In July 2019, touring the caves of Tel Maresha in Beit Guvrin National Park (Israel), we came upon a columbarium.
What is commonly known as a columbarium is a cemetery structure for the storage of funerary urns, holding cremated remains of the deceased, usually rows upon rows of mailbox-like openings in the wall. So it was here, except, the mailbox openings were strangely small.
This was an example of the columbarium’s second meaning – from the Latin ‘columba‘ (‘pigeon’) – nesting boxes or perches for pigeons and doves. Thousands of them were neatly carved in the soft, chalky limestone of the Maresha caves.
So far more than 60 columbaria have been found in the Maresha region. Why so many?
As the article in The Jerusalem Post explains:
Pigeons and doves often appear in the Bible as animals fit to be offered to God. For example, as described in Leviticus, they were one of the options for an atoning sacrifice for those who committed several types of sin or who had become impure. Moreover, a mother was required to bring a turtledove after completing her purification period following childbirth.
The article focuses on the research in the bird remains around the Temple Mount from the pre-Babylonian exile period.
Pigeons could also be used for food as well as for communication, carrying messages, even as recently as during the 1948 War for Independence.
In 2,000+ years, these birds never actually left the caves of Tel Maresha. Walking the site, I saw some of the perches full of these cooing creatures, nesting peacefully on their eggs.
PS. The caves of Tel Maresha recently yielded some stunning archaeological discoveries related to Hanukkah history.
All photos on this page are © Lane Igoudin, 2019.