Saturday, June 20, 2009

Beit She'arim

Beit She'arim, in Kiryat Tivon, near Yokneam, is newer (and closer) than most of the sites we have visited recently. The city reached it's peak in the 3rd and 4th centuries C.E. so it's almost modern by Israeli archeological standards. After the Bar-Kochva Revolt (132 C.E.) the Sanhedrin (highest judicial and ecclesiastical council in the land) eventually ended up in Beit She'arim. At the head of the Sanhedrin was the venerable Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi. He died in 220 C.E. after the Sanhedrin had moved to Zippori, but he was buried in Beit She'arim. The desire to be buried near him turned Beit She'arim into "the place" to be buried during the 3rd and 4th century, for locals from the land of Israel and abroad.

Beit She'arim is an amazing place. It's spectacular and it's a wonder I have never been there before. The burial caves are reputed to be one of the best examples of a necropolis (City of the Dead) around. 30 caves have been excavated, some are huge and have over one hundred coffins and sarcophagi some are smaller. The coffins are stone and most are decorated with themes of the living world, bulls, eagles, lions, fish and the like. Some have Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic inscriptions. All the caves had been robbed, so no valuables remain.

I took dozens of pictures. None of which can really capture how wonderful a place this is. Gilad and I arrived at 8am and as usual were completely alone during our stay. It's foolish not to visit, but for some reason it's not as popular as one might think. For more info look here.

The skillful stonework can be seen everywhere. There is a little museum that has examples of some of the carvings.
All the tombs had doors. Many had been broken by tomb robbers.

This is the entrance to the "Cave of the Coffins". It's huge (75 meters in each direction). It's filled with hundreds of coffins and amazing carvings. The tombs interconnect and the air is still and cold. There are many images of beasts and symbols. I liked these lions (?) as seen through a break in a tomb wall.

There are niches in the tomb walls that probably held valuables or bones. They are all empty. The coffins (or sarcophagi) are wonderfully decorated. They are also huge and must have taken some work to get into the caves. Check out this scene of the ark. This menorah was carved into the wall, deep in the cave.

There are many smaller caves. These were not really lit up, but I now remember to take a flashlight with and the boy and I explored, making believe we were Indiana Jones. Here you can see what a typical cyrpt looks like. Once inside, looking towards the entrance you can see the stone door that has been pushed in.

Some of the tombs had been carved out of the mountain side and their sarcophagi left exposed. You can see the holes that the grave robbers used to enter the tombs. Typically they broke open the top of the door and went in through this hole.

We both enjoyed every moment exploring the caves at Beit She'arim. The necropolis in on the northern side of the ancient city. The ruins of the city are open to visitors and we climbed around a bit, but did not explore completely as the boy was tired after a hard night's gaming. And to be honest, broken walls and stones are a bit of a let down after the incredible caves. We did come across the synagogue, with this impressive arch.

So what are you waiting for. Go visit Beit She'arim. It's worth the 20 Sheks.

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