(May 17, 2022 / JNS) Remains of an ancient city, mysterious inscriptions, caves and catacombs, stunning landscapes, it’s all in Bet She’arim, one of Israel’s most impressive UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Located in the hills of the Lower Galilee between Haifa and Nazareth, Bet She’arim is a great day out for families, nature lovers, and history buffs.
The site has recently been updated and a stop at the well-equipped visitor center to pick up a free map will direct visitors to the best walking route around the large area.
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Before you even reach the maze of cool, illuminated catacombs, you can’t help but marvel at the landscaping, which includes both planted and native wildlife. In late winter and spring, the park is carpeted with an array of multicolored wildflowers, as well as the spectacular pink blossoms of the Judas tree.
The ancient city of Bet She’arim is first mentioned in the writings of Josephus, the first-century historian. The remains of a 2nd century BCE basilica can still be seen on the hill, but it’s what’s inside the hill that draws the most attention today.
A vast underground necropolis offers a fascinating look into the lives of people who lived and died here thousands of years ago.
Excavations began in earnest in the 1930s and continued until 2018. Today, several dozen caves and dozens of other chambers are open to the public. There’s plenty of light and height in most areas, and temperatures inside are comfortable, making it easy to spend a few hours gazing at the wide variety of impressive ossuaries, tunnels, inscriptions, and symbolic decorations.
Access to most caves is through open courtyards, many of which have impressive facades inspired by classical architecture. The whole is impressive. In a cave, known as the Cave of the Coffins, “the mother of all menorahs” was discovered. It stands over six feet high and four feet wide, and is just one of many seven-pronged carved stone menorahs found at the site. Other sculptures in this same cave are taken from the animal world.
Beit She’arim became a center of Torah study after 165 CE when the Sanhedrin, led by Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, moved there following the Bar Kochba revolt. Although he lived his last years in Zippori, the revered leader of the Sanhedrin was buried in 220 CE in what was then the local cemetery of Beit She’arim. Over the following centuries, Beit She’arim became the national burial site for other prominent rabbis and their families, since Jewish burials were prohibited in Jerusalem. Inscriptions in Greek, Aramaic and Palmyrene, as well as Hebrew, attest to the fact that important figures from other parts of the region were also buried here.
Karen B. Stern, associate professor of history at Brooklyn College, notes in her book “Writing on the Wall: Graffiti and the Forgotten Jews of Antiquity” that relatives of Jews buried in the Beit Shearim graves engraved her passages with all kinds of symbols and pictures. In a catacomb, an inscription in Greek reads: “Good luck in your resurrection”. Dr Stern says she doesn’t know if the author of the graffiti was wishing good luck to the dead or displaying a “morbid sense of humour”.
There are two main trails through the park, and it would take a whole day to go through all the caves and tunnels on both paths, so read the guidebook to decide which sites interest you the most. Each cave is designated by number, although they are often not found in order.
Along the lower path is the cave of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, which consists of a courtyard, a cave and an impressive entrance with a high triple arch. Archaeologists believe there is enough evidence to assume that this is where the great sage was buried.
There are picnic areas in the shade of the trees near the parking lot and near the trailhead. After a break, ask a guide from the visitor center to take you to the Menorah Cave complex which is on the western side of the hill of Bet She’arim. These caves, preserved by special order of the Knesset, contain dozens of representations of the menorah that has become the symbol of the State of Israel. Due to their fragile state, these caves are only open to visitors accompanied by a guide.
It’s easy to see why Beit She’arim was designated a World Heritage Site. It is one of the most important ancient Jewish cemeteries in Israel as well as one of the densest cemeteries in the Roman world, and represents a rich combination of Eastern Roman classical art and folk art. And it all comes together in a beautiful setting in the center of modern Israel.
Summer hours: Sunday to Thursday and Saturday: 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.; Friday and eve of public holidays: 8am-4pm; winter hours: Sunday-Thursday and Saturday: 8am-4pm; Friday and holiday eves: 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.