Beit Guvrin – Maresha National Park guide starts with basics (map, directions, history, trails, tours) and then tours through the whole park. Let’s begin!
Why Do I Love Beit Guvrin National Park?
Beit Guvrin National Park is a UNESCO world heritage site, and it offers a visit to human-made caves and an ancient city. It is also one of my favorite national parks in Israel. And for that reason, I included it in my top 10 National Parks And Nature Reserves list.
First of all, I find it fascinating that people build such complex underground systems. You can even call them cities, using only basic tools. Moreover, besides its uniqueness, there are several reasons why I love this park:
- During your visit, you will spend a lot of time underground. That means, there is no sun and it is colder inside the caves. And in general, caves are better suited for a summer visit.
- Another reason is the kids. They love it. You give them a flashlight, and they feel at the top of the world.
- Beit Guvrin is quite large, thus if you are visiting with small kids, most chances you will not see everything in one visit. That either allows you to return on another day or gives you the option to choose what to see.
Beit Guvrin National Park is located not far from Kiryat Gat. And roughly in the center between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Beit Guvrin is about 55 km from Jerusalem, and 80 km from Tel Aviv.
Map of the area:
And here is the map from the official brochure.
Note: you can click on the map to enlarge it.
There are two (geographical) parts to this park, which is divided by road #35. In the north, you can find the Beit Guvrin Amphitheater (#12 – you can find more info further ahead). And The Southern part is the bigger one, and this is where you can see all the caves.
The entry point on the left (I added the “Entrance” string there) marks the entrance to POI #1-11. And the approach to points #12-14 is behind the gas station on the other side of road #35.
Beit 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 half to a full day. But, you can also make shorter, highlights tours of only several hours. Here are the trails that Israeli Nature and Parks Authority offers:
- Highlights – this 2.5 hours route offers to park at parking lot A. Then walk to the agricultural complex and installations (#1) and the Columbarium Cave (#3). Next, take the car to park lot B to visit the Maze Cave (Cave System #7). Afterward, drive on to parking lot C to visit the Sidonian Cave (#8). From there, drive to parking lot D to visit the Bell Caves (#11). And lastly, Drive on to parking lot E and visit the Roman Amphitheater (#12).
- See it all – this is a 3 – 4 hours on the foot trail. It also starts at the parking lot A. From there walk about 1.5 km long. In that 1.5 km, you will visit the Columbarium Cave (#3) and the Sidonian Cave (#8). From there, either walk back to your vehicle or continue another 2 km on foot to the Church of St. Anne (#10) and the Bell Caves (#11). And about another 1 km to the Roman Amphitheater (#12).
- Using Handicapped and Stroller Accessible trail you can visit the agricultural installations complex (#1), the visitor service center (near the Sidonian Caves), the Bell Caves (#11), and the Roman Amphitheater (#12).
How To Get There
If you are reaching by car, then enter “Beit Guvrin National Park” into Waze or Google maps. Notice that this national park is close to the Green Line, and if you miss the exit to Beit Guvrin and continue along with road #35, you will reach Hebron.
My favorite way to get there, which is also the fastest from the Israeli center, is driving on the toll highway #6 till Kiryat Gat and taking road #35 from there. Another option, which is a long one but does not include toll roads, is driving through Bet Shemesh.
You can reach this site by bus. You can either take the bus #66 or a taxi from Kiryat Gat. Just keep in mind that even if you reach park entrance by public transport since the park is spread over a vast territory, there are several parking lots. And most people, drive from point to point within park limits. Thus, visiting with a car is the preferred option.
Here is a relevant link to Moovit where you can check full public transport directions. Just fill in your starting point, and you will get updated directions.
Sunday – Thursday And Saturday: 8 – 17 (16 during winter).
Friday: 8 – 16 (15 during winter).
On holidays eves usually 8 – 13.
Last entrance to the park is allowed one hour before the closure.
Adult – 28 NIS, child – 14 NIS, and student – 24 NIS. Plus 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 post.
Note: opening hours and ticket prices were updated in July 2019. In any case, recheck the official site before visiting.
Tours – Dig For A Day
I saw that several private firms do tours at this site. Moreover, you can contact the Israeli Parks and Nature Authority in advance and ask about tours. Here are their details: 08-6220835, [email protected]
Another type of tour is also available. It is called Dig For A Day, and during this activity, you are taking part in real archaeological digs.
Here is a nice video by ISRAEL21c that tells about Dig for a Day Project:
If you want to join this tour, then contact the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority (either using the contact information above or through the official site).
The History of Maresha
Maresha was fortified by King Rehoboam of Judah following the campaign to the region of the Egyptian Pharaoh Shishak: “And Rehoboam…built cities for defense in Judah…Gath, and Mareshah, and Ziph” (2 Chron. 11:5–8). Shortly after that, in the early 9th century BCE, Shishak’s son sent an army to Judah under the command of his general Zerah the Ethiopian. However, King Asa of Judah defeated him near Maresha. During the Persian period, after the destruction of the First Temple, Idumeans who came from the Negev settled in southern Judah and the region became known as Idumea.
In the 4th century BCE, Sidonians and Greeks joined them, bringing Hellenistic culture to the region. Hellenistic Maresha was a cosmopolitan center and an industrial magnet and was also home to a few Egyptians and Jews. Some of the Jews were descendants of the local population from the time before the destruction of the First Temple, and others came there from coastal cities. The Hellenistic period saw the construction of Lower Maresha; many caves were also hewn during this time.
Historical sources and excavations reveal that in 113/12 BCE the Hasmonean king John Hyrcanus conquered Idumea and forcibly converted its inhabitants. Hyrcanus also laid waste to the city. Maresha was eventually reinhabited, but its glory days were past, and it remained a small settlement. It was destroyed in 40 BCE in a military campaign by the Parthians, who controlled Western Asia beyond the Euphrates River and who were the enemies of Rome.
Note: unless stated otherwise, all quotes were taken from the official site.
The History of Beit Guvrin
Following the destruction of Maresha, Bet Guvrin became the region’s most important city. The name Bet Guvrin first appears in the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, who reported that the Romans, led by Vespasian, conquered Bet Guvrin in 68 CE. In 200 CE, Emperor Septimus Severus granted Bet Guvrin the status of a city and changed its name to Eleutheropolis (“city of the freedmen”). The city controlled the area between the coastal plain and the Dead Sea and between Bet Shemesh and the Beersheba Valley. Bet Guvrin became an important junction; five roads, along which milestones have been found, led to the city.
Besides dwellings, the city boasted an amphitheater and other public structures. There are no springs at Bet Guvrin, but during the Roman period, two aqueducts channeled flowing water to the city from springs in the Judean Mountains. Slowly but surely the city’s Jewish population was renewed. In the 3rd and 4th centuries CE, the town is mentioned in the Talmud and the Midrash. Renowned sages lived there, including Rabbi Yonatan and Rabbi Yehuda Ben-Ya‘akov. Further evidence of the growing Jewish population in the region comes from the remains of a large Jewish cemetery and a synagogue inscription.
During the Byzantine period, Bet Guvrin became an important Christian center and churches were built there. The Early Arab period saw most of the Bell Caves hewn, and during the Crusader period, a small fortified city existed here. The Church of St. Anne was restored at that time, during which small farming villages surrounded the city. The Arab village of Bet Jibrin stood here until Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. In June of that year, the Egyptian army took over the British police station built here at the beginning of World War II. The Israel Defense Forces took the area on October 27, 1948. And Kibbutz Bet Guvrin was founded in May 1949.
Southern Part Of Beit Guvrin
After entering the southern part of Beit Guvrin, we drove till parking lot A. You can either drive between parking lots (and then visit each nearby cave by foot) or 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.
This cave has a columbarium. The birds were used for messaging purposes (an ancient post office) and food.
Here is the pillar with the inscription on the back side:
The Columbarium Cave
From #2 we continued to #3, The Columbarium Cave. This underground structure with columbarium is much bigger than the previous one.
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 widespread in the Judean lowlands during the Hellenistic period. Doves were 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.
Inside the underground oil press:
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 growing was a significant source of income in Hellenistic Maresha (3rd-2nd centuries BCE). This olive press was build in a previously existing cistern.
They did olive pressing in the following manner:
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.
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.
Beit 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 the late Hellenistic until the end of the Byzantine period.
Unfortunately, currently, there is almost nothing to see at Tel Maresha. Thus, though it is mentioned, there is no number next to it.
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 ’90s 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.
An underground city.
And this is how the urban section looks at ground level:
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 Beit 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 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.
A rooster crows to scare away the demons.
Cerberus guards the entrance to the underworld.
The Bell Caves
Near parking lot D, you can find the Bell Caves (#11).
There are many bell-shaped caves (around 800) in this area. And Beit 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.
Here is a big complex of Bell Caves. How was such a form created? It is a quarry. It was used to carve stones, and the rocks were used for construction.
You can see a wheelchair accessible route from the entrance.
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. The acoustics inside the Bell Caves is excellent, and concerts are being held here from time to time.
These were the main POI at the Southern part, and now let’s cross the road (#35) and visit the Northern city.
Northern City Of Beit Guvrin
On the Northern side of the road, you can find attractions #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).
Note: this is the only amphitheater in Israel. Do you know what is the difference between the Roman Theater and Amphitheater? Check out Is Caesarea Amphitheater really an amphitheater? for a full explanation.
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. Beit 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.
Panorama of the Amphitheater:
Inside the circular corridor that is under Amphitheater seats:
Some of the photos were made with an old 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
Behind Beit Guvrin Amphitheater we found The Crusader Fortress (#13).
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 Beit Guvrin.
These buildings, the church, and the fortress were built on top of a Roman bathhouse. While inside, you can see remains of the bathhouse.
You can walk through the church, and you will see stairs. After exploring the bathhouse for a while, we ended our visit.
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.
At the parking we received to the following brochure:
You can see that International Bird Migration Day started at 11 to 15. We arrived around 10:30. Thus since we had some time till the activities began, we continued to the bell cave.
On our way to the bell cave, we saw a small photo exhibition (#3 on this map). There were probably several dozen photo prints in the shaded area next to the parking.
And here we are at the entrance to the bell caves. The explanation sign is telling about the quarrying method that caused the unique shape of the caves. Hence the name bell caves.
Inside the caves, a musician was playing different pieces on his flute, bagpipe, and other instruments. This station (#10) was called music inspired by birds.
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
After several minutes we reached a small tent (#7), and there were activities for children.
My daughter created and decorated a little flute out of a stem.
Further ahead, we saw many jackdaws. They are nesting in this area, and if you look at the bottom right corner of the next photo then beyond explanation you will see a small metal statue of a jackdaw.
Then we participated in another 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 binocular to see the 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
We all gathered at the bus parking in a half-circle shape. Then an instructor told us about wild animal hospital. The wild animals’ hospital handles 5,000 animals per year and if you see an injured wild animal call Israeli national parks authority at the following number: *3639.
At 13:00 they were returning one black kite to nature.
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:
We left the International Bird Migration Day event and drove to the parking lot C. There we had lunch (there are picnic tables near this parking lot) and visited the two Sidonian burial caves.
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 other 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 Beit Guvrin. 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, which makes it easier for parents.
For all the mentioned reasons, I think this is one of the best National Parks in Israel.
Beit Guvrin is also called “Land Of A Thousand Caves.” But not all caves are located within its territory. If you love exploring caves, the check the nearby Horvat Midras Ruins Trail.
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!
Here 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.
And if you have any questions then check out Useful Information For Tourists To Israel.