Bet Guvrin National Park, encompasses the biblical city of Maresha, the ancient tel of Bet Guvrin, and many caves. It is located in Israel, between the cities of Bet Shemesh and Kiryat Gat.
The Bet Guvrin area has a thin layer of hard limestone, with a thick layer of soft limestone underneath. The thin layer is an ideal roof for a cave, while the soft layer is easy to dig. This explains why there are huge caves underground with smaller houses above ground. An additional benefit is the coolness of the caves underground.
Two large bell caves were used for quarrying stone; the soft limestone was used for building houses as far away as Lod.
Maresha was an agricultural city in the lowlands of the Judean kingdom. After the destruction of the first temple period, it became part of the kingdom of Edom. Later on the Sidonians and Greeks came to the city. The Hasmonean King, John Hyrcanus I, captured the city in the late 2nd century BCE, and forced the residents of the city to convert to Judaism. In the 1st century BCE, the Parthians destroyed the city entirely.
In the 3rd century BCE, the lower city, Bet Govrin, was built by the Greeks. The lower city had private homes and shops. The houses were built on top of caves; these caves were used mostly for breeding pigeons (for meat, milk, and fertilizer) and for producing olive oil, but were also used for cisterns, storerooms, and bath houses.
When the Romans conquered the area, they renamed the city Eleutheropolis. They added a Roman amphitheater which was used for gladiatorial contests. The amphitheater included a dungeon for keeping the animals and an elevator for bringing the animals into the amphitheater.
Crusaders built a number of churches in the city as well, including the church of St. Anne, which is the basis of the Arab name for the city, Tel Sandahannah. They also build a crusader fort above the amphitheater.
What to see:
The main sites you should see include Tel Maresha, the bell caves, and the Sidonian burial caves; the larger cave is decorated with drawings of real and mythological animals, while the smaller cave has drawings of a man and woman playing musical instruments.
In the lower city of Bet Govrin you should include a visit to the many caves with a variety of purposes, including the columbarium caves, water cisterns, and olive presses. The Sidonian burial caves with the drawings.
Tip: To get to Beit Guvrin National Park, take route 38 south past Beit Shemesh, until the road ends. Turn right on route 35, heading west. Follow the signs to the National Park.
Tip: The crusader fort and the Roman amphitheater are on the other side of the main road.
Tip: There is an entrance fee.
Tip: The park is open for the standard hours for national parks in Israel.
Tip: Many of the sites can be reached by car; the area is not wheelchair accessible and walking and climbing stairs are required.