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Bet Guvrin

Bet Guvrin (Heb. בֵּית גּוּבְרִין) was a prominent city in the period of the Second Temple, located in the southern Shephelah. Ancient Bet Guvrin rose to importance after the destruction of Maresha (Marissa) by the Parthians in 40 B.C.E. Betabris, mentioned by Josephus (Wars, 4:447) as one of two villages taken by the Romans in 68 C.E. right in the heart of Idumea, may possibly refer to Bet Guvrin.

The city began expanding following the Bar Kokhba revolt, during the second half of the second century C.E., with the construction of public and administrative buildings. In 199/200 C.E. Septimus Severus conferred on it the privileges of a Roman city and called it Eleutheropolis (the city of freemen). The city of that period covered an area of about 160 acres, and topographically it extended mainly over a hill located south of the present-day highway between Bet Shemesh and Ashkelon, with the northern extension of the city built on a low plain. Two aqueducts and an underground tunnel supplied water to the city. The Midrash (Gen. R. 41:10) interprets Mt. Seir of the Horites (Gen. 14:6) as Eleutheropolis – an interpretation based on a play of words, since Ḥori means both "freeman" and "cave dweller" and the Bet Guvrin region abounds in large caves. Severus also granted the new city a large area encompassing the districts of Bethletepha, western Edom, and Hebron as far as En-Gedi, which made it the largest single region in Roman times, with over a hundred villages.

Bet Guvrin also had its own system of dating and coinage. The wealth of its inhabitants is attested to by a mosaic pavement of a Roman house from the fourth century C.E. which depicts a hunting expedition, with representations of animals and the personifications of the four seasons. Public buildings have been uncovered in recent excavations, including a bath house with double arches and a system of vaults made of ashlars with Severan-type stone dressing, and an amphitheater which was built on flat ground on the northwest edge of the city. The amphitheater has an elliptical plan and was erected during the second half of the second century C.E. Eleutheropolis suffered a severe earthquake in 363 C.E., at which point the amphitheater fell into disuse. The tanna Judah b. Jacob (Tosef., Oho. 18:15, 16) and the amora Jonathan (TJ, Meg. 1:11, 71b) resided at Bet Guvrin and there were still Jewish farmers in its vicinity in the fourth century.

The place was regarded as being outstandingly fertile and the rabbis applied to it the verse from Isaac's blessing of Esau: And the dew of the heaven above (Gen. 27:39; Gen. R. 68:6). In matters of halakhah, Bet Guvrin was regarded as belonging to Edom and was therefore exempt from the commandments applying only to Ereẓ Israel (TJ, Dem. 2:1, 22c; TJ, Shev. 8:11, 38b).

The talmudic region Darom (Gr. Daromas) was within the area of Bet Guvrin. An inscription found there records the donation of a column to the local synagogue in Byzantine times. Eleutheropolis appears on the Madaba mosaic map of the mid-sixth century C.E. Excavations have uncovered the mosaic pavements of two churches from this period; it was an Episcopal see from the fourth century or earlier.

The city flourished in the Early Islamic period as archaeological finds testify. Clusters of burial caves from the Late Roman, Byzantine, and Early Islamic periods have been uncovered in excavations around the city. The castle of Bayt Jibrin was apparently constructed around 1134 and was granted to the Hospitalers by King Fulk of Anjou late in 1136; a civilian settlement subsequently developed around the castle. Sacked by the Muslims in 1158, the castle was eventually abandoned to Salah-a-Din (Saladin ) in 1187. A church belonging to this castle has recently been uncovered. In 1171, Benjamin of Tudela reported three Jewish families living there.

The remains of a Roman amphitheater at Beit Govrin (known in the Roman period as Eleutheropolis) in the Judean flatlands southwest of Jerusalem, were uncovered in the mid-1990s. The amphitheater was built in the 2nd century, on the northwestern outskirts of the then city of Beit Govrin. It is an elliptical structure (71 x 56 m.), built of large, rectangular limestone ashlars. It had a walled arena of packed earth, with subterranean galleries. The arena was surrounded by a series of connected barrel vaults, which formed a long, circular corridor and supported the stone seats above it; staircases led from the outside and from the circular corridor to the tribunes.

A vaulted room (3.8 x 3.2 m.) beneath the western tribune probably served for cultic purposes (sacellum). It contained two votive incense altars, one bearing a Greek dedicatory inscription, and over a hundred oil lamps.

This amphitheater, in which gladiatorial contests took place, could seat about 3,500 spectators. It was built for the Roman troops stationed in the region after the suppression of the Bar Kochba rebellion (132 - 135) and was in use until destroyed by earthquake in 363. It is located in the national park of Beit Govrin, has been partially restored and is open to the public.

Bet Guvrin was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2014.  

UNESCO World Heritage Designation

Criterion (v): The underground archaeological site of Maresha–Bet Guvrin is an eminent example of traditional use of chalk subsurface strata, with the development of man-made caves and networks conducive to multiple economic, social and symbolic purposes, from the Iron Age to the Crusades. 

Integrity

The integrity of the property is expressed in the first place by the diversity of the excavations and their arrangements, intended for a variety of economic, social, funerary and symbolic purposes. It is also expressed by the exceptional density of the subterranean structures which are found beneath the ancient twin cities of Maresha and Bet Guvrin.  The integrity of the property also concerns its relations with the outside and the preservation of a landscape of ancient ruins in a well-preserved environment of Mediterranean vegetation. 

Authenticity

The underground structures of Maresha–Bet Guvrin are authentic. They have been well-preserved, firstly because of the quality of their architectural design at the time of their excavation, then by their maintenance over a long period of use, and finally by a prolonged period of abandonment, filling up naturally over time, which has contributed to their preservation. This authenticity is however relatively fragile, with the risk of infiltrations of water leading to possible collapse of the vaults. It will furthermore be necessary to pursue a policy of low-key restoration, avoiding possible over-interpretation with reconstruction, and ensuring that the necessary technical consolidations are carried out in a way which respects the authenticity perceived by the visitor. 

Protection and management requirements

The management system of the Maresha-Bet Guvrin National Archaeological Park has been in place now for many years and functions efficiently. It is supervised by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) and benefits from the Authority’s system of protection, which also covers most of the buffer zone. The regulations concerning this zone are completed by a National Forestry Plan and directives on the limitation of size and height of possible surrounding constructions. The conservation of cultural elements is guaranteed by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), and benefits from specialist assistance for highly technical issues such as the monitoring of the rocks forming the walls and vaults of the threatened caves. The tourism development project is based on a long-standing tradition and is well managed.


BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Neubauer, Géogr, 122–4; Y.Z. Horowitz, Ereẓ Yisrael u-Shekhenoteha (1923), S.V.; S. Klein (ed.), Sefer ha-Yishuv (1939), S.V.; Vincent, in: RB, 31 (1922), 259ff.; Abel, ibid., 33 (1924), 593; Beyer, in: ZDPV, 54 (1931), 209ff. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: E.D. Oren and U. Rappaport, "The Necropolis of Maresha-Beth Govrin," in: Israel Exploration Journal, 34 (1984): 114–153; Y. Dagan, M. Fischer and Y. Tsafrir, "An Inscribed Lintel from Bet Guvrin," in: Israel Exploration Journal, 35 (1985): 28–34; D. Urman, "Beth Govrin: A History of a Mixed Population During the Mishnah and Talmud Period," in: E. Stern and D. Urman (eds.), Man and Environment in the Southern Shepelah: Studies in Regional Geography and History," (1988), 151–162; D. Pringle, The Churches of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. vol. 1: A–K. (1993), 95–101, S.V. Beit Jubrin; Y. Tsafrir, L. Di Segni, and J. Green, Tabula Imperii Romani. IudaeaPalaestina. Maps and Gazetteer (1994), 118–119; A. Kloner and A. Hubsch, "The Roman Amphitheatre of Bet Guvrin: A Preliminary Report on the 1992, 1993 and 1994 Seasons," in: Atiqot, 30 (1996), 85–106; J. Magness and G. Avni, "Jews and Christians in a Late Roman Cemetery at Beth Guvrin," in: H. Lapin (ed.), Religious and Ethnic Communities in Late Roman Palestine (1998), 87–114.


Sources: Michael Avi-Yonah / Efraim Orni / Shimon Gibson (2nd ed.), Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved;
Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs;
UNESCO.

 

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