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Beit She'arim National Park

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Title: Beit She'arim National Park  
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Subject: Judah the Prince, Jezreel Valley Regional Council, Catacombs, Jewish art, Israel Exploration Society
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Beit She'arim National Park

Entrance of the Cave of Coffins, Beit She'arim National Park
Visitors at the Cave of Coffins, Beit She'arim National Park
Two lions facing each other – A Greek mythological scene decoration on sarcophagus
Wall inscription (epitaph) in Greek: "The tomb of Aidesios, head of the council of elders, from Antiochia"

Beit She'arim (Hebrew: בֵּית שְׁעָרִים,[1] Arabic: بيت الغرباء bayt al-ġurabāʾ‎), also known as Beth She'arim or Besara (in Ancient Greek Βησάρα), literally The House of Two Gates, is the archeological site of a Jewish town and a large number of ancient rock-cut Jewish tombs. The necropolis is part of the Beit She'arim National Park, which borders the town of Kiryat Tiv'on on the northeast and is located close to the modern moshav of Beit She'arim. It is situated 20 km east of Haifa in the southern foothills of the Lower Galilee. The park is managed by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.

In 2002 it was proposed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and as of 2012 is on the "Tentative List". The proposal describes the site as follows:

The town's vast necropolis, carved out of soft limestone, contains more than 30 burial cave systems. Although only a portion of the necropolis has been excavated, it has been likened to a book inscribed in stone. Its catacombs, mausoleums, and sarcophagi are adorned with elaborate symbols and figures as well as an impressive quantity of incised and painted inscriptions in Hebrew, Aramaic, Palmyrene, and Greek, documenting two centuries of historical and cultural achievement. The wealth of artistic adornments contained in this, the most ancient extensive Jewish cemetery in the world, is unparalleled anywhere.[2]

According to Moshe Sharon, following Kutcher, the name of the city was more correctly Beit She'arayim (the House (or Village) of Two Gates).[3]


Beit She'arim was founded at the end of the 1st century BCE, during the reign of King Herod. It was a prosperous Jewish town until destroyed by fire in 352, at the end of the Jewish revolt against Gallus.[4] After some time it was renewed as a Byzantine city.[4] From the early Arab period (7th century), settlement was sparse.[5] A small Arab village called Sheikh Bureik was located here in the late 16th century.[6]

The Roman Jewish historian Josephus Flavius referred to the city as Besara, the administrative center of the estates of Queen Berenice in the Jezreel Valley. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the Sanhedrin (Jewish legislature and supreme council) moved to Beit She'arim.[7] Rabbi Judah HaNasi, head of the Sanhedrin and compiler of the Mishna, lived there. In the last seventeen years of his life, he moved to Sepphoris for health reasons, but planned his burial in Beit She'arim on land he received as a gift from his friend, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. The most desired burial place for Jews was the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, but in 135 CE, when Jews were barred from the area, Beit She'arim became an alternative.[8]

The archaeological importance of the site was recognized in the 1880s by the Survey of Western Palestine, which explored many tombs and catacombs but did no excavation.[9] The Arab Palestinian village of Sheikh Bureik was located on the hill until the 1920s, when the land was purchased by the Jewish National Fund. In 1936, Alexander Zaïd, employed by the JNF as a watchman, reported that he had found a breach in the wall of one of the caves which led into another cave decorated with inscriptions.[10] In the 1930s and 1950s, the site was excavated by Benjamin Mazar and Nahman Avigad.

Jewish necropolis

Most of the remains date from the 2nd to 4th century CE. A large number of individuals were buried in the more than twenty catacombs of the necropolis. Geographical references in inscriptions on the walls of the catacombs reveal that the necropolis was used by people from the town of Beit She'arim, from elsewhere in Galilee, and even from cities as far away as Palmyra and Tyre.[11]

The Jerusalem Talmud cites Beit She'arim as the burial place of Rabbi Judah HaNasi.[12] His funeral is described as follows: "Miracles were wrought on that day. It was evening and all the towns gathered to mourn him, and eighteen synagogues praised him and bore him to Bet Shearim, and the daylight remained until everyone reached his home (Ketubot 12, 35a)." [13] The fact that Rabbi Judah was buried here is believed to be a major reason for the popularity of the necropolis in Late Antiquity. One of the catacombs, (nr. 14 with a clear inscription saying his name and title) has been identified as his burial site.[14]

Aside from an extensive body of inscriptions in several languages, the walls and tombs have many images, engraved and carved in relief, ranging from Jewish symbols and geometric decoration to animals and figures from Hellenistic myth and religion.[15]

Tomb of Himyarites

Tomb of Himyarite, in Greek uncials

In 1937, Benjamin Mazar revealed at Beit She'arim a system of tombs belonging to the Jews of Ḥimyar (now Yemen) dating back to the 3rd century CE.[16] The strength of ties between Yemenite Jewry and the Land of Israel can be learnt, of course, by the system of tombs at Beit She'arim dating back to the 3rd century. It is of great significance that Jews from Ḥimyar were being buried in what was then considered a prestigious place, near the tombs of the Sanhedrin. Those who had the financial means brought their dead to be buried in the Land of Israel, as it was considered an outstanding virtue for Jews not to be buried in foreign lands, but rather in the land of their forefathers. It is speculated that the Ḥimyarites, during their lifetime, were known and respected in the eyes of those who dwelt in the Land of Israel, seeing that one of them, whose name was Menaḥem, was coined the epithet qyl ḥmyr [prince of Ḥimyar], in the eight-character Ḥimyari ligature, while in the Greek inscription he was called Menae presbyteros (Menaḥem, the community's elder).[17] It is interesting to note that the name of a woman in Greek letters, in its genitive form, Ενλογιαζ, was also engraved there, meaning either ‘virtue’, ‘blessing’, or ‘gratis’.[18]

Glassmaking industry

In 1956, a bulldozer working at the site unearthed an enormous rectangular slab, 11×6.5×1.5 feet, weighing 9 tons. Initially, it was paved over, but it was eventually studied and found to be a gigantic piece of glass. An ancient glassmaking furnace was located here, which produced great batches of molten glass that were cooled and later broken into small pieces for crafting glass vessels.[19]

Recent discoveries

In October 2009, two new caves were opened to the public whose burial vaults date to the first two centuries CE.[20]


  1. ^ The ancient Yemenite Jewish pronunciation of this town is "Beith Sha'arayim" (Heb. בֵּית שַׁעֲרַיִם), and is more closely related to the Greek rendition of name, i.e. Βησάρα. See: Babylonian Talmud, Punctuated (תלמוד בבלי מנוקד), ed. Yosef Amar, Jerusalem 1980, s.v. Sanhedrin 32b (Hebrew)
  2. ^ Beth She'arim, UNESCO world heritage site "tentative list", summary from 2002
  3. ^ Sharon, Moshe (2004), Corpus Inscriptionum Arabicarum Palaestinae, Vol. III, D-F; page XXXVII [1]
  4. ^ a b Benjamin Mazar, Beth She'arim : Report on the Excavations during 1936-1940, Vol. I, p19.
  5. ^ Mazar, p20.
  6. ^ Hütteroth, Wolf-Dieter; Abdulfattah, Kamal (1977), Historical Geography of Palestine, Transjordan and Southern Syria in the Late 16th Century. Erlanger Geographische Arbeiten, Sonderband, Erlangen, Germany: Vorstand der Fränkischen Geographischen Gesellschaft, p. 158.
  7. ^ Beit She'arim
  8. ^ The Holy Land: An Oxford archaeological guide, From earliest times to 1700, Jerome Murphy-O'Connor
  9. ^ Survey of Western Palestine, Vol. I, pp. 325-328 and 343-351
  10. ^ Mazar, p27.
  11. ^ The Oxford encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East considers Beth She'arim of international importance (Volume 1, p. 309-11); Tessa Rajak considers its importance regional ("The rabbinic dead and the Diaspora dead at Beth She’arim" in P. Schäfer (ed.), The Talmud Yerushalmi and Graeco-Roman culture 1 (Tübingen 1997), p. 349-66); S. Schwartz however, in Imperialism and Jewish society, 200 B.C.E. to 640 C.E. (Princeton 2001), p. 153-8, plays down the importance of Beth She'arim.
  12. ^ Kelaim 9, 32a-b
  13. ^ Bet Shearim archaeology
  14. ^ The Oxford encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, Volume 1, p. 309-11. For a more cautious view see M. Jacobs, Die Institution des jüdischen Patriarchen, eine quellen- und traditionskritische Studie zur Geschichte der Juden in der Spätantike (Tübingen 1995), p. 247, n. 59.
  15. ^ Beth She'arim, UNESCO world heritage site "tentative list", summary from 2002
  16. ^ H.Z. Hirschberg, Yisrā’ēl ba-‘Arāb, Tel Aviv 1946, pp. 53–57, 148, 283–284 (Hebrew).
  17. ^ Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies, 43 (2013): British Museum, London; Article by Yosef Tobi, The Jews of Yemen in light of the excavation of the Jewish synagogue in Qanī’, p. 351.
  18. ^ H.Z. Hirschberg, Yisrā’ēl ba-‘Arāb, Tel Aviv 1946, pp. 56 – 57; p. 33 plate b. Christian Robin rejects the interpretation of the ligature qyl ḥmyr. He notes that today the inscription Menae presbyteros can no longer be seen. The only secured inscription is Ômêritôn [the Ḥimyari].
  19. ^ The Mystery Slab of Beit She'arim, Corning Glass Museum
  20. ^ Row erupts over discovery of Beit Shearim caves, Haaretz

External links

  • Beit She'arim National Park - official site
  • Pictures of Beit She'arim Israel in Photos
  • Video Tour of Beit She'arim necropolis YouTube
  • Jacques Neguer, The Catacombs:Conservation and reconstruction of the catacombs, Israel Antiquities Site - Conservation Department

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