road, we drove past the remains of the synagogue and the ancient Jewish city of Bet She’arim. A quick glance was sufficient. The adjacent area was muddy. We continued to drive and chose not to take pictures of this area.We parked the car in the paved lot and walked to the burial caves. The terrain was hilly and full of foliage. Bet She’arim National Park is the site of the largest and most important necropolis from the Talmud era.
History of Bet She’arim
After the Bar Kochba Revolt (132-135 CE), Jewish life was centered in the Galilee. The Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish court, relocated from place-to-place and eventually found a home in Bet She’arim. One of the notable leaders of the Sanhedrin in the 3rd century, Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi (135-219 CE), chose to be buried in one of the caves at Bet She’arim. Yehuda, also known as Judah the Prince, had been living in Sepphoris and in his will requested to be buried at Bet She’arim. Thereafter, Diaspora Jews chose to be buried there. According to Jewish tradition, “Whoever is buried in Eretz Israel, it is as if the were buried underneath the altar.” (Tosefta) The Tosefta is an uncanonized collection of traditional Jewish writings that were written during Talmudic times or sometime thereafter.
Beit She’arim was destroyed by the Romans in the 4th century. The city experienced a small revival in the 5th and 6th centuries. Over time the city was abandoned.
In the 19th century, the Palestine Exploration Fund surveyed the area. The following century produced further study and excavations. These were performed under the direction of the Israel Exploration Society and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
- The ancient city- synagogue, public buildings, religious school, houses, city walls, a gate, an olive oil plant (2nd-4th centuries)
- 30 burial caves (City of the Dead, a necropolis)
- Coffins made of marble, limestone, and wood
- Classical architecture on cave doors
- Hebrew, Aramaic, Palmyran and Greek inscriptions
- Jewish symbols
Selection of Photos
The caves and the museum were located in a peaceful setting. Even though it was an overcast day, small groups of Israelis were visiting this less frequented historical site.
Disappointingly, all of the graves had been violated by grave robbers in previous generations. The picture below has a cut-out area above the door. Thieves created this hole to enter the cave.
The entrances to the caves had a variety of gates.
Some had multiple openings and were partially exposed. We could only view this one from a distance.
This gate was fully intact. It included the metal door handle.
We were able to walk into some of the caves. They were spacious, adequately lit, and well maintained. The catacombs were carved out of the rock. The wealthier Jews tended to be buried in decorated sarcophagi made of stone, marble or lead. Some individuals were laid to rest in more modest settings like the stone troughs pictured below.
Some of the caves were open to the public while others were closed. The largest and most impressive was the Cave of the Coffins. Archaeologists found 135 coffins. Almost two dozen had noteworthy decorations of different animals that included eagles, lions, birds, and fish. Many of the inscriptions recalled the names of rabbis.
Inscriptions were in several different languages. Some identified the deceased while others were of an ominous nature. One was a curse that read, “Whoever opens this tomb will eventually die a bad death.”
I captured some of the intricately decorated sarcophagi.
The outside of the Cave of Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi was the most impressive. We walked through a courtyard and viewed the entryway that had three arched doorways. The complex included the courtyard, the cave, and an upper building. The Yehuda requested that he be buried in the ground and not in a sarcophagus.
Reflecting on Visit
Prior to this trip, I had never thought much about ancient burial customs. After visiting the Roman Jewish catacombs, the Egyptian catacombs, and Bet She’arim, I have gained a better understanding of catacombs. All were looted at one point, yet the major structures remain. Budgetary constraints have limited the preservation in Rome and Egypt. Despite the lack of funds, visitors can take a giant step back in time to get a glimpse of ancient burial practices. Despite the geographic distance, each culture decided to memorialize their dead in underground caves. Take a look back at the photos taken at the Roman Jewish catacombs. Can you identify the similarities and differences?
Sandra’s memoir highlights her living and teaching adventure in Bangalore, India. She is a licensed Colorado teacher who has taught K-12 students in the United States and abroad as well as college-level courses. Sandra is married and has four adult sons.
The memoir was a finalist in the Travel category for the 2013 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, the 2013 International Book Awards, the 2013 National Indie Book Excellence Awards, 2013 USA Best Book Awards, and an Honorable Mention award in the Multicultural Non-Fiction category for the 2013 Global ebook Awards.