Entrance to the Second Temple necropolis of Bet She’arim in the Lower Galilee’s Jezreel Valley
Story and photos by Lydia Aisenberg
Hewn out of a crop of hills in the western portion of the Jezreel Valley in the lower Galilee, the Second Temple necropolis of Bet She’arim became a UNESCO Heritage Site in 2015.
This UNESCO award was the ninth such award given to honor physical sites in Israel where over 3,000 years of history, culture and religion are shared with hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, making Israel the smallest country physically to boast such a large number of UNESCO Heritage Sites.
Spread over a 25 acre site, and tucked into a range of small hills that nestle between two portions of the present-day rural town of Tivon, the fascinating and somewhat spooky site is unfortunately off the beaten track for most overseas tourists who are more likely to visit one of three other major Jezreel Valley archaeological sites – Tel Megiddo, Beit Shean and Tzipori (Sepphoris).
The Sarcophagi of the Nikes
However, a visit to Beit She’arim, the remnants of the former Galilean town of enormous importance in Jewish religious life for centuries after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, is definitely one of the highlights of a visit to Israel for those who have been before or for those with a penchant for thinking out of the box. That is true especially if they like the idea of exploring underground tunnels and caves dating back to the 2nd century AD containing burial chambers full of outstandingly decorated (but nowadays empty) sarcophagi. Subtle electric lighting and here and there sunlight penetrating overhead crevices in the rocks illuminate the underground wonders of an underworld. If it’s not quite bright enough to see the finer details, one can also always use the torch on one’s mobile phone to shine some present-day light on the writings and amazing sculptures to be found at almost every twist and turn.
Beit She’arim was first surveyed by The Palestine Exploration Fund in 1871 after a Jewish guard on horseback, by the name of Alexander Zaid, made a discovery of archaeological interest when building his home on a hill close by. Unfortunately, Zaid was never to know how major his discovery was to become as, hired by the JNF to guard the Jews living in the valley, he was murdered by a gang of Arab plunderers just a few years after the first Israel Exploration Society excavations of the site from 1936-1940 got underway.
The excavating of the ancient city of Beit She’arim, with long lapses between excavations, eventually unearthed some of the most illustrious findings in what was during the Second Temple period one of many Jewish communities in the Lower Galilee, the center of Jewish life having passed from Judea to the Galilee after the Bar-Kochba Revolt of 132-135 C.E.
It was here that the highest judicial and ecclesiastical council, the Sanhedrin, settled for a period of time before moving on to Tzippori (Sepphoris). Beit She’arim was also where the charismatic and influential Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi compiled the Mishna before moving to Sepphoris for health reasons. Rabbi Hanasi had made it known that he wished to be buried at Beit She’arim and further requested not to be buried in a sarcophagus, but in the ground.
The entrance to the cave where the much revered rabbi is buried is most impressive, having three arches with extremely thick intricately decorated stone doors. The courtyard in front is paved with gigantic stones and there are trees growing skyward from the top of the catacomb.
Engraved in the walls around the grave of the rabbi (his wife was buried alongside) are the names in both Hebrew and Greek of their two rabbi sons, Gamliel and Shimon – together with that of Rabbi Hanina who was apparently ordained by Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi.
Israeli craftsman Ori Shefer painstakingly repairs cracks in the walls
Signs direct visitors to the cave entrances, among them the Cave of the Syrian Jews and the Cave of the Curses, the latter sporting an ominous inscription warning that “whoever opens this tomb will eventually die a bad death”. One might decide to give this one a miss! The largest of the caves open to the general public is the Cave of Coffins. In it is a collection of large and small caves, no fewer than 135 stone coffins can be found, some with the most wonderfully sculpted and intricate images of animals, fish, plants and more to be wowed over, and of course photographed.
As one drives down – literally - to the car park entrance of the Beit She’arim National Park, the impressive remains of a synagogue at the side of the road already give the visitor an idea of what’s to come. Although out of vision at this point, further up that same hill sits a large sculpture of Alexander Zaid astride his faithful horse, a short walk - or shorter trot on a horse - from the astonishing Beit She’arim catacombs. Leaving the site I was struck by the thought that had the famous Shomer (guardian) of the valley not decided to build a house nearby, the catacomb complex might not have been discovered to this day.
With large expanses of grassy areas for visitors to rest up or picnic and for kids to play, Beit She’arim definitely has something for visitors of all ages and of all religious persuasions. For those who want to delve deeper into history and not only just stroll around the underground tunnels and catacombs, the park’s information booth supplies informative pamphlets in a number of languages which assist visitors come to grips with the enormity of its importance to Jewish religious life for centuries following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the dispersion of the Jewish people.