Bet She’arim was home to Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi who was the religious, spiritual and political leader of the Jewish people and compiler of the Mishnah (the oral laws). Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi wanted to be buried in Bet She’arim where his tomb was built during his lifetime. The story of the town encapsulates the story of Jewish settlement of the time, the story of its people, their actions, and their great faith.
Points of interest:
The olive press
The statue of Alexander Zaid – the “Watchman”
The upper path – a hiking trail focusing on the summit of the Bet She’arim hilltop
The lower path – a hiking trail among the burial caves in the central part of the park
The Coffins Cave
The cave of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi
The Museum Cave
The Menorah Caves
The synagogue is a rectangular building 35m x 15m, built of large dressed masonry blocks. The synagogue façade faces towards Jerusalem, and has three large entrance gates. At the side of the synagogue was a courtyard and a small building. Two interesting Greek inscriptions have been discovered at the site. One is a dedicatory inscription to two men engaged in burial at the site, while the second one reads: ‘Jacob of Caesarea, head of the synagogue of Pamphylia. Peace’ – the word shalom,’peace’ is written in Hebrew.
The basilica was a public building, with a main hall divided into three areas by two rows of columns. The rear section of the central area had a raised dais, and the two side areas were called ‘aisles’. The basilica walls were plastered with coloured plaster at a later period, and marble panels were set into them, with inscriptions and decorations. Apart from one exception, the inscriptions were written in Greek and expressed appreciation and dedication to the generous donors who contributed to the building, and to the administrators.
At the summit of the Bet She’arim hilltop, which is known as Shekh Abrek stands on the remains of the town of Bet She’arim there is a bronze statue of the ‘watchman’ Alexander Zaid. He mounted on his horse and looking out over the fields of the Jezreel Valley. Zaid immigrated to pre-state Israel in 1904, and was one of the founders of the Bar Giora defense group, which later established the Hashomer, The Guild of Watchmen’ organization. Zaid was a courageous guard, but in 1938 he was murdered in an ambush set by local Arabs. The statue in his memory was erected in the place he loved and protected, with a breath-taking view over the Jezreel Valley.
The summit of Bet She’arim stands on the ruins of the town of Bet She’arim known in Arabic as Shekh Abrek Near to the statue of Alexander Zaid is the tomb of Shekh Abrek, a two-domed structure, alongside which a tiny spring used to flow. The hilltop on which the statue and the tomb stand covers parts of the ruins of the town of Bet She’arim. Further excavation is planned in the near future here.
The upper path
There is a hiking trail near the summit of the Bet She’arim hilltop. The path passes among and connects the burial caves and public structures. Parts of the path are circular, while other parts have no exit. The stations along the trail are:
To the right of the path are the constructed foundations of a square structure, which is thought to have been the base of a impressive mausoleum.
The cistern was originally a burial cave but was later turned into a water cistern. Excavations have uncovered finds from the Byzantine period including hundreds of pottery vessels, glass vessels, and gold coins. The walls of the cistern are plastered.
There is a smaller cistern with two further ones alongside it at the side of the road leading up from the necropolis to the town of Bet She’arim. They stored the water reserves of Bet She’arim.
The entrance courtyard of the cave is paved with ashlar blocks, and it contains a large sarcophagus. This cave is unexcavated although its door has been moved slightly by grave robbers.
The benches building – a spacious courtyard surrounded by stepped benches in the form of a horseshoe. It is assumed that commemorative events were held here (lessons, homilies and prayers) on memorial days for great public figures, or for the people buried in the cave beneath the courtyard (the Cave of the Coffins).
The Sarah Cave
This is a set of four burial chambers around a central courtyard. A Greek inscription on the basalt lintel of the right-hand chamber reads: “The burial place of Theodosia, also called Sarah, from Tyre”. Under the influence of Hellenistic culture, the Jews in exile used to have a Greek name in addition to their Jewish name. A marble panel found in the courtyard has the Greek inscription: ‘The tombstone of Calliope the elder, who was also the freedwoman of Procopius, of blessed memory’. The inscription indicates that there was slavery among the Jews, but also that there was a law regarding the emancipation of slaves, determining when and how slaves or maids were to be freed from their masters (Exodus 21:1, Deuteronomy 15:12). In any event, the name of Procopius, Calliope’s master, is mentioned with affection. It may be assumed that Calliope became renowned after she was freed, and therefore was privileged to be buried at Bet She’arim.
The Cave of the Sarcophagus
A large courtyard in which there are benches, a burial chamber, and the remains of an above-ground structure. According to the original plan, the place was intended for burial in coffins, but only one sarcophagus was found here. At a later stage additional burial area were built in the form of rooms with domed vaulted ceilings. Carved rectangular tombs with trough tombs were found in these burial chambers.
From here, the path goes up to the Piers Cave (on the right).
The Piers Cave
This cave has one hall with two sculpted piers ie pillars carved inti the walls. Currently it is not possible to enter the cave.
The Lulav Cave
A cave with two chambers. On the lintel of the entrance is a Greek inscription: ‘Lord remember your servant Sarkados’, and above it, a Greek inscription ‘Lord remember your maidservant Primosa’. It is possible that Primosa was the wife of Sarkados. On the doorposts of the second arch, on the left and right sides, two palm branches (lulavs) are carved.
The path passes another benches structure above the tomb of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, and is apparently connected to ceremonies held in honor of the rabbi and his family. One of the benches is shaped in the form of a semicircle, which is exceptional at Bet She’arim.
The ‘Here lies the beloved’ Cave – exceptional in its shape, carved as a narrow corridor. Four vaults have been carved out on either side of the central hall, one story in height. On the plaster covering the furthest vault on the right is a Greek inscription in red, only part of which has been preserved: ‘Here lies the beloved… Esther’. The door is decorated with two roses enclosed in circles.
The Cloth Merchants Cave – a cave with three halls, containing six inscriptions. The inscription in the eastern hall is written in Greek, in red: ‘Benjamin ben Julius, the cloth merchant, son of the most excellent Macrobius’. Another inscription in the same hall reads: ‘Saviris son of Savinos, chief cloth dyer’. The mausoleum apparently belonged to a family engaged in the cloth trade.
On the lintel at the entrance to the western hall is a carved relief of a head, and alongside it a candelabrum and the inscription: ‘Of Socrates’. A Greek man was buried in this hall, but the candelabrum and the tomb indicate that he saw himself as Jewish in every respect. On a white marble panel, set in a special indentation some 80 cm above the lintel, is a bilingual inscription alongside a seven-branched candelabrum on a triangular stand. In Greek it says: ‘Daniel son of Ido of Tyre’, followed by the word ‘Peace’ (shalom) in Hebrew.
The lower path – a hiking trail passing among the burial caves in the central section of the park. The upper path opens up into a courtyard and descends by a flight of stairs to the Cave of the Syrian Jews, the Cave of Curses, and the Cave of Virtues.
The Cave of Curses
A cave with four halls. In Cave 12 are inscriptions in Greek and Aramaic, some of which are curses, such as ‘Whoever opens this tomb… will eventually die a bad death’.
The cave of Syrian Jewry is on the left. To the right of the entrance, a large candelabrum is carved. By the foot of the candelabrum, grave robbers have broken through the wall separating this cave from the Cave of Curses. Further in, on the left, is a Greek inscription: “The vault of Aidesios, head of the Council of Elders, a man of Antioch”. Next to this inscription are the names of other family members buried by him, including his wife and two daughters.
The Cave of Virtues
This is a complex set of caves, built on three levels. Only one of them is open to visitors. The ascending staircase and additional level are closed, as well as the staircase going down to the Cave of the Lady Miki, which is 14.5 m long. The Cave of Virtues has a long courtyard, around which twelve halls have been carved out, on two levels, containing 26 inscriptions in Greek and Hebrew. One of the Hebrew inscriptions, in red, says: ‘This is the resting place of Yudan, son of Levi. Forever in peace. May his resting place be [set?] in peace. Of Yudan, son of Levi.’ Another inscription, in Greek, commemorates ‘the Lady Miki’.
From here, the path returns to the plaza, on the way visiting another series of caves.
The Cave of the Coffins
The Cave of the Coffins is the largest and most impressive burial complex found at Bet She’arim. This cave too is characterized by a splendid triple-arched façade and is of impressive size 75 x 75 m. 135 coffins were found in the cave. Some of them have beautiful decorations taken from the animal world, including bulls’ heads, eagles, lions, birds and fish. On the wall of the cave is a 1.9 m high relief of a candelabrum. Well-known rabbis and their families were also buried in the cave complex.
The Cave of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi
The largest burial complex, with a courtyard, cave, and the remains of an above-ground structure. The façade has three entrances, topped by three arches, 8m in height. Buried in this cave, among others, are Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Anina (Hanina) HaKatan, and Rabban Gamliel. In the inner room are two rectangular graves, carved next to each other in the floor. The double tomb was covered with heavy stone slabs, and there were no inscriptions on the tombs. Researchers assume that a man and his wife were buried here, and these graves are also in line with Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s will – he asked to be buried in the ground and not in a sarcophagus. Moreover, the names inscribed on the other tombs in the cave are familiar from Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s environs: his sons were Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Gamliel, and Anina was the name of the rabbi who ordained him. The combination of these details has led to the conclusion that this is likely to have been the grave of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi.
The Museum Cave
The cave is in a water cistern that was converted to a glass manufacturing workshop. On display in the museum are impressive finds from Bet She’arim, including a huge block of glass weighing 8.8 tons.
The Menorah Caves
The Menorah Caves complex was opened to visitors in 2009. It includes six burial caves richly decorated with engravings, reliefs, and inscriptions. Among these, the cave walls are embellished with dozens of reliefs of seven-branched candelabra, the menorah that became the emblem of the modern state of Israel. Near to the caves, a Haganah weapons cache was found from the days of the British Mandate. These finds led the Israeli Knesset to adopt the caves, contribute to their conservation, and open them to the public. The Menorah Caves can be visited with a Nature and Parks Authority guide or as part of an organized tour, by advance arrangement Tel: 04-9831643.
Bet She’arim is in a small valley surrounded by rounded hills, from which it is possible to see the beautiful surrounding landscape. The hiking trail to the Menorah Caves leaves the valley and climbs the Shekh Abrek hill, on which the statue of Alexander Zaid stands. To the south, the tranquil view of the Jezreel Valley is revealed, its green fields dotted with small communities. To the west rises Mt Carmel, with the Muhraqa Monastery visible on its summit. From the path it is possible to see the little valley in which Bet She’arim lies, as well as the Menorah Caves.
The necropolis (city of the dead) of Bet She’arim is one of the largest surviving Jewish cemeteries of antiquity, and is of primary importance for Jewish history in the period following the destruction of the Second Temple.
The complexes of burial caves are evidence of the burial customs prevailing from the Hellenistic period until the end of the Byzantine period, and are splendidly constructed and decorated by skilled hands with rare works of art.
Bet She’arim is an example of the ideological, human, traditional and cultural encounter that took place at that time between the classical Roman world and the Jewish world.
The necropolis at Bet She’arim has a direct connection with one of the high points in the development of Judaism. This is where Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi lived and was buried, leader of the Sanhedrin and compiler of the Mishna, the oral law – one of the most important Jewish spiritual and cultural works, and a turning point in the history of Judaism.
The site also houses the world’s largest block of raw glass from antiquity.
Unlike other burial sites, Bet She’arim is a national cemetery and is important for an understanding of the Judaism of the period.
The burial complexes at the site have survived in their entirety, as originally built, with no later additions. The damage caused by grave robbers has not harmed the authenticity of the caves, and the necropolis as a whole has not been damaged. Conservation and restoration work has also been carried out to repair the damage.
Bet She’arim is near to the town of Tiv’on and Moshav Bet Zaid, in the foothills of Mt Carmel and north of Jezreel Valley.
Activities of the Nature and Parks Authority
Archaeological surveys of the findings at the site and the state of the caves, including safety checks, handling the graves by the Atara Kadisha burial society, and conservation of the finds – the inscriptions, reliefs and decorations – with the assistance of the Antiquities Authority.
Environmental development for the benefit of visitors: building seating areas, planting trees, and setting out paths.
Development of the Menorah Caves for the benefit of visitors (building a lookout, and roofing to protect against penetration of water into the caves and to provide shade).
Community garden – the community garden project has been operating in Bet She’arim National Park since 1997. This is the first project in the Nature and Parks Authority operated by volunteer guides, and is a model for other sites of the Authority. The project is held in collaboration with Kiryat Tiv’on Local Council, and its main purpose is to bring residents of the nearby communities into contact with the values of the site near their home, and encourage a connection with it, drawing them nearer to the park with the help of the guides. To this end, volunteers from the community have been trained to guide the public visiting the national park. Guided tours are held at fixed times throughout the week: 10 am, 11 am and 12 noon, and on Saturdays and holidays also at 1 pm.
Bet She’arim National Park does not have abundant wildlife, but there are unique groups of animals living here, especially birds. For example, nesting on the exposed rock of the burial complexes are bee-eaters (Meropidae), beautiful birds that are not characteristic of the natural landscape of Mediterranean woodland, but tend to be found in cliff areas. Hopping among the ornamental trees are Old World jays (Garrulus) enjoying the fruit, and in the woodland the voices of songbirds can be heard. The open areas around the park are important hunting grounds for birds of prey such as the common kestrel (Falco tinnunculus), barn owl (Tyto alba), little owl (Athene), and long-legged buzzard (Buteo rufinus). Small mammals and reptiles live in the woodland undergrowth, but it is hard to see them among the dense vegetation.
Bet She’arim National Park is immersed in a patch of bold green, a combination of beautiful woodland and many ornamental trees planted by man. The area of the park is 3,882 dunams, and it houses both scrub and cultivated land, serving as an important ecological corridor connecting Lower Galilee with the Carmel. A few Mt Tabor oaks (Quercus ithaburensis) are left on the hillsides, the remains of the large forest that covered the area in the past. In the winter myriad cyclamen and anemones burst out of the ground, and spring is the season of the asphodel (Asphodelus ramosus), as well as the Judas tree (Cercis siliquastrum) whose blossoms paint the park in patches of deep pink.
Bet She’arim was apparently established at the time of King Herod, since the earliest building remains found at the site are attributed to his time, although there is archeological evidence that there was already a settlement there during the period of the Kingdom of Israel. Bet She’arim was part of the Hasmonean kingdom. Its name is mentioned for the first time in the writings of Joseph ben Matityahu (Josephus Flavius), who describes it as the center of the estate of Queen Berenice, daughter of King Agrippas I and granddaughter of King Herod. The origin of the name apparently lies in the gates of the city wall, or by another explanation, the surrounding fields of barley (seora in Hebrew). In Aramaic it was called “Bet Sharai” and “Bet Sharin”, and in Greek – “Besara”.
Under Roman rule Bet She’arim was an important Jewish settlement, but its name and renown spread during the period of the Mishna and Talmud (in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE). Bet She’arim was a great center of Torah study, and became famous mainly thanks to Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, who settled there. Known simply as “Rabbi”, he was the head of the Sanhedrin, a religious and spiritual authority, but also a political leader and a leading, charismatic figure in the Jewish world of the time. Through his solid connections with the Roman regime he had many estates – one of them at Bet She’arim. Thanks to Rabbi the town prospered, flourished and developed, and for a certain time was also the seat of the Sanhedrin (after Shfar’am). During his stay in the town, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi compiled one of the exemplary works of Judaism – the Mishna (oral law), which was eventually finalized at Zippori, the town in which he spent his last 17 years. Before his death, Rabbi asked to be buried in Bet She’arim, but he did not anticipate the consequences of his request. His burial place became a holy site, and many Jews wanted to be buried near to him, both because of proximity to him, but also because the Roman rulers prohibited Jewish burial on the Mount of Olives. Bet She’arim became a necropolis – a city of the dead – and in practice, became the Mount of Olives of the Roman period. After the death of Rabbi, the town declined and despite the mass of burials, did not succeed in regaining the prosperity of the past. The quality of the construction deteriorated, and in the 4th century it was destroyed and burned.
In 1924 Alexander Zaid, one of the founders of the Bar Giora defense organization and later of Hashomer, came to the Shekh Abrek area. Zaid, who came to the country with the Second Aliya, was notable for his courage and spirit, and therefore was sent wherever trouble arose. He guarded the land, helped the residents, and prevented harassment by the Bedouins and Circassians. At Shekh Abrek he established a farm and commanded the defense of the settlements in the area on behalf of the Jewish National Fund. While wandering around the area, following his custom of digging in the places he passed, Zaid discovered a crack that led into one of the caves, and inside the cave he found ancient objects, inscriptions, and so on. Zaid contacted Yitshak Ben Zvi and archaeologist Benjamin Mazar, and as a result Bet She’arim was revealed in all its glory. Zaid was killed in 1938, and is commemorated in a monument set up on Shekh Abrek hilltop in 1940. The statue of Zaid, mounted on his horse Dumiya, looks out over the valley that he patrolled, and commemorates the man and the legend.
The town of Bet She’arim was discovered completely by chance, and from the moment it was uncovered the researchers understood the extent of the enormous treasure lying beneath the surface. The first of the town’s researchers was Claude Conder, a representative of the British Fund. Conder studied the area in 1871, but with little result. The place remained desolate until, in 1930, researchers from the German Oriental Society arrived and discovered a number of graves from the Roman periods, and the inscription “Binyamin bar Yitshak, Torah scholar”. Despite this discovery, nothing was done and Bet She’arim was forgotten again.
65 years after the arrival of the first researcher, the secret of Bet She’arim still lay buried deep in the earth, until its discovery, as mentioned, by the legendary watchman Alexander Zaid. Zaid arrived in the Valley in 1926, and guarded the area for around a decade. In 1936, by chance, Zaid found a crack leading to one of the caves, in which he discovered ancient Jewish artefacts. This time, intensive excavations were carried out at Bet She’arim. Until 1940, Prof. Benjamin Mazar excavated at the site under the auspices of the Israel Exploration Society (formerly the Jewish Palestine Exploration Society). Excavations were renewed in 1953 – 1958, headed by Prof. Nachman Avigad. Under Avigad’s management an ancient town was uncovered, on an area of 130 dunams, and the magnificent remains of a synagogue, a public building (the basilica), Bet Midrash (seminary), residential houses, the city walls, a gate and an olive press were revealed, as well as over 30 very splendid burial complexes, carved in the rock and creating a necropolis – a large city of the dead, which is in fact one of the largest Jewish cemeteries of the ancient world. The identification of the place was finally confirmed with the discovery of an inscription bearing the name ‘Besara’ – the Greek name of Bet She’arim. Mazar returned to excavate at the site in 1956 and 1959, and uncovered a large public building and a number of additional burial complexes.
The discovery of the cemetery at Bet She’arim is one of the most fascinating archaeological finds in the country. In the course of excavations, over 30 underground burial complexes were found, among the most splendid and impressive in the land of Israel. The reason for this was, as mentioned, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, who chose to be buried here, and as a result many Jewish believers asked to be buried nearby, even those who lived outside the country. Among the caves more than 300 tomb inscriptions were found, the majority of them in Greek, and others in Hebrew, Aramaic and Tadmorian. The inscriptions give us the story of those who are buried, where they came from, what they did, the family ties between them, and thus shed light on the life of the Jewish community in the land of Israel and the Diaspora at that time. The desire of Jews living outside the country to be buried at Bet She’arim enhanced the importance of Rabbi and the value of the town, and the commemorative inscriptions include people from Palmyra in Syria, the coastal towns of Phoenicia, Himyar in Yemen, and other far-flung places.
Bet She’arim is built on a chalkstone hill. Chalk is a soft rock, and therefore it was easy to carve out the caves. The structure of the caves have a number of characteristics in common. Access to the majority of the caves was through a kind of open courtyard. The entrance to each cave was constructed in the form of an impressive façade, inspired by classical architecture. At the center of the façade were stone doors, opening on a hinge, and leading to underground burial chambers, through corridors and inner rooms. Inside the chambers are a range of different types of grave, including carved tombs, vaulted graves, niches, pits in the floor, and sarcophagi – large stone coffins, as well as lead, pottery and wooden coffins. The large burial caves contained hundreds of burial places, and the small ones – dozens. A unique feature of the necropolis is the wall reliefs, in an oriental folk art style. This is the largest collection of reliefs of its kind, and it is important for the light it sheds on the nature of Judaism in the period after the destruction of the Second Temple. Etched into the walls of the case and the coffins are decorations and Jewish symbols, including the seven-branched candelabrum, the lulav palm branch, the etrog (citron), a shovel, a shofar (ram’s horn), and Holy Ark.
The excavating archaeologists gave each cave complex a serial number. This numbering system has been retained, and is used to identify the caves to this day. In 1996, with the aim of attracting the public to the caves, they were given names according to the finds that characterized them (the Coffins Cave, the Menorah Caves, and so on). The impressive caves were made ready for visitors and lighting was installed. The park planner, landscape architect Lipa Yahalom, was awarded an Israel Prize for his work.
Bet She’arim National Park is included in the list of the sites proposed by the State of Israel for recognition by UNESCO as a World Heritage site.
From Tel Aviv, take road 4 to Furedis Junction, and turn left (east) onto Road 70. Follow the road to Yokne’am Junction and then continue along Road 722 to Hashomrim Junction. Take the first left turn to Bet She’arim National Park. (10 minutes from the centre of Kiryat Tivon). Beware: Currently there are extensive roadworks and access routes may be subject to diversions.
Length of visit: 2 hours minimum
Don’t miss: The entrance to the Cave of the Coffins, the illustration centre, the Cave of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the flowering of the Judas tree in spring, the statue of Alexander Zaid the Watchman.
Visitors centre and with cafe.
Tours of the Menorah Caves, by arrangement and accompanied by a site guide, depart on Fridays and Saturdays at 10:30 and 11:00 am.
Night time tours and/or visits to the Menorah Caves can also be arranged during the week for groups.
Sunday – Thursday and Saturday – 8 am – 5 pm
Fridays and the eve of holidays – 8 am – 4 pm
Sunday – Thursday and Saturday – 8 am – 4 pm
Fridays and the eve of holidays – 8 am – 3 pm
Last entry to the park is one hour before closing time
On the eve of New Year, the eve of the Day of Atonement, and Passover eve: 8 am – 1 pm
Individuals: Adult – NIS 22, child – NIS 9
Groups (over 30): Adult – NIS 19, child – NIS 8
Entry for dogs is prohibited