Underground in the Judean Desert

5 Jul

Northern Cemetery of Maresha

Northern Cemetery of Maresha (click image to view more photos from Bet Guvrin-Maresha)

Ancient Olive Crusher

Ancient Olive Crusher

Sidonian Burial Cave

Sidonian Burial Cave

Adjoining Bell Caves

Adjoining Bell Caves


Most of our recent day trips have been to points north of Tel Aviv. This past Sunday we headed south to Bet Guvrin-Maresha National Park. The hour-long ride took us past Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion airport into a decidedly desert-like landscape. The temps were in the mid-80s before we left the house at 10 a.m. and I’m sure reached the mid-90s by noon. What, were we crazy to go traipsing around under a cloudless sky in the Judean desert? Ah, but this destination had a special feature that allowed us to weather the heat.¬†Underground caves! And lots of them!

We had barely entered the grounds of the national park when we spotted our first caves off to the left without any sign markers. But the oddly rounded entrances to the chalk-white structures beckoned to us. We approached with a sense of wonder. Rough stone steps brought us into a narrow chamber lined with niches against all its walls. It was refreshingly cool underground and the empty niches were somewhat eerie. We later learned this was the northern cemetery of Maresha and dated to the third and second centuries BCE.

We began exploring the rest of the site. We were in the area of the park where the ancient city of Maresha stood. We entered several different caves at Maresha. The caves were built for various purposes: cisterns for gathering rain water, chambers for olive oil production, dwellings, columbariums. Pigeons were raised and housed for food and for use in ritual sacrifices. Pigeon dung was used as fertilizer.

We saw the remains of a house above ground but underneath the house was an elaborate network of caves. We climbed to the top of a hill and were rewarded with a grand view of the surrounding countryside. The hill was actually the northwestern tower of the city but the tower has not been excavated. From the the hill we spotted a lonely ruin of Santa Anna church. Sandahanna, as referred to by the Arabs, was built during Byzantine times and renovated during the Crusader period. All that remains now is one shattered apse.

We explored a vast, labyrinthine underground dwelling. At times I felt I had stepped into one of MC Escher’s famous etchings — there were so many stairways, catwalks, twists and turns. Other times I felt I was in the depths of the mines of Moria, expecting to hear the distant tapping of dwarves mining for mithril. Yes, it was truly a magical experience.

From Maresha it was a short drive to the other section of the National Park where the ancient city of Bet Guvrin stood. Bet Guvrin was a newer city than Maresha, surpassed Maresha in importance and is mentioned many times in the Bible and by ancient scholars. There are Roman and Crusader remains at the site but we visited the bell caves which date to the Byzantine and Muslim period. The bell caves were carved out from above by an ingenious method.
Bell Cave description

We had quite a workout during our visit. We trudged in the heat and sun, uphill and down to different caves. We entered the earth via rough hewn stone steps into cool dimly lit chambers. Then up another set of steps and on out into the glaring sun. Thankfully there were several tents set up to provide shade, and there were also water taps available here and there. While above ground we spotted what I think was a crested lark and an elusive yellow lizard.

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