Beit Guvrin National Park
The Historical Sites
Beit Guvrin National Park - At the Heart of the Land
World Heritage Site
When friends come to visit from abroad, I make sure to take them to Beit Guvrin. I know they will get on their own to the Old City and Massada, the Christian sites by the Kinneret, the Dead Sea and maybe even to Eilat, but Beit Guvrin is not on the classic tourist trail.
Yet, Beit Guvrin is a fascinating place by all criteria: historical, ecological, geological, cultural and esthetic. And – it is at the heart of the land, in Emek Ha’Ela, located at the lower part of the Judean Hills as they slope down towards the coastal plain.
The site has been declared a World Heritage Site alongside the Pyramids in Egypt, the Acropolis of Athens, the Taj Mahal in India and the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador.
Despite that, Yehudit, my friend from Australia, who has been living in Israel for years, has never even heard of the place. I therefore invited her to join for a short excursion to Beit Guvrin National Park this beautiful morning of late May.
Rich history, multiple uses
The man-carved caves in Beit Guvrin have been inhabited and used since the period of the Judean monarchy until the early Muslim period, for about 1800 years. The adjacent cities of Maresha and Beit Guvrin controlled the crossroad of trade routes connecting Mesopotamia and Egypt.
The same caves had different uses at different times. The rock quarried when they were dug served for construction of the neighboring cities. The hollowed areas left behind were used for oil pressing, baths and purification, water cisterns, hiding places, stables, storage, burial and most interestingly – pigeon cultivation (see below – the columbaria). Descendants of those pigeons still inhabit the columbaria today!!!
There are about 500 caves containing 3500 rooms, over an area of about 741 acres. The park itself is larger still, covering about 1250 acres, and serving also as a nature reserve.
We set out on our excursion early in the morning, a bit after the authorities allowed the opening of the national parks and reserves, following the initial coronavirus lockdown.
Normally, I don’t drive through the so-called “territories” outside the Green Line, but this time Waze GPS directed me to cross the border and I decided to obey to save time. It is always a drastic change in energy. Driving through the West Bank can easily be avoided, though, using routes 1,3, and then turning into the #38 a bit before Latrun.
We arrived early and had to wait for the ranger to open the reserve, having a bathroom interlude in the open air. Quiet, peace, space (a rarity in Israel) and flowers in bloom welcomed us this bright cool morning of an unusually rainy year.
Beit Guvrin National Park -The Bell Caves
Due to the mere size of the park, I never saw the same caves twice, and somehow always find myself fumbling around and inadvertently discovering new areas.
The bell caves are the hallmark of Beit Guvrin. In these caves, and the others, humans over the ages used their skills to carve useful spaces in the soft chalk characteristic of the area.
A word on the geology
The hills of the plains around Bet Guvrin are made of a pale and soft chalk which is easy to quarry, yet sufficiently durable for the hollow spaces carved out of it to last for hundreds of years.
The chalk of the Judean plains is largely covered by a hard crust known as caliche, or nari, which can be as thick as 2 m. It is possible that the caliche is formed as a result of erosion of the upper chalk deposits.
Agriculture in the area takes place only in the valleys, in places where there is a thick deposit of fertile soil.
Beit Guvrin National Park -Apollophanes Sidonite Cave
A family cave
The Apollophanes, or Sidonite Cave, is perhaps the most interesting archaeological site in Beit Guvrin National Park, both artistically and historically.
This is a burial cave, beautifully reconstructed, with inscriptions and pictures which reveal much about the art, mythology and ethnic affiliation of the people interred in there – Idumeans, Sidonians and Greeks.
A family cave, the deceased were placed in niches, and their bones later collected and removed to enable repeated use of the space.
The painted figures and animals are both real and mythological.
Grave robbers and “the most breathtaking burial cave in the country”
The cave was discovered to science in 1902 when two archaeologists, John Peters, an American, and Hemann Thiersch, a German, were led by an Arab guide to a “small and unimpressive hole in the ground. which was one of a long line of excavations carried out by grave robbers... The Arab entreated them to descend into the hole…That’s when the most luxurious and breathtaking burial cave ever discovered in the country was revealed to the world.”
Once exposed, the colors of the frescoes deteriorated, and the caves were vandalized further. Following the declaration of the site as a national park, reconstruction took place based on early photographs, using highly professional and careful techniques.
The Apollophanes inscription clearly identifies Tel Maresha with the Biblical city of Maresha.
Beit Guvrin National Park -Columbarium and Polish Caves
Doves preceded chickens on humanity’s tables and are more elegant
During the Hellenistic period, the raising of doves was very common. They were used for meat and eggs, and their droppings as fertilizer. They were also sacrificed in rituals. In Maresha alone, 85 columbarium caves have been discovered with tens of thousands of niches. Colomba means dove in Latin.
When you enter the underground cave, the air is a bit stuffy and the light dim. Doves fly around, still using the same niches as their ancestors 2000 years ago. Unfortunately, I had a hard time capturing them flying on my camera… Alas…
Certainly, the columbarium caves will stay vividly in your memory when you visit Beit Guvrin.
Poland was here
Another magnificent cave, which also has a columbarium, is the so-called “Polish cave”, named after some Polish soldiers who visited the cave during WWII. They carved the figure 1943 on the wall with an incription “Warsaw, Poland” and an eagle.
The cave is magnificent, with the trails of the doves’ excrements with the rainwater on the walls create very interesting colorful patterns I found photogenic.
Ancient olive industry
Another common use for the caves was for oil pressing, perhaps since the caves kept the cool in the summer, and for protection. The roundness of the space matches the roundness of the press.
On the walk to the cave, beautiful vistas of the surrounding hills and valleys were revealed, as well as local flora depicted below.
As mentioned in the introduction, Beit Guvrin National Park can provide interest for many repeated visits. You will always discover something new.