Cool Underground

AUGUST 4, 2020 : A few weeks ago, my daughter and her family went to Bet Guvrin National Park. They told me that this had been a good choice for a hot day because it is naturally cool underground in the caves that you visit there. How cool to be cool in August! So off we went.

Bet Guvrin is located east of Kiryat Gat, about one hour south from home. The trip was uneventful until the last five minutes. We reached an intersection only two kilometers from the National Park and traffic was at a standstill. No cars were moving in any direction. We waited and we waited, wondering what was going on. After about five minutes, real cowboys wearing cowboy hats and riding horses appeared. Soon after came a large group of running cattle. Light brown, dark brown, and black steers were being herded by more cowboys.  It was dusty, it was noisy, it was the Wild West. It was fascinating.

Once the cows had passed, we quickly reached Bet Guvrin.  We came with our nine-year-old grandson Matan and met our longtime friends, Frannie and Jackie, at the entrance. We were not the only ones in the park, but there were only a handful of other families.

Basically, to visit the park, there are four parking lots that you drive from one to the other. In cooler weather, you could hike it, but not today, not in August. At each parking area, you walk a short distance to see several caves. On ground level, there is not much to see. At the entrance to each cave, you descend down a staircase and enter. It’s so nice that with each step downward, you feel the air get cooler and cooler.

During our four hours there, we explored eight different caves. What is interesting is that each one had its own character. Some were small, others were large. Some were used to provide a livelihood, such as having an oil press in the cave or used as columbariums, others were for storage, and one was for the dead. What they all had in common is that they were all man-made over 2000 years ago. Wow.

In 2014, the area was declared a UNESCO’s World Heritage Site – one of sixteen in Israel. This requires that the place be protected and maintained in prime condition for our generation and those to come.

1 – The Polish Cave

The first cave we visited is the Polish Cave. The cave is a originally a cistern that eventually had niches carved into its walls for raising doves. In the middle of cave is a large stone pillar that in 1943 Polish soldiers carved an eagle, the symbol of the Polish army, into the rock.

2 – The Columbarium Cave

A columbarium is a place to raise doves. This was a very common practice in the Hellenistic period. Dove’s meat and eggs were used as food, their dropping as fertilizer and they were sacrificed in rituals. This cave has over 2000 dove niches.

Entrance to the Columbarium Cave

3 – The Villa

The villa is a partially restored house from the Hellenistic period. From inside the house there is a staircase to take you to the underground cisterns that had been used for storing rainwater.

Walking to the next cave

4 – The Bathtub Cave

This was a very small cave that had two rooms. In the Hellenistic period it was used as a bath. The bather would sit in the lower room and a person in the upper room could pour water for the bath without seeing him – preserving his modesty.

5 – The Oil Press Cave

This was a one of 22 caves in the area that have underground oil presses. The cave was full of young people listening to an explanation of how olive oil was made. In normal times, we would have stayed to listen. Today, with social distancing, we quickly walked right through.

DANGER! DEEP HOLES! Walk only on the marked trail.

6 – The Maze Cave

Like its name, this cave is a maze of many rooms. These rooms were used for storage, for baths, as a columbarium, for an oil press, and so on.

7 – The Sidonian Cave

A cave for burial of the dead. The wall decorations in the cave have been restored.

8 – The Bell Caves

My favorite. Unfortunately, you are no longer allowed to wander all the way inside the bell caves due to a possible hazardous collapse of the ceiling. You can walk in partially and still see several bell shaped caves. These are thought to be ancient quarries that provided building material for the city of Beit Guvrin.

I had been at Bet Guvrin many many years ago and remembered that these bell caves were the location for filming a scene in the musical Jesus Christ Superstar in 1973. It took a bit of searching, but I found on You Tube the part of the movie filmed in these caves almost 50 years ago.

There is still more to see here that we do not get to. The official name of the park is Beit Guvrin-Maresha National Park. Maresha is a biblical city that was abandoned in Roman Times. In the middle of the park is Tel Maresha that you can climb to. Across the street from the park entrance are more ruins (a fifth parking lot) that include a Roman amphitheater. a Crusader fortress and a large Roman bathhouse. We left these for some other time.

Bye Bye Nice Place.

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