The Beit Guvrin-Maresha National Park is a National Heritage site and popular tourist destination. With your car, you stop at the five designated parking areas and view the places of interest in each section. It is also possible to hike around the park and visit the sites on foot. You will need about half a day for doing it this way.
MARESHA AND BEIT GUVRIN
A tour of the ancient city of Maresha is a tour. of basements. This is because there are almost no above-ground constructions remaining. However, but many of its underground structures are very well preserved, including cisterns, workshops, dovecotes (columbariums), burial caves and quarries.
The rock in this area is chalk, which is easy to tunnel through. It is covered by a thin layer of hard limestone called nari. Therefore, to construct a cave, people made a small hole in the nari, and once the soft layer was reached, the aperture was widened and the chalk underneath removed to form a bell-shaped cave. The nari functioned as a firm ceiling. Caves up to several stories deep can be seen here. Chalk is not porous, so these caves were always dry, whatever the weather. The coolness and constant temperature of the caves made them ideal workshops, including for a major industry here, the making of olive oil.
Because of the non-porous nature of the rock in this area, the aquifers are very deep and there are few natural springs. Rainwater was therefore collected from the roofs of the houses and the streets into cisterns. Households would even have cisterns beneath their homes. Because they were non-porous, the cisterns required no waterproofing.
One might think that two pagan cities such as Maresha and Beit Guvrin would be of little interest to those interested in Jewish history, but they do intersect with Jewish history on a number of occasions.
Maresha is located on a high hill and is named after the Hebrew word for a head (rosh). It is mentioned in the book of Joshua as a Canaanite city (Joshua 15:44), and was a Jewish Judean city during the First Temple period. When the southern Israelite kingdom was exiled by Nebuchadnezzar II to Babylon in 586 BCE and the area depopulated, Edomites living south and east of the Dead Sea packed up their bags and moved here and they became the dominant ethnic group. This new Edomite kingdom was called Idumea. The land previously occupied by the Edomites was taken over by the Sabateans.
Phoenicians also moved here from Sidon in the 4th century BCE, possibly for trading purposes, and these people may have introduced Hellenistic culture. Because of population expansion, the city limits of Maresha expanded beyond the fortified tel and onto the lower slopes and base of the tel. By the time of the conquest of the country by Alexander the Great, this was a cosmopolitan Hellenistic city.
After a long struggle, the Hasmoneans were able to establish control over the country, and John Hyrcanus conquered and laid waste to the city in 112 BCE. He also forcibly converted the Edomites to Judaism. This had little to do with evangelical religious zeal and more to do with his efforts to control this part of Judea. However, this move was opposed by the Rabbis. It would lead eventually to an ethnic Edomite taking over the Jewish kingdom, since the grandfather of Herod the Great was an Idumean leader who was converted to Judaism by the Hasmoneans. He lived in Idumea, although not necessarily in Maresha. How much the Idumeans espoused Jewish values and practices is an interesting question.
The city was destroyed by the Parthians in 40 BCE as part of the power struggle between the Hasmonean Antigonus and Herod; the Parthians supported Antigonus against Herod who was backed by Rome. Maresha was not rebuilt, and following its destruction, Bet Guvrin gained in importance and became the main city of this area.
Beit Guvrin was captured from the Jews by the Roman general Vespasian during the Great Revolt of 68 CE and again by the Romans during the Bar Kochba revolt in about 132 CE. On both occasions the Jews were slaughtered and after the Bar Kochba revolt it became a Roman city. It became one of the most important cities in Roman Palestine and in recognition of this it was given the status of a city by the Emperor Septimus Severus in 200 CE and renamed Eleutheropolis.
Roman cities were thirsty cities because of their baths and gardens, and spring water was brought here by aqueducts from the Judean Mountains. During the Byzantine period it became Christian. The Crusaders also built a castle at this site. Prior to the 1947-1948 War of Independence, there was an Arab village here. Kibbutz Bet Guvrin was founded close to the ancient city of Beit Guvrin in May 1949.
Time: Allow about half-day if hiking, and about 2½ hours if visiting the sites by car.
Type of walk: Circular.
Difficulty: Easy walking. However, because of the many underground sites, it is unsuitable for a stroller or wheelchair.
Directions and starting point: Enter Into Waze "Beit Guvrin" and click on "Beit Guvrin-Maresha Parking." For both hiking and viewing by car, start at Parking Lot A. From the entrance of the park, continue straight until you come to the first parking lot. There are WCs here.
Admission: The park is administered by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. During the summer it is open from Sunday to Thursday 8.00 AM-5.00 PM, and Friday and eves of holidays 8.00 AM-4.00 PM. During the winter from 8.00 AM-4.00 PM, and Fridays and eves of holidays 8.00 AM-3.00 PM. Admission is 28 NIS for adults, 14 NIS for children, and 24 NIS for seniors and students. Their phone number is 08 681 1020. This the park’s website. One can also download the site’s brochure from their website and this can be useful in planning one's trip.
Public transport: Enter "Beit Guvrin" into Moovit and click on "גן לאומי בית גוברין-מרשה". From Lachish, bus 66 stops at בא׳׳פ לכיש and it is a 20-minute 1-mile walk from there.
The Bell Caves were formerly quarries. A shaft was first cut through the harder rock (called nari) to a depth of about 3 meters to reach the soft chalk layer beneath. Blocks of rock were then removed with ropes through the shaft. These quarries were begun in the Byzantine period and reached their peak use during the early Islamic period. The chalk rocks were used for construction and for making lime.
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There are 14 points of interest. Most guides are selective in what they visit and unless you are determined to get your money's worth, you might wish to do it this way too. The most interesting sites are therefore marked with an asterik. Use the map in the brochure to help keep you orientated.
In the area of Parking Lot A is a typical olive press. There is a similar oil press in The Oil Press Cave (#6) and details will be discussed there. A threshing floor and wine press have also been reconstructed in the parking lot area.
At the far end of the parking lot, take the walking trail indicated by a sign with a walking male. The first site you will come to is The Polish Cave (#1) and close to this The Columbarium Cave (#3)*. Like most of the caves here, there are a lot of steps. The exit from the cave is about half way along on the left.
The raising of doves was a major industry in the Shefela in the Hellenistic period and some 85 columbarium caves have been found in Maresha. There are over 2,000 niches in this particular cave. It is in the shape of a double cross and there are two openings in the ceiling. Raising doves was not labor-intensive, as the birds fed themselves, and this helped make it a big industry. The doves were used for food, as were their eggs. In an age without refrigeration, a single dove made a convenient food portion. Doves were also used for sacrificial purposes and their droppings could be used for fertilizer. This industry came to an end in about the 3rd century BCE.
Continue along the footpath in the direction of Parking Lot B, and you will come to the "Bathtub Cave" (#3) and the Oil Press Cave (4)*
The production of olive oil was another major industry here, since the climate of the Judean Lowlands was very favorable for the growing of olive trees. This cave would have been in action for about 3 months during the harvesting. This olive press is reconstructed. The olives were first crushed between two stones, a round stone set in the ground and a stone wheel, as shown here. The olive stones were also a source of oil and were crushed together with the rest of the olive. The mush produced was placed in straw baskets and about 10 baskets at a time were pressed with the apparatus shown here using weights attached to the far end of the beam.
Continue on the footpath to The Villa (#6) *.
This home is a partially reconstructed 2-storied villa from the Hellenistic period. The walls were plastered to prevent the soft chalk walls from weathering. Beneath the home is a deep cistern that can be visited.
After leaving the villa, you will soon come to a fork. The left-hand fork leads to the top of the tell and this is worth visiting for the view. To orientate you - Route 35 is to your north. You can make out the tall buildings of Kiryat Gat. To the east are the Judean Mountains and to the west the coastal plain.
Continue to Parking Lot C. There is a gift shop here that sells hot and cold drinks, and there are shaded steps to sit on, a few picnic tables, drinking water and WCs. Also in this area is The Sidonian Cave (#8)*.
The burial caves consist of a central hall with benches and above these are niches. The deceased was laid in the niche and the bones later collected and placed together with other members of the family in a special depository. This custom of bone collection was also part of the Jewish tradition and burial in niches was common at the end of the Hellenistic and early Roman periods. All the paintings are reconstructions after the tombs were plundered in the very early 1900s.The niche facing you as you enter was carved in the form of a Greek temple. Other images painted in the tomb include a war elephant, giraffe, wild boar, rhinoceros, crocodile, hippopotamus and mythical creatures such as a griffon and bearded lion.
Follow the footpath past the Sidonian cave to the remains of St Anne's church (#10).
This church was built during the Byzantine period, and there are also remains of a Crusader church.
Continue walking on the footpath until you come to an intersection. Cross the road and go through the gate. This footpath will lead you to the Bell Caves (#12)*.
These caves were used as quarries at the end of the Byzantine period (7th century CE) and Islamic period (7th to 11th centuries CE) and are worth visiting because of their beauty (see the photo below). They were located on the outskirts of the ancient city of Beit Guvrin.
In theory after visiting the Bell Caves, you can walk along the main park road to the Roman amphitheater on the other side of route 35. However, you will be getting further from your car. It is advised, therefore, to return to Parking Lot A and to visit the other side of route 35 by car. However, the walk back to your car is not well marked, so use the instructions here together with the map on the brochure.
Walk back along the footpath that you came along to the gate. Turn right on the paved road. This will bring you to a T-junction with the main circular road of the park. Turn left. Continue along this road until the first intersection on your right. Turn along this paved road. This will bring you again to an intersection with the main circular road of the park. Turn right and this road will lead you directly to Parking Lot A and your car.
Even if tired from all your walking, at visit to the Roman Amphitheater, Crusader Fortress and Bathhouse on the other side of route 35 is a must! The Roman amphitheater is particularly impressive.
The Roman troops stationed at Beit Guvrin favored a blood-thirsty type of entertainment to keep them prepared for war. An intact Roman amphitheater like this is rare in the MIddle East, as most structures like this were built as hippodromes for chariot racing. This amphitheater would have been used for gladiatorial contests, for fighting wild animals, military parades and public functions. It could seat some 3,500 spectators. The arena was in the center of the amphitheater and prevented the wild animals from reaching the spectators. There are vaulted tunnels underneath the arena and the gladiators and animals would enter the arena from these vaults.
A Crusader church and inner Crusader Fortress can also be visited. Both were built over a huge and impressive Roman bathhouse, the remains of which can also be seen. The inner fortress was built as an independent structure that could be defended if the outside walls were breached.
This is the Sidonian burial cave #8 by Parking Lot C. The tomb was the family tomb of a leader of the Sidonian community. The Sidonians, Idumeans and Greeks were buried in niches. The paintings on the tombs are reconstructions that were done following plundering of the cave in the early 1900's. In the center of the picture is a large decorated niche carved in the form of a Greek temple. There are a pair of Doric-style columns and painted vases that may have been used as tombstones or cremation burials in the Greek world. On the sides of the cave are pictures of animals, real and mythic, above the niches.
The amphitheater at Beit Guvrin is impressive, beautifully displayed, and should not be missed. It was built on the outskirts of the city in the 2nd century CE and would have contained up to about 3,500 spectators. It may have been built for Roman troops stationed here after the Bar Kochba revolt. Also here are the ruins of a Crusader fortress and a Roman-era bathhouse.