501. Rock Sepulchers

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Isaiah 22:1616What hast thou here? and whom hast thou here, that thou hast hewed thee out a sepulchre here, as he that heweth him out a sepulchre on high, and that graveth an habitation for himself in a rock? (Isaiah 22:16). What hast thou here, and whom hast thou here, that thou hast hewed thee out a sepulcher here, as he that heweth him out a sepulcher on high, and that graveth a habitation for himself in a rock.
Sepulchers in the East were often hewn out of the solid rock, sometimes below the level of the ground, and frequently above ground and on the sides of mountains. Chambers were excavated in the rock, and on either side of these chambers were narrow cells in which the bodies of the dead were placed, each in its own receptacle. Sometimes the long side of the cell was cut at a right angle to the passage, so that the body of the dead was inserted lengthwise; at other times it was cut parallel to the passage, so that the body was inserted sidewise. In this latter mode our Lord seems to have been buried, since when Mary looked into the sepulcher she saw “two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain” (John 20:1212And seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. (John 20:12)). Sometimes these rooms were without cells, and then the bodies rested on the floor. In the larger sepulchers were passage-ways leading to other chambers.
Many of these ancient sepulchers are still to be seen. The rock-tombs of Petra are among the most celebrated. A picture of the famous “Corinthian Tomb” is appended. Such sepulchers are also to be found in different parts of Palestine, but especially in the neighborhood of Jerusalem. The rocks south of the valley of Hinnom are full of them, and the valley of the Kidron contains a large number. The most celebrated of these sepulchers are those known by the names of “the Tombs of the Judges,” at the head of the Valley of Jehoshaphat, containing sixty niches for bodies; “the Tombs of the Prophets, or Apostles,” on the western declivity of the Mount of Olives, in which thirty cells have been discovered, though doubtless more are concealed by rubbish; and “the Tombs of the Kings,” a half-mile north of the Damascus gate. There is no evidence that these tombs are rightly named, but they have all been at some time burial-places of great importance.
The last—named is especially rich in the ornamentation of its entrance, which is adorned with sculptures of fruit and flowers; and as an account of its internal arrangements will convey some idea of the plan of the best style of these rock-tombs, we give an abstract of Dr. Barclay’s description of the so-called “Tombs of the Kings.” They are situated “on the west side of a sunken court, about ninety feet square and upward of twenty feet deep. These finely-constructed catacombs are entered through a splendid, but now much decayed and defaced, portico, or portal and hall, on its western side, thirteen and a half feet high and twenty-eight and a half wide. Near its southwestern corner is a door beneath the level of the floor, two and a half feet broad and less than three feet high, opening into an anteroom about nineteen feet square. In the western side of this room is a door leading into another room, thirteen and a half feet square, having in it about a dozen receptacles for the dead. and a passage leading by a stairway into a room ten feet by twelve, situated a story lower. There are two rooms entered from the south side of the anteroom or hall, each having half a dozen loculi, and from the north side of the westernmost one is a flight of steps conducting to another room in the lower story, ten feet square” (City of the Great King, p. 191).
When Maundrell visited these tombs in 1697 he found that “in every one of these rooms, except the first, were coffins of stone placed in niches in the sides of the chambers. They had been at first covered with handsome lids, and carved with garlands; but now most of them were broke to pieces by sacrilegious hands” (Journey from Aleppo to Jerusalem, under date of March 28). None of these sarcophagi are now remaining, though there are still richly carved fragments strewn about the rooms and the court. Fragments of elegantly paneled stone doors also lie scattered around. One of these was still hanging in its place at the time of Maundrell’s visit. It was a slab of stone six inches in thickness, and in length and breadth about the size of an ordinary door. It turned on two hinges or pivots of stone, which were let into sockets cut out of the rock. These doors were for the interior rooms. The outer doorway was closed by a circular stone, for account of which, see note on Matthew 27:6060And laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock: and he rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed. (Matthew 27:60) (#734).