There are many sites in Israel that I still need to visit. Numerous places I’ve still not yet been to, and plenty of others that I haven’t seen in many, many years. So I can’t yet say what my “favorite” site in this country is.
However, there is one site that I’ve been to twice in the past year (once on a private tour, and then a couple of weeks ago with my course) that has quickly become one of my favorite sites. Beit Guvrin-Maresha is a great site to visit for so many reasons.
For starters, it is a physically appealing site. Because this national park actually encompasses a number of smaller sites from different eras, it is spread over a somewhat larger plot of land, connected both by roads and walking trails. Plus, situated between the upper and lower Shephela (the foothills that lie between Israel’s Coastal Plain and the Judean Mountains), the site is surrounded by picturesque rolling hills. On my most recent trip these were covered by lush green grass, colorful wildflowers, and even what appeared to be wild wheat.
Combine this with the fact that the site is rather well-maintained, and has an abundance of locations to visit, and you get an archaeological site that almost has the feel of a theme park (in a good way). Plus, due to its size and physical spread, the location doesn’t feel quite as crowded as some of the more famous sites, such as Masada or Caesarea.
The two main parts of this park are the older city of Maresha (mainly Biblical and Hellenistic era) and Beit Guvrin is a later Roman-era city. There were some Byzantine and Crusader settlements in both areas later on, as well as some Muslim-era building, but the bulk of the archaeological sites are from the earlier periods. There is a lot more to see in the Maresha part of the park, but the amphitheater in Beit Guvrin is beautiful, well-maintained and one of only four existing in all of Israel. (On a side note, amphitheaters technically only refer to complete oval, or circular structures, like the Roman Coliseum. Semi-circular ones are actually theaters and “amphi-” means two. Thus an amphitheater is a double theater — two theaters connected together.)
What’s somewhat interesting is that there is relatively little at Beit Guvrin-Maresha with direct Jewish relevance. But the finds there have given a window onto life in the Holy Land when Jews lived alongside other peoples. There are overlapping customs of a quasi-Judaic nature, some of which relate to the debatable and potentially dubious tale of Edomites who were forced to convert to Judaism. In fact, it is from this group and this city that the complex character of Herod is said to have come. Herod the great builder and ruler of Israel, who was also equally vicious and ruthless to his subjects.
One of the major features of Maresha is its system of man-made “caves.” The hills in this area are made of soft chalk (kirton in Hebrew), with a hard shell on top (locally called “nari”). So once people dug a small hole in the nari, they were able to easily quarry out bricks from the chalk. Thus they had building materials for their homes above, and were left with usable basements. These underground chambers became the location of a lot of the industry of the city, since they were cooler in summer and warmer in winter. And thus, Maresha has a tremendous quantity of archaeological finds as well.
There are 169 cave systems with approximately 5000 rooms here. There are 85 columbaria (dovecotes) and 23 olive presses (one of which was found in pristine condition, just completed but never used). There are also numerous cisterns and burial caves. And there is a beautiful system of 80 or so interconnected “bell caves.” These are large underground quarries (mostly 40-50 feet deep, with the deepest at 82 feet), from a later era (Byzantine and Early Muslim). To maintain structural integrity, the caves were dug out in a domed bell shape.
For many, however, the highlight of a trip to Beit Guvrin-Maresha is the “Dig for a Day” program. There is a tremendous amount of artifacts inside the various cave systems, many of which are still unexcavated. But luckily these are not sensitive sites, since most of the caves were filled on purpose by people dumping things inside. So most of them have no real strata (time-bound levels), and thus it is less important how deep inside things are found. So the program gives regular people the chance to help excavate the site, while also learning a drop about archaeology in general. First you enter a cave and fill buckets with dirt, often finding many larger pieces of pottery and other artifacts. Then, once the buckets are taken to the surface, you sift through the dirt to find smaller items.
And there are so many items in these caves that it is virtually impossible to participate in these digs and not find something. And sometimes people find some very cool artifacts. I’ve been lucky. On my first dig I found a piece of glass inside the cave, and more recently I found a tiny coin, both of which were well over 2000 years old!
Additionally, diggers usually also climb/crawl through a cave system that is yet to be excavated. This is first and foremost a fun activity for those who aren’t afraid to get themselves a little dirty. But it also paints a more complete picture of the part they are playing in the overall process. By seeing what the caves you were digging in look like and comparing them to the cramped and narrow spaces of an as-yet unexcavated cave system, you get even more of a feeling of accomplishment.
I highly recommend a trip to Beit Guvrin-Maresha in general, and participation in the Dig for a Day program in particular. The trip is good for people of all ages.