Israel’s Beit Gouvrin-Maresha National Park

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The Beit Guvrin-Maresha National Park is located in the heart of the Judean Valley (Highway 35). It is an area of low green hills (250 to 400 meters above sea level), which are good pastures. From ancient times to the present day, this fertile land has been used for agriculture.

The remains of two ancient cities, Maresh and Beit Guvrin, are located in the park on an area of 5,000 dunams. We know about the ancient Maresh from the Tanakh. The Tanakh tells us that King Rehoboam made efforts to defend it against attacks by Egyptian armies. There was also a battle between the Jews and the Ethiopians, in which the Jews won. After the destruction of the First Temple, Maresha was settled by the Edomites, who came from the desert. Sidonians and Greeks (4th century BC) then appeared. The underground cave city was built during the Hellenistic period. In the Byzantine period, the population becomes even more diverse. Jews and Egyptians come here.

It is interesting that in 120 BC under Hasmonean King Yohanan Hyrcanus I, the non-Jewish population of Maresha converted to Judaism. During the Parthian wars the city was deserted by the Parthians and the nearby Beit Guvrin became the center of the area. Fertile land and location determined its further rapid development.

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Beit Guvrin-Maresha National Park is known for the large number of calcareous ancient caves that were used as quarries, for water storage, for raising pigeons, for burials, for processing agricultural products, and for keeping livestock. A total of about 500 caves with 3,500 rooms have been discovered. Limestone is a material that can be processed well, which is what gave rise to the caves here as a result of stone mining. But in some cases, the limestone was covered with harder rock, which was from 1.5 to 3 m. thick, so that they had to be cut through first to reach the soft layers. The quarried stone was used to build the houses of the ancient cities. These houses had an upper habitable part and a lower underground part in which there were household premises, and also it was possible to hide in time of war. Sometimes caves were also used for habitation. The living quarters were connected to the caves by step descents.

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During the Persian period the entire southern part of Judea, including Maresha, was taken over by the Edomites, natives of the southeast, and thus became part of Edom. Beginning in the fourth century BC, natives of Sidon (a city-state in Phoenicia, present-day Saida, Lebanon) and the Greeks settled in Maresha, bringing the Hellenistic culture to it. Individual Egyptians and Jewish refugees also lived in this city. During this period Maresha became an important trading city, specializing mainly in the slave trade with Egypt. At that time the first caves (underground rooms – A.K.) were carved in it and a lower underground city was built.

The next ruler of the city was the Maccabean king who captured Maresha, John Hyrcanus I (125 B.C.), who forced his subjects who worshipped pagan gods to convert to Judaism to ensure their loyalty. According to tradition, it is from Maresha that the family of King Herod, the Judaizing Idumean convert, comes. But after the conquest most of the population left the city, which, according to Josephus Flavius, was finally destroyed by the Parthians in 40 B.C. Later the place of Maresha was taken by the nearby town of Beth Gavrin, first mentioned by Josephus Flavius in 68 AD.

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The remains of the residential structures of the Greek period of Mareshi are found on the top of the hill. The rocky rocks on it are not a thick layer of hard limestone, under which is soft limestone, amenable to processing and convenient for construction. The ancient stonecutters made a small round hole in a layer of hard rock and took out from there soft and wet limestone. When the work was finished, a cave was left, shaped like an underground bell, with a hole in the top. There are hundreds of such caves in Beth Gavrin-Maresha National Park, some of them communicating with each other. Most of the caves served in ancient times as dwellings, connected by underground passages to the upper surface buildings. Among them you can find real underground houses and industrial workshops, such as oil mills, as well as wells and burial caves.

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The cave spaces of the lower town of Maresh are incomparably larger than its above-ground parts. Various rooms were used as reservoirs for water: water came from the roof to the inner courtyards and through drainage troughs went underground. There are also bathrooms, columbariums, and presses for olive oil production in these underground dwellings.

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One of the most interesting cave (underground) complexes surrounding Maresha is the Columbarium Cave. It is shaped like a double cross. A few meters above eye level, you can see hundreds of small recesses in the wall. These recesses served as a refuge for pigeons, which were preserved in ancient times because of their meat as well as their droppings, which were used as fertilizer. Because pigeons were cheap, they were very popular among Jews and Gentiles alike and were used as sacrificial animals. In the period following the Greek era, these pigeon dwellings lost their relevance.

At the best of times, a typical Maresh house might have looked something like this:

And the dungeons already led out of the house .

The water tank:

There used to be a quarry here, and then a storeroom:

And some other rooms.

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The caves of Maresha and Beit Guvrin in the Judean Valley were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2014 as an exceptional example of the harmonious coexistence of people and the environment. The ancient cities of Maresha (9th-1st century BC) and Beit Guvrin (1st-10th century AD) were located at the crossroads of trade routes to Mesopotamia and Egypt and were witness to the development of different cultures for nearly 2000 years uninterrupted.

The name Ben Gouvrin first appears in Josephus Flavius, who reports its conquest by the Romans in A.D. 68. Later, under Emperor Septimius the North, the city was renamed Eleutoropolis. During the Byzantine period, Beit Gouvrin became a Christian city. Most of the bell caves were hollowed out during the early Arab period. After the conquest by the Crusaders, Beit Gouvrin was renamed Bethibelline and became a small fortified town, surrounded by agricultural settlements. During this period the church of St. Anne was built, the remains of which can also be found in the park.

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Before the War of Independence there was an Arab village of Beit Jibrin. In June 1948, the Egyptian army seized the building of the British police, which was built here at the beginning of the Second World War. In October 1948 the area was recaptured by the IDF. In May 1948 the kibbutz of Beit Guvrin was established on the surrounding land.

Archaeological excavations in the ancient site of Beit Guvrin began in 1900. In 1902, the “Sidon” caves were discovered. Thereafter excavations were carried out by the Israel Antiquities Authority, established in 1989, under the direction of Professors Amos Cloner and Michael Cohen.

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There are a number of hiking trails of varying length and difficulty. In addition, you can drive up to the most interesting objects. At the entrance is given a plan for walking. We leave the car not far from the restored ancient oil presses. In general, the oil mills are often found in the park, because olive growing and oil production was an important industry in the economy of the ancient Beit Gouvrin. Olive oil was used in cooking and preserving food, in perfumery and for religious services.

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Now going up a small hill and almost immediately we find ourselves in front of the entrance to an underground cave. This is the so called “Polish cave”. It is so called because soldiers of the Polish army had been here during World War II. During the Hellenistic period, this cave was used as a well, and later as a columbarium for raising pigeons. The next cave is a “columbarium” in which some 2,000 cells were found for the same purpose. Pigeons and their eggs were used as food and for religious purposes. About 85 such caves with tens of thousands of nests for raising pigeons have been discovered in the ancient city of Maresha. Nearby is a small cave with a small sitting tub. It is located so that the bather cannot be seen from the outside. It is an interesting touch that reveals the details of everyday life of the townspeople. Next, we enter the cave “Butter Factory”. Here is one of the 22 oil presses found in Maresh. In the same cave is a water well.

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On the territory of the park there are many open caves of unknown purpose. The distance from one cave to another is 100 to 200 meters.

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Following the route, we climb the ancient hill of Maresha, located at an altitude of about 360 m above sea level. The upper city was 30 m above the lower. The remains of the corner towers of the city walls are visible on the northwest side of the hill. From the hill there is a great view of the entire park.

Continue on and come to an ancient dwelling house partially restored in 1992 – 1993 with adjoining commercial premises. The structure dates from the 2nd or 3rd century B.C. It is made up of a small central courtyard and a number of rooms organized around its perimeter. A descent under the house leads to rain water cisterns and an oil-press cave.

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The next cave is called the “labyrinth”. It is a huge cave with numerous branches on different levels, with water reservoirs, spacious halls, presses and columbarium. It is also an example of living quarters with underground caves from the Hellenistic period.

Now let’s go down to the two “Sidonian” caves that were used for burials. Cave No. 8 has a central hall and two side halls. At the end of the central hall is the entrance to the next room, resembling a Greek temple. On the walls are magnificent pictures of animals and amphorae. This cave belonged to the Apolophanes family.

On the road to the Bell Caves, which are 1.5 km away, are the remains of the Byzantine era apsidal church of St. Annas. It was a large church with dimensions of 52×56 meters. After its rebuilding by the Crusaders, its dimensions were reduced. The ruins of the church, preserved until the 19th century, can be seen in the photo, placed next to the apse.

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Finally, the “bell” caves are in front of us. They are located on the territory of the ancient Beit Gouvrin. They were probably excavated during the Byzantine and early Arab periods. The caves were used mainly as quarries and supplied the nearby villages and Beit Gouvrin with building material. “The Bell Caves consist of huge circular halls with colossal vaults of 12 to 15 meters in height. The shape of the bell is explained by the way the stone was extracted through a narrow opening at the top with a gradual expansion in different directions, which gave the caves great stability. There are still some remnants of machining on the walls. Near the caves grow fig and almond trees.

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Now you can drive up to the Roman and medieval excavations. The Roman Amphitheater in Beit Gouvrin is one of the best preserved in Israel. It was used for gladiatorial fights, sporting events and fights with wild animals. After the revolt of 132 – 134 under the leadership of Bar Kochba, the Roman army stood in the area around Beit Gouvrin and the amphitheater built there is typical of a military town. In 363 A.D. it was destroyed and in the Byzantine period there was a market place and workshops. The posts on which the tent was stretched to protect it from the sun and the rains are still there. Under the stage of the amphitheater can be seen excavated arches and there under the ground were underground caves used to keep wild animals before a fight. Nowadays the amphitheater is also used for performances. Nearby are the remains of the Crusader fortress (Betjibelen). The fortress was built by the Franks against the Saracens. The choice of site for the building in a valley rather than on a high place was due to the availability of water sources and a very advantageous location. Subsequently, the castle belonged to the Order of the Hospitallers. The church, in the form of a basilica, is the best preserved to this day. The castle was destroyed in 1244.

Under the castle were found the remains of baths of the Roman period.

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