Who do the 12,000 bodies buried in the Lions’ Cave belong to?

Amidst all the running around and the historical sites in Jerusalem, you might wish to rest awhile and enjoy some quiet time in a park or a stroll through a pleasant graveyard, in that case, I suggest you visit Independence Park, or as the locals call it, “Gan Ha’atzmaut.”

Independence Park, aka Gan Ha’atzmaut

Visiting the Park, you can’t help but notice a hill filled with gaping pits and a mysterious cave in the middle of it. If you ever wondered what this cave is about, allow me to reveal to you the dark tale behind its origin.

While we are exploring the strangeness of this park, I will take this opportunity to tell you about the Jerusalem Gothic Picnic that took place on this mass grave, the event that inspired me to write this post. So get your gothic attire out of the closet and join us on a journey through time to unveil the truth behind the cave while enjoying an afternoon beer with your fellow dark friends at the Jerusalem Gothic Picnic.

The Mamilla cemetery

Tomb of Emir Aidughdi Kubaki aka Kebekiyeh

Hop on the time machine, and let us travel back in time to the Byzantine era with a stop in the middle ages.
A long time ago, when the city of Jerusalem was confined to the area known today as the Old City, the areas outside the walls were reserved for the dead, farms, and inns. In the Roman era, those areas were known as the necropolis, the city of the dead, with graves scattered along the roads leading to the town from all over the area. With the Muslim conquest in the 7th century, many of the areas continued their old purposes, and the area known today as the Mamilla cemetery and Independence park evolved into an important Mamluk (13th-16th century CE) cemetery, commonly known as the Mamilla cemetery. This cemetery and the Mamluks deserve a post of their own and rest assured, it’s definitely on the list, but for now, let us concentrate on one particular grave known as the Lions’ cave.

A Jew, a Muslim, and a Christian walk into a cave…

In the midst of the Park, there is a cave known as Lion’s Cave. While we are used to hearing tales of dragons guarding treasures, here in Jerusalem we decided that we want to be original, so we have a Lion guarding a cache of bones instead. Tales of old bear witness to a legend of countless bodies that were buried in the cave after a tragic massacre that transpired, one of Jerusalem’s favorite pastimes. While all the legends agree upon the unfortunate circumstances regarding the cave dwellers, and they all tell a story surrounding a magical Lion guarding the cave, they don’t seem to see eye to eye on the identity of those buried inside; Were they Christians, Jews, or Muslims?

The Christians attribute the grave to the Persian massacre that took place in the city in 614 CE. In that year, after a siege on the city, the Persians, with the help of the local Jewish communities, had conquered the city, massacring, pillaging, and burning churches. Many medieval Christian sources tell of a mass grave with a church built atop it, knows as the St. Mamilla church, where many Christians had been buried after the Persian conquest. Hence the name of the graveyard, the Mamilla Cemetery.  Some say the cave bears the skeletons of 4500 Christians, while others go even further and say it is the final dwelling for some 12,000 Martyrs brought to the cave by a mystical lion.

The Jews, on the other hand, argue that these are the remains of the Hasmonean Jews that fell by the Seleucids (Greeks) during the Hasmonean rebellion that took place in the middle of the 2nd century BCE. One of Nachmanides (Ramban) students, an important medieval Jewish scholar, and Rabbi from Spain, who was traveling the area in the 14th century CE, tells the story about the Greek King that wanted to burn the bones of the fallen in order to erase their memory. But on a dark night, before the evil King could execute his plan, a magical lion came, and carried the bodies from the pool located nearby (probably the Mamilla pool) into the cave, where he stayed to guard the bones of the dead from harm. In the morning, the King, observing the event, understood that he’d better not mess with the Jews and left them untouched, where they rest until today or at least until some archaeologists decided to dig them up.

According to the Muslim tradition, these are the bones of those slaughtered by the Crusaders, who invaded Jerusalem in 1099 CE, massacring Muslims and Jews that met their iron blades. The tale tells that one night a fire had started, threatening to burn the graves of many Muslims buried in the graveyard nearby, when with Allahs’ help, the bones were magically transferred to a cave guarded by a lion to keep them from harm for eternity.

Who do the bones belong to?

In the first years of the state of Israel, Jerusalem was divided into West and East Jerusalem. The eastern part was under Jordanian rule, having the Old City within its’ borders, and West Jerusalem being under Israeli rule.
Since most of the city’s western parts were new neighborhoods and the holy Jewish places were out of reach from the Jews, there was a significant lack of prominent Jewish sacred sites in the area. The Israeli ministry of religious services used the oldest trick in the book, common throughout history by all religions, to solve this problem. Backed by the medieval tradition told by Nachmanides’ student and a spark of imagination, during the 50’s they announced the place to be a holy site, with efforts to bring in tourists and to develop the area. However, most people didn’t really buy into it and with time the cave fell to neglect, forgotten by all, save for the homeless and misfits of town reduced to nothing more than a filthy squat.

Luckily, you can always find an archaeologist in Jerusalem who would gladly dig up a grave and help solve such problems. An excavation conducted at the site in 2012 revealed a burial cave dated between the 4th and 7th centuries CE, known as the Byzantine period when Jerusalem was dominated mainly by Christians. The archaeologists revealed a hall with two-story burial chambers, where the dead were entombed.

And so we might have a winner!

Or maybe there is a bit more to the story…

As I was reviewing old articles in the depths of the wide net I stumbled upon an article of a nearby excavation that sometimes gets mixed with the current cave but a deeper look at the map and the data reveals quite a different tale…

In the late ’80s, in the vicinity of Jaffa gate, another burial cave rich with bones was revealed. There, a pile of bones was arranged in a disorderly fashion, with a chapel adjacent to it, adorned with iconographic frescoes bearing common Christian motifs, resembling the church that monk travelers during the middle ages had described. They found many candles and coins in the cave, all from the Byzantine era, with one particular coin, just prior to the 614 Persian invasion and massacre.

Can it be that the Lion cave is actually located in a totally different location or there are several burial caves blessed with a Lion keeping their gates?

Could it be that the chapel found in this excavation is the church of St. Mamilla?

What do you think, I’d like to hear your opinion, let me know in the comments below…

From the early Islamic period and onward, the cave was rebuilt and transformed into a cistern,  serving the people living in the area throughout the ages. In the past hundred years, as with many hot real estate spots, the cave didn’t escape a common trend occurring in major cities worldwide. Some fishy real estate slumlord decided it would be a good idea to split the cave into rooms and rent them out to students wishing to live in downtown Jerusalem. While no students lived there, it seems that it did serve for living, maybe only to random squatters. We can be sure though that they didn’t hear the neighbors complain … or did they, Mu-Ha-Ha.

As for the Lion, on a dark and gloomy night, if you pass by the cave, you might still spot him, or some homeless dude or a hipster with a beard, hard to tell.

Joking aside, I would advise against going to the park alone at night. But during daylight, it’s great and safe. The cave and pits are all fenced off and have signs posted telling where they are located and I would advise not to climb over them.

Jerusalem Gothic Picnic

Back to the present. For a long time already, the idea of having a Gothic Picnic in Jerusalem has been brewing in my mind. In search of an appropriate spot to have it, it occurred to me that Independence park would be the perfect location for such an event. What could be better than a morbid cave surrounded by a beautiful park, where people can come with their little batlings to enjoy a delightful afternoon under the pine trees and feel the mountain breeze.

On the last Friday afternoon of July 2021, the Park was raided by a cauldron of the local Goths and Metalheads to enjoy a nice chat and an afternoon beer to the sounds of good music selected for the event by my good friend Alex from The Post Punk Show and me.
New people and friends arrived at the event, and it was just great. Everyone brought snacks, beers, and homemade treats that we could all share. Kids accompanied by their parents were running around the park, biking, and playing. We had fun, got to meet new faces, and it did great for our dark of dark souls. If you are looking for an event to bring your local community together or grow your local scene, I for sure recommend having a picnic event.

Can you imagine this photo was taken by my 8-year-old boy? The kid has talent 🙂

At sunset, we had unique guests that came to say hello. If having the picnic next to such a macabre place of old wasn’t enough, as the evening sun began to set, our post-punk and gothic music tunes were accompanied by the sound of bats flying overhead in the surrounding trees, adding to the dark vibe of the event. Were the children of the night there the whole time observing our presence, or did they sense kindred dark souls and come to say hello? We might never know the answer, but that was for sure a fitting end for such an event.

If you happen to visit Jerusalem or are looking for goth events in town, you are welcome to follow my Instagram page dedicated to Goth music and my local party line Post Pandemic Nights, to stay updated with current gothic events in the city. Currently, several Goth events are running in town.  Every 2nd Saturday night of the month, you can hear me DJing at the Glen Bar,  just next to The Independence park. If you wish to enjoy a Friday afternoon beer to the sound of post-punk music, then I suggest you check The Post Punk Show playing once a month at the Sira Pub, located a few minutes walk from where the picnic took place. Above all, there are events such as the Jerusalem Gothic Picnic I plan on having from time to time and many more interesting and exciting things brewing, so stay tuned.

July 2021 Jerusalem Gothic Picnic

Some Tourist Info

If you are looking for a place to park your car nearby and can’t find parking on the streets, the best would be to park in the Hanisuii Parking Lot next to the park. It offers the best price in the area, especially on the weekend when many parking lots are closed.

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