Following the kind invitation of our dear friends Chani and Kobi to join a small private group of their friends, on a guided tour, lead by an expert archeologist, I (only, as David was still "under the weather") was fortunate to explore a UNESCO World Heritage (since 2014) fascinating excavations of: Beit Guvrin-Marasha ancient city archeological Park
The Park is an ancient 1000 Caves architectural Wonder Land.
The "golden Aged" group consisted of mainly lovely kibbutz-nics and moshav-nics,
from all around the country, whose individual history of periphery settling, and fighting wars, has been intertwined, with that of the State, and was admirably executed by their own idealistic pioneering lives.
I was definitely the "add-ball", who likewise, love of exploring and of history, fatefully brought us together, on this special tour, and despite it all , we found much in common.
Although one can easily spend an entire day exploring the fascinating National Park,
our guided tour was limited to the 4 hours, our guide Dr. Nachum Sagiv dedicated to us.
Guide : Dr. Nachum Sagiv (background in Hebrew)
A member of Kibbutz Palmachim, Dr Sagiv is an expert tour guide on Israel's History and Archeology of the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine eras,
He actually run some of the excavations at the Maresha-Beit Gubrin site.
Driving south on main route 40 toward Kiryat Gat, (only 13km from it) via the narrower route 353, when veering to the left going east , and then south toward Beit-Guvrin on route 35, the road runs through an enchanting Judean lowland landscape.
The Landscap Scenery
Moderate rolling hills, and small valleys, dotted with cultivated colorful agricultural tapestry, reveals yellow grain stocks, mainly wheat fields, meticulous rows of green onion heads, groves of orange, pomegranate, and olive trees, as well as grape-vines,
all along the route, up to the formal entry gate, to the National Park, on the south side of
the 35 route.
2 Parts to the Park
In the north, the Beit Guvrin Amphitheater and Crusader fortress.
In the Southern bigger part, trails leads between the caves and ruins
A Roman Amphitheater (which we didn't visit) North Part
Right by the northern side of "Beit Guvrin intersection" off route 35, and across from the National Park, a road post directed toward ruins of a Roman Theater.
Uncovered in the mid-1990s, it was built in 2nd C during the time of Bar Kochba’s rebellion, to entertain the local Roman garrison, about sitting 3,500 spectators,
with blood sport fights between gladiators, slaves and wild animals,
During the Byzantine era, the amphitheater was supposedly used as a market and later when the Crusaders took over, they built a fortress atop it.
The elliptical structure built of large rectangular limestone ashlars. was in use until destroyed in the Galilee earthquake of 363.
At the South Park Entrance
The view off the verdant low hills' topography toward the Judean lowland surroundings, is inspirational. The white soft porous chalk limestone - Nari kIrton of which the beautiful area's landscape is naturally morphed , was used and traded as a popular building material,
At the South park's entrance , most reddish Poppy flower heads, in full bloom welcomed us in clusters, at both side s of the trail
Maresha - Beit Guvrin - Eleutheropolis - One City , 3 Names and many Conquerors
The National Park’s boundaries incorporate the ancient cities of Maresha and of Beit Guvrin.
The site was first excavated in 1898–1900 when a planned and fortified Hellenistic city encircled by a town wall with towers was uncovered. and after in 1989 and 1992 respectively, by Israeli archaeologists. Excavations has continued periodically to the present time.
Maresha /Tel Moresha at 350 m above sea level, the mound is situated in the heart of the Judean lowland, and was one of the important towns of Judah kingdom, during the time of the First Temple,
The name Maresha -Marisas may be a derivative of Moreshet - Heritage in Hebrew or as the town was located on a high hill, hence its name - Rosh mean head in Hebrew
The upper city, or acropolis, about 30 m above the lower city. cascades in steep, terraced-looking slopes encircled by remains of 800 years walls, surrounding the city, from the Israelite period to the end of the Hellenistic period (9th–1st BCE).
Square corner towers were integrated into the city wall; one of these can be seen in the northwestern corner of the tell/mound.
Beit Guvrin - in Hebrew “the strong men house” (known also as Eleutheropolis) which succeeded the destroyed Maresha, was the large Roman Byzantine city founded after the destruction in 40 BCE, and striven. from the late Hellenistic until the end of the Byzantine period..
Archaeological artifacts unearthed at the site and which we mainly visited :
Man-made caves and underground spaces originated as quarries, ruins of ancient structures , many columbarium (dovecote), and burial sites.
Include at the park are also a large Jewish cemetery, the Roman-Byzantine amphitheater mentioned above, a Byzantine church - St Anna, public baths, and mosaics all ranging from 2,400 to 1,800 years old. Many Ostracon written clay pieces, were found as well.
History in Brief - city settled by several of the ancient kingdoms/players
Maresha is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible as a city in ancient Judah (Joshua 15:44) and that also Rehoboam fortified against Egyptian attack.
Following, first the Assyrian ( Sancherive) and then the Babbilion ( Nevuchadnatzer in 6BCE) destruction of the Kingdom of Judah the land was emptied out of its Jewish presence, and thus the Edomites - Semitic Canaanite tribes,from the South East of the Jordan river, moved into the deserted lands, and the city of Maresha became part of the Edomite kingdom.
Sidonian community, Phoenician sea people/fisherman ( today Lebanon area) settled in Maresha, as well, In the late Persian period, and the city is mentioned in the Zenon Papyri (259 BC).
Following the Alexander Macdon's invasions, in 334 bc. the 3 major populations:
Edomites, Sidonites and Hellenistic Greeks, cohabited the city.
During the Maccabean Revolt,( ~160BCE) Maresha was a base for attacks against Judea and suffered retaliation from the Maccabees.
Hasmonean king John Hyrcanus I, re-conquered from the Greeks and destroyed Maresha in 112 BCE, as the Edomites at this part of the country rejected being Jewdized
The region of Idumea remained under Hasmonean control.
In 40 BC the Parthians devastated completely the city, after which it was never rebuilt.
Beit Guvrin rose from the ruins. and succeeded Maresha as a main city and of a high quality Olive Oiil press center.
It was conquered by the Roman general Vespasian during the Jewish War (68 CE) and completely destroyed during the Bar Kochba revolt (132–135 CE),
Some 65 years after Bar Kochba’s rebellion against the Romans, it was re-established as a Roman colony and became an administrative center, in charge of agriculture land/yield, in 200 AD under the new name of "Eleutheropolis", 'city of freemen'. given by Emperor Septimus Severus.
Some of the Jewish population moved back and the city flourished.
During the Byzantine era Beit Guvrin became important to the Christians and thus churches were built.
In Crusader times it was a small fortified hub.
In modern times, the Egyptian Army controlled the area until the IDF took it back in 1948.
The 4 Caves Visited
The caves visited, are men made spaces curved in all beige-colored limestone walls, which began as quarry mining of the soft chalk rock material, dug out from top to the underground bottom, and used for local and regional building projects.
Many of the 1000 caves found, are large (over 60 feet (18 m) high), Bell shaped, airy and easily accessible,which long narrow steep stairs leads into,.
Colombarium installations, are found in many and they are linked via an underground network of passageways.
The underground dug spaces were used for several purposes:
colombarium spaces for growing pigeons, work cooling off spaces, oil pressing, storage and burial, They were not water cistern. Separate dug wells were found as well.
Colombarium Installations for raising Doves
The raising of doves was widespread in the Judean lowlands during the Hellenistic period
Pigeons farming was cost free and practical for small fresh food portion consumption.
(meat and eggs)
Furthermore growing pigeons for religious sacrificial objects was affordable and pigeon droppings mining, was in use for free organic fertilizer in agriculture.
Human would provide pigeons with protective nesting spaces and maybe water, but the birds would feed themselves at the surrounding fields, and would willingly settle in the men-made protective underground spaces, to where they would fly in, from a top dug airy round opening,
Infect, the doves scared our group's members when preforming a combatant flight acrobatics above our heads, each time we invaded, their serene territories, releasing alos droppings on some heads.
85 Columbarium installations, were so far found in the area.The word comes from the Latin Colomba meaning dovecote.
1. Colombarium Cave
This underground network structure was much larger and included a huge Colombarium
installation. The walls of the cave featured high-quality elegant design of carefully over 2,000 niches carvings, and esthetic ceiling details.
2.The "Polish" Cave
.This Hellenistic period cave also featured a colombarium, and a narrow attached to the wall aqueduct, which run water needed for the rock mining.’
Active Cyano bacteria blackened the walls due to the light and moist.
On a block of stone, situated in the middle of the cave, and part of a pillar supporting the ceiling. curved inscription can be spotted.
During World War II, Polish soldiers from General Wladyslaw Anders’ army – which was loyal to the Polish government in exile in London – visited this cave on the way to Egypt then Italy.
Soldiers carved the figure 1943 (the year of their visit) into the pillar, along with an inscription: “Warsaw, Poland” and an eagle, the symbol of the Polish army.
3. The Oil Press Cave - Beit Habad
Olive growing was a significant source of income in Hellenistic Maresha (3rd-2nd BCE). and much of the high quality olive oil, pressed by advanced trapetum technology of the time, which dosen't break the pits (maintaining low accidity) and rarely found in other parts of the land , was exported to Egypt.
Apparently 25 Olive Oil presses all in caves from the Hellenistic era 3 BCE .that started as quarry., were found in the area.
4. Sidonian burial caves
Many Burial caves for Greek, Sidonian and Edomite inhabitants of Beit Guvrin were found but this the first discovered with individual burial coves.
We visited only one Sidonian burial cave, parceled into elegant well designed niches, the only one, with amazing wall paintings inside and above.
The cave originally from 3 BCE was sealed and only discovered in 1902 but since then, the paintings faded with shining light.
The Sidonian burial cave carries family tomb inscription of Apollophanes, son of Sesmaios the leader of the Sidonian community in Beit Guvrin, and a beautifully decorated front with an sacrificial alter.
Kos the Edomite God and, Baal the Sidonite as well as Cerberus hound of Hades the head dog Greek God gatekeeper are also seen,
The paintings seen today, are not original. but underwent reconstruction in 1993,
Following, a painted copy from an earlier archeological publication, the depicted images above the niches, where the corpses were laid, are of animals, real and mythic
A cock crows to scare away demons; the three-headed dog Cerberus guards the entrance to the underworld; a bright red phoenix symbolizes the life after death.
The Tomb of the Musicians is decorated with a painting showing a man playing the flute and a woman playing the harp.
Many of the niches are decorated with gables (a triangular architectural element common on temple facades). and with Doric pillars like in a temple structures. and with
Palm Trees decorations symbols of Victory and Eternity.
At this last "Cave Hopping" point the group was satiated with the underground darken confiding, pigeon ridden, claustrophobic spaces, and gladly ventured out to the open air rest area, where, drinks , ice-creams and sun-hats were purchased at the park's trinkets store.
A large flock of aggressive black Crows flew over us once we ventured to the open ground, preforming a threatening aerial demonstration, right above the group members' heads, demanding their "rightful chain food cut" of the intruding visitors.
"Seeing the light" in the distance the free-standing remains of the well preserved apse of the Church of Saint Anne was revealed....
Saint Anne's church was first built in the Byzantine period and then rebuilt by the Crusaders in the 12th century. The ruin is known in Arabic as Khirbet (lit. "ruin") Sandahanna, the nearby tell (mound) of Maresha being called Tell Sandahanna.[
Remements of once spacious residential homes of 2 stories walls and remains of their very solid foundations, were encountered along the walking trails
No Jewish outing misses a well organized feast, and especially after all this climbing up and down the many steairs, into the ancient underground chambers, life needs to be celebrated fully, with regerous chewing.
The planed picnic of the day, was carried in HaMalachim- Shacharia /Angel Forest
driving west off route 35. More then plenty delicious food brought to be shared with the entire group, was fast devoured, in a very happy atmosphere, with less then an hour, and off each left on its way.