Beit She’arim National Park (official site) is located near Kiryat Tiv’on (about 20km from Haifa). It’s an archaeological site of an ancient Jewish town, which is a world-famous Jewish cemetery of the Mishnaic era. The site itself isn’t big (actually it is growing as they uncover new parts) and you can cover it in 2-3 hours. But the amazing thing is that most of the city (actually the graveyard) is underground (there are a lot of human-made tunnels). The shafts are both unique and make this place perfect for hotter days.
Map of the area:
Note: if you want to visit the new parts (recently, a new cave was opened to the public) then you need to register for a tour (call Israel Nature and Parks Authority).
As of 2015, Beit She’arim National Park is in the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
That is the view of the city in the period of the Talmud and the Mishnah. On the top of the hill, you can see the city. And on the northern slope of the hill, you can find the tombs (this is the Beit She’arim National Park).
The Cave Museum
The following presentation tells that during the Talmudic period, notable and wealthy individuals were buried in wooden, clay, lead and stone coffins. These coffins were ornamented extravagantly. But today, in the park, you can find only stone coffins.
The inhabitants of Beit She‘arim hewed magnificent tombs deep within the hill. Ancient courtyards, corridors, and steps lead visitors to large halls where they can see the rock-cut burial chambers and stone coffins (sarcophagi). The rooms and the sarcophagi feature an abundance of carved reliefs, inscriptions and wall paintings. Stone-carved doors, which imitate the style of wooden doors, closed some of the caves.
Note: all quotes were taken from the official site.
Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi
The Cave of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi (no. 14) – 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.
Cave of the Coffins
The Cave of the Coffins (no. 20) – the Cave of the Coffins is the largest and most impressive burial complex found at Beit She’arim. This cave too is characterized by a grand triple-arched facade and is of impressive size (75 x 75 m). 135 coffins were found in the cave. Some of them have beautiful decorations taken from the animal world, including bulls’ heads, eagles, lions, birds, and fish. On the wall of the cave is a 1.9 m high relief of a chandelier. Well-known rabbis and their families were also buried in the cave complex.
The reliefs and paintings represent Jewish artistic motifs that were popular in the Roman period, including a seven-branched candelabrum, the Ark of the Covenant, a shofar, lulav and etrog. Secular motifs are also present-ships, animals, human figures and geometric patterns.
Most of the inscriptions are in Greek, but inscriptions also appear in Hebrew, Aramaic and Palmyran. They often reveal the name, profession and origin of the deceased.
Ruins Of Beit She’arim
In the third century CE, Beit She‘arim became a renowned Jewish center due to the presence there of the spiritual leader Rabbi Judah Hanasi, head of the Sanhedrin. The Roman authorities, who supported his leadership, gave him much property, including an estate at Beit She‘arim. Rabbi Judah moved the Sanhedrin from Shefar‘am to Beit She‘arim, and at the end of his life to Zippori. He was buried at Beit She‘arim in 220 CE, garnering fame for its cemetery in the Jewish world throughout in the Talmudic period.
If you climb up the hill you will find remains of Beit She‘arim:
Before or after visiting the caves, don’t miss the ruins of Beit She‘arim at the top of the hill. Near the remains of a basilica, built during the lifetime of Rabbi Judah Hanasi, is a bronze statue of the pioneer Alexander Zayid astride his horse. Zayid, who established the defense organization called Hashomer, discovered a burial cave in 1926. Nearby on the hill, with its magnificent panorama of the Jezreel Valley and Mount Carmel, is the double-domed tomb of the Muslim Sheikh Abreik.
I love national parks like Beit She’arim. Firstly it is fascinating that with ancient tools people could build such things. Secondly, since most of the time you are in a cave, it is cooler than outside. And thirdly, if you come with children, it’s much easier to entertain them. You give them a flashlight and let them explore.
Have you ever visited Beit She’arim National Park? How was it? Tell us in the comments below.
That’s all for today, and I’ll see you in future travels!