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(photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
Somewhat off the beaten track for overseas tourists, the Beit She'arim National Park near present-day Kiryat Tivon attracts mainly Israelis-in-the-know. The excavated ancient Tel Megiddo at the other end of the Jezreel Valley is quite a different story - there the visitors to the over 20 layers of civilization discovered since excavations began in 1903 are mainly Christian pilgrims believing it to be the site of the Battle of Armageddon and in its aftermath, the Second Coming.
Having British Christian guests over the recent holiday period who had been to Megiddo on a previous visit, we headed for Beit She'arim.
The British-based Palestine Exploration Fund first surveyed Beit She'arim in 1871. Some 60 years later, a Jewish watchman who built his home on a nearby hill known as Sheik Abreik discovered an ancient burial system. The watchman was Alexander Zaid, a founder of the horseback guardsmen of the valley known as "Hashomrim." Hired by the Jewish National Fund to keep a watchful eye over the Jewish inhabitants of the valley at that time, Zaid was murdered by Arab marauders in the late l930s, a short time after the first excavation began, and was probably unaware of the significance of the archaeological site literally in his backyard.
The first excavation was carried out from 1936 to 1940 and only resumed 13 years later for a further four years. During those two major excavations, an ancient city was unearthed with the remains of a synagogue, burial chambers, basilica (public building), religious school, houses, city walls, a gate, olive-oil plant and glass factory, all dating to the second to fourth centuries C.E.
A large bronze statue of Zaid perched on his trusty steed sits on the brow of the Sheik Abreik hill overlooking the valley floor, Beit She'arim and Kiryat Tivon behind them. The monument is part of the national park, although one can pay a visit at any time to the motionless guard of the valley outside the fenced-off area, and share the marvelous view afforded from that vantage point.
On the day we visited Beit She'arim, the park was bursting with Israeli visitors enjoying the expansive grassy areas and shade thrown by huge trees, or ducking in and out of the catacombs hewn into the hillside. Among the day trippers were families of Russian-speaking new immigrants, a group of Jewish history buffs from the center of the country, an extended family from Haifa celebrating a batmitzvah by visiting Jewish historical sites, and a large group of families with children clutching work sheets in one hand and flashlights in the other.
During the Second Temple period, Beit She'arim was one of many small Jewish settlements in the Lower Galilee. After the Bar Kochba Revolt of 132-135 C.E., the center of Jewish life passed from Judea to the Galilee. The Sanhedrin, the highest judicial and ecclesiastical council of the Jews in Israel, wandered from Yavneh to Shfaram, then to Usha before settling in what became Beit She'arim.
The rabbis were granted land at Beit She'arim by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi, an educator who is credited with a following of students who later became sages under his guidance, headed the Sanhedrin who then relocated to Sepphoris when the charismatic and respected leader was forced to move due to ill health.
It was during the time Yehuda Hanassi spent at Beit She'arim that he compiled the Mishnah, the first written recording of the oral Jewish law.
When Yehuda Hanassi died at Sepphoris (Tzippori), his body was brought for burial at Beit She'arim, after which the site became the most important Jewish burial ground in the Holy Land after the Romans banned Jews from Jerusalem.
The change in site for Jewish burial brought an influx of laborers and artisans such as quarrymen, stone cutters and sculptors who industriously set to work on their motifs for doors, coffins and walls. In its heyday the reputation of the city of Beit She'arim spread throughout the Diaspora. The Talmud praises the magnificence of buildings in the city. However, in the year 351, the price paid for a revolt against the local Roman governor was the destruction of the city by Roman soldiers.
Only some of the many excavated burial caves are open to the general public, although one can pre-arrange to visit some of those that are not. Each cave has a name allocated by the archaeologists according to what was discovered therein - including indications of what was not found after tomb raiders burglarized the contents either centuries ago or during modern times.
In front of each burial cave is an attractive flagstone courtyard. Impressive thick and weighty sculptured doors stand ajar, and one enters rather eerie burial chambers leading off each other with variously sized sarcophagi (now empty) with beautiful sculptured flowers, lions and other motifs and inscriptions in Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek hewn into the stone.
The catacombs are dimly lit in some places and brightly in others, either by electric light or sunlight filtering through apertures high above. Some of the tombs are a few meters high and stand away from the plastered walls.
One of the burial caves is named "Cave of the Loved One Rests Here," and comprises three chambers and a stone door decorated with rosettes, part of the metal door handle still embedded in the stone.
The entrance to "The Cave of Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi" is overwhelming. Three arches and heavy stone decorated doors - only one of which is open - lead into a large courtyard. On the walls above the grave of the Rabbi are written the names of his two sons, Rabbis Gamliel and Shimon, inscribed in Hebrew and Greek together with that of Rabbi Hanina the Lesser.
Yehuda Hanassi asked to be buried in the ground and not in a sarcophagus. Inside the chamber, in a corner marked off by large stones, is the gravesite of the rabbi and his wife.
An altogether impressive cave of four chambers is the "Cave of the Syrian Jews." The "Cave of the Curses" boasts an ominous inscription threatening that "Whoever opens this tomb will eventually die a bad death." A large seven-branch candelabra is hewn out of the rock, as is the image of a vulture, possibly waiting for those struck down by the curse on the wall.
The largest of the caves, the "Cave of the Coffins," is 75 meters in both length and breadth and includes two long corridors from which many small rooms branch off - each containing stone coffins. There are 135 such rooms in all, some of them extensively decorated with images from the world of animals, plants and fish.
Above ground are the remains of buildings - private dwellings in the main - and just outside the main entrance to the park are remnants of the old city walls and synagogue, and of course the statue of the man who built his home between a rock and an ancient city, Alexander Zaid.
For further details about Beit She'arim National Park, call: (04) 983-1643