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Tel Maresha / Beit Guvrin UNESCO world heritage site

Tel Maresha / Beit Guvrin is a UNESCO world heritage site since 2014 under the title: “The caves of Maresha and Bet Guvrin, a microcosm of land of caves.”

The name of the archaeological site is Tel Maresha. In previous episodes I have explained that a ‘tel’ is a man made mount of superimposed civilizations. So it looks like a natural hill, but in fact it is layer on layer of previous towns and cities that are now archaeological sites to be excavated to learn about the history that particular place.

Maresha is Hebrew and scholars think the name may be related to the Hebrew word for ‘head’, being rosh, and would have been chosen because the hill top was overlooking the area.

National Park

The area is beautiful, on the western part of the mountain ridge, with rolling hills, quite some green vegetation and now part of a national park under the Israeli National Parks authorities. This means that in order to visit the site you have to make a reservation online and pay an entrance fee. The site has organized parking and restrooms and you receive a brochure with information about the different caves that you visit.

When you visit this area you are going to be surprised and excited by the incredible amount of caves that exist here. So the highlights of your visit will be visiting the caves and the Roman Amphitheater, the Crusader church and the ancient olive press. I will talk about them in more detail. But let’s start with the history of this place.

The history of Maresha

Maresha was mentioned in the bible. It was mentioned as one of the towns that were fortified during the iron age period by King Rehoboam. That was around 925 BC.

The town suffered the famous attacks by the Assyrians and Babylonians and the area was emptied of its local people when they were taken and exiled to Babylonia. The area was then taken by the Idumeans who came from the south from the Naqab and the area became known as Idumea. We know that Herod the Great was from Idumea and some scholars even suggest he was from here. Herod the Great’s father Antipater was forced to become Jewish in the time of the Jewish leader John Hyrcanus. It is the only time in history that we know of forced conversions to Judaism. And later Maresha even became an important base of Jewish rebels against the Romans during the Maccabean revolt.

So Maresha WAS the central city of Idumea.

During the Persian and Hellenistic period, that is the Greek period, we are talking about the time between 6th and 1st Century BC, it was one of the most important towns and after the conquest by Alexander the Great, even Phoenicians from the north, from Tyre and from Sidon, on the coast, north of Haifa, came to live in Maresha. They were well-known traders and seafarers at that time

Maresha was destroyed by the Parthians in 40BC. Some scholars suggest that they actually destroyed it because it was the place that Herod the Great came from. The Parthians, who were growing their Empire that grew from the area that is now northern Iran, were good with the Hellenistic ruler of the area, Antigonus, who was an enemy of Herod.

After its destruction its role was passed to the nearby town of Bet Guvrin.

The history of Bet Guvrin

The name Bet Guvrin comes from the Aramaic for house of strong man: Beth Gabra.

The Palestinian town of Beit Jibrin that was depopulated in 1948 in the same area, also means the house of the powerful in Arabic.

Beit Guvrin received a special Roman privilege from Emperor Septimius Serverus. He granted it ‘ius italicum’ in 200AD. This meant that it was treated as if it was Italy, with Roman citizenship, exemption from land tax and protection by Roman law. He called it the city of the free: Eleutheropolis. (Which is actually a Greek name but that still was the common official language at that time)

It is mentioned as such on the Madaba map. The last time the city is mentioned in a document is in 570AD by the Piacenza pilgrim.

The Roman amphitheater of Bet Guvrin

From the Roman and Byzantine time you can still see an oval amphitheater. And this is quite special because there are only three amphitheaters found in the region. The amphitheater differs from the Roman Theater, in that it was a circle or oval shape, completely closed, so that the audience could watch spectacles like sports events or gladiator events from all sides. The Roman Theater was a semi circle and had a stage on the other end for performances. The other two amphitheaters can be seen in Ceasarea where the Hippodrome that Herod the Great built was changed into an amphitheater in the 2nd century and the other one was in Bisan, today known as Beit Shean. It is fully circled or elliptical. It is the only amphitheater in Israel that is open to public. It had 3500 seats around the arena and a space underneath for the wild animals. It was forbidden in 4th C by emperor Arcadois to have gladiatorial displays, so it became a marketplace.

Beth Gibelin or Sanda Hanna in Crusader time

When the Crusaders came to the region they called the area Beth Gibelin and it was also known as Beth Jibril (after archangel Gabriel) The Crusaders renovated the Saint Anna church that was built in the Byzantine time and today when you visit you can still see the beautiful apse of the church that is otherwise in ruins.

The Arabs who moved in later into the area called it Sanda Hanna after the Saint Anna church and today the Palestinians call Tel Maresha, Tell Sandahanna.

The Crusaders also set up a fortress. And as in many other places in Palestine the Crusader tower became the center of a new village that grew around it. The village became known as Beit Jibrin village, a Palestinian village.

The Palestinian village of Beit Jibrin

Beit Jibrin had a total land area of about 50km2 and only 0.3 km2 was populated, the rest was farmland. It was depopulated in 1948 and the Palestinians that were forced to leave their homes, ended up in refugee camps in the Hebron district, Fawwar camp and in Beit Jibrin camp in Bethlehem, also known as Azza camp, after one of the bigger families. These refugees live very close to the town they were displaced from but they have never been allowed to return.

From May 1949 the Israeli kibbutz Bet Guvrin was built on the lands of Beit Jibrin.

Now Beit Jibrin and the whole area of Tel Maresha fall under the Israel National Park Authorities and Tel Maresha is UNESCO world heritage because of the caves.

And the caves are magnificent.

The caves of Tel Marehsa / Bet Guvrin

These caves are dug out into the soft eocene chalk (kirton). They opened a hole in the hard upper layer called nari, then started digging the soft chalk, leaving a square column in the middle as central block. This turned the caves into a bell shaped cave. The top entrance would then be blocked and to enter the cave they made a side staircase.

There are about 3.500 caves. Initially the excavations were quarries, but they were later converted for various agricultural and local craft industry purposes. These quarried caves served as cisterns, oil presses, baths, columbaria (dovecotes), stables, places of religious worship, hideaways and, on the outskirts of the towns, burial areas. Some of the larger chambers feature vaulted arches and supporting pillars. These caves are like a city under a city.

Some of the most known caves that you can visit are:

The Polish cave is named after the inscription found in the cave on the central column: ‘Warsaw, Poland, 1943’ and an eagle, left by Polish soldiers who were stationed in the area in the second world war. It is a cave used as columbarium for pigeons (eggs, meat, fertilizer) There are over 2000 niches.

The columbarium cave (also known as es-Suk) is the largest and best designed cave. It has rectangular halls and is built in cross shape with two horizontal arms. It was in use until the 2nd Century AD and towards the last period also goods were stored.

The bathtub cave was for ritual bathing in Hellenstic period (Idumean purification method). There were two small chambers, one could sit in the bath while the other poured water without seeing the bather. Twenty such caves were found.

The oil press cave (one of twenty) shows how the olives were crushed and squeezed using the beam with heavy stone and the baskets with olive pulp on stone vat for oil collection.

There are two rooms, in between is a niche above the entrance to the connecting door where a statue of the Idumean goddess Qos used to be for blessing the harvest.

About two hundred water cistern caves were found that collected rainwater and had plastered walls.

Maze cave. A number of caves that used to be separated from each other are now connected by breaches and passages.

During Bar Kohba revolt the caves were used as hiding places and tunnels were cut into the original structures to connect the caves.

One of the most spectacular and interesting caves is the Sidonian cave which is a burial cave with 25 burial places. There are 41 niches (kokhim). After the body was decomposed the bones would be gathered and placed in a box that is called ossuary. [osseree]

The cave is named after the Sidonian colony that was established here in the 2nd Century BC by the Ptolemies and became the center of slave trade. The leader of the Sidonian community was called Apollophanaes, son of Semaios. In this cave he had his family tomb

and on the tomb there is an inscription that mentions the name Maresha. This inscription was important for scholars to officially identify this location, this site, as Maresha.

The Sidonian burial cave has stucco, paintings on coating plaster. Some are reconstructed. The colors are very clear. Depictions of animals such as the hippo, crocodile, lion with head of a man, elephant, rhino, gazelle, griffin (mythological), giraffe, bull. Names of the deceased. A horseman and trumpet blowers fighting with a leopard.

Also here a cave called the cave of the musicians because of the illustrations of musicians depicted in the cave.

Many of the faces of these old stuccos have been damaged and scratched. According to some researchers who spoke to the Muslim sheikh of Beit Jibrin this was done by pious muslims who believe that the illustrations with the faces were against the rules of their religion.

Stone quarries

Quarrying continued to happened in Byzantine and Muslim times, to have stone for the cities on the coastal plains and for Beit Guvrin itself. Within a 3 km radius around Beit Jibrin there are 800 of these quarry pits from between 6th and 10th Century AD.

Visit Tel Maresha / Bet Guvrin

If, in the future, you travel to Palestine and you want to organize a tour with me to visit this site, you know how to reach me! And if you don’t know how to reach me, just send an email to kristel@storiesfrompalestine.info