by Yael Adar
Imagine holding a special celebration in a huge cave, in a place known as the site of the ancient cities of Maresha and Beit Guvrin. If you’ve conjured up an image of a dark, dank place, through which you may even have to crawl to reach, think again. The Bell Cave at Beit Guvrin doesn’t fit this image at all. Its walls are made of beige colored limestone, it is large (over 60 feet high), airy and is easily accessible. It is also a very unique place to hold a special event. While there are numerous bell caves within the park grounds, events are only held in one of these caves. It is one of about 800 bell-shaped caves located in the area. Many of these caves are linked via an underground network of passageways that connect groups of 40-50 caves. While the bell cave at which events are held is easy to reach many of the other caves can only be reached by rappelling into them – or in fact crawling. There are roughly 2000 caves in the Beit Guvrin area Today it’s known that the bell caves served as quarries that supplied building materials to the cities of the coastal plain and Beit Guvrin during the seventh-tenth centuries CE. At the top of cave there is a hole (see photo)– through which quarry was removed.
The town of Beit Guvrin replaced the city of Maresha, one of the Judean cities mentioned in the Bible (Joshua 15:44 and Chronicles 2, 11; 5-8) as a city fortified by Rehoboam, so that it could withstand Egyptian attack. In 112 BCE Maresha was conquered by the Hasmonean king, John Hyracanus I, who destroyed the city and gave residents the choice of expulsion or conversion to Judaism. The town managed to recover somewhat and was ultimately destroyed in 40 BCE.
During the Roman and Byzantine periods there was a large Jewish population here and during the Roman period the city was given the status of “city of freeman” and named Eleutheroolis. Beit Guvrin was the most important city in the area and thrived until the Bar Kochva revolt (132-135 CE). According to Josephus Flavius Beit Guvrin was conquered by the Roman general Vespasian. The remains of a large Jewish cemetery were discovered on site. Additionally, a Roman-Byzantine amphitheater, public baths, mosaics and burial tombs were also found here. It was also an important center of Christianity and had many churches. The remains of St. Anne’s church are still visible.
Beit Guvrin National Park is a wondrous place where one can easily spend half a day exploring many caves (Tel Maresha, site of the ancient city is located at the highest point on the park grounds). Visiting the park one can see the remains of an urban center that has existed consistently from the first century on (though destroyed and rebuilt many times over).
Beit Guvrin National Park is located off Rt. #35 across from Kibbutz Beit Guvrin, at the junction of roads that lead from the Judean foothills to Jerusalem and Hebron. Beit Guvrin is 35 miles south of Jerusalem, (56 kilometers) at an altitude of 820-1150 above sea level.