Bet Guvrin National Park

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Bet Guvrin – Maresha National Park is at the very heart of the "Land of a Thousand Caves".

The park contains an ancient architectural marvel - countless caves intended for a wide range of uses, a complete Roman amphitheater, and the impressive ruins of a fortress and a church from the Crusader period. The national park has sparse woodlands and Mediterranean scrub, rich in many species of flora and fauna.​

 

Main points of interest

• Tel Maresha
• Maresha Caves
• The northern city complex
• The reconstructed ancient wine press and olive press

Main points of interest in detail:

• Tel Maresha - a mound identified with the biblical Maresha.
• The Maresha Caves, among them the impressive cisterns, olive presses, columbarium caves, and burial caves of the Phoenicians who lived in the city, in which rare wall paintings have been restored.
• The northern city complex, with significant remains from the Roman period (an impressive amphitheater, bath house, walls), and the remains of a Crusader fortress with a church, dining room, workshops, and underground vaults.
• The reconstructed ancient wine press and olive press.

Lookout points

The top of Tel Maresha affords an excellent view of the southern Judean plains.

Identity card

Status:
The National Park was declared in 1989.

Reasons for declaration:

• Conservation of Tel Maresha, with impressive remains from Biblical and Second Temple times.
• Continued study of Roman and Crusader Bet Guvrin.
• Conservation of the natural woodland characteristic of the southern Judean plains.

Geographic location:

The national park is south of Kibbutz Bet Guvrin. Road 35 divides it into two areas - south and north. In the southern area is Tel Maresha and its caves, and in the northern area - the remains of settlements from Roman and Crusader times.

A​​ctivities of the Nature and Parks Authority

• The Nature and Parks Authority has prepared the site for visitors, while conserving the remains of the past and ensuring the safety of the visitors. Access paths have been paved to the sites, and lighting installed in the dark caves.
• Archaeological excavations and conservation activities have been carried out in the Roman amphitheater and Crusader fortress.
• In the Sidonian Cave an accurate reconstruction has been made of the striking wall paintings from the Hellenistic period.
• The Nature and Parks Authority Education Center offers special tours of the site, such as  lamplight tours, adventure games, and activities at the wine press and olive press.
• There is a 2 km marked hiking trail at the site.

Wildlife

A rich diversity of Judean plains wildlife makes its home in the Bet Guvrin – Maresha National Park, enjoying the wide-open spaces and the additional food provided by the agricultural areas and settlements. Large mammals have been seen in the park, as well as a wide range of birds and reptiles.

The Judean plains still have extensive open spaces in which many animals can live, including natural woodlands and planted forests, scrub and agricultural fields. Bet Guvrin National Park is an integral part of the fabric of the Judean plains.
Large mammals have been seen within the park, among them the Palestine Mountain Gazelle (Gazella gazella), the golden jackal (Canis aureus), the striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena), and the red fox (Vulpes vulpes). Small mammals have also been seen, such as the weasel (Mustela), European badger (Meles meles), and porcupine (Hystrix).
There is also a remarkable variety of birds in the park, including species such as the white stork (Ciconia ciconia), partridge (Alectoris), and Eurasian stone curlew (Burhinus oedicnemus), the woodchat shrike (Lanius senator), red-rumped swallow (Cecropis daurica), the black kite (Milvus migrans), and many song-birds. An exceptional concentration of snake eagles (Circaetus) live in the Judean plains, birds of prey that spend summers in Israel. The Bet Guvrin caves are the nesting site of the jackdaw (Corvus monedula), a member of the crow family that breeds in only a few places in Israel. Many species of reptiles have also been observed in the park, including the Palestine viper (Vipera palaestinae), the Montpellier snake (Malpolon monspessulanus), the Berber skink (Eumeces schneideri), the Lebanon lizard (Phoenicolacerta laevis), Gunther's cylindrical skink (Chalcides guentheri), and the Greek tortoise (Testudo graeca).

Flora

Bet Guvrin National Park lies in the transition area between the Mediterranean climate and the desert climate. In these conditions, small trees that are relatively resistant to aridity predominate, and in among them are shrubs and bushes. In the winter and at the beginning of spring the area is typically covered with a striking carpet of anemones, cyclamen, and many other blossoms.

The park lies in an area with an arid Mediterranean climate. Average annual precipitation is around 400 mm. In these conditions Mediterranean woodland develops, dominated by carob trees (Ceratonia silique) and black hawthorns (Rhamnus lycioides), and between them, large mastic trees (Pistacia lentiscus).
At the same time, the many years of human activity have left their mark in the area - tree felling, grazing, and agricultural cultivation have harmed the natural vegetation, and in the hot and relatively arid climate the woodland recovers very slowly. Orchard trees, such as olives and figs, are also evidence of human activity at the site.
In places where the woodland has thinned out, shrubs and bushes emerge. In the caliche rocks where more fertile soil develops and the water system is relatively improved, Dominican sage (Salvia dominica), sharp varthemia (Chiliadenus iphionoides), and spiny alkanet (Alkanna strigose) bushes dominate. In places where the caliche surface has been removed, mainly in the valleys and on the steep slopes, prickly burnet (Sarcopoterium spinosum) predominates. In places where considerable disturbance can be seen (Tel Maresha), Damascus saltwort (Salsola damascene) and Echiochilon fruticosum (Noaea mucronata) are common.
In the winter and at the beginning of spring, anemones, cyclamen and other flowering plants paint the hills in many hues.

History and archaeology

The settlement whose remains are found at Tel Maresha was founded in the early Israelite period, and continued to exist until the late Hellenistic period. The settlement was destroyed in 40 BCE during the fight between the Hasmoneans and Herod. After the destruction, the community moved to nearby Bet Guvrin, where there was an important settlement in Roman and Byzantine times. On the ruins of this settlement, a small fortified town was built during the Crusader period.

The site in the earliest periods

The southern area – Tel Maresha:
In the southern part of the park is the city of Maresha, one of the cities of Judah in First Temple times. According to the Bible (2 Chronicles 11:8). King Rehoboam fortified Maresha (around 925 BCE). Like the other cities of Judah, Maresha was also damaged during the military campaign of the Assyrian king Sennacherib following the rebellion of Hezekiah (701 BCE). Later, in the 6th century BCE, King Zedekiah of Judah rebelled against Babylonian rule, and Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, conquered the country again, destroying the Temple in Jerusalem, and exiling many of the people. Maresha and the lowland towns were emptied of their inhabitants, and their place was taken by Edomites who came up from the Negev. Since that time, during the Persian and Hellenistic periods (from the 6th century to the 1st century BCE) the area was known as Idumea.
Maresha was the central city of Idumea, and after the conquest by Alexander the Great (332 BCE), Phoenicians from Tyre and Lebanon also arrived there. In 112 BCE the Hasmonean king John Hyrcanus captured Maresha as part of his attempt to convert the Edomite population, and destroyed the city. In 40 BCE the Parthians completely destroyed the city, and until the 2nd century CE there was only a small settlement at the site.

The northern area:
At that time, in the 2nd century CE, the name of "Bet Gavri" began to be heard, and this village built on the level area to the west of Maresha, on the banks of the Guvrin Stream, went on to become the major city in the south of the country.

The main sites in the southern area:

  • Tel Maresha – from the top of Tel Maresha there is a wonderful view of the Judean plains. Excavations at the site have uncovered the north-western tower of the Hellenistic city walls. To the north of the tower the remains of courtyards, stairwells and rooms have been found, apparently used for commercial and residential purposes. These houses lean on the walls of the Iron Age town. The houses were built around the Acropolis, and beneath them vast spaces were excavated and used as cisterns, olive presses, and store rooms.
  •  
    The Bell Caves - huge quarries from the Byzantine period and Early Arab period. The builders dug out a narrow, round opening in the caliche deposit, and then quarried down, widening the pit more and more, and creating a bell-like shape. The largest of the caves reaches a height of 25 m. The quarry contains some 80 bell pits, whose walls were broken through at a later period, creating a warren of hollow spaces.

  • The Market Cave - this cave appears to be the most impressive columbarium in Israel. The cave was excavated to a very high standard, and comprises a main corridor crossed by two transverse corridors. Carved in the walls of the cave are over 2000 alcoves in which doves were bred. Dove breeding apparently came to an end at the end of the 3rd century BCE. 85 columbarium systems have been found around the national park.

  • The Polish Cave - this cave initially served as a cistern, and later was turned into a columbarium. During World War II, Polish soldiers from General Anders' army visited the place, and on a pillar supporting the ceiling, carved an inscription - "Warsaw, Poland" - and an eagle - symbol of the Polish army.

  • The Olive Press - the olive press is one of 22 underground olive presses from the Hellenistic period that have been found at Maresha to date. In the cave is a reconstruction of an ancient installation for pressing oil.

  • Reconstructed home - a partly reconstructed building used for accommodation and commerce during the Hellenistic period. The ground floor covered an area of 150 m², and its rooms were built around a small central courtyard. A staircase led to a second story. The walls of the house have been preserved to a height of 1.5 m. Under the floor in one of the rooms, a hoard of 25 coins was found. The latest of the coins was minted in 113 BCE, apparently shortly before the house was destroyed by John Hyrcanus I, who conquered Maresha. Water cisterns were found underneath the house, collecting rainwater in clay pipes and channels from the alleys, roofs and courtyards.

  • Underground system (61 caves) - an incomparably impressive system of underground spaces, built during the Hellenistic period. The path passes through openings broken in the walls separating the spaces, in which there are cisterns, a columbarium, and store rooms.

  • The Bathtub Cave – two small chambers in which seats were carved for the use of bathers. The water flowed over the seats in channels and funnels installed in the rock walls.

  • The Sidonian Burial Caves – these are just two of many caves carved out by the Phoenicians living at Maresha. Large alcoves were made in the caves, in which the dead were laid, and the walls were decorated with paintings and inscriptions. One cave is called the Apollophanes Cave, because an inscription was found in it commemorating Apollophanes son of Sesmaios, leader of the Sidonian community in Maresha. The ancient paintings in this cave have been reconstructed on the basis of the drawings of archeologists John Peters and Herman Thiersch, who discovered the place in 1902. In the adjacent cave are reconstructions of paintings of musicians. 

  • St Anne's Church – the remains of a large church built in the Byzantine period, which was apparently the largest church in the land of Israel in its time. The church was renovated on a smaller scale during the Crusader period. The Arabs called Tel Maresha "Tell Sandahanna", after the church.

Bet Guvrin in the Roman period:
After the Bar Kochba revolt (135 – 132 BCE), Bet Guvrin became the central city of the district of Idumea. In 199/200 CE Caesar Septimius Severus awarded some of the communities in the province of Syria-Palestinae the status of polis, and Bet Guvrin was one of these cities. The city began minting its own coins in 200 CE, and marking them with its official name -Lucia Septimia Severa Eleutheropolis, or Eleutheropolis (City of the Freedmen) for short.  At this time splendid public buildings began to be constructed here, such as the amphitheater and the bathhouse.
Five imperial highways set out from Bet Guvrin, leading to Lod, Ashkelon, Gaza, Hebron and Jerusalem. The city commanded the area between Yavne in the west and Ein Gedi in the east, from Latrun in the north to Beersheba in the south – the largest area of control of all the cities in the province.
The city flourished. Two aqueducts brought water to the city, one carrying water from nearby springs in the area of Tel Goded, and the other, longer aqueduct brought water from the springs of Mt Hebron. Ammianus Marcellinus, the Roman historian of the 4th century CE, mentions Eleutheropolis as one of the "cities of excellence" in the land of Israel: "Palestine extends over a great extent of territory and abounds in cultivated and well-kept lands. It also has some splendid cities, none of which yield to any of the others... These are Caesarea, Eleutheropolis, Neapolis (Nablus), along with Ashkelon and Gaza, built in a former age."

The Byzantine period:
During the Byzantine period Bet Guvrin was an important Christian center, the Bishop's seat and one of the five largest cities in the land of Israel. There was also a large Jewish community at Bet Guvrin, its name mentioned in the Talmud and in the midrashim, and sages such as Rabbi Yonathan of Bet Guvrin and Rabbi Yehuda Ben Yaacov. The remains of Jewish tombs and a synagogue inscription from this period have been found at Bet Guvrin.
Following the Arab conquest (in the 7th century), the place became known as Bet Jibrin, a name that preserves the ancient Arab name of the city. It lost its former glory, but continued to be an important local center.

The Crusader period:
In 1099 CE, the Crusaders conquered the land of Israel and established the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The kingdom came under continuous Muslim attack. Ashkelon, which remained in the hands of the Muslims until 1153, was of particular concern to the Crusaders. In 1131 Fulk of Anjou came to power. Under his rule, the kingdom tried to establish itself in the areas under its control, rather than setting out to attempt further conquests. Accordingly, in 1134 Fulk decided to fortify the southern border of his kingdom, and built a fortress at Bet Guvrin. The excavators identified the square Crusader fortress with a number of concentric defensive strips at this site as being the earliest model of this type in the land of Israel and the entire Levant. Following on from the fortress at Bet Guvrin and the policy of fortification, additional fortresses were built around Ashkelon at Yavne (Ibelin, 1141) and at Tel Tsafit (Blanchegarde, 1142).
In 1136, the fortress was handed over to the Knights of the Order of St John (the Hospitallers). They expanded the fortress and reinforced it considerably, and under their protection a civilian settlement developed around it. After the Crusaders abandoned the fortress, Bet Guvrin, like the land of Israel as a whole, came under the control of the Ayyubid Muslims. The Crusaders returned for three years, under an agreement signed with the Ayyubid Sultan al-Malek Salah Ayyub, ruler of Egypt, and then finally abandoned the place in 1244. During the Ayyubid and Mameluke periods the local residents continued to use the spaces of the fortress, and even turned the northern aisle of the church into a mosque.
During the Ottoman period, the village of Bet Jibrin was built on the ruins of the fortress and the Roman city.

The main sites in the northern area:
The amphitheater – a remarkable building, built according to the best Roman tradition, for fights between gladiators or against wild animals, and for mass ceremonies. The amphitheater is well preserved, and it is possible to visit the vaults that supported its galleries, the arena, and the underground tunnels through which the competitors and the wild animals entered the arena. On the western side of the vault an altar was found, apparently a site of ritual worship for the competitors before entering the arena. The amphitheater could seat 3500 people.
Bathhouse - the remains of a large Roman bathhouse, with an area of over 5000 m². This is the first bathhouse in the land of Israel built according to the Roman bathhouse design. The builders constructed vaults in order to overcome the slope descending to the Guvrin Stream and allow enough room to build the huge structure.
Crusader fortress - the Crusader fortress is considerably smaller than the Roman city, but its plan was very much influenced by the buildings of the city. The Crusaders used parts of the ancient city walls to build the fortress, and it was built in two stages.
The Crusader church - the church was built up against the southern wall of the inner fortress. It is a typical basilica, with a nave and two aisles. To build the church, the Crusaders used columns, capitals, floor tiles, and any other ancient architectural item they could lay their hands on. The church is very large, considerably greater than required by the population living in the fortress, and it may be assumed that it served the residents of the area as well, and perhaps also pilgrims.
The inner fortress - the fortress was built on the foundations of the Roman bathhouse, and remains of the two periods are used here indiscriminately. It was possible to hide in the impressive inner fortress in the event that the outer fortifications fell. A wooden path runs across it, going through the fortress dining room and other parts of the fortress, and ending in an impressive set of vaults from the Roman period, which served as the foundations of the bathhouse.

Geology

The Bet Guvrin National Park lies in the high plains. The hills in the area rise to an elevation of 350 m above sea level. The hills of the plain around Bet Guvrin are made of a pale and soft chalk mass. This rock is easy to quarry, and yet is sufficiently durable for the hollow spaces carved out in it to last for hundreds of years.

The Bet Guvrin National Park lies in the Judean plains. In geological terms, this is a syncline of chalky deposits from the Senonian period (65 – 88 million years ago) and Eocene period (37 – 55 million years ago). The western part of the plain is relatively low, because during the Miocene (5.5 - 23 million years ago) the sea flooded the area, and waves washed over the western plain. The national park lies more to the east, in the high plains. The highest point here reaches an elevation of 360 m above sea level.
The exposed rocks in the belong to the Maresha group (a group of the Tzora formation). These are rocks of a uniform mass of chalk, in which horizontal rocks sometimes appear. The thickness of the formation is 180 m. The Maresha caves are all hewn out of Maresha group rocks. Bricks quarried from these rocks are very long-lasting, as are the hollow spaces dug out in the caves.
The chalk rock of the Judean plains is largely covered by a hard chalky crust known as caliche. The thickness of the caliche in the Maresha group can be as much as 2 m. The way in which caliche is formed is the subject of dispute, but it appears that it does not form over chalk in arid regions (in the Negev). It is possible that the caliche is formed as a result of wear of the upper chalk deposit.
The hills of the high plains are not cultivated today, and they are mainly used for grazing. Agriculture take place only in the valleys, in places where there is a thick deposit of fertile soil.

How to get here:
Opposite Kibbutz Bet Guvrin, on the Bet Shemesh – Kiryat Gat road.

Road 35 divides the national park into two areas - south and north. In the southern area is Tel Maresha and its caves, and in the northern area - the remains of settlements from Roman and Crusader times.  

 

Length of visit: 1 – 5 hours

 

Best season: All year round, especially during flowering season

 

Don't miss: The Sidonian burial cave, the only amphitheater in Israel that is open to the public

 

Other attractions: Visitors service center 

 

Opening hours

Last entry to the park is one hour before closing time

 Summer:

Sunday - Thursday and Saturday – 8 am – 5 pm

Fridays and the eve of holidays – 8 am – 4 pm

 

Winter:

 Sunday - Thursday and Saturday – 8 am – 4 pm

Fridays and the eve of holidays – 8 am – 3 pm

  

On the eve of New Year, the eve of the Day of Atonement, and Passover eve: 8 am – 1 pm

Contact us

Telephone: 08-6811020

Further details about activities and tours from the information center at *3639

Fax: 08-6812957

 

Entrance fee

Adult - NIS 28, child - NIS 14

Group (over 30):  Adult - NIS 23, child - NIS 13

Student - NIS 24

Bicycle path

Yes

Additional Information

Click here for site pamphlet


    Content under construction, the information apears soon.

     In the Bet Govrin-Maresha National Park adaptations to make the site accessible to people with disabilities are being made. Adaptations currently in place include:

    •  Parking
    • restroom.

    The Bell Caves

    • Trails
    •  observation points and signage for the visually impaired.

    The Crafts Courtyard

    • Facilities and pavilion
    • picnic area
    • restroom
    • signage.

    The Sidonian Cave Square 

    • Parking
    • souvenir store
    • special visual aids for the visually impaired.
    • People with considerable mobility impairments are advised to visit with a companion.


    32.702808,35.12777
    Bet Govrin Maresha National Park