Washington, June 25 (ANI): New findings inside a 2,000-year-old underground chamber discovered in Israel's Jordan Valley suggest that it may have served as a monastery, hideout for persecuted Christians, or Roman army base.
According to a report in National Geographic News, the largest human-made cave in Israel, the 1-acre (0.4-hectare) space is thought to have begun as a quarry.
Archaeologists working in the valley found the cave this past March when they came across a hole in a rock face.
The archaeologists peered into a huge hall lined with 22 thick pillars-giving the "impression of a palace," said team leader Adam Zertal, of the University of Haifa in Israel.
"We didn't have much light-it was complete darkness. But even with the torches, we saw how glorious it looks," he added.
Etched into those columns were 31 Christian crosses, Roman letters, a Zodiac sign, and what looks like the Roman army's pennant, all of which surprised the researchers.
"It surely was not just a quarry," Zertal said.
The newfound site is about 3.1 miles (5 kilometers) from Jericho, even then a metropolis, so a quarry "makes sense in the Jordan Valley, which was then a center of activity, agriculture, and building," he said.
The researchers found recesses in the columns where people placed oil lamps to provide light, as well as holes through which leashes for work animals could have been tied.
But the chamber's run as a quarry likely lasted only about 400 to 500 years. What came next is a bigger mystery.
"The engraved crosses, dated to no later than A.D. 600, suggest that the artificial cave could have become a monastery," Zertal said.
He also suggested that the quarry may have been used as a hiding place for the persecuted.
For example, before Roman Emperor Constantine I legalized Christianity in 313, Christians had often been shunned in the empire.
Zertal added that the Roman army symbol also means it's possible that Roman Empire soldiers hid here.
"It's a perfect place to hold an army-a place nobody can see," he said. (ANI)