A shrine that is sacred to four different religions? Most unusual. But it is this very fact that makes Elijah’s Cave in Haifa so unique. Nestled below the port lighthouse at the base of Mount Carmel in Haifa Bay near the Stella Maris Carmelite Monastery, Elijah's cave is a spiritual testament to the past and the present.
Here’s a bit of ancient history: Elijah was a heroic figure in the ninth century, during the reign of King Ahab. He stressed monotheism at a time when the Jewish people were worshipping the idol Baal, a god of nature. Elijah correctly prophesized a drought as punishment for this idol worship, which lasted over three and a half years. To end the dire situation, 50 prophets of Baal took on Elijah in a contest of strength. Calling his shot once again, Elijah won, and the people destroyed their idols. Only then did the rains come pouring down. Never one to revel in victory, Elijah fled to a cave where he prayed and taught until he was taken up to heaven.
Since the best form of flattery is imitation, during the Crusader occupation of the 12th century groups of religious hermits, later organized as the Carmelite order, began to inhabit the caves of this area, much like Elijah had before them. Later on, under the Muslim rule of Palestine, the building was turned into a mosque, subsequently becoming a hospital. The Carmelite basilica was reconstructed in 1836.
The Christians have plenty of cave lore as well. Tradition has it that Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus found shelter in this very cave on their return from Egypt, hence the alternative Christian name, Cave of the Madonna.
The right-hand wall of the cave is covered with ancient Greek and Hebrew inscriptions, and adorned with two seven-branched candelabra. The Stella Maris church above the cave is a beautiful structure, with walls covered in bright patterned Italian marble. The steep flight of stairs from the street to Elijah’s cave reveals spectacular vistas of the city of Haifa and the Mediterranean Sea. After such varied historical uses, the cave is now used as a prayer room with a Torah Ark and set times for daily services. There is still plenty of space between the stones in the ceiling and walls where visitors can insert personal prayer notes.
In addition, the cave plays host to religious gatherings of all types and sizes. You might walk in on a family celebrating a circumcision or witness a three-year-old boy’s first haircut. Don’t hesitate to sing and dance along with the locals. Be sure to snag a cup of wine and some pastries, which are at the center of these celebrations. Enjoy one of the few sites where multiple religions peacefully coexist in the Holy Land.