The importance, value and renown of Bet She'arim were due to the fact that it was home to a great rabbi – Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi – who was the religious, spiritual and political leader of the Jewish people at the time, and compiler of the Mishnah (the oral laws). Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi wanted to be buried in Bet She'arim, and 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 in detail:
The synagogue – a rectangular building (35 m in length and 15 m wide), built of large dressed masonry blocks. The synagogue façade faces towards Jerusalem, and has three large entrance gates. Alongside the synagogue was a courtyard and a small building. Two interesting Greek inscriptions were found in this building. 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 'peace' (shalom) is the only word written in Hebrew.
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 importance of the national park:
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.
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.
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.
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.
How to get here: Coming 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 center of Kiryat Tivon)
Length of visit: 1 – 2 hours
Best season: All year round
Don't miss: The entrance to the Cave of the Coffins, the illustration center, the Cave of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the flowering of the Judas tree in spring, the statue of Alexander Zaid the Watchman.
Other attractions: Visitors center offering souvenirs, popsicles, coffee and tea, and light refreshments. 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.
For organized groups: Nighttime tours and/or visits to the Menorah Caves can also be arranged during the week.
Last entry to the park is one hour before closing time
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
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
Click here for Bet Shearim National Park site pamphlet
bet She'arim Necropolis - A Landmark of Jewish Renewal