While it is true that Jerusalem is the spiritual home of more than 200 religious sites that best represent Christianity, Islam and Judaism, it is not true that religious tourism is all that the Holy City has to offer. Jerusalem’s Bet Guvrin-Maresha National Park, for example, offers some of the best attractions in nature and archeology.
Located in central Israel, about 13 km from Kiryat Gat, the 500-hectare national park encompasses the ancient towns of Maresha and Bet Guvrin (known as Eleutheropolis in Roman times). The park is located in the Guvrin stream basin at altitudes ranging from 250 to 350 meters above sea level. It consists of valleys, hills, water sources, agricultural lands, plains, mountains, and a number of intriguing caves and rock formations.
Bet Guvrin-Maresha National Park is one of those parks that will leave you speechless as you are transported into another world and time. The most impressive attractions are the man-made caves of Bet Guvrin. The town itself is quite small but what lie underneath are some of the most spectacular caves every dug and carved by man.
The oddest cave is the double-cross shaped Columbarium Cave. Inside are more than 2,000 small alcoves carved on the walls to keep pigeons. Pigeons were inexpensive and were kept for their meat for food and their dung for fertilizer. They were also widely used by pagans for cultic animal sacrifices. However, early settlers stopped using the alcoves as early as the end of the 3rd century BC.
Another cave that was used as a columbarium for pigeons is the Polish Cave. It was originally dug and carved to serve as a water cistern in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. It bears its name because inside is an inscription that says, “Warsaw, Poland” along with an eagle symbol of the Polish army and the date 1943. Apparently, a Polish soldier visited the cave and etched those words on one of the cave’s pillars.
A third cave is the Bath Cave, which is much smaller than the Columbarium Cave. A narrow flight of stairs leads down to two tiny rooms that can accommodate one bather each. The water that sprayed on the bather out of the bedrock wall came from a tiny hole that leads outside. A slave stood outside and poured water into the hole, leaving the bathers in complete privacy. It is believed that the washing involved cultic rituals.
And finally the Bell Caves located within the Bet-Guvrin boundaries. These ancient quarries took the form of a bell and were first thought to be reservoirs, bunkers or storage pits. There are about 800 interconnected bell-shaped pits with an average depth of 12.2 to 15.2 meters. An Arab historian wrote about these pits as “many marble quarries”.
Other leading attractions that make this park a must-see attraction are the Northern Cemetery of Maresha, an old olive oil plant, Sidonian burial caves, Church of St. Anne, Northern Tower, and ancient dwelling houses and underground system.
Bet Guvrin-Maresha National Park is also home to a number of ancient shops and houses that are found at the north side of the Northern Tower. There are elaborate courtyards, rooms, stairwells, houses, stores and workshops.