount Carmel near modern Haifa (Roman province of Phoenicia), housing approximately 200 visitors' graffiti in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic, is sometimes considered a memorial shrine of *Elijah (Old Testament Prophet, S00217). There is no reliable evidence to suggest Christian presence at the site in Late Antiquity.

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posted on 2018-01-12, 00:00 authored by pnowakowski
The so-called Elijah's Cave lies on the northwest promontory of Mount Carmel, c. 40 m above sea level, in the present-day outskirts of Haifa. The cave is traditionally identified as the site of Elijah's preparation for the encounter with king Ahab and the prophets of Baal, as described by 1 Kings 18. The cave houses inscriptions carved on its walls and cultic graffiti: about 170 in Greek, 9 in Hebrew, 1 in Arabic, and 1 in Latin. As will be discussed below, all the Greek inscriptions and graffiti are almost certainly the work of 1st-3rd c. visitors worshipping an unidentified deity, possibly the Baal Carmel, or, much less plausibly, Pan and Eros (the existence of the cult of the last two gods was questioned in the Bulletin épigraphique (2015), 705). Another interpretation is that already in that period the cave was a Jewish shrine of Elijah, also frequented by pagans. It is, however, more likely that Christians and Jews took an interest in the site only in the later medieval period. It has been reported that the cave became a place of Jewish rites, and again a pilgrimage destination, in the late 20th and 21st c. For a convincing questioning of any Christian presence at the cave, and a discussion of other theories, see Ilan & Pinkpank 2012, 505-521; Ilan 2017.

The cave
The cave was known to medieval and early modern travellers to the Levant, who mention it in their reports (from the 12th c. onwards; notably, there is no information on the cave in the accounts of ancient Christian pilgrims, e.g. the 4th c. description of Mount Carmel by the Pilgrim of Bordeaux), but at the same time it escaped the notice of the wider academic community. We owe the first systematic survey of the cave to Joseph Germer-Durand who visited the site in the late 19th c., and published his observations in a short paper in 1898 (including 8 inscriptions). After 1917, in obscure circumstances, the walls of the cave were covered with plaster. The existence of graffiti was first reported to the Israel Department of Antiquities and Museums only in 1949, and triggered a project of exploration of the cave, and cleaning of the inscriptions. The bulk of the work on the graffiti was done by Asher Ovadiah between June and October 1966. In 2009 and 2010 the cave was explored anew by Tal Ilan, Thomas Ziem, Kerstin Hünefeld, Olaf Pinkpank, Jeschua Hipp, Marcel Gadia, and Matthew Morgenstern, on behalf of the project, the Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity, funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG). The results of archaeological exploration have also been discussed since the early 20th c. by a number of acknowledged scholars, notably Clemens Kopp, Augustin Augustinović, Abraham Yaari, and Elias Friedman.

The interior of the cave has the shape of a parallelogram, about 14.50 m long, 8.70 m wide, and 4.50-5 m high. Surveys revealed that it is a natural cave, artificially extended, and 'smoothed', when it became a place of cult. At some point, several features were added (e.g. rock-hewn benches, rock-hewn tables for offering or candles, etc.) to better adapt the place for cultic needs. The floor was lowered by c. 50 cm. The cave was originally accessed through a natural entrance in the north wall. Later, that entrance was partly blocked, and another one was cut in the western part of the north wall. The south wall has an apsed niche, c. 1.05 m deep, 2.40 m high, 1.18 m wide. The niche is framed, and is decorated with carved panels showing scale motifs, and a vessel with three feet bound by a ribbon. Ovadiah supposes that a statue of Baal Carmel was displayed here, later venerated as Zeus/Jupiter. The east wall has a doorway leading to a small room (3.40 m x 3 m) with walls accommodating rock-hewn benches. Ovadiah says that modern beliefs associate this small room with healing through sleep (a kind of incubation), and with blessings for barren women. Remnants of a relief figure of a man, wearing a toga, and standing on a pedestal, resembling Roman representations of gods, were found at the west wall. This is argued to be a depiction of Baal Carmel by Ovadiah. In 1933, near the cave, in the garden of the Stella Maris monastery, a marble foot of a large statue was found. The entire statue must have been approximately 3.5 m high. The foot bears a dedicatory inscription in Greek to the Heliopolitan Zeus of the Carmel. Pottery from the site suggests that the cave was occupied from the 'Middle Bronze Age to the late Islamic period'. The cave shows a striking lack of Christian ornamentation: a carving of Christian cross within a circle was found in the northeast corner of the cave, but this almost certainly dates from the Crusader period. A smaller cross (likewise of medieval date?) on top a triangle (representing the Golgotha hill?) was also found on one of the walls.

The inscriptions:
Inscriptions and graffiti cover the walls up to the height of 'a raised arm', or 'a height accessible when standing on a stool'. They range from the Roman period to the 19th c. (though no continuity of cult is implied). Substantial collections of the inscriptions have recently been published by Asher Ovadiah and Rosario Pierri (2012, Parts I-III), and Tal Ilan and his colleagues (2012). The editors of the Bulletin épigraphique complain that these editions need revision, as the readings of early visitors to the cave (e.g. Germer-Durand) were not consulted, and the readings are in many cases doubtful. Texts framed by a tabula ansata, and carefully carved are termed 'inscriptions' by the editors, while the others, more informal, are classified as 'graffiti'. Letter height varies from 1 cm to 14 cm. The importance of these texts lies in the fact that they offer a considerable repository of personal names, and some of them give an overview of the social background and families of the visitors.

The almost 170 Greek texts contain typical pagan formulae (which were also acceptable to Jews): μνησθῇ/'remembered be', εὐτύχει/'succeed' or 'be happy', προσκύνημα/'the record of the act of worship', also less popular ones, e.g. χαρῇ/'be happy', ὑγίαν/'for health', ἱκεσία/'supplication', and those concerned with salvation: σῷζε and ψυχὴ σῷζέσθω. The Greek texts record names of men, women, children, and their friends. Among them we find:
no. 18: a decurio of the colony of Ptolemais, with his son (cf. BE (2015), 704).
no. 93: a soldier, his children, and his wife.
no. 149: supposedly a dedication to Pan and Eros (worshipped in the cave together with Baal). The reading was, however, questioned by Pierre-Louis Gatier in the BE (2015), 705 who reads the passage as referring to panegyriarchai ('presidents of a feast').

The nine Hebrew texts are probably the work of modern (18th and 19th c.) Jews from Acre. Menorahs with seven arms were carved on the walls, but their date is disputed.

The only Latin inscription (no. 28), if read correctly, mentions a monumentum to Calvus by Monicus, and Met[tia] or Me[tius].

The one Arabic inscription records the opening formula of the suras: '[In the] name of Allah the merciful'. It was carved over a menorah, at a later date.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Elijah, Old Testament prophet : S00217

Type of Evidence

Inscriptions - Formal inscriptions (stone, mosaic, etc.) Inscriptions - Graffiti Archaeological and architectural - Cult buildings (churches, mausolea)


  • Greek

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Palestine with Sinai

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc


Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

Carmel Caesarea Maritima Καισάρεια Kaisareia Caesarea Kayseri Turris Stratonis

Cult activities - Places

Holy cave

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs


Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Women Other lay individuals/ people Children Officials Soldiers


Edition: Ovadiah, A., Pierrie, R., Elijah's Cave on Mount Carmel and Its Inscriptions (Oxford: Archaeopress Archaeology, 2015). Ovadiah, A., Pierri, R., "Elijah's Cave on Mount Carmel and its inscriptions. Part III", Liber Annuus 62 (2012), 203-282. Ovadiah, A., Pierri, R., "Elijah's Cave on Mount Carmel and its inscriptions. Part I-II", in: L.D. Chrupcała (ed.), Christ is here! Studies in Biblical and Christian Archaeology in Memory of Michele Piccirillo, ofm (SBF Collectio Maior 52, Milan: Edizioni Terra Santa, 2012), 29-76 (with further bibliography). Ilan, T., Pinkpank, O., "Appendix: Elijah's Cave (Haifa)", in: T. Ilan (ed.), Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity. Part II: Palestine 200-650 (Texte und Studien zum antiken Judentum 148, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012), 499-584 (with further bibliography). Further reading: Ilan, T., "Elijah’s Cave in Haifa: Whose holy site is this anyway?" in: Jewish Cultural Encounters in the Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern World (Leiden: Brill, 2017), 265-295. Reference works: Bulletin épigraphique (2015), 704-706. Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum 62, 1671.

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