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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.
An altar in one of the caves signifies its use as a place of worship in ancient times. Source: BigStockPhoto
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. Source: Wikipedia
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?
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.
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
The Underground City | Beit Guvrin
Located on the slopes of the Judean Mountains in Central Israel, the roughly 1,200-acre Beit Guvrin National Park is a perennially popular family destination, and it possesses what is quite possibly one of the largest cave systems in the world.
Encompassing the ruins of the ancient First Temple-era city of Tel Maresha, Beit Guvrin has had a storied, if not troubled history, having endured numerous attacks and devastation over the centuries. It has been mentioned in the biblical text as Mareshah (Joshua 15:44), which translates to mean the “crest of a hill” in Hebrew.
Beit Guvrin was one of the cities fortified and garrisoned by Solomon’s son Rehoboam against the Egyptians. It was ultimately conquered by the Roman general Vespasian during the Jewish War (AD 66-73) and obliterated during the Bar Kochba revolt (AD 132-135), the last of three major Jewish-Roman wars. Reestablished as a colony during the Roman and Byzantine eras, Beit Guvrin-Maresha would emerge as a prosperous city of freemen and a burgeoning Jewish population.
First excavated around 1900, archaeologists discovered a planned and fortified Hellenistic-era city, complete with a town wall and towers. They also discovered olive presses, columbaria (housing for pigeons), and water cisterns. Subsequent digs would also uncover a Roman-built amphitheater—which can seat around 3,500 people—a bathhouse, a Crusader-era fortress, and the Church of Saint Anne, a Byzantine-Crusader era domed structure. Most, if not all of these finds can be seen today. And if you want to try your hand at some amateur archaeology, Beit Guvrin offers a “dig-for-a-day” where you can search for Roman era artifacts.
Visitors can also see the Sidonian burial caves, a series of brightly painted family and community tombs.
But the city’s most impressive attraction(s) are the caves. In the park alone, there are believed to be at least 800 bell-shaped caves, which are connected by underground tunnels. The largest caves are located in the eastern part of the park. These man-made chalk caves were used over millennia for myriad purposes, such as stables, quarries, granaries, storerooms, and much more. The bell caves are a fantastic way to round out your visit to Beit Guvrin, especially on a hot day!
The Caves of the Thousand Buddhas
At the edge of the vast Gobi Desert, 29 hours by train from the nearest city across a barren wilderness of sand and shale known as the "Land of the Wind," lies an astounding religious shrine: the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas.
Located at Dunhuang, a remote oasis on the old Silk Road in northwest China, the caves are China's oldest and richest repository of Buddhist art, and one of the least-known wonders of the world.
The Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, or the Mogao Grottoes, are a labyrinth of nearly 500 caves carved out of a sandstone cliff face more than half a mile long and 10 stories high. Each cave is a treasure trove of Buddhist art, containing life-sized painted clay sculptures of the Buddha and other figures and elaborate wall and ceiling paintings. Some caves are enormous, carved out of almost the entire height of the cliff. One houses a colossal Buddha that, at 08 feet, is 1 1/2 times the size of the Sphinx. Another houses an 85-foot Buddha, and still another -- a large horizontal cave -- a colossal, gilded reclining Buddha.
Why would the Buddhists build such a significant shrine in such a remote location? Because the position of Dunhuang is one of supreme importance in Buddhism, located at the juncture of two caravan routes via which Buddhism gradually penetrated China at about the time of Christ.
The caves contain 2,000 painted clay sculptures and thousands of feet of tempera murals, providing a chronicle of Buddhist art styles over the course of 1,000 years and eight Chinese dynasties, starting in 366 A.D. Many more artworks, carted away (the Chinese would say looted) by Western Sinologists during the early part of this century, now reside in museums such as the Louvre in Paris, the British Museum in London and the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, Mass.
Indeed, the tragedy of this religious shrine is that many of the works have been defaced by greedy art collectors who have cut out square patches from the middle of beautiful murals and hacked off the heads and hands of the sculptures.
Few Westerners are familiar with this complex of caves, partly because of their remote location (even the intrepid traveler Marco Polo found them too far off the beaten path, although he passed nearby) and partly because the Communist government has only recently opened up the area to foreigners. Even now, the Japanese, who have a greater interest in the history of the Silk Road than Westerners, make up the majority of visitors.
In fact, our party of 10 would be among the first American groups to visit the shrine, according to officials in the Peking office of the government tourist agency, the China International Travel Service (CITS). Our silk-route tour had been arranged by a travel agent for a small group of her close friends and acquaintances. My fellow travelers were all retirees, except for the agent and her dentist husband, and some of the group had been to China with her on an earlier trip. We were to spend almost two days in this desolate area, exploring these spectacular caves -- which are considered one of Buddhism's greatest artistic achievements.
The Silk Road was the major link between east and west for more than 1,000 years in the 2nd century B.C., the Chinese Emperor Wu and the King of Parthia exchanged ambassadors and gifts via this route. One branch led west to Samarkand, and another south from oasis to oasis across the desert and the high mountain passes of Afghanistan to India. Chinese traders carried silk, tea and porcelain westward, and returned with gold and silver from India and the Middle East and with new faiths, including Buddhism, Islam and Christianity.
Inscriptions in the caves reveal that carving was begun in 366 A.D. by a Buddhist monk named Yue Zen, who was traveling through the area and saw a vision of a thousand Buddhas. The shrine blossomed over the next millennium as a center of Buddhist art. Traders commissioned Buddhist monks to decorate the caves as a dedication to the success of their expeditions.
In these caves traders prayed for a safe journey on their departure, and offered thanksgiving upon their return. One cave inscription dating from 947 A.D. asks for the protection of the gods "so that the district will prosper and the routes to the east and the west will be open and free, and that in the north the Tartars and in the south the Tibetans will cease their depredations and revolts."
In all, 1,000 caves, linked together by underground corridors, ladders and picturesque wooden balconies, were carved out of the cliff face. Only half survive, the rest having collapsed or been filled in by the desert sand.
After the 14th century, when caravan routes were replaced by sea traffic between east and west, the grottoes declined in importance and were eventually forgotten. They were rediscovered in 1899 by a Taoist monk named Wang Yuan, who took refuge in the caves while fleeing the famine in a nearby province. The story goes that he was clearing out a cave when part of a wall collapsed. Thinking the wall to be hollow, he broke part of the way through, where he discovered a small door. The door opened into a small secret chamber crammed full of treasure that had been hidden by monks fleeing the persecutors of Buddhism in 1036 A.D. The chamber contained an estimated 50,000 priceless artifacts.
Wang Yuan reportedly tried to interest the government in the artifacts. When no interest was expressed, he simply sold them off to Western Sinologists, using the money to restore the caves. The chief beneficiaries were Britain's Sir Aurel Stein and France's Paul Pelliot. The secret cache is said to have included embroideries, paintings, ritual objects, gold and bronze statues of the Buddha, and sutras and other documents written in Chinese, Tibetan, Sanskrit and other ancient languages. The earliest dated from the 5th century and the latest from the 10th century.
Other artifacts were stolen by local officials, Chinese soldiers and Western collectors. The plunder continued uninterrupted until 1949, when the Communist government came to power and closed the area to the West.
The Gobi is a general term applied to the deserts of the vast inner Mongolian plateau that stretches across northern China. Here, the Gobi merges with China's other great desert, the Taklimakan, a 900-mile-long sea of dunes. In the folklore of the Uighur people, a minority nationality of Turkish origin who make this desolate waste their home, Taklimakan means, "Once you get in, you can never get out."
Until the early 1960s, this area was almost as remote as it was during the days of the Silk Road. Since then, however, the Xinjiang Railroad -- which links Uru mqi, the capital of the neighboring province of Xinjiang to the northwest, with Lanzhou, the capital of the province of Gansu, in which Dunhuang is situated -- has helped the Chinese government open up the mineral wealth of its vast northwest. The express trains that ply the ancient caravan route through the desert have helped to turn the cities of this area from remote backwaters into prosperous industrial centers for China's iron, steel and petrochemical industries.
The caves, many of which exhibit the wear and tear of the elements, are 15 miles southwest of Dunhuang. The interiors have been damaged by the relentless desert wind and water erosion caused by flooding in the river valley.
Many of the paintings have been blackened by smoke from the cooking fires of White Russians who took refuge here from the Bolsheviks. Still, the brilliant colors of the paintings have been remarkably preserved in the dark, dry interiors of the caves, and efforts are underway to prevent further damage. Doors and walls have been constructed to prevent weather damage, foundations have been laid under many of the statues and preservatives have been applied to the murals.
The caves range in height from eight or 10 feet to almost 10 stories. Each has an identifying marker, giving its number, approximate date of the artwork and the name of the ruling dynasty. The ceilings are coffered, and most are painted with a pattern of tiny Buddhas -- the thousand Buddhas from which the caves take their name. The walls contain niches where the monks lived, some of them so large as to constitute separate caves. Almost every cave contains a dais mounted with a statue of the Buddha and other figures. The walls are completely covered with lovely paintings, whose subjects are the Jataka stories (episodes from the life of the Buddha), religious parables and Chinese folktales.
The centerpiece of the sacred cliff face is the Temple of the Great Buddha, a 10-story wooden fac,ade painted in deep oranges and golds that shelters the giant cave housing the Buddha colossus. The corners of the upswept eaves are hung with wind chimes, which sway in the breeze, their eerie jingle punctuating the desert stillness. The function of the chimes is to drive away the evil spirits.
Inside, the Buddha rises 108 feet from his crossed legs to his serene face, created from clay by ancient sculptors. Because the soft sandstone of the cave walls is not suited for carving, the technique used for the colossi (including the 85-foot and the reclining Buddhas) was to carve a rough figure out of the solid rock of the cave's interior, coat it with clay and then mold the details. Most of the other sculptures in the caves are made entirely of clay.
Most of the caves are closed to the public. Some are in poor condition, others are undergoing restoration, and still others are said to contain sexual art that is considered decadent by the Communists. The caves that are open, however, must be unlocked by guides who aren't always as conscientious as they might be.
Once we got across the message that we wanted to see more than a few caves, our guide was very accommodating, but this took some doing. In one day, we visited two dozen or more caves representing eight dynastic periods: Northern and Western Wei, Sui, Tang, Five Dynasties, Song, Western Xia and Yuan. Visitors would do well to take along a flashlight, since the caves are unlighted.
Apart from the caves, Dunhuang has few tourist attractions, and the town itself is not very attractive.
We did take a late-afternoon camel ride through the desert to a small, spring-fed, clear blue, crescent-shaped lake surrounded by giant sand dunes. In the late afternoon light, the long shadows of the sculptured dunes against the deep blue sky created an abstract picture of incredible beauty. The local people have a saying, "The skill of man made the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, but the hand of God fashioned the Lake of the Crescent Moon." Nearby, fields had been reclaimed from the desert by plantings of poplar trees, which protect the land from the sand-bearing wind and the advancing dunes.
After a day and a half in Dunhuang, we boarded our bus before dawn for the ride back to the train station. The sun was rising as we drove through the Gobi, casting a veil of pink over the landscape. The highway, which had been deserted on the afternoon of our arrival, was alive with plodding camel caravans and donkey carts hauling cotton and other produce to market in the cool early-morning light. Herds of camels grazed placidly near the yurts of their herdsmen.
In Liuyan, we boarded the train for the 29-hour ride southeastward to Lanzhou, the nearest city. On the way, we passed the westernmost tower of the legendary Great Wall, on the edge of the great beyond. The exit of this fortress, known as the "Gate of the Bravest People in the World," was -- to the ancient Chinese -- the place where the civilized world ended.
In total, we had traveled 52 hours along the old Silk Road in our expedition to the west -- rail-age pilgrims to an ancient shrine.
The earliest written record of Maresha was as a city in ancient Judah (Joshua 15:44). The Hebrew Bible mentions among other episodes that Rehoboam fortified it against Egyptian attack. After the destruction of the Kingdom of Judah the city of Maresha became part of the Edomite kingdom. In the late Persian period a Sidonian community settled in Maresha, and the city is mentioned in the Zenon Papyri (259 BC). During the Maccabean Revolt, Maresha was a base for attacks against Judea and suffered retaliation from the Maccabees. After Hasmonean king John Hyrcanus I captured and destroyed Maresha in 112 BCE, the region of Idumea remained under Hasmonean control. In 40 BC the Parthians devastated completely the "strong cite", after which it was never rebuilt.
Beth Gabra or Beit Guvrin succeeded Maresha as the main town of the area. Conquered by the Roman general Vespasian during the Jewish War (68 CE) and completely destroyed during the Bar Kochba revolt (132–135 CE), it was re-established as a Roman colony and in the year 200 it received the title of a city and the ius italicum, under the new name of "Eleutheropolis", 'city of freemen'. Sources from the Byzantine period mention both Christian and Jewish personalities living in the city.
Maresha was first excavated in 1898–1900 by Bliss and Macalister, who uncovered a planned and fortified Hellenistic city encircled by a town wall with towers. Two Hellenistic and one Israelite stratum were identified by them on the mound. Many of the ancient city's olive presses, columbaria and water cisterns can still be seen.
Both Maresha and Beit Guvrin/Eleutheropolis were excavated after 1989 and 1992 respectively by the Israeli archaeologist Amos Kloner. Important finds at the latter site were the amphitheater built by the Roman army units stationed there, a large Roman bath house, and from the Crusader period a fortress integrating the walls of the Roman amphitheater and bath house, as well as an attached church.
Burial caves Edit
The Sidonian burial caves were the family tomb of Apollophanes, the leader of the Sidonian community in Beit Guvrin. The Sidonian caves are the only ones that are painted inside. The caves were burial caves for the Greek, Sidonian and Edumite inhabitants of Beit Guvrin. The first and largest cave has paintings of animals, real and mythic, above the niches where the corpses were laid. A cock crows to scare away demons the three-headed dog Cerberus guards the entrance to the underworld a bright red phoenix symbolizes the life after death.  The Tomb of the Musicians is decorated with a painting showing a man playing the flute and a woman playing the harp.
Bell caves Edit
There are about 800 bell-shaped caves located in the area. Many of the caves are linked via an underground network of passageways that connect groups of 40–50 caves.
The largest bell caves are in the east part of the park. They were dug during the Early Arab Period for chalk to cover roads. [ dubious – discuss ] [ citation needed ] The walls are beige-colored limestone. [ dubious – discuss ] There are numerous bell caves within the park grounds and events are held in one of them. They are large (over 60 feet (18 m) high), airy and easily accessible.
The Church of Saint Anne Edit
Saint Anne's church was first built in the Byzantine period and then rebuilt by the Crusaders in the 12th century. The ruin is known in Arabic as Khirbet (lit. "ruin") Sandahanna, the nearby tell (mound) of Maresha being called Tell Sandahanna.  The freestanding remains of the apse are well preserved (see photo).
The remains of a Roman amphitheater were uncovered in the mid-1990s. The amphitheater was built in the 2nd century, on the northwestern outskirts of Beit Guvrin. This amphitheater, in which gladiatorial contests took place, could seat about 3,500 spectators. It had a walled arena of packed earth, with subterranean galleries. The arena was surrounded by a series of connected barrel vaults, which formed a long, circular corridor and supported the stone seats above it staircases led from the outside and from the circular corridor to the tribunes. It was built for the Roman troops stationed in the region after the suppression of the Bar Kochba rebellion. The amphitheater is an elliptical structure built of large rectangular limestone ashlars. It was in use until destroyed in the Galilee earthquake of 363. [ dubious – discuss ] [ citation needed ]
Byzantine mosaics depicting birds and animals were discovered on the hilltop in 1924. 
Iron Age to Hellenistic Period Edit
Maresha was one of the cities of Judah during the time of the First Temple and is mentioned as part of the inheritance of the biblical tribe of Judah in the Book of Joshua (Joshua 15:44).
Later, in the second Book of Chronicles, it is named as one of King Rehoboam's fifteen fortified cities (2 Chronicles 11:5–10). In 2 Chronicles 14:9–12 it is the site of a battle against an invading Ethiopian army.
According to the Madaba Map, Maresha was the place "whence came Micah the Prophet".  In the 6th century BCE, as result of Zedekiah's rebellion against the Babylonian kingdom and its king Nebuchadnezzar II, the latter occupied the Judean kingdom and sent many of its inhabitants into exile. This marked the end of Maresha as a Judahite city.
Following these events, Edomites who had lived east and south of the Dead Sea migrated to the area. Hence, from the Persian rule and throughout the Hellenistic kingdoms' rule in the region (6th – 1st century BCE), Maresha was part of the area known as Idumea, a Hellenised form of Edom.
Maresha emerged as a major Idumean city and with the conquest of the region by Alexander the Great the city was settled by retired Greek soldiers as was then custom. Thus Maresha developed as a Hellenistic city encompassing a multitude of Greek and oriental cultures including Sidonians and Nabataeans. With the advent of Hellenisation, the settlement pattern changed, as most everywhere in the region, and the city expanded far beyond the constraints of the fortified, raised tell or mound of Iron Age Maresha.
Decline and fall Edit
The city began its decline during the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire (2nd century BCE) when the city was used as base to combat the rebels.  1 Maccabees 5:66 reports that Judas Maccabeus and his forces marched through Marisa during a conquering mission taking him from Hebron to Azotus (Ashdod). 
Following the rebellion and its success, it is believed that John Hyrcanus conquered the city in 112 BCE, forcibly converting its inhabitants. 
In 63 BCE, as part of the arrangements made by Pompey in the region, Maresha, along with all of Edom, was separated from the Jewish kingdom and returned to Idumea. In 47 BCE Julius Caesar then annexed the city to Judea. 
Maresha was finally destroyed in 40 BCE by the Parthians as part of the power struggle between Antigonus of the Hasmoneans who had sought their aid and Herod, who was a son of the converted Antipater the Idumaean and was being supported by the Romans.
After Maresha: Beth Gabra/Eleutheropolis Edit
After the demise of Maresha, the neighbouring Idumean/Jewish town of Beth Gabra or Beit Guvrin succeeded it as the main settlement in the area. Shaken by two successive and disastrous Jewish revolts against Roman rule in the 1st and 2nd centuries, the town recovered its importance only at the beginning of the 3rd century when it was re-established as a Roman city under the new name of Eleutheropolis. By the time of Eusebius of Caesarea (d. 340 CE), Maresha itself was already a deserted place: he mentions the city in his Onomasticon, saying that it was at a distance of "two milestones from Eleutheropolis".
Modern era Edit
The Palestinian Arab village Bayt Jibrin, standing on the site of ancient Eleutheropolis, was depopulated during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. In 1949 Kibbutz Beit Guvrin was established on part of Bayt Jibrin's lands. Most of the archaeologically important areas of ancient Maresha and Beit Guvrin/Eleutheropolis are now part of the Beit Guvrin-Maresha National Park.
Archaeological excavations have been conducted at the site since 2002, continuing as late as 2010, and 2013–2014, by Alpert Berni and Stern Ian on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA).  Less than 10 percent of the caves on Tel Maresha have been excavated. [ dubious – discuss ] Located some 1,300 feet above sea level, the ground is chalky and soft, lending itself to the digging of caves which were used as quarries, burial grounds, animal shelters, workshops and spaces for raising doves and pigeons. Many of the caves are linked by an underground maze of passageways. 
Today Maresha is part of the Israeli national park of Beit Guvrin. Many of the ancient city's olive presses, columbaria and water cisterns can still be seen. Furthermore, the Archaeological Seminars Institute, under the license of the Israel Antiquities Authority, conducts excavations of Maresha's many quarried systems, and invites visitors to participate.
Atlas Ocean Voyages
There’s nothing like an exhilarating cave exploration to make you feel like a true adventurer. And amid The Holy Land’s many destinations lies a storied past waiting for you to rediscover it. Beit Guvrin perfectly exemplifies that enticing history that calls out to come and uncover its long-forgotten secrets.
Where It All Began
Before the city of Beit Guvrin rose, there was the city of Maresha, as referenced in the Bible. The city existed during the First Temple period, was destroyed in 112 BCE and restored until it fell again in 40 BCE. From there, during the Roman and Byzantine rule, it came to be known as Eleutherolis. This was a city of freemen with a large Jewish community, prospering until 135 BCE when the Bar Kochva Revolution took place.
Today, it stands as the city of Beit Guvrin, an archaeological national park in the south of Israel about 60 kilometers from Jerusalem. The site covers the ancient city of Tel Maresha as well as 5,000 dunams (just over 1,200 acres) of land.
Beit Guvrin Caves
Travelers often visit Beit Guvrin for the intricate network of caves that share the same name as the city. The park contains at least 800 bell-shaped caves of the 2,000 in the area. Some of the caves are linked by intricate underground tunnels, indicating they were carved for many reasons throughout the centuries. Today, they stand as an exciting adventure that makes visitors feel like explorers discovering a new land.
An Ancient Mystery
In 1902, John Peters, an American theologian, and Hermann Thiersch, a German scholar, came to the caves at the rumor of many illegal excavations taking place for antiquities. They were led to a tomb in the neighborhood of Beit Jibrin by local dealers and there they found a mysterious inscription. Amid the burial alcoves of the Sidonian Cave (also known as Apollophanes Cave), above a painting of the mythical Cerberus, an inscription read:
“There is nothing left I could do for you, or anything that will give you pleasure. I lay with another but I love you, the one most dear to me. In the name of Aphrodite, I am glad of one thing, that I have your coat for collateral. But I flee, and leave you to your freedom. Do as you will. Do not bang on the wall, the noise is heard inside. We will signal each other with movements. Let this be our signal.”
Over the years many have speculated as to its meaning. Peters and Thiersch believed it hinted at a secret rendezvous between lovers. Others think it a more risqué message, one left behind by a sex worker stiffed by a client and leaving a warning for if they returned. Still others think it’s simply a playful love poem with no deeper meaning behind it. Whatever the case may be, the inscription inspires many who come to see it to give their own interpretations and analyze the work.
Other Sights in Beit Guvrin
The national park in Beit Guvrin contains many other fascinating sites to explore. St. Anne’s Church, a construct dating back to the Byzantine era, creates an impressive view with its tall, semi-circle dome. The Greek Sidonian burial caves (where the inscription is found) is filled with countless past artworks that will captivate the imagination. The Roman amphitheater of Beit Guvrin also calls out to the history buff wanting to soak up all the secrets of the past.
Join one of our many luxe-adventure voyages through The Holy Land to explore the caves of Beit Guvrin.
Things to see at Beit Guvrin
St. Anne’s Church dates back to the Byzantine era but was renovated by the Crusaders in the 1100s. Today you can see an impressive high semi-circular domed stone structure. Another great discovery at Beit Guvrin are the painted Greek Sidonian burial caves dating back to the 3rd to 1st Century BC. These intricately decorated family tombs of the Beit Guvrin Sidonian community’s leaders have burial niches along both sides of the caves and a bed like structure at one end for the Sidonian patriarch.
An archeological dig at Beit Guvrin. Courtesy of Scott Ableman.
A Columbarium (a place used to breed pigeons both for meat and for their droppings which were used as fertilizer) dating back to 200BC has also been discovered at the site. Spanning 30 meters, it has almost 2,000 niches which would have housed the pigeons. On a more pleasant note, Beit Gurvin’s spectacular Roman amphitheater could seat 3,500 in the audience, and today is one of only four in the whole of Israel.
Aside from the archaeology, the natural beauty of the Beit Guvrin area draws many visitors to this national park – you can hike, bike and explore the beauty of this area.
Ashkelon, Israel | Beit Guvrin Caves
Dug out from beneath an area that was once known as the Israeli cities of Maresha and Beit Guvrin, the network of caves, named after the latter city, seem to have been created for a number of different reasons down the ages but stand today to wow Jewish pilgrims traveling to the homeland.
Maresha was the first city to stand on the site, dating back to Israeli prehistory, however, it was eventually sacked and replaced by Beit Guvrin. This new city thrived in the area until it too was conquered by the Romans, leaving behind little but ruins and the caves.
The soft chalk earth of the Judean Lowlands made the construction of the thousands of caves possible even using nothing but the primitive technology of the time. Archeologists have discovered chambers dating from many of the eras of the area including Sidonian, Israelite, and Roman. Some of the caves appear to have been created to serve as defenses and hideouts, while others still look to have been made simply by chalk mining. Perhaps the most impressive portion of the over 3,000 chamber network are the painted burial rooms created by the Sidonians. These subterranean hollows are painted in bright, vibrant colors that have managed to maintain much of their character over the centuries thanks in large part to their protection from the elements.
Above ground ruins of the city of Maresha as well as a Roman amphitheater can also be found, but it is what lies underground that’s really worth the pilgrimage.
De-colonizer has written to the Israeli monitoring committee charged with overseeing UNESCO sites, and been told that the matter will be looked into following the current period of Jewish holidays.
In the meantime, the group has also produced a video, Blind Spot at a Heritage Site, which shows — using pre-1948 maps, the current UNESCO plans and historic photographs and documents — that a large part of the vibrant Palestinian village of Beit Jibrin lay within the borders of the current world heritage area.
It also highlights the fact that, for Palestinians, archaeology and heritage are often not a matter of ancient monuments to be visited and photographed.
Until they were driven out by armed forces in 1948, the people of Beit Jibrin lived in and among many of these historic buildings, using some of the cave dwellings and interacting with millennia of history as part of their daily lives.
Even today, former inhabitants of Beit Jibrin and their grandchildren and great-grandchildren visit the site, recalling their connection to what remains of the buildings of the village and to the land their ancestors farmed for generations.
Beit Jibrin is far from being an isolated case of Israeli attempts to obscure and erase the Palestinian presence from the land.
Ayn Hawd, near Haifa, has been transformed into the sanitized “artists’ village” of Ein Hod. Comprising of Palestinian homes ethnically cleansed of their inhabitants and any distinguishing signs of them, it is now a popular Israeli tourist destination.
At Sebastia, near Nablus in the occupied West Bank, leaflets from the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority tell visitors about the Samarian, Hellenic, Roman and Byzantine remains. The same leaflets claim that it is dangerous for visitors to stroll down to the adjacent Palestinian village, which has Crusader and early Islamic sights — and real, live, very welcoming Palestinian people.
In 2011, Merna Alazzeh wrote of making a trip to Beit Jibrin, with her grandmother who had been born there:
We sat under a fig tree, and my grandmother smiled and remembered when she used to play with her friends, decades ago. She said, “It’s the same tree, a little bit different now it’s been more than 50 years after all. Nonetheless, it is the same tree.”
- Beit Jibrin
- Beit Guvrin
- Fawwar refugee camp
- al-Azzeh refugee camp
- Eitan Bronstein
- Israeli Nature and Parks Authority
- Ein Hod
- ethnic cleansing
- Ayn Hawd
- Merna Alazzeh
Fun Facts About the 1000 Islands
Not Just 1000 Islands
In fact, there are actually 1,864 islands that make up this region. Some are small rocky shores, while other are very large. The largest are Wolfe Island, which is 27 miles long by 9 miles wide and Howe Island which is 9 miles long by 3 miles wide. Both have year-round residents and are accessible by ferry.
There are other notable islands, such as a pair of islands called Zavikon Island. A popular but incorrect tale is that the larger island is in Canada, while the smaller one is in the United States, and the foot bridge between them is the shortest international bridge in the world. This is incorrect as Zavikon Island is entirely located in Canadian territory.
Define Island: To be considered an actual island in the 1000 Islands a piece of land must stay above water throughout the year and support a living tree.
Did you know that the original Mary See, of candy-dynasty fame, considered Gananoque her hometown? In a book published in 2005, See’s Famous Old Time Candies , the author notes that Mary was born on Howe Island. That may be common knowledge, but few people realize that she started creating her chocolate candy recipes while helping run her husband’s hotel on nearby Tremont Island. She and her husband, Charles, are both buried in the Willowbank Cemetery, just outside of Gananoque. The 1,000 Islands served as a backdrop for her first candy creations, before she moved south with her son. Maybe Mary drew inspiration from her “sweet” surroundings on the St. Lawrence River.
The majestic St. Lawrence River once had real pirates traversing its waters! One of those fabled pirates is Bill Johnston who plundered and torched the British steamer Sir Robert Peel on the St. Lawrence in 1838, after looting its valuables and removing its passengers to shore. Known as the Pirate of the 1,000 Islands, Johnston was a renegade who was born in Quebec, but was made famous by this escapade in the heart of the 1,000 Islands region.
Only in the islands
The 1,000 Islands region is known for its biodiversity – but did you know that there is an island with its own microclimate? Georgina Island’s subtle differences make it the perfect home for 12 rare plant species. According to the Frontenac Arch Biosphere, it harbours the unique pink lady’s slipper orchid as well as Indian Cucumber Root. The best part? It’s one of the islands belonging to the Thousand Islands National Park – so you can dock there and go for a stroll on the island’s trails.
Treasure hunters take note
Tales of buried gold and jewels are rich in the 1,000 Islands. Dozens of islands reportedly have barrels of silver or sacks of gold hiding beneath the soil, originating from raids in the 1800s, shipwrecks and treacherous behaviour. Over the years, many people have tried to locate some of the spoils, but with details waning from generation to generation it becomes increasingly difficult to pinpoint locations.
There is a structure in the 1,000 Islands that spans the history of two countries! President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Mackenzie King were on hand on August 18, 1938 to dedicate and officially open the Thousand Island Bridge and celebrate this achievement along the international border. But they weren’t alone. According to information from the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority, an estimated crowd of more than 25,000 people was also in attendance at the border, while thousands more lined the motorcade enroute as it proceeded to the ceremonial site. Today, annual crossings exceed 2,000,000 vehicles!
Smuggling has an infamous history in the 1,000 Islands. With all the nooks and crannies among rocks and caves it’s no wonder smugglers successfully ran everything from animals to alcohol to gold across the river! One such cove starts near Virgin Island and ends at Smuggler’s Cave. The cave was known as a depot rumoured to house prohibition-era alcohol, pirate loot and other treasure. Another place to explore that has a history with smuggling is on Hill Island. According to Frontenac Arch Biosphere, the Horse Thief Trail took horses south and beef north during the war of 1812 and remains of it can actually still be walked!
Underwater island intrigue
Curious about what lies beneath the surface of the fabled St. Lawrence River? History itself! The 1,000 Islands is a haven for fresh water scuba diving enthusiasts, as the riverbed is home to the silent skeletons of shipwrecks. Local scuba diving companies explore these sunken ships for an up close and personal journey into a memorable underwater realm that few get to experience. The Gananoque Boat Line also offers a look at these testaments to years past, with the Canadian Signature Tourism Experience, the Lost Ships of the 1,000 Islands cruise. This two-and-a-half-hour cruise gives shipwrecks in the St. Lawrence River a voice, by displaying diver video footage coupled with compelling commentary, when the vessel glides over wrecks lying below. This cruise was chosen as one of only 40 experiences from across Canada for the distinguished honour of being a national signature experience and being promoted internationally.
The 1,000 Islands on the St. Lawrence River is famous as a playground for fishing enthusiasts. Ever since the area was settled, anglers, guides, visitors and locals have fished the waters, enjoyed legendary shore breakfasts made from their catch and told a few tall tales along the way. The region has recently seen celebrities like up-and-coming angler Ashley Rae, Canadian fishing icon Big Jim McLaughlin, and even Bob Izumi casting their lines into the waters surrounding the islands! No wonder – even the smallmouth bass are larger-than-life. The smallies which win hourly prizes during the annual 1,000 Islands Big Bass Challenge are typically over 5 lbs. The world–record muskie was also caught here – and tales of even larger fish still persist.
For more than 100 years, the 1,000 Islands has been a playground for the rich and famous. According to the publication A history of Recreation in the 1000 Islands, celebrities started to flock to the region to escape, as the 1,000 Islands gained notoriety for its large-scale homes, castles and relaxed river lifestyle. Of course, most people are familiar with Boldt Castle and Singer Castle, but there is also a long list of celebrities who frequented summer homes to get lost among the islands. Prime ministers and presidents, the Kellogg family, the Wrigley family, editor of Scribner’s magazine, the head of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, the head of Macy’s Department store in New York City, famous Canadian musicians, internationally-renowned authors and playwrights, NHL players, political celebrities like the Trudeaus, and even poet John McCrae of In Flanders fields fame are all rumoured to have spent time cottaging in the 1,000 Islands. Today, the tradition of welcoming celebrities continues as the island setting provides an opportunity for privacy.
Hit the water
The Gananoque Boat Line has been operating for more than 60 years as a premiere way to get among the legendary 1,000 Islands and learn about their history. The boat line originated by ferrying people across the pristine waters of the St. Lawrence River as a mail run – and has evolved to include five vessels, which average 300,000 people annually. In fact, GBL celebrated its 11-millionth customer last fall. Wow!
Thousand Island Dressing
There are many conflicting origin stories of this popular salad dressing but it is safe to say that it hailed from this region. One common story describes how a fishing guide’s wife made the recipe for her husband’s dinner. The condiment was so tasty that it began to be shared and eventually the recipe made it to another resident named George Boldt. George, who was the proprietor of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, instructed the hotel’s maître d’hôtel , Oscar Tschirky, to put the dressing on the menu in 1894. And, the rest is history.