The UNESCO World Heritage Committee recently declared the caves of Beit Guvrin-Maresha as a World Heritage Site, thereby joining the prestigious list of extraordinary sites from around the world that are chosen for their outstanding cultural or natural importance.
The area of Maresha and Beit Guvrin, located in the Judean lowlands south of Beit Shemesh and east of Kiryat Gat, is preserved as a National Park by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. The area covers some five-square-kilometer area within a 100-square-kilometer lowland region. The area is dotted by over 500 caves, most of them contained in systems with dozens of rooms.
UNESCO describes the caves of Maresha and Beit Guvrin as “a microcosm of the Land of the Caves” stating “This “city under a city” is characterized by a selection of man-made caves, excavated from the thick and homogeneous layer of soft chalk in Lower Judea. It includes chambers and networks with varied forms and functions, situated below the ancient twin towns of Maresha and Beit Guvrin, that bear witness to a succession of historical periods of excavation and usage stretching over 2,000 years, from the Iron Age to the Crusades, as well as a great variety of subterranean construction methods. The original excavations were quarries, but these were converted for various agricultural and local craft industry purposes, including oil presses, columbaria (dovecotes), stables, underground cisterns and channels, baths, tomb complexes and places of worship , and hiding places during troubled times”.
The caves in Tel Mares, which date back to the 9th century BCE, were most used during the second and third centuries BCE. The caves at Beit Guvrin were carved in the first centuries of the common era, with the most famous example being the Beit Guvrin bell caves carved in the sixth through eighth centuries CE. The last use of these caves occurred in the 10th century CE, marking about 2,000 years of their utilization.
Visitors to the caves complex can tour the Columbarium caves, used for raising doves; explore a system of about thirty interconnected underground caves as well as huge cisterns from the Hellenistic period and the Sidonian burial caves with reconstructed wall paintings; tour the famous Bell Caves - 80 large caves, the largest of which are over 5 meters high, dug into the hard surface rock and quarried downward in the shape of a bell. Arabic inscriptions and crosses found on the walls show that many of the caves were dug during the Early Arab period, in the seventh-tenth centuries CE. In addition, visitors can tour agricultural areas and operate the reconstructed olive-oil press and grape-vat; as well as the Roman amphitheater.
Beit Guvrin-Maresha Caves National Park is the eighth site to be listed as World Heritages Sites in Israel, the others are Tel Aviv White City, Masada, the Biblical Tels, the Incense Route, the Baha’i Holy Shrines in Haifa, the Old City of Acre, and the Nahal Me'arot Nature Reserve which was added in 2012.