Friday, April 27, 2012



Bet Guvrin-Maresha National Park encompasses approximately 5,000 dunams (1,250 acres) of rolling hills in the Judean Lowlands. The hills, approximately 400 m above sea level, consist mainly of chalk overlaid with harder rock called nari about 1.5-2 metres deep. For thousands of years people have been cutting into the rock beneath the nari as quarries, burial caves, storerooms, industrial facilities, hideouts and dovecotes. They dug small openings into the nari and expanded the caves into the softer chalk beneath. Hundreds of such caves were dug at Bet Guvrin and its surroundings, creating subterranean networks of great complexity.

At a high point in the park is Tel Maresha, the highest city in the Judean Lowlands. It was fortified by King Rehoboam of Judah following the campaign to the region of the Egyptian Pharaoh Shishak.  It was abandoned after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE, when the Jews left for Babylon.

The city was resettled and reached its height during the Hellenistic period (third-second centuries BCE), when it was inhabited by the Edomites. The Hasmonean king, Yochanan Hycanus conquered the city in the second century BCE and forcibly converted its inhabitants it Judaism. During the Roman period the inhabitants of Maresha abandoned it, building the city of Bet Guvrin nearby and transforming the latter into the capital of the region of western Idumea.

Tel Maresha was found by archeologists Bliss and Maclister of the British Exploration Fund in 1900.  The Ottoman Turks allowed them to excavate several tells in the area on condition they returned everything to its former state afterwards.

The “Polish Cave

This cave was dug during the 4th-3rd centures BCE and may have originally been a quarry.  It was later converted to a columbarium for raising pigeons.  During World War II it was visited by Polish soldiers from the Free Polish Army.  They engraved the year of their visit, 1943, the words “Warsaw, Poland” and the eagle symbol of the Polish Army into one of the supporting pillars.

The columbarium cave

22 subterranean olive oil plants
The columbarium cave

This was built in the shape of a double cross and is the largest in the country.  It has more than 2,000 niches.  The blue colour which can be seen is a bacteria called Cianobacteria, which develops where there is a small amount of light and a lot of moisture.  The pigeons raised were used for food and fertilizer.  The columbarium went out of use at the end of the 3rd century BCE and the niches were used for storage.  85 such columbaria were found in the area, with tens of thousands of niches.

The bath cave

This comprises of a flight of stairs and 2 small rooms with seats for the bathers, who showered in jets of water emerging from the bedrock wall.  The bather was invisible to the slave pouring the water.  At least 20 such bathing caves have been found in Maresha.

The olive oil plant

22 subterranean olive oil plants
This is one of 22 subterranean olive oil plants from the 4th-3rd centuries BCE, discovered so far at Maresha. In most of them there is one crushing installation and 2 or 3 lever-and-weights presses for extracting the oil from the olive mash.  Growing olives and producing oil was an important part of the economy of the area in ancient times.  The olives were harvested in the autumn and the plants worked around the clock for the next 2-3 months producing oil.

The dwelling house

The house, partly reconstructed, was used as a dwelling and for trade during the Hellenistic period  The ground floor occupies about 1,600 square feet and its rooms were arranged around a small central courtyard.  Ascent to the 2nd floor was by a flight of stairs.  The walls of the house survived to a height of 5 feet.  They were plastered to preserve the soft limestone.  Under the floor of one of the rooms 25 coins were discovered, with the latest dated 113 BCE.  The house was probably destroyed that year when Maresha was conquered by the Maccabees.  There are cisterns underneath the house in which rainwater, collected from the alleys, roofs and courtyards, was stored.  It flowed through ceramic pipes along the length of the stairs.

Dwelling house and underground system

These are from the Hellenistic period.  Through the northern house one may descend to a bath, remarkable in both its design and state of preservation.  The underground route leads to a group of cisterns, continuing through the columbarium to additional rooms and cisterns.  The olive oil plant and its adjacent changers are underneath the fourth and last house.  In the past, the many underground chambers were used separately, there was no passageway connecting them.

Sidonian Burial Caves

Sidonian Burial Caves

Sidonian Burial Caves 

A series of impressive burial caves from the Hellenistic period, located at the foot of Tel Maresha and featuring reconstructed wall paintings. The caves were rediscovered by archaelogists Thirsch and Piters in 1902.  Initial burial was in niches around the walls, which could be sealed with stones so there would be no smell.  After a year the bones were removed to a central room.  The paintings, proof of the presence of other cultures at Maresha, depict hunting scenes with wild and mythological creatures and shed light on ancient artistic techniques and crafts.  The paintings were restored in 1993 from sketches done after the caves were discovered.

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