On a warm September day, four elderly Druze women in black dresses and sheer white headscarves sat under a shady canopy and poured a sweet liquid from the tea pots they had brought with them from the Golan Heights to central Israel.
While they had their repast al fresco, the younger women in their group descended the 150 stairs leading to the Soreq Cave (which has another 140 stairs), one of the most remarkable sites in Israel.
Popular with Israelis, who arrive by the busload, the Soreq Cave is still unknown to most foreigners. Located not far from Beit Shemesh, about halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the cave has one of the richest collections of stalagmite and stalactite formations anywhere in the world.
The cave was discovered totally by chance in 1968 thanks to a routine explosion at the nearby Hartuv Quarry. What the quarry crew discovered was otherworldly: a never-before seen cave filled with ancient extraordinary limestone formations.
To make Soreq accessible to the public, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority first had to build an infrastructure: steps, bathrooms, and a parking lot. They were assisted in the endeavor by the family of Avshalom Shoham, a young soldier and nature lover who died three years later, in 1974, after sustaining grievous injuries during his military service.
Despite being relatively small — its average length is 240 feet; its average width 180 feet — the formations are so beautiful, and the lighting so evocative, visitors tend to linger. With the short film presented at the start, a visit takes about 40 minutes.
Stalactites are formed when rainwater mixes with carbon dioxide, creating an acid that dissolves the limestone. This limestone-saturated water drips ever so slowly from the cave’s ceiling until it crystallizes. Over the millennia, these crystallized drops become longer and longer, like stone icicles.
When the drops fall to the ground they accumulate sideways and upward to form stalagmites, much like dripping wet sand that falls through one’s fingers.
When other minerals mix with the limestone liquid, they create an array of red, pink and brown formations.
The Soreq Cave features one of the widest varieties of stalactites and stalagmites in the world. These range from “Macaroni” stalactites that are long, narrow and hollow to the “Elephant Ear,” formation, which is a sheet of rock that connects a row of stalactites.
So fragile are these structures that the Parks Authority operates a computerized monitoring system that maintains just the right balance of humidity (extremely high) and carbon dioxide. The humidity must be raised every time a group of people, who exhale carbon dioxide, spend time in the cave.
While the rock formations, lit from below, are spellbinding in and of themselves, the guide’s description enhanced this reporter’s visit. He pointed out the formations that have an uncanny resemblance to mountain climbers near the top of a summit; a man wrapping his arm around a woman; an angel; Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., and many more.
Pointing to an elegant stalactite that was separated by only a centimeter from the stalagmite directly below it, the guide smiled and said that “Romeo and Juliet” were nearly together.
“A drop falls no more than once every 50 years,” he explained, “but Romeo and Juliet had one just the other day. Come back in several more decades and they will be joined.”
Left to ourselves on the bridge above the damp cave floor, we wandered around, marveling at the haunting formations, the shadows they cast, and the windows they provided to the formations beyond.
“You know, there are probably other caves below this one, but we can’t access it without destroying this cave,” our guide had said.
That there could be even more beautiful discoveries awaiting discovery boggles the imagination.
Note: The cave is not wheelchair accessible, but, if requested, park officials will often permit elderly visitors or those with somewhat impaired ability to drive to the visitors center, thus avoiding about 150 (sometimes slippery) steps. From the visitors’ center, there are an additional 140 steps. Tours in English are available only for groups of at least 20 people, but if you ask the guide to also speak in English, some are prepared to do so.