Beit Shearim National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the Galilee region of northern Israel.
It is known for it’s remains of the Jewish city located on a hilltop and the ancient Jewish burial catacombs located within it.
While there is evidence that there was already a settlement there during the period of the Kingdom of Israel, Bet She’arim seems to have been established at the time of King Herod.
Bet She’arim was part of the Hasmonean kingdom and Queen Berenice, daughter of King Agrippas I and granddaughter of King Herod, had an estate here.
Under Roman rule Bet She’arim was an important Jewish settlement after Jews were expelled from Jerusalem.
However, its name and renown spread during the period of the Mishna and Talmud.
It was a great center of Torah study, and became famous mainly thanks to Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, who settled there.
He was the head of the Sanhedrin, a religious and spiritual authority, and also a political leader in the Jewish world of the time.
Thanks to Rabbi the town prospered, flourished and developed, and for a certain time was also the seat of the Sanhedrin.
It was here that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi the Mishna which was eventually finalized at Tzipori, 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 effect his request would have.
Many Jews wanted to be buried near to him, because of proximity to him, but also because the Roman rulers prohibited Jewish burial on the Mount of Olives.
This developed Bet She’arim into a necropolis and it 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.
Then in the 4th century Bet She’arim was destroyed and burned by the Romans during the Gallus Revolt, and then forgotten.
In 1924 Alexander Zaid, one of the founders of the Bar Giora defense organization and later of Hashomer, discovered a cave with ancient objects and inscriptions.
This led to archaeological exploration and the rediscovery Bet She’arim.
What to See
The synagogue is a rectangular building which faces towards Jerusalem, and has three large entrance gates.
Alongside the synagogue was a courtyard and a small building with 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.
The basilica was a public building, with a main hall divided into three areas by two rows of columns.
The back section of the central area had a raised dais, and the two side areas were called “aisles.”
The basilica walls were plastered with colored plaster at a later period, and marble panels were set into them, with inscriptions and decorations.
At the summit of the Bet She’arim hilltop, standing on the remains of the town of Bet She’arim, is a statue of Alexander Zaid, mounted on his horse.
Zaid immigrated to pre-state Israel in 1904, with the Second Aliya.
He was known 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.
Zaid was a courageous guard, but in 1938 he was murdered in an ambush set by local Arabs.
In 1940 the statue was erected in his memory in the place he loved and protected.
The summit of Bet She’arim hilltop, which stands on the ruins of the town of Bet She’arim.
Near to the statue of Alexander Zaid is a tomb of Shekh Abrek.
It is a two-domed structure, alongside which a tiny spring used to flow.
The upper path
The upper path is a hiking trail focusing on the summit of the Bet She’arim hilltop.
The path passes among and connects the burial caves and notable structures.
Parts of the path are circular, while other parts have no exit.
All the places mentioned until the section on “the lower path” can be found along this path.
The mausoleum to the right of the path are the constructed foundations of a square structure, which appears to have served as the base of a splendid mausoleum.
The cistern was originally a burial cave, and was later turned into a water cistern.
Excavations have uncovered finds from the Byzantine period – hundreds of pottery vessels, glass vessels, and gold coins.
This cistern and the two alongside it are at the side of the road leading up from the necropolis to the town of Bet She’arim.
They stored the water reserves of Bet She’arim.
This is a cave that has not yet been excavated, although its door has been moved slightly by grave robbers.
The entrance courtyard to the cave is paved with ashlar blocks, and it contains a large sarcophagus.
The benches building
This is a spacious courtyard surrounded by stepped benches in the form of a horseshoe.
It is assumed that commemorative events were held here on memorial days for great public figures, or for the people buried in the cave beneath the courtyard.
The Sarah Cave
The Sarah Cave is a set of four burial chambers around a central courtyard.
A Greek inscription on the basalt lintel of the right-hand chamber reads: “The burial place of Theodosia, also called Sarah, from Tyre”.
Under the influence of Hellenistic culture, the Jews in exile used to have a Greek name in addition to their Jewish name.
A marble panel found in the courtyard has the Greek inscription: “The tombstone of Calliope the elder, who was also the freedwoman of Procopius, of blessed memory.”
The inscription indicates that there was slavery among the Jews, but also that there was a law regarding the emancipation of slaves (see Exodus 21:1, Deuteronomy 15:12).
In any event, the name of Procopius, Calliope’s master, is mentioned with affection.
It may be assumed that Calliope became renowned after she was freed, and therefore was privileged to be buried at Bet She’arim.
The Cave of the Sarcophagus
The Cave of the Sarcophagus is a large courtyard in which there are benches, a burial chamber, and the remains of an above-ground structure.
According to the original plan, the place was intended for burial in coffins, but only one sarcophagus was found here.
At a later stage additional burial areas were built in the form of rooms with domed (vaulted) ceilings.
Carved rectangular tombs (trough tombs) were found in these burial chambers.
The Piers Cave
The Piers Cave is this cave has one hall with two pillars carved in the wall.
Today it is not possible to enter the cave.
The Lulav Cave
The Lulav Cave is a cave with two chambers.
On the lintel of the entrance is a Greek inscription: “Lord remember your servant Sarkados,” and above it, a Greek inscription “Lord remember your maidservant Primosa.”
It is possible that Primosa was the wife of Sarkados.
On the doorposts of the second arch, on the left and right sides, two palm branches (lulavs) are carved.
Benches structure above the tomb of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi
This is apparently connected to ceremonies held in honor of the rabbi and his family.
One of the benches is shaped in the form of a semicircle, which is exceptional at Bet She’arim.
The ‘Here lies the beloved” Cave
The ‘Here lies the beloved” Cave is exceptional in its shape, carved as a narrow corridor.
Four vaults have been carved out on either side of the central hall, one story in height.
On the plaster covering the furthest vault on the right is a Greek inscription in red, only part of which has been preserved: “Here lies the beloved… Esther.”
The door is decorated with two roses enclosed in circles.
The Cloth Merchants Cave
The Cloth Merchants Cave is a cave with three halls, containing six inscriptions.
The inscription in the eastern hall is written in Greek, in red: “Benjamin ben Julius, the cloth merchant, son of the most excellent Macrobius.”
Another inscription in the same hall reads: “Saviris son of Savinos, chief cloth dyer.”
The mausoleum apparently belonged to a family engaged in the cloth trade.
On the lintel at the entrance to the western hall is a carved relief of a head, and alongside it a candelabrum and the inscription: “Of Socrates.”
A Greek man was buried in this hall, but the candelabrum and the tomb indicate that he saw himself as Jewish in every respect.
On a white marble panel, set in a special indentation above the lintel, is a bilingual inscription alongside a seven-branched candelabrum on a triangular stand.
In Greek it says: “Daniel son of Ido of Tyre”, followed by the word “Peace” (shalom) in Hebrew.
The lower path
The Lower Path is a a hiking trail passing among the burial caves in the central section of the park.
The upper path reaches a courtyard, and descends by a flight of stairs to the Cave of the Syrian Jews, the Cave of Curses, and the Cave of Virtues.
Everything that follows can be found along the Lower Path.
The Cave of Curses
The Cave of Curses is a cave with four halls.
In Cave 12 are inscriptions in Greek and Aramaic, some of which are curses, such as “Whoever opens this tomb… will eventually die a bad death.”
The cave of Syrian Jewry
The cave of Syrian Jewry is on the left.
To the right of the entrance, a large candelabrum is carved.
By the foot of the candelabrum, grave robbers have broken through the wall separating this cave from the Cave of Curses.
Further in, on the left, is a Greek inscription: “The vault of Aidesios, head of the Council of Elders, a man of Antioch.”
Next to this inscription are the names of other family members buried by him, including his wife and two daughters.
The Cave of Virtues
The Cave of Virtues is a complex set of caves, built on three levels but only one of them is open to visitors.
The ascending staircase and additional level are closed, as well as the staircase going down to the Cave of the Lady Miki, which is 14.5 m long.
The Cave of Virtues has a long courtyard, around which twelve halls have been carved out, on two levels, containing 26 inscriptions in Greek and Hebrew.
One of the Hebrew inscriptions, in red, says:
“This is the resting place of Yudan, son of Levi. Forever in peace. May his resting place be [set?] in peace. Of Yudan, son of Levi.”
Another inscription, in Greek, commemorates “the Lady Miki”.
The Cave of the Coffins
The Cave of the Coffins is the largest and most impressive burial complex found at Bet She’arim.
This cave too is characterized by a triple-arched façade and its size.
In the cave 135 coffins were found. Some of which have beautiful decorations depicting bulls’ heads, eagles, lions, birds and fish.
On the wall of the cave is a relief of a candelabrum.
Well-known rabbis and their families were also buried in the cave complex.
The Cave of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi
The Cave of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi is the largest burial complex, with a courtyard, cave, and the remains of an above-ground structure.
The façade has three entrances, topped by three arches, 8 m in height.
Buried in this cave, among others, are Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Anina (Hanina) HaKatan, and Rabban Gamliel.
In the inner room are two rectangular graves, carved next to each other in the floor.
The double tomb was covered with heavy stone slabs, and there were no inscriptions on the tombs.
Researchers assume that a man and his wife were buried here, and these graves are also in line with Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s will.
He asked to be buried in the ground and not in a sarcophagus.
Moreover, the names inscribed on the other tombs in the cave are familiar from Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s environs:
His sons were Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Gamliel, and Anina was the name of the rabbi who ordained him.
The combination of these details has led to the conclusion that this is likely to have been the grave of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi.
The Museum Cave
The Museum Cave is the cave is in a water cistern that was converted to a glass manufacturing workshop.
On display in the museum are impressive finds from Bet She’arim, including a huge block of glass weighing 8.8 tons.
The Menorah Caves
The Menorah Caves complex includes six burial caves richly decorated with engravings, reliefs, and inscriptions.
Among these, the cave walls are embellished with dozens of reliefs of seven-branched menorah.
Near the caves, a Haganah weapons cache was found from the days of the British Mandate.
These finds led the Israeli Knesset to adopt the caves, contribute to their conservation, and open them to the public.
Visit Beit Shearim
Unlike sites the Negev and Judean Deserts, you can reach Beit Shearim relatively easily by bus. Still, going back are is still easier.
The Menorah Caves can be visited with a Nature and Parks Authority guide or as part of an organized tour, by advance arrangement (tel: 04-9831643).
For more information like visiting hours and entry fees see the Beit Shearim webpage.