Located in the the Judean lowlands Bet Guvrin-Maresha National Park is a region of low hills, 250–350 m above sea level covered with woodland used for grazing. The fertile soil has been cultivated since ancient times. The national park covers about 5,000 dunams (1,250 acres), is the biblical city of Maresha. During the Roman period Maresha was abandoned and the settlement moved to nearby Bet Guvrin. Bet Guvrin was an important junction on the road from Lod and Ashkelon to Hebron and Jerusalem. The national park is well known for its many and caves dug by its ancient inhabitants. These caves served quarries, cisterns, storerooms, dovecotes, tombs, storage chambers for produce and shelters for farm animals. Hewn caves are a common phenomenon in the lowlands because the rocks that make up the region are soft, light colored chalk that is easy to quarry. In many places the chalk is covered with a harder crust, known as nari, some 1.5–3.0 m thick.
The History of Bet Guvrin
Following the destruction of Maresha, Bet Guvrin became the region’s most important city. The name Bet Guvrin first appears in the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, who reported that the Romans, led by Vespasian, conquered Bet Guvrin in 68 CE. In 200 CE, Emperor Septimus Severus granted Bet Guvrin the status of a city and changed its name to Eleutheropolis ‘city of the freedmen’. The city controlled the area between the coastal plain and the Dead Sea and between Bet Shemesh and the Be’er Sheva Valley. Bet Guvrin became an important junction; five roads, along which milestones have been found, led to the city. Besides dwellings, the city boasted an amphitheater and other public structures. There are no springs at Bet Guvrin, but during the Roman period two aqueducts channeled flowing water to the city from springs in the Judean Mountains. Slowly but surely the city’s Jewish population was renewed. In the 3rd and 4th centuries CE the city is mentioned in the Talmud and the Midrash. Renowned sages lived there, including Rabbi Yonatan and Rabbi Yehuda Ben-Ya‘akov. Additional evidence of the growing Jewish population in the region comes from the remains of a large Jewish cemetery and a synagogue inscription.
During the Byzantine period Bet Guvrin became an important Christian center and churches were built there. The Early Arab period saw most of the Bell Caves hewn and during the Crusader period a small fortified city existed here. The Church of St. Anne was restored at that time, during which small farming villages surrounded the city.
The Arab village of Bet Jibrin stood here until Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. In June of that year, the Egyptian army took over the British police station built here at the beginning of World War II. The area was taken by the Israel Defense Forces on October 27, 1948. Kibbutz Bet Guvrin was founded in May 1949.
Archaeological Research Archaeological research began at Bet Guvrin as early as 1900 when P.G. Bliss and A.S. Macalister headed an expedition sponsored by the Palestine Exploration Fund. In 1902, J.P. Peters and H. Thiersch excavated the two Sidonian burial caves. In the 1960s and 1970s the site was surveyed by the geographer Y. Ben-Arieh and archeologists E. Oren, Y. Dagan, A. Kloner and others. Since 1989 the Israel Antiquities Authority has been excavating the site under Prof. A. Kloner and M. Cohen.
An exhibition if reconstructed ancient agricultural equipment is displayed. The model olive-oil press represents dozens of industrial installations to produce oil that operated in this region in antiquity. A typical oil press included a crushing stone and two or three beams to which weights were attached to press the oil from the crushed olives. This in Hebrew is known as ‘beit bad’, beam house.
Olive cultivation and oil production were important to the ancient lowlands. Thousands of dunams of olive groves surrounded Bet Guvrin. The olives were harvested in autumn, which was the time of the main season for the oil presses, which worked continuously for about three months. One round of the initial olive-crushing took about 30 minutes, but pressing the oil took a few hours. Olive oil had many uses in ancient times – for lights, in cooking, as a foodstuff and to preserve food, in rituals, as body oil and a cosmetic. After the oil was pressed out, the waste was used as a fuel and as bonding material in construction. A winepress and threshing floor have also been reconstructed here. Wheat was separated from chaff using animal power at the threshing floor and grapes were trampled at the winepress to produce juice that fermented into wine.
This is a cistern hewn in the Hellenistic period. In the middle is a block of stone, part of a pillar that supported the ceiling. At some point, niches to raise doves were carved into the cistern walls.
During World War II Polish soldiers from General Wladislaw Anders’ army who were loyal to the Polish government in exile in London visited this cave and carved the the year 1943 into the pillar, along with an inscription, ‘Warsaw, Poland’ and an eagle, the symbol of the Polish army.
A columbarium is an installation to raise doves. The word comes from the Latin colomba, which means dovecote. The walls of this cave feature high-quality design and are carefully carved with over 2,000 niches. The raising of doves was very common in the Judean lowlands during the Hellenistic period. Doves were apparently kept for their meat and eggs as food and their droppings as fertilizer. Doves were also sacrificed in rituals. After the raising of doves as a prosperous industry ceased in the 3rd century BCE, other purposes were found for this cave, like many others at Maresha. In Maresha alone, some 85 combarium caves have been discovered, with tens of thousands of niches.
The Bathtub Cave
This is a small cave that was used as a sitz bath. The cave consists of a staircase and two small chambers, one of which was sunken. A seat was carved in the lower chamber. Water poured over the bather, who sat in the sunken room, through feeder channels and spouts hewn into the walls. The person pouring the water would have been unable to see the bather, thus preserving the bather’s modesty. The bathtub was used during the Hellenistic period. This method of bathing may have conformed to ritual purification rites of the inhabitants of Maresha, who were of Idumean origin. More than 20 rock-hewn installations that served as bathtubs have been found at Maresha.
The Oil Press Cave
This is one of 22 underground oil presses discovered in Hellenistic Maresha. Most of them have one crushing installation; two or three feature press beams.
Tel Maresha rises to 357m above sea level, with the upper city, or acropolis, about 30 m above the lower city. The appearance of the steep, terraced-looking slopes of the upper city is due to the remains of walls that surrounded the city for 800 years, from the Israelite period to the end of the Hellenistic period (9th–1st centuries BCE). Square corner towers were integrated into the city wall; the remains of one of these can be seen in the northwestern corner of the tell. The top of the tell affords an impressive view of the national park and its surroundings.
This house has been partially reconstructed, was used as a dwelling and for commerce in the Hellenistic period. The ground floor, with rooms arranged around a small central courtyard, extends over 150 sq m. A staircase led to a second story. The walls of the house were preserved to 1.5 m above the floor and were plastered to protect the soft chalk rock from weathering. The reconstruction team left some of the stones in the rebuilt wall exposed. A hoard of 25 coins was found under the floor of one of the rooms. The latest coin was minted in 113 BCE, and the house was probably destroyed around that year, during the conquest of Maresha by John Hyrcannus I.
Cisterns found under the dwelling stored rainwater channeled from nearby alleyways, the roof and the courtyard. The water flowed to the cisterns by means of a clay pipe and channels. A rock-hewn staircase and bannister descends to the cistern. Beyond the broken wall of one of the cisterns is a large quarry with pillars supporting the ceiling. A passage now links the quarry to the cisterns of the neighboring house.
The Maze Cave
The Maze Cave reveals dwellings and underground systems from the Hellenistic period. The houses are not currently open to visitors; archaeologists have covered them with soil until a way is found to display them without damaging them. The staircase of the northern dwelling descends into the cave to a bathing chamber. From there, you can continue to the columbarium and to a large cistern. Passage continues to cisterns in which Hellenistic-period clay jugs, jars and bowls were discovered. In the last chamber, under the fourth house, is a reconstructed oil press. Unlike today, during the time of Hellenistic Maresha the walls of the underground room had no breaches and no passage linking them.
The Sidonian Caves
During the Hellenistic period the people of Maresha commonly buried their dead in caves with niches. Two of these caves are seen here. Many of the niches are decorated with gables (a triangular architectural element common on temple facades).
The Apollophanes Cave
This is the northern of the two cave and is so called because an inscription was found mentioning Apollophanes son of Sesmaios, the leader of the Sidonian community in Maresha. The inscription, as well as the cave’s paintings, shed light on the art, mythology and ethnic affiliations of those interred in the cave (Idumeans, Sidonians and Greeks). They also reveal their family relationships and burial customs. The Apollophanes inscription clearly identifies Tel Maresha with biblical Maresha.
Cave of the Musicians
In the southern cave paintings have been reconstructed that depict musicians of the period. All the paintings in the caves are reconstructions.
St. Anne’s Church
The church is located on the path between parking lots C and D. This very large church (52 x 56 m) was built during the Byzantine period. In the Crusader period the church was restored on a smaller scale. The church was named after Anne, the mother of Mary, mother of Jesus. The Arab inhabitants of Bet Jibrin preserved the name as ‘Sandahanna’. In Arabic, Tel Maresha was named Tell Sandahanna, after the church.
The Bell Caves
The Bell Caves, which are within the city limits of Bet Guvrin, were apparently hewn during the Byzantine and Early Muslim periods. The caves were used mainly as quarries and provided building material for cities on the coastal plain and for Bet Guvrin itself. The 10th-century Arab traveler Al Muqaddasi wrote of Bet Guvrin: ‘It is a land of richness and plenty, and in it are many marble quarries….’
The Crusader Fortress
The Crusader fortress is located east of and adjacent to the amphitheater. Remains of a basilical church, built in 1136 by King Foulk d’Anjou of Jerusalem, were found in the fortress. The church, which was built in the Romanesque style, served the people living in and around the fortress. The church was adorned with Roman and Byzantine stone bases, columns and capitals that had been taken from the remains of ancient Bet Guvrin.