Kiryat Tivon is a small beautiful town in the Lower Galilee, about 20 km east of Haifa. My husbands aunt lives there and from her house it is a ten minute walk down the hill to Beit Shearim, בית שערים, the ancient Jewish town. Most of the ruins of the town itself are covered by the forests of the hill and still not excavated. But the towns burial place which is cut straight into the rock, is dug out and laid bare, and almost each time we visit that aunt we take a walk down the hill to stroll around.
During the period of the Second Temple Beit Shearim was one of many small settlements in the Galilee. After the occupation of Jerusalem by the Roman empire in the 2nd century CE the center of Jewish life shifted from Judea to the Lower Galilee and the exiled Jews established in the already existing town of Beit Shearim their headquarter for the Sanhedrin, the ancient Jewish court system and highest legal and ecclesiastical authority. The rock-cut cemetery became sought out after Rabbi Juda HaNasi, the compiler of the Mishna and great leader at the Sanhedrin during that time, was laid to rest there. After his death the grave yard became famous and significant. Many more graves were hewn out of the stone for more than hundred years and Beit Shearim became a very important and expensive burial site and the largest and most prominent necropolis in the Levant, not for the common people, but for rich and influential Jewish families in Israel and the countries around it.
There are more than 30 catacombs with hundreds of stone coffins, not all are open to the public, but many are and there is a lot to see and to explore and it is all very interesting - and a bit chilly too.
Impressive facades in the style of classical architecture mark the entrances to the catacombs. Large stone doors on rotating axles lead to the underground caves.
Greek was the favored language at those times, the lingua franca, and often preferred to Hebrew and Aramaic. Many Jews had a Greek name in addition to their Hebrew one. Inscriptions in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek can be found on the sarcophagi, according to the origin, profession and family connection of the buried.
The town of Beit Shearim flourished till 352 CE when it was destroyed by fire. In Byzantine time it was rebuilt and inhabited and after that it was settled by Arabs. From medieval time on the place was rather deserted and erased from the memory of the Jews, till its rediscovery in modern times.
Today the catacombs are a national park with a small museum as well, and an admission fee has to be paid to visit. The necropolis was recently recognized by the UNESCO as world heritage.
Photographed by my husband Uri Eshkar, and by my niece, Alina Boldt on an earlier visit to Israel.