Hear the word “catacombs” and your first association is likely to be a city where popes retire and are elected, or perhaps a shadowy underground tour of the City of Light. But nestled in the forested hills of the Lower Galilee, southeast of Haifa, is the Israel's own version of the catacombs: Beit She’arim – an ancient labyrinthine underground cemetery which, well, breathes life into a fascinating slice of early Jewish history.
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Considering how prominent the city of Beit She’arim once was in the early centuries of the Common Era, it’s amazing that today the site is considered off the beaten tourist track. 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. After Rabbi Judah the Prince (Judah Hanasi), who led that body of Jewish lawmakers and compiled the Mishnah, was interred here, Beit She’arim became a “magnet-cemetery." Inscriptions discovered since excavations began here 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 adjacent to their town – a total of some 30 catacombs with more than 200 stone coffins.
Only a few of these labyrinthine caverns are open to the public, but even the hour or two you spend touring those will leave you open-mouthed at the cultural wealth they contain.
Hundreds of inscriptions were discovered, in Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic and the ancient Syrian language of Palmyran, including names, ages, professions and blessings. There are curses, too – but don’t worry, those are against anyone who opens a tomb. Many bear intricate carvings of plants, animals and geometric designs – and a magnificent seven-branched candelabrum, recently restored, adorns one cave wall. To further remind you that Beit She'arim was a town where people lived as well as died, up the hill above the tombs you can also tour remains of its synagogue and olive press.
At the top of that hill is the double-domed tomb of a Muslim holy man, Sheikh Abreik (which local folklore associates with the biblical Barak). There’s also a statue of the first Jewish pioneer to live in the area, the legendary Alexander Zaid, depicted on horseback. Some credit Zaid with the first discovery of Beit She’arim’s burial caves, although saying so may get you in trouble with the descendants of other pioneers with the same claim to fame. But that’s another story.
The national park’s beautifully landscaped lawns also make a good place for a picnic or for the kids to work off some energy before or after your visit.
Hours: April-September 8 A.M.-5 P.M. October-March 8 A.M.-4 P.M.