A series of natural and artificial caves found throughout the archaeological site of Qumran, the Qumran Caves are set in the Judaean Desert and were fortuitously revealed in 1947 by a local Bedouin boy while searching for a stray animal. Many archaeological digs have taken place since the discovery, with specialist Roland de Vaux conducting the principal excavations in the 1950s.
However, the real reason why the Qumran Caves are so famous is due to the fact that the oldest scriptures of the Hebrew Bible, the Dead Sea Scrolls, were discovered here in 1956. The caves, named after the Arabic word meaning 'crescent moon,' are located on a plateau about a mile from the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea, near the Israeli settlement of Kalya. Studies have shown that the first settlement in the area dates back the eighth century BCE and remained active until the destruction of the Temple in 586 BC.
The Qumran Caves are now equipped with a visitor center, a restaurant and a souvenir shop, which is open year-round. There are plenty of tour operators offering half-day trips to the Qumran Caves from Jerusalem and it is also possible to get there by car in 40 minutes via road 90 to Kibbutz-Kalia. It is recommended to avoid visiting during summer afternoons because of the heat. Tours take approximately 1 to 2 hours.
Address: Wadi Qumran, Kalya, West Bank, Palestine, Israel
Hours: SUMMER: Sunday-Thursday and Saturday: 8 am-5 pm
Friday and Holidays: 8 am- 4 pm
WINTER: Sunday-Thursday and Saturday: 8 am-4 pm
Friday and Holidays: 8 am-3 pm
Last entry one hour before closing
A short stroll from Manger Square in Bethlehem lies another sacred site – the Milk Grotto, so called as it was allegedly used by Mary to nurse the baby Jesus. Legend has it that the Holy Family hid out in the grotto during the Massacre of the Innocents, before fleeing to Egypt, and that while nursing, a drop of Mary’s milk hit the ground, turning the cave white.
A church has stood on the spot since the 5th century and today, a small Franciscan chapel stands watch over the entrance to the Milk grotto, now a shrine to the Virgin Mary. The cave itself, sculpted from white chalk rock, has become a magnet for women looking to conceive, with many believing that drinking the powdered rock (on sale at the grotto) will enhance their fertility. The display of notes and baby photos sent to the grotto from around the world seem to testify to its powers.
The Milk Grotto is located about 5 minutes' walk from Manger Square in Bethlehem and is open daily (Summer: Mon-Sat 8am-6pm, Sun 8-11.45am, 2-6pm; Winter: Mon-Sat 8am-5pm, Sun 8-11.45am, 2-5pm).