Beit Guvrin National Park has a remarkable collection of man-made caves, many of which date back 2,200 years. Located in the Shfela or Lowlands of Judea, one hour southwest of Jerusalem, the park encompasses the ruins of two ancient cities: Maresha and Beit Guvrin or Eleutheropolis as it was called in Roman-Byzantine times. It is declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Most of the park’s caves are concentrated around Tel Maresha, the mound of the ancient city of Maresha. The caves were hewn for a variety of purposes, including dovecots, olive oil presses, quarry pits, storage rooms, cisterns and burial chambers. They cover a period spanning over 1,000 years from the 3rd century B.C.E. to the 10th Century C.E. In the 2nd century C.E., the entrances to some of the caves were camouflaged and connected by narrow tunnels to serve as hideouts for Jewish rebels who rose up against Rome during the Bar Kochba Rebellion.
Situated next to the gas station opposite the park’s entrance are the ruins of Beit Guvrin or Eleutheropolis. These ruins include a Roman Amphitheater and several medieval Arab and Crusader structures.
The large number of man-made caves (over 3,000 have been found to date) is attributable to the region’s soft and easy to carve chalk bedrock. Carving caves beneath houses for a variety of non-residential uses may have helped to limit the city’s urban sprawl (horizontal growth) and helped conserve farm land in the rich fertile valleys below the tell.
Exploring the Caves
Beit Guvrin National Park can be visited comfortably year round. The nicest season is spring when the region abounds in colorful wildflowers. There are toilet facilities and water available in the park at the first parking lot, Sidonian Caves parking area, the Bell Caves and at the restaurant/kiosk/gasoline station opposite the park entrance.
At the admission booth pick up a helpful brochure with a site map. Then follow the road to the first parking lot beneath Tel Maresha. From here set off to explore several caves, including the Columbarium and the olive press. The top of Tel Maresha affords an excellent panoramic view of the surrounding region.
Returning to the car, continue on the park road to reach the Sidonian and Musicians caves. These burial caves belonged to a colony of Sidonian Sea People, who maintained a trading outpost in the region. The colorfully decorated caves contain scenes from Greek and other Mediterranean mythologies.
Turn right out of the Sidonian Cave parking lot and follow the road for 2 kilometers to a blue sign pointing right to the Bell Caves. Turn right and follow the road to the Bell Caves. These dome or ‘bell’ shaped caves are former quarry pits. They apparently functioned as rock quarries during several different periods and even provided the material to build the medieval Arab city of Ramle, near Ben Gurion Airport.
Returning to the main road outside the park, visit the Roman amphitheater, complete with animal pens for gladiator fights, next to the gas station.
At least some of the parks are wheelchair accessible and it is a great place to allow children to explore (under supervision of course).
Getting to Beit Guvrin
On Road 35 – between Road 38 & Kiriyat Gat.
For more information see Beit Guvrin National Park and Israel Nature Reserves
Nearby Beit Guvrin
There are several other places of interest in the area of Bet Guvrin.
The Ela Valley is the scene of both an ancient and a modern story of heroism.