by: Nathan Williams, Director of Marketing and Communications
Beneath the picturesque rolling countryside of central Israel, south of Bet Shemesh, lies an impressive underground system of caves and quarries. This unique area of the Judean lowlands stretches out over 1,250-acres in the Beit Guvrin–Maresha National Park. While in the early spring the national park is a feast of flowers, the best-kept secrets are underground.
The national park encompasses a number of smaller sites, ruins and caves from different eras, all of them connected by lovely walking trails. Tel Maresha is the oldest established city on the site. Mentioned in the Bible as a city of Judah given to the clan of Caleb (Josh. 15:44), Maresha also later served as the capital city of the Edomites. In fact, the city passed hands between several people groups: Israelites, Edomites, Sidonians, Greeks and Romans. Maresha was destroyed and rebuilt several times, and after the Parthian invasion in 40 BC, the population center moved two miles (3.2 km.) north to a place called Beit Guvrin.
Historian Flavius Josephus recounts that during the Maccabean revolt, King John Hyrcanus I forced the pagan citizens of Beit Guvrin to convert to Judaism. Josephus recounts that shortly after this, the town was incorporated into the Roman Empire and in fact, Beit Guvrin thrived as a Roman-ruled Jewish city until the destruction of the Second Temple and the Bar Kochba revolt. In the late Roman period, Beit Guvrin was renamed Eleutheropolis (“City of Freemen”). From this period of Roman rule there remains an amphitheater used for gladiator and animal fights. In the Byzantine period, churches were built in Beit Guvrin, including St. Anne’s Church, and a fortress, the remains of which can still be visited there today.
While the history and archaeological discoveries in Beit Guvrin are amazing, one of the major attractions is its system of man-made caves. This area of the foothills of the Judean Mountains are made of soft chalk or limestone, surrounded by a hard outer shell. Once this hard shell is penetrated, it is easy to quarry out bricks, even using only rudimentary excavation tools. While historians disagree on whether the excavated stone was strong enough to be used for building, the two main theories for the quarries were to source building materials and then mining the limestone to be burnt for lime (chalk) which was used in mortar, plaster and for laying roads. Whatever the motive, once the limestone had been removed, the cavities that remained could be utilized for a myriad of purposes: water cisterns, storage spaces, dovecotes, tombs and shelter for livestock or people. The underground chambers were perfect for industry, as underground space is cooler in summer and warmer in winter.
In order to maintain the structural integrity of the caves, a small opening of about 3.5 feet (1 m.) wide was made in the hard shell at ground level, then gradually widening to a significantly larger base. This gives the caves a unique dome or bell shape with a small opening in the ceiling. There are over 800 bell caves in the area surrounding Beit Guvrin. Some are linked by extensive networks of tunnels. The largest bell cave is a staggering 60 feet (18 m.) high and due to excellent acoustics has been used as a venue for musical concerts. For an adrenaline rush, visitors can even rappel down the limestone cliffs into some of the caves.
Among the countless number of caves and underground rooms, there are 85 columbaria. A columbarium, also known as a dovecote, is an installation to raise doves or pigeons. At nearly 100 feet (30 m.) long, the largest dovecote in Beit Guvrin has over 2,000 niches and is shaped like a double cross. Doves were used throughout the region for their meat and their dung, which was used like a fertilizer. Doves were also an accepted ritual sacrifice in the Temple and in other pagan religions. As the once prosperous industry of raising doves faded, so the use of the huge underground structures built for that purpose also changed. In Roman times, columbaria were adapted for the purpose of storing urns of cremated remains of the deceased. However, the prevalent belief about the columbarium at Beit Guvrin is that they were used to raise doves.
A highlight of Beit Guvrin–Maresha are the Sidonian Burial Caves where the most prominent families of Sidonian, Edomite and Greek communities were buried. Among the hundreds of caves, these are the only ones that are decorated in vibrant colors with frescoes of mythical figures, animals and plants. One can visit the beautifully decorated Apollophanes Cave, the burial cave of the patriarch of the Sidonian settlement, or the Cave of the Musicians, adorned with a man blowing a flute and a woman playing a harp, accompanying the dead with sweet music to their afterlife.
The inhabitants of Beit Guvrin most certainly believed that anything done above ground can be done below, and remarkably, 22 underground olive presses have been discovered. An ancient agricultural installation complex displays an underground olive oil press model that thrived in this area.
The spectacular caves of Beit Guvrin are a favorite site to visit, even for seasoned travelers. Be sure to add it to your Israel travel bucket list.
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Photo License: Cave entrance
Photo License: Dovecote
Photo License: Burial cave
Photo License: Oil factory
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