Beit Shearim National Park is an archaeological site of an ancient Jewish town, which is a world-famous Jewish cemetery of the Mishnaic era.
This national park is not big (it is growing as they uncover new parts) and you can cover it in several hours. But the amazing thing is that most of the city (actually the graveyard) is underground (there are many human-made tunnels). The shafts are both unique, and it makes this place perfect for hotter days. Let’s begin exploring!
Beit Shearim National Park is located near Kiryat Tiv’on (about 20km from Haifa).
Map of the area:
Beit Shearim can be divided into three compounds. The mausoleum and most burial caves are located at the main compound (bottom left at the following map #12 – #30). There is also the Menorah caves complex (bottom right at the map). Above the main compound, you can find remains of the ancient city outside of the national park. And you will see those remains while driving to the entrance of Beit Shearim national park.
Note: if you want to visit the Menorah caves complex, you need to register for a tour. Accessing those caves is allowed only with a guide. And I will show those caves later in this post.
And here is a view of the city during the Talmud and Mishnah. As you can see, the city was on top of the hill, and the burial caves are in the valley.
If you are reaching by car, then enter “Bet Shearim National Park” into Waze or Google Maps, and it will take you to the entrance.
And if you are considering public transport, then you should know that the closest bus stop is a little more than one km away. Here is already a preset link to Moovit. Just enter your starting direction, and you will get the updated directions.
Sunday – Thursday And Saturday: 8:00 – 17:00 (16:00 during winter).
Fridays: 8:00 – 16:00 (15:00 during winter).
On holidays usually 8:00 – 13:00.
Adult 22 NIS, child 9 NIS, and student 19 NIS. And free for National Parks’ annual subscribers.
If you are going to visit several National Parks, then consider purchasing a combo ticket. You can find additional info at National Parks And Nature Reserves.
Note: opening hours and ticket prices were updated in February 2021. In any case, recheck the official site before visiting.
There are tours at the main compound and at the Menorah caves complex. Here are the relevant details.
During the Roman period, Beit Shearim was an important Jewish town. And its cemetery made it to a famous site. Moreover, as of 2015, Beit Shearim National Park is on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list.
And now let’s overview the historical periods that Beit Shearim underwent.
The Establishment of Beit Shearim
Bet She ‘arim was 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”.
Note: unless stated otherwise, all quotes were taken from the official site.
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, it 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.
Rediscovery of Beit Shearim
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.
The Cave Museum – The Glass Slab
Now we will start exploring the main compound. Let’s start from the cave museum (#28 on the site plan).
If you are not joining a guided tour, then I would recommend starting from the cave museum. It is a cave with exhibits and explanations. Here is one of the stone-carved displays:
The Museum Cave (no. 28) – 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 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.
Also, as mentioned in the quote, in the Cave Museum, you can see a huge block of glass. This glass slab demonstrates the enormous scale of production. Here is an interesting video by Corning Museum of Glass that tells about this slab.
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.
Entrance to one of the smaller caves:
According to Moshe Sharon, the name of the city was: Beit She’arayim, which in Hebrew means the house (or village) of two gates. And there are many well-preserved gates.
Cave of the Coffins
The Cave of the Coffins (#20 on the site plan) is the biggest (75 by 75 meters) and one of the most impressive caves on site.
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). One hundred thirty-five 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.
As you enter inside you will see the main passageway as several corridors to the sides.
Many decorations depict wildlife.
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.
My dad photographing:
Part of an entrance door:
The Cave Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi
Next on our list is the cave of Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi (#14 on the site plan).
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 on 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.
There are many additional caves, like this two-level one:
But other caves are less impressive. And thus I want to take you on a tour to the Menorah caves complex.
Menorah Caves Complex
Recently, we joined a tour at the Menorah caves complex (see tours section in the beginning for additional info). And I have waited for several years to join this tour, as children under seven years old are not allowed. Thus, as my older daughter turned seven, I decided to book for a tour.
Booking is done via phone. And I had to call four times (on different days and times) until somebody answered the phone and I was able to book.
Our tour started at the main compound with basic explanations about Beit Shearim. And then we walked to the Menorah caves complex.
The Menorah Caves (1-4) – the Menorah Caves complex was opened to visitors in 2009. It 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 candelabra, the Menorah that became the emblem of the modern state of Israel. Near to 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. The Menorah Caves can be visited with Nature and Parks Authority guide or as part of an organized tour, by advance arrangement (tel: 04-9831643).
The Mausoleum Cave
Big parts of this cave collapsed. And some of them are shown at the cave museum. But you can see the remaining beautiful entrance with its mosaic.
Additional findings from The Mausoleum cave:
Cave of the Torah Ark
The next stop of our tour was Cave of the Torah Ark.
Since there were robberies, all caves in this compound are locked. And our guide was unlocking and locking them.
Since there is a Menorah, I will ask you a question our guide asked us.
How can you determine whether it was a Jewish site?
When archaeologists dig up a new place, there are two signs that can tell whether it was a Jewish city or a village. Do you know what are the signs?
- As you probably guessed, the first one is the Menorah.
- Can you guess the second sign? Some say it is The Star of David AKA Magen David. But Magen David is relatively new. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, a 12th-century Karaite document is the earliest Jewish literary source to mention a symbol called “Magen David”.
The second sign is Mikveh – a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism to achieve ritual purity.
In this cave, there are four halls and about one hundred burial places.
And in the main hall, you can see the Torah Ark.
Cave of the Warrior and his Menorah
Some of the entrances to the caves are quite small and getting inside is not a simple task.
Moreover, there is no light inside. Thus bring a good flashlight. The one on your phone is not enough. I learned it the hard way as my flashlight was not strong enough, and I was not able to photograph at some places. Like in Cave of the Warrior and his Menorah. There is a beautiful carving of a warrior with a Menorah on his head. But I was able to shot only what my phone was able to lit. Which was this Menorah:
In this cave, two engravings of trading ships were found. There are also geometrical carvings.
And this is the cave that Alexander Zaid initially discovered. Well, our guide told us that one of his sheep fell into this cave. But the credit goes to Alexander Zaid 😉
Sih Cave was constructed as a water cistern. It is 26 meters long and six meters high. And the people of Beit Shearim used it during second to fourth centuries AD.
In modern times, during the British Mandate period (1917 – 1948), adjustments to the cistern were made, and it served as a secret arms cache.
And in recent years, the Israeli National Parks Authority made additional modifications to this cave, and now you can see a short video about this national park.
This was the last POI of the Menorah caves complex tour. The tour lasted almost two hours, and we enjoyed it a lot. We both got access to caves we have not seen before and learned many interesting things.
I wanted to mention that near the parking there are restrooms, a small shop and a picnic area.
After visiting the caves, you can make a short stop there. And then hike up the mountain (you can also drive) to the ruins of Beit Shearim.
Ruins Of Beit Shearim
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.
The ruins are outside of the national park, and you have to climb up the hill to find them.
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.
The ruins are not vast, and the photo above covers most of them.
I love national parks like Beit Shearim. Firstly, I find it fascinating that people with ancient tools could build such things. Secondly, you spend most of the time in a cave, meaning there is no sun, and it is cooler than outside (which makes Beit Shearim a good alternative for hot days). And thirdly, if you come with children, it is much easier to entertain them. You give them a flashlight and let them explore.
Have you ever visited Beit Shearim National Park? How was it? Tell us in the comments below.
That’s all for today, and I’ll see you in future travels!
Additional ResourcesHere are several resources that I created to help travelers:
- Israel Trip Planner is the page that will help you to create your perfect travel route.
- National Parks And Nature Reserves page lists and put all national parks on the map. There is also a top list, information about ticket types and campsites.
- If you are looking for things to do, here are the pages for Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Sea Of Galilee, and Makhtesh Ramon.
- Wondering what events are there in Israel? Here is the Events And Festivals By Season guide.