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Beit Guvrin Caves

Beit Guvrin, The Land of 1,000 Caves

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The Beit Guvrin-Maresha caves have been used for thousands of years as quarries, burial sites, storerooms, stables, hideouts, dovecotes, cisterns, baths, and places of worship. They are comprised of chambers and networks with various functions, and are situated below Maresha, one of the important towns during the time of the First Temple, and Beit Guvrin, a significant town in the Roman era, when it was known as Eleutheropolis.

Beit Guvrin Caves - Altar

An altar in one of the caves signifies its use as a place of worship in ancient times. Source: BigStockPhoto

Bell caves

The great "bell caves" of Beit Guvrin, of which there are around 800, date from the Late Roman, Byzantine, and even Early Arab periods (2nd–7th century AD), when the locals created a quarry to mine stone for mortar and plaster, and to extract lime for cement. The quarry was opened from a one-meter hole in the hard Nari surface above.  When the ancient diggers reached the soft chalk below, they began reaming out their quarry in the structurally secure bell shape, each bell eventually cutting into the one adjacent to it. Although not built to be inhabited, the caves may have been used as refuges by Early Christians. In the North Cave, a cross high on the wall, at the same level as an Arabic inscription, suggests a degree of coexistence even after the Arab conquest of the area in AD 636.  Many of the caves are linked via an underground network of passageways that connect groups of 40–50 caves together.

Sidonian burial caves

The Sidonian burial caves were the family tomb of Apollophanes, the leader of the Sidonian community, which settled at Maresha during the Hellenistic or Persian period. These magnificent 3 rd to 2 nd century BC tombs, are adorned with inscriptions and fresco paintings of animals, real and mythical, above the niches where the corpses were laid.  The images include a cock, which was believed to scare away demons; the three-headed dog Cerberus, who guards the entrance to the underworld; and a bright red phoenix, which symbolizes the life after death. The largest tomb, which was used by Apollophanes, had a bed carved into the stone, the final resting place of the Sidonian patriarch.

Sidonian burial cave

Sidonian burial cave. Source: Wikipedia

The Columbarium

One of the large caves in Beit Guvrin contains nearly 2,000 small niches carved into the rock. In Rome, urns with ashes of the dead were placed in niches, but no traces of ash were found here. Moreover, cremation is not attested in the literary sources for the land. So what were the niches used for?

Beit Guvrin Carved Rock

The small niches carved into the rock. Source: BigStockPhoto

The most commonly accepted theory is that the cave was a columbarium – a place to raise doves. These were valued in the ancient world, both for the excellent fertilizer they produce and as a good source of protein. In nature, rock doves (pigeons) nest in cliff sides or caves. It is believed that the ancient inhabitants of Beit Guvrin opened small holes in the ceiling, which can still be seen today, and placed some doves inside with grain and nest building materials before sealing up the holes for around one month. Within that period, the doves would mate and build nests in the niches. The holes in the ceiling could then be opened, and the birds would remain. The males would fly out each day to gather grain and seed in the fields, bringing these back to their females and offspring in the cave. Thus, the columbarium became self-sufficient.

This large columbarium dates to about 200 BC and was shaped like a double cross nearly 100 feet (30 m) long. 

Beit Guvrin - The Columbarium

The Columbarium. Source: BigStockPhoto

The United Nations cultural agency recently designated the network of ancient man-made caves outside of Jerusalem a World Heritage site. Dr. Zvika Tsuk, chief archaeologist of Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority, stated after the announcement: “Thanks to the large number of caves and their various types, as well as the duration for which they were used, spanning nearly 2,000 years, this special site has won recognition as an outstanding site of global value. ”

Featured image: A bell cave in Beit Guvrin. Photo source: BigStockPhoto

By April Holloway

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