March 9th 2010
Beit Guvrin National Park is best known for the hundreds of caves that were dug here by hand in ancient times. Nature created the hillside in a soft, chalky substance and covered them with a layer of rock, known as nari. The caves are the result of human hands that created underground open spaces within the hills many centuries ago.
This sprawling park covers 1,250 acres in central Israel, about 20 minutes south of the modern city of Beit Shemesh. Its history goes back to Biblical times, when it was known as the city of Maresha. Beit Guvrin literally means “the house of men.” The nearby Kibbutz Beit Guvrin was established in 1949, just after Israel’s War of Independence.
In centuries past, ancient residents dug these famous caves and used the openings they created for a wide variety of purposes, such as storerooms, burial places, shelters for their animals and cisterns for storing water. The caves at Beit Guvrin were chosen as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014 for being “an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement… which is representative of… human interaction with the environment.”
There are 14 separate sites of interest in the park. Expect to be awed once you step inside the spectacular caves. Allow three to four hours to cover the entire grounds on foot. If you have a vehicle available, you can drive from one parking lot to another and see all 14 active sites in about 2.5 hours. Highlights include the agricultural installation complex, with its model olive oil press; the Columbarium cave, where doves were once bred; and the Sidonian burial caves, including the Cave of the Musicians, where reconstructed paintings illustrate the work of ancient troubadours. The Roman amphitheater, the Bell Caves, the visitors’ center and the agricultural installations complex are all handicap- and stroller-accessible. Consider taking advantage of the many picnic areas for a barbeque lunch while enjoying the fresh air and the relaxing environs.
During the winter and spring, Beit Guvrin can be muddy. Proper walking shoes and hats are necessary year-round for your protection. Stay on the marked trails and avoid open pits. Buildings and caves that are deemed unsafe are marked with warnings. Beit Guvrin National Park is also the site of the Dig for a Day activity that brings tourists to a working archaeological dig at Tel Maresha and includes a tour of some of the caves.