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Archaeological and historical significance of Beit Guvrin and Maresha national park

Beit Guvrin, April 2015 (Photo: Talia Good)

When Rehoboam came to Jerusalem, he assembled one hundred eighty thousand chosen troops of the house of Judah and Benjamin to fight against Israel, to restore the kingdom to Rehoboam. But the word of the Lord came to Shemaiah the man of God:  Say to King Rehoboam of Judah, son of Solomon, and to all Israel in Judah and Benjamin, “Thus says the Lord: You shall not go up or fight against your kindred. Let everyone return home, for this thing is from me.” So they heeded the word of the Lord and turned back from the expedition against Jeroboam.

Rehoboam resided in Jerusalem, and he built cities for defense in Judah. He built up Bethlehem, Etam, Tekoa, Beth-zur, Soco, Adullam, Gath, Mareshah, Ziph,  Adoraim, Lachish, Azekah,  Zorah, Aijalon, and Hebron, fortified cities that are in Judah and in Benjamin. He made the fortresses strong, and put commanders in them, and stores of food, oil, and wine. He also put large shields and spears in all the cities, and made them very strong. So he held Judah and Benjamin.

I Chronicles 11: 1-12

The Beit Guvrin–Maresha National Park is one of my favorite spots and it lies in the Judean lowlands 14 km east of Kiryat Gat on Route 35, and only a 40-minute drive through gorgeous forested hills from Jerusalem (see map below – use the + and – buttons to zoom in and out).

This park covers an area of around 741 acres (300 hectares) and preserves the archaeological site of the biblical city of Maresha, which lay on the crossroads of the Mesopotamian-Egyptian trade routes, and the later city of Beit Guvrin. Adjacent to the park are the remains of the Roman city. Situated on a chalk ridge, the soft, easily excavated rock lent itself to underground living and some 500 caves with 3,500 rooms have been found. The caves were occupied at least from the time of King Rehoboam of Judah, who reigned from 931 – 913 BC, until around the 8th century A.D. – a period spanning approximately 2,000 years and representing the cultures of the Judean Kingdom, the Persian/Idumean period, the Greek and Roman periods, the Byzantine era and the early Muslim era. The various caves were used for a wide range of purposes, including dwelling places, bathhouses, food stores, winepresses, columbaria (dovecots), olive presses, hiding places, stables, quarries and burial caves. Many of these caves have been opened to the public and provide a fascinating glimpse of life in the caves through the different eras. The park was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2014.

Tel Maresha, February 2019 Photo: Talia Good

Remains of fortifications from Jewish to Hellenistic Period 9th – 1st Century BCE, Tel Maresha (Photo: Talia Good)

Underground Oil Press, Beit Guvrin. February 2016 (Photo copyright: Talia Good)

Frescos in the Sidonian burial cave, Beit Guvrin, 2015 Photo copyright: Talia Good

In addition to the archaeological sites, the park offers panoramic views of the surrounding Judean lowlands and preserves the beautiful flora and fauna of the area.

Flora and Fauna

The Bet Guvrin-Maresha National Park, in addition to its archaeological and historical significance, also protects a good example of the ecosystems of the Judean lowlands. These low hills are covered with Mediterranean Batha scrubland interspersed with lush meadows, which provide sustenance for grazing sheep and cattle, even today. In the spring, the meadows are a colorful riot of wildflowers.

Jerusalem Sage, Beit Guvrin, April 2015

Almond trees in blossom and a field of winter wheat at Beit Guvrin, February 2016 Photo copyright: Talia Good

Judean Bugloss and Crown Daisy , Beit Guvrin January 2019 Photo copyright: Talia Good

Redstart eating black widow spider, Beit Guvrin, January 2019 Photo copyright: Talia Good


The first recorded mention of the city of Maresha is in the passage of II Chronicles quoted above. Rehoboam, the son of Solomon, and the fourth king of Israel reigned from 931-913 B.C.E. Solomon had disobeyed the Torah by marrying many foreign wives, among them the Ammonite mother of Rehoboam. These wives had led Solomon astray into the worship of the terrible pagan gods, Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, Chemosh the god of the Moabites, and Molek the god of the Ammonites. For this God told Solomon he would wrest the kingdom from his hand, but for his father David’s sake, not during Solomon’s lifetime. After Solomon’s death his son, Rehoboam became the fourth king of Israel, but Jeroboam, who had been in charge of the labor force of Joseph during Solomon’s reign, rebelled against Rehoboam and established the northern Kingdom of Israel, leaving only the tribes of Benjamin and Judah, and the city of Jerusalem, under Rehoboam’s control.

Rehoboam gathered an army from the tribes of Benjamin and Judah with the intention of winning back the northern tribes but God spoke through Shemaiah, the prophet, warning him not to attack for this division of the nation was God’s will. Instead, Rehoboam returned to Jerusalem and directed his energies into fortifying 15 of the cities of Benjamin and Judah, among them Maresha, as recorded in II Chronicles 11:1-12. From this, we can infer that Maresha was already settled by members of the Tribe of Judah at this time. Situated at the crossroads of the major trade routes, overlooking the coastal plain to the south and west and with a vast collection of underground caves, it would have been an ideal place for a fortified garrison of troops.

In the 5th year of Rehoboam’s reign, c926 B.C.E., the Egyptian Pharaoh Shishak swept through the Kingdom of Judah capturing all the fortified cities (including Maresha) and Jerusalem, carrying off all the treasures of Solomon’s Temple and the King’s house (II Chronicles 12:9, 1 Kings 14: 25-26). Shishak did not destroy Jerusalem and Rehoboam continued to reign over the Kingdom of Judah as a vassal king under Shishak ( II Chronicles 12).

Rehoboam was succeeded by Abijah who in turn was succeeded by Asa, the third king of Judah. During his reign, Asa restored and restocked the fortified cities, including Marasha. Some years later, in the early 9th century B.C.E., Pharaoh Shishak’s son sent a massive army, under the leadership of Zerah the Ethiopian, to raid Judah but this army was defeated by Asa at Maresha.

Zerah the Ethiopian came out against them with an army of a million men and 300 chariots, and came as far as Mareshah. And Asa went out to meet him, and they drew up their lines of battle in the Valley of Zephathah at Mareshah. And Asa cried to the Lord his God, “O Lord, there is none like you to help, between the mighty and the weak. Help us, O Lord our God, for we rely on you, and in your name we have come against this multitude. O Lord, you are our God; let not man prevail against you.” So the Lord defeated the Ethiopians before Asa and before Judah, and the Ethiopians fled. Asa and the people who were with him pursued them as far as Gerar, and the Ethiopians fell until none remained alive, for they were broken before the Lord and his army. 

2 Chronicles 14: 9-13

After the Persian conquest in 586, and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the region of Judah was settled by the Idumeans, an Arab people from the east. In the 4th century B.C.E., Sidonians and Greeks joined them bringing Hellenistic culture to the region. During this time Maresha was an important cosmopolitan trading center. It was also home to some Egyptians and a population of Jews, some a remnant from the pre-Persian population and some migrants from the coastal plain cities.

In 113/112 B.C.E. the Hasmonean (Maccabean) John Hyrcanus conquered Idumea, including the town of Marisa (the Greek name for the city of Maresha) (Josephus “Antiquities of the Jews’ 13:257). Hyrcanus laid waste to the city.

The city of Maresha was resettled by Jews but it remained a small settlement until it was destroyed in 40 B.C.E. by the Parthians. After its destruction by the Parthians Maresha was abandoned and the town of Bet Guvrin, to the north of Maresha, became more important. Josephus reported that the Romans, led by Vespasian, conquered Bet Guvrin in 68 C.E. In 200 C.E., Roman Emperor Septimus Severus granted Bet Guvrin the status of a city and changed its name to Eleuthropolis (the City of the Freedmen). Beit Guvrin, in the Roman period, again became an important junction where five roads met. The Roman city was clearly a large and important one as it boasted an amphitheatre that could seat 3,500 and a 4,000-square-meter bathhouse among other things.

In the following centuries, the city’s Jewish population increased and in the 3rd and 4th centuries C.E., it is mentioned in the Talmud and the Midrash. Important Jewish sages, including Rabbi Yonatan and Rabbi Yehuda Ben Yaakov, lived there. A synagogue inscription and a large Jewish cemetery have been found on the site of Beit Guvrin.

During the Byzantine period, Beit Guvrin became an important Christian center and a number of churches were built there, including the Church of St. Anne. In 796 C.E., an anti-Christian bedouin group destroyed the town, heralding the beginning of the later Muslim period.

Remains of Byzantine Era St Anne’s Church, Beit Guvrin, March 2014 Photo copyright: Talia Good

The Bell Caves were at their height of production during the end of the Byzantine period and the early Arab (Muslim) period ( 8-10th centuries C.E.). About 800 of these bell-shaped caves, which were limestone quarries, have been located and many of them are linked by underground tunnels. Some of these caves near the park entrance are open to the public today.

The Bell Caves 2015 Photo copyright: Talia Good

In the Muslim period, the town was called Bet Jibrin and it was prosperous, no doubt largely due to the limestone produced in the Bell Caves, but also due to the good pastureland around it and its strategic location. We have this description of Bet Jibrin from the Muslim geographer, al-Muqaddasi:
[Beit Jibrin] is a city partly in the hill country, partly in the plain. …[T]here are here marble [sic] quarries. The district sends its produce to the capital [Ramla]. It is an emporium for the neighbouring country, and a land of riches and plenty, possessing fine domains. The population, however, is now on the decrease and impotence possesses the men.”

The city was conquered by the Crusaders in 1099 C.E. and in the years following they fortified the city, which they thought was Beersheba, and dug a moat around it. They also restored the Church of St Anne. In 1157 C.E., the Crusader fortress of Ashkelon fell to the Muslims and Bet Jibrin’s importance declined but it continued to be an important crossroads where taxes were imposed upon passing caravans.

The Arab village of Beit Jibrin stood on the remains of Bet Guvrin until 1948. In June 1948, the Egyptian army took over the British Police Station built there at the beginning of the Second World War, and Arab refugees from Jaffa took up residence in the Bell Caves. They fled to Hebron, together with the approximately 2000 inhabitants of Bet Jibrin, when the area was captured by the Israeli Defense Forces on October 27, 1948. Kibbutz Beit Guvrin was founded next to the ruins of the Roman town in May of 1949.

Archaeological excavations began in the area in 1900 and so far some 500 caves with about 3500 rooms have been located, along with the Roman amphitheatre and bathhouse, but most of the area has not yet been excavated.

Talia Voice grew up in New Zealand but came to Israel about 40 years ago. After teaching science in various schools, she is now retired and lives in Mevaseret Zion where she leads a home group and attends a congregation in Mevaseret. She is the author of the book “I’m Single, OK?” and writes on

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