By Jacqueline Schaalje
Bet Guvrin, south of Beth Shemesh, is just one of these amazing places in
Israel. Recently a 1700-year-old menorah was found in the vicinity. Some areas are yet
unexcavated but they possibly contain more treasures from the Byzantine era; the most
beautiful mosaic floors were brought to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. In the early
spring the national park in the Judean hills is a feast of flowers.
But Bet Guvrin's best-kept riches are underground. When the town was
inhabited from the third century BCE until far into the Arab period the people dug a
myriad of caves with as many purposes as one can think of. The site may be suitable for a
summer visit, as inside the caves it is at least cool.
The surprise of the caves is even greater because the habitation on the
ancient tel at Bet Guvrin was never larger than a large village. Only in its Greek
and Roman period, when its name was changed into Eleutheropolis and settlement was moved
to the valley, it became a district capital.
Bet Guvrin lies next to the tel. The site on the tel is Maresha, which is
identified as the biblical city with the same name. It is mentioned among the cities of
Judea in Joshua and in the Book of Chronicles: the city is said here to have been built by
king Rehoboam and in a further excerpt king Asa battled to Maresha against "Zerah the
During the Persian period all of southern Judea including Maresha was
conquered by the Edomites, and so became a part of Idumea. From the fourth century BCE
Sidonians (from Sidon in Lebanon) and Greeks settled in the city. Thanks to their
enterprising spirit Maresha became an important business town, especially for the slave
trade with Egypt. During this time the lower city of Bet Guvrin was built and people
started living there and also the first caves were hewn.
The Hasmonean king John Hyrcanus I was the next to rule over the city,
whose pagan citizens he forced to convert to Judaism. Josephus Flavius chronicled that not
so long after that the Romans incorporated it into their empire. Bet Guvrin flowered as a
Jewish city until the Second Jewish War against the Romans from 132-135 CE.
After a period of silence and probably a thin population it seems to have
rehabilitated again because the city, now known by its Greek name Eleutheropolis, is heard
from again in the Talmud and Midrashim from the third and fourth centuries CE. At the time
the city had an amphitheatre where gladiatorial contests were held, a large Jewish
cemetery and a synagogue, which have all been discovered during excavations.
Not all parts are open to visitors, for example the Jewish cemetery is
closed. The amphitheatre lies on the other side of the road to Kiryat Gat. The wild
animals who fought here were kept in the dungeons under the theatre; when it was time to
appear for the show they were hauled up to the arena by an elevator. Although the theatre
ring is almost intact, the steps were robbed.
The Crusaders also landed in Bet Guvrin, just as the Arabs before and
after them who dug the magnificent bell caves. The Crusaders built their fort right over
the amphitheatre. Next to it they built a church of which there are some ruins. Between
the Sidonian caves and the bell caves lies another picturesque ruin of a church, St. Anna,
which inspired the Arab name for Bet Guvrin, "Sandahanna." In the last century
kibbutz Bet Guvrin was established.
Although it may sound surprising, building under the ground in Bet Guvrin
was easier than building above ground. This is so because of the especially soft bedrock
in the area. The deeper, very thick layers of soft limestone are called kirton.
Directly under the soil lies a thin crust of very tough limestone, nari, which
makes for solid roofs for the caves. Once the difficult nari is penetrated digging becomes
a piece of cake. The cave diggers at Bet Guvrin found the caves perfect protection against
the scorching summer heat. In addition they could hide in them in times of danger, for
instance during the Second Jewish War.
Lots of other caves have been found around Bet Guvrin. Of the bell caves
there are 800 in the area, 2 in Bet Guvrin. They were all dug by the Arabs from the 7th
to the 10th century. In the past concerts and other happenings were held here,
as witness the stage and the unclear remains of an art exhibition, but hazard of falling
stone has put an end to this. At the entrance to the caves, visitors are required to put a
The sheer space of the caves reminds one of cathedrals and large concert
halls; the acoustics are good and the dropping of the light through the round openings and
against the solemn cave walls adds shadow and perspective. It is strange to think that
these stunning rock halls had a very prosaic purpose: they were just used for quarrying
stone. The Bet Guvrin stones have been found in houses and buildings from Lod to Ashkelon.
The digging procedure went from the first round hole at the top in growing circles, until
the bell shape was formed. This was apparently a safe method for quarrying. The rope treks
can still be seen in the caves, along these the stones were pulled up.
The other caves lie around tel Maresha. The "Columbarium cave"
is one of the most spectacular and also one of the oddest. Its form is that of a double
cross. A few meters above eye level there are hundreds of small alcoves in the walls. They
were for pigeons which were held in ancient times for their meat and dung, which
was used as fertilizer. Because pigeons were cheap, they were widely popular among Jews
and pagans as sacrificial animals. After the Greek era these odd dove cots went out of
On a smaller scale is the bath cave towards the top of the tel. When one
crawls into the cave there is a small place for one bather. On the top and back of the
cave is a hole which leads outside. Here a slave would stand who would pour the water on
the bather's back through the hole. The system was apparently designed so the bather could
be splashing unseen by anyone. Although this bath is from the times of the Greeks, who
were not known for their modesty, - so maybe these baths were not used by Greeks.
Next to the bath cave is an underground olive oil plant. Placates in the
cave explain the ancient process of oil pressing. The production of oil was very important
in Judea, it was used as skin moisturizer and for light and food. The ground is still
darkly coloured from the olive oil.
Surrounding the top of the tel are houses from the Greek period. These
have enormous complexes of caves underground which are much larger than their space
aboveground. The different rooms were used as cisterns: the water dripped from the roof
and courtyard via channels underground. There are also chambers for - again - baths,
columbaria and olive presses. The passageways which lead from the cellars of one house to
its neighbour's were closed in the past when they were in use.
On top of the tel one gets a panoramic view of the Hebron mountains. The
plan of the biblical city of Maresha is known from earlier digs but most of the hill is
overgrown again. The finds of walls and a tower in the north-west corner date back to the
times of the kingdom of Juda and they were later reused by the Greek inhabitants.
The "Sidonian caves" are the only ones that are painted inside.
In reality these are modern repaintings of the old designs. The caves, lying off the tel,
were burial caves for the Greek, Sidonian and Edumite inhabitants of Bet Guvrin. The first
and biggest cave has paintings of animals, real and mythic, above the niches where the
corpses were laid. Some of the depicted animals could only be found in Egypt so the
painter must have travelled there. The animals sometimes have a symbolic function. For
instance the cock crows to scare away demons. The three-headed dog Cerberus guards the
entrance to the underworld. A bright red eagle on the sarcophaguses is a phoenix which is
reborn from a ritual fire and symbolizes the life after death.
The reason the cave are called "Sidonian" is because of an
inscription which mentions Apollophanes, the leader of the Sidonian community in Bet
Guvrin. This was his family tomb. The inscription above the dog Cerberus is in Greek and
is scribbled by two lovers who were separated by an arranged marriage. The woman complains
that she is not happy and that she lies with someone else thinking about her true love.
The man writes back that he still has her cloak at least (he hopes that she will come back
to pick it up). The woman says that she will not bother him but instead will run away. A
critical third person comments that the lovers should not speak about their problems and
should only be giving each other secret nods in public.
The second Sidonian cave, the "Tomb of the Musicians" is smaller
but has a beautiful painting of a man blowing a flute and a woman playing a harp.
Presumably they accompanied the dead with sweet music to their afterlife.
from the August-September 2000 Edition of the Jewish Magazine