Second Temple-era Catacomb Beit She'arim Declared UNESCO World Heritage Site

Beit She'arim's most famous resident was Rabbi Judah the Prince, whose burial there, reportedly, attracted Jewish leaders from around the region.

Noa Shpigel
Miriam Feinberg Vamosh
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Second Temple-era catacombs for Jewish leaders, carved out of the soft bedrock at Beit She'arim.Credit: Moshe Gilad
Noa Shpigel
Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

The incomparable ancient catacombs at the Second Temple-era town of Beit She’arim joined the UNESCO World Heritage List on Sunday.

Beit She’arim was once the headquarters of the Sanhedrin, a city covering some 100 dunams (25 acres) that flourished from the second to the fourth century CE. The decision to mark the spot was made at the 39th session of the organization’s World Heritage Committee, convening in Bonn, Germany.

The most famous resident of Beit She'arim was Rabbi Judah the Prince, who lived in the 3rd century CE and – fearing that the Jews' crushing defeat by the Roman Empire and subsequent exile would lead to the loss of Torah – redacted the Mishnah.

It was Judah the Prince's death and interment in the city that caused the town to become a magnet-cemetery, as it were. Inscriptions discovered in excavations, starting in the 1930s, reveal that Jewish community leaders were brought for burial from as far away as what are now Arabia, Turkey, Iraq and Syria.

The ancients dug their cave-tombs into soft limestone rock walls by the town, resulting in a total of some 30 catacombs with more than 200 stone coffins.

Other major finds discovered in excavations at Beit She'arim, which is south of Haifa in the hills of the lower Galilee, include an ancient synagogue; a basilica (a type of Roman public building, not a church); an olive press - and the necropolis, which features three different burial sections, each in a different architectural style.

The latter is one of the largest Jewish cemeteries to have survived since antiquity, and Jews from both Israel and abroad have long sought to be buried there, near the grave of Rabbi Judah. Some archaeologists claim however that he was actually buried in Zippori, not Beit She’arim.

Second Temple-era catacombs for Jewish leaders, carved out of the soft bedrock at Beit She'arim. Photo by Moshe Gilad

Dr. Tsvika Tsuk, the Nature and Parks Authority’s chief archaeologist, termed the decision “a greeting from 1,800 years ago from Beit She’arim’s city of the dead.” He said the site’s archaeological findings include hundreds of inscriptions along with dozens of reliefs of seven-branched menorahs and other Jewish ritual objects.

Qatar, Lebanon abstain

One of the first to launch an archeological excavation at Beit She’arim, in 1936, was Alexander Zaid, founder of the pre-state Jewish defense organization Hashomer, who lived in the nearby hills.

Beit She’arim is the ninth Israeli site to be declared a UNESCO world heritage site. The others are Masada, the Old City of Acre, Tel Aviv’s White City (Bauhaus buildings), the Spice Route, the Biblical tells (Megiddo, Hazor and Be’er Sheva), the Bahai Gardens in Haifa, the Nahal Me’arot nature reserve and the Beit Guvrin National Park.

Israel’s candidates for UNESCO recognition are chosen by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and then submitted to the Israel National Commission for UNESCO, an organization under the joint auspices of the foreign and education ministries. Dalit Atrakchi, the national commission’s secretary general, told Haaretz that the process of getting Beit She’arim recognized took seven years.

But in the end, she said, of UNESCO’s 21 voting members, 17 supported Beit She’arim’s inclusion, while the other four – Qatar, Lebanon, Malaysia and Algeria – abstained.

“At the conference now taking place in Bonn, sites from all over the world are raised for discussion, and if there is sweeping support, the site is approved automatically,” Atrakchi explained. “Countries like Turkey, India and Senegal, which usually don’t rush to vote for Israel in international forums, expressed unreserved support for registering this site. That proves that the site has all the correct, genuine characteristics of a world heritage site.”

The decision will give Beit She’arim international exposure that it hasn’t had until now, Atrakchi added. “When a site is declared, there’s always the hope that more overseas tourists will visit it, and domestic tourists as well, and that awareness of this site will increase both in Israel and worldwide,” she said.

Photo by Moshe Gilad

Photo by AFP

Photo by AFP

Photo by AFP

Photo by AFP

Photo by AFP

Photo by AFP

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