Off the Beaten Track: Caving in to pressure

Travel expert Joe Yudin manages to convince a 71-year-old grandmother to explore the caves of Beit Guvrin.

July 26, 2012 16:22
4 minute read.

Caves. (photo credit: Joe Yudin)

Joe Yudin owns Touring Israel, a company that specializes in “Lifestyle” tours of Israel.

“An archaeological dig!” said the bat mitzvah girl’s grandmother that I recently guided for, “It’s too hot for that! I’m staying in the hotel.”

“But you will be down in a cave and the temperature is really cool. You’ll be out of the heat, in the shade and having fun.” I responded standing in the middle of the lobby at the King David Hotel.

“A cave! Are you out of your mind! How do we get down into the cave?” she asked.

Oh she’s from Long Island I thought to myself, “Well there is a ladder and you go down into this hole in the ground and…”

“What!” said yelled and I actually ducked thinking that she would take a swing at me, “A hole in the ground? No way, Jose!”

“Wait. I guarantee this will be one of the best experiences of the trip. If it looks too scary for you to do I’ll take you to a café and we’ll wait together until the family is through digging with the archaeologist.”

Begrudgingly this seventy-one year old grandmother of eight went along with us. I was interrogated the whole forty-five minute ride to the Beit Guvrin National Park just outside Beit Shemesh and I gladly explained from the beginning.

King Solomon’s son, Rehoboamwas in a predicament when he inherited the throne of his father in 925 BCE. The ten northern tribes of Israel had seceded from the kingdom and Judah was left with Jerusalem and the land to the south including Hebron and Beersheba.

Rehoboam built a series of fortified cities between his cities on the spine of the Judean Hills and the hostile coastal plain inhabited by Philistines and other foreigners. Maresha- which is now inside the Beit Guvrin National Park - was one of the largest of these fortified cities. As the Kingdom of Judah grew, so did Maresha, and suburbs expanded down what today is known as Tel Maresha to the place where the dig is taking place.

Joe Yudin

In 586 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian army destroyed the Kingdom of Judah along with Jerusalem and Maresha, taking the Jews away as slaves. After the Jewish return from exile seventy years later they found that the Edomites had moved in from across the Jordan River. After the Maccabean revolt from the Greeks, known as Hanukkah, the later Maccabeans probably came into Maresha and kicked out the descendants of the Edomites who had become assimilated into Greek culture and were considered the enemy.

Before the Edomites left, however, they dumped their homes into their basements and only carried away a small portion of their wealth, hence leaving behind treasure buried deep inside the caves, which is what we would be looking for.

Once we arrived at Beit Guvrin we were greeted by the archaeologist (and grandfather of seven) Bernie Alpert who led the family down the ladder, into a hole in the ground and out into a giant man made cave complex carved out of the soft chalk stone 2,300 years ago. The grandma from Roslyn, New York went right along and enjoyed every minute of it crawling around on her hands and knees, digging sifting, taking pictures getting dirty and bonding with her grandchildren like she never had before. She even found an oil lamp from the time of the Maccabees and I spotted a smile and a teardrop all at the same time.

Joe Yudin

We climbed out of the cave, formed a chain up the ladder and passed our buckets of dirt to ground level and while in the shade, under a canopy we sifted through the dirt looking for treasure, and we indeed found some. A clay shard with some ancient Greek writing on it, a hinge from a door, pots, amphorae, plates and grandma’s oil lamp.

After the dig, Bernie took us on a cave crawl through a candle lit unexcavated cave complex and then he took us into a completely excavated cave complex where we saw water systems, olive presses, pigeon coops and secret hiding places. Later I took them to see ancient colorful cave paintings in some exquisite family tombs and then to the later roman part of the city, to Beit Guvrins coliseum where the gladiators would fight each other and wild animals (and the Romans thought they were civilized).

On the way back to Jerusalem everyone was tired, but happy, and grandma wore a smile from ear to ear.

Archaeological Seminars Institute, Ltd.
Tel: (02) 586-2011

Joe Yudin became a licensed tour guide in 1999. He completed his Master’s degree at the University of Haifa in the Land  of Israel Studies and is currently studying toward a PhD.

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