Bet Guvrin (also spelled Beit Guvrin) National Park (official site) is located not far from Kiryat Gat. This national park belongs to UNESCO world heritage sites for a reason, and you will understand why until the end of this post.
Map of the area:
Bet Guvrin is quite a big national park, and this post is the result of four visits. We needed three trips to cover the whole park, and the fourth visit was for the International Bird Migration Day. Since the visits were with kids, they were easy going half day visits. If you want to cover the whole park, it will probably take you almost a full day.
First Visit To Bet Guvrin
There are two (geographical) parts to this park, one northern to road #35. At the north, you can find the Beit Guvrin Amphitheater (you can find more info further ahead). The Southern part is the bigger one, and we dedicated the first two visits to it.
Note: you can find a nice brochure with a map at the additional info section on the official site.
After entering Beit Guvrin, we drove till parking lot A. You can either drive between parking lots (and then visiting each cave by foot), or you can leave your car and cycle or hike. Thought the distances are not too big since we were with kids and some of the visits were on hot days we chose the first option.
The “Polish Cave”
From parking lot A, we walked to The “Polish Cave” (number #2) on the map.
Why it is called the “Polish Cave”?
This is a cistern hewn in the Hellenistic period. In the middle is a block of stone, part of a pillar that supported the ceiling. At some point, niches to raise doves were carved into the cistern walls. 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. They 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.
Note: all quotes (unless stated otherwise) were taken from the official site.
The Columbarium Cave
A columbarium is an installation to raise doves. The word comes from the Latin colomba, which means dovecote. The walls of this cave feature high-quality design and are carefully carved with over 2,000 niches. The raising of doves was very common in the Judean lowlands during the Hellenistic period. Doves were apparently used intensively – their meat and eggs as food and their droppings as fertilizer. Doves were also sacrificed in rituals. After the raising of doves as a prosperous industry ceased in the 3rd century BCE, other purposes were found for this cave, like many others at Maresha. In Maresha alone, some 85 Columbarium caves have been discovered, with tens of thousands of niches.
The Oil Press Cave
From the Columbarium Cave, we continued to The Oil Press Cave (#5). We walked there, but you can also take the car to Park Lot B and walk from there.
This is one of 22 underground oil presses discovered in Hellenistic Maresha. Most of them have one crushing installation; two or three feature press beams.
Olive pressing was done in the following way:
1. Crushing (the right part of the photo below) – the olives were placed in the basin of a large round flat stone and a lens-shaped crushing rock moving vertically around.
2. Squeezing (the photo above) – after crushing the olives were put into woven baskets placed one on top of the other. The baskets were put under a broad beam (inside the niches in the back of the photo). Also, three weights (in the left part of the picture) were tied to the beam to increase the pressure.
3. Collection – the oil and water were collected in hewn basins beneath the baskets.
The Bell Caves
Since it was getting late, we continued to parking lot D, towards the Bell Caves (#11).
There are many bell-shaped caves (around 800) in this area. And Bet Guvrin National Park is in the middle of this area. Moreover, many of the caves are linked via an underground network of passageways that connect groups of 40-50 caves.
Second Visit At Biet Guvrin
So, Bet Guvrin again? Yep. It’s not the first time we visit it this summer. And there are three main reasons for it. The first one is the sun. It is colder inside the caves. The second reason is kids. They love it. You give them a flashlight, and they feel on the top of the world. And the last reason is size. Beit Guvrin is quite large, thus if you are visiting with small kids, most chances you will not see everything in one visit.
This time we went straight to parking lot B. It is located close to Tel Maresha and #6.
I have used Bet Guvrin, and Maresha terms several times, so I need to add an explanation. Maresha is an ancient city founded during the Israelite period. The town was located on a high hill, hence its name (Rosh mean head in Hebrew).
Tel Maresha rises to 357 m above sea level, with the upper city, or acropolis, about 30 m above the lower city. The appearance of the steep, terraced-looking slopes of the upper city is due to the remains of walls that surrounded the city for 800 years, from the Israelite period to the end of the Hellenistic period (9th–1st centuries BCE). Square corner towers were integrated into the city wall; the remains of one of these can be seen in the northwestern corner of the
tell. The top of the tell affords an impressive view of the national park and its surroundings.
Bet Guvrin (translating from Hebrew this means: “the house of strong men”) is an ancient city that rose in importance after Maresha was destroyed. It continued its existence from late Hellenistic until the end of the Byzantine period.
Dwelling (the Villa)
From parking lot B we walked to Dwelling (#6). A Cistern complex under the houses of Maresha.
Excavations at the beginning of the 90’s revealed an urban section including residential and shopping areas, dating to the 3rd-2nd centuries BCE. Each of the residential houses had a central yard surrounded by rooms and a second floor. The residents quarried cisterns under the homes of the lower city. These cisterns were used for different purposes: water halls, bath, columbarium, oil press, storage and so on.
Each cistern or cistern complex had its staircase descending from the house above. The connection between different cisterns, without having to ascend to ground level, is the result of functional changes made in later periods.
The Sidonian Caves
We have returned to parking B and drove a couple of minutes until parking lot C. Parking C is close to The Sidonian Caves (#8 and #9).
These are the Sidonian burial caves. They are the only ones with paintings inside. The caves were burial caves for the Greek, Sidonian and Edomite inhabitants of Bet Guvrin.
The previous and the next photo were made in Sidonian burial cave #9.
Sidonian burial cave #8 is the most impressive one. Of course, the paintings are not original. This one underwent reconstruction in 1993.
During the Hellenistic period the people of Maresha commonly buried their dead in caves with niches. Two of these caves are seen here. Many of the niches are decorated with gables (a triangular architectural element common on temple facades). In the Apollophanes Cave (8), the northern of the two, an inscription was found mentioning Apollophanes son of Sesmaios, the leader of the Sidonian community in Maresha. The inscription, as well as the cave’s paintings, shed light on the art, mythology and ethnic affiliations of those interred in the cave (Idumeans, Sidonians and Greeks). They also reveal their family relationships and burial customs. The Apollophanes inscription clearly identifies Tel Maresha with biblical Maresha. In the southern cave (9), the “Cave of the Musicians,” paintings have been reconstructed that depict musicians of the period. All the paintings in the caves are reconstructions.
The Bell Caves
We returned once more to the Bell Caves (#11).
When I was photographing, I have noticed the rope coming from the top of the cave (in the photo below). But, only and home at 100% zoom, I saw there is a microphone at the end of the rope. As I mentioned previously, the acoustics inside the Bell Caves is very good, and concerts are being held here from time to time.
We came to the end of the second visit, and we are moving to our third visit – the Northern city of Bet Guvrin.
Third Visit To Biet Guvrin – Northern City Of Bet Guvrin
This time we are going to visit on the west side of the road (#12 – #14).
Beit Guvrin Amphitheater
On this side, there is only one parking (parking lot E), and the first thing you see is Beit Guvrin Amphitheater (#12).
A Roman amphitheater was a public structure for sports competitions and spectacles like fights between gladiators or against wild animals. A theater, on the other hand, was used mainly for plays. Other than the differing purpose, these two structures differ in form. The theater is semi-circular, while the amphitheater is round or elliptical with the seating area completely encircling a round arena. Bet Guvrin has the only Roman amphitheater in Israel that is open to the public. It had 3,500 seats built around the arena, with spaces beneath the area to hold the wild animals.
Some of the photos were made with a fisheye lens, thus the black circle on the edges of the picture.
The amphitheater was built in the 2nd century, and it could seat about 3,500 spectators. It had a walled arena of packed earth, with subterranean galleries. The stadium was surrounded by a series of connected barrel vaults, which formed a long, circular corridor and supported the stone seats above it.
The Crusader Fortress
The Crusader fortress is located east of and adjacent to the amphitheater. Remains of a basilical church, built in 1136 by King Foulk d’Anjou of Jerusalem, were found in the fortress. The church, which was built in the Romanesque style, served the people living in and around the fortress. The church was adorned with Roman and Byzantine stone bases, columns and capitals that had been taken from the remains of ancient Bet Guvrin.
Fourth Visit To Biet Guvrin -International Bird Migration Day
In 2017 we visited International Bird Migration Day, which took place at Beit Guvrin. This event took place at the Bell Caves complex. Thus as we entered this national park, we turned left and continued to parking lot D.
You can see that International Bird Migration Day started at 11 up to 15. We arrived around 10:30. Thus since we had some time till the activities began, we continued to the bell cave.
After around half an hour we left the bell caves and took the long route back to the parking.
Activities At International Bird Migration Day
Then we participated in another children activity. We created origami birds. But the instructions were complicated. Only a handful of adults were able to follow the instructions (not to mention the kids).
Another nearby attraction was using a binocular to see names of different birds. Not real birds, there were stands at different places and in each title, one letter was highlighted. The purpose was to collect all letters and receive a phrase. The positions were too far away and the binoculars not too good. Thus we had a problem seeing the letters. Moreover, some stands were partially blocked by stones. The idea was nice, but the implementation was lacking. Nonetheless, when we returned the binoculars, my daughter received an International Bird Migration Day sign.
Since it was almost 13:00 we hurried back to the bus parking towards the highlight of International Bird Migration Day celebrations.
Returning Birds To Nature
Then an instructor told us about wild animals hospital. The wild animals hospital handles 5,000 animals per a year and if you see an injured wild animal call Israeli national parks authority at the following number: *3639.
Since the moment they released the black kite everything happened very fast. My camera with 4.5 frames per second is not the most suitable camera (Sony A9 with 20 frames per second increases the chance of capture significantly). But, luckily I was able to capture this:
Sidonian burial cave #9 concluded our visit to Beit Guvrin National park, and we headed home.
There were several additional activities that I saw at International Bird Migration Day but did not participate in. One of them was a movie about birds and the second is guided tours through bell caves.
Overall, the International Bird Migration Day activities were friendly and if you have no other plans, then check it out.
I love Bet Guvrin – Maresha National Park. I find it fascinating that people build literary underground cities in ancient times. Moreover, since you spend much of the time in caves, the visit can be done in summer as well. And to top all that, it is also interesting for kids, give them a flashlight, and they are set for a while.
For all the reasons above I think this is one of the best National Parks in Israel.
Have you ever been to Beit Guvrin? How was it? Tell us in the comments below.
That’s all for today, and I’ll see you in future travels!