On July 5, Beit She’arim National Park was named Israel’s ninth UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Site.

Referring to the limestone catacomb-filled necropolis as “a landmark of Jewish renewal,” UNESCO committee members decided that the park fulfills two of 10 possible criteria as a World Heritage Site: it “exhibits an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology…” and it “bears a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared.”

Beit She’arim (House of Gates), southeast of Haifa in the Lower Galilee, was originally a granary and became the primary Jewish burial ground outside Jerusalem between the second and fourth centuries CE, following the failure of the second Jewish revolt against Roman rule.

According to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the site is the oldest and most densely populated cemetery in Israel, and is similar to the catacombs in Rome.

Many well-to-do Jews of the Roman era requested to be buried there, even many from neighboring countries in what are now Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The necropolis was so desirable because Rabbi Judah Hanasi (the Prince), credited with renewing Jewish life years after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE, was interred in Beit She’arim in 220 CE.

Catacomb 20 at Beit She’arim. Photo by Tsvika Tsuk/Israel Nature and Parks Authority
Catacomb 20 at Beit She’arim. Photo by Tsvika Tsuk/Israel Nature and Parks Authority

Rabbi Judah lived in Beth She’arim when it was the seat of the Sanhedrin (formerly headquartered in Jerusalem), a congress of religious-social leaders he headed.

It was at Beth Shelarim that Rabbi Judah oversaw the writing of the Mishnah, the first codification of Jewish Oral Law, at the beginning of the third century CE. Though he moved east to Sepphoris (Tzippori) 17 years before his death, he asked to be brought back for burial to Beth She’arim and eventually a cemetery grew up around his tomb. Most of the corpses were placed on shelves carved into the rock, or in stone and marble sarcophagi.

“Beit She’arim is a moving testimony to our ancestors which has almost no equal anywhere else in the world. When visiting Beit She’arim’s necropolis, one feels the beating heart of the Jewish people,” said Israel Nature and Parks Authority chief archeologist Tsvika Tsuk, noting that the UNESCO application for Beit She’arim was submitted in 2002.

A treasury of ancient artwork
When they were first excavated in the 1930s, the catacombs, mausoleums and stone coffins (sarcophagi) of Beit She’arim were found to contain a treasury of artworks and inscriptions in Greek, Aramaic, Palmyrene, and Hebrew documenting two centuries of historical and cultural achievement.
Carved on tomb walls or on the sarcophagi are many depictions of animals, seven-branched candelabras (the menorah that were lit daily in the two Holy Temples) and other Jewish ritual items, stone and marble statues, scenes from the pagan world, and ships.

Inside Catacomb 1. Photo by Tsvika Tsuk/Israel Nature and Parks Authority
Inside Catacomb 1. Photo by Tsvika Tsuk/Israel Nature and Parks Authority

Hundreds of inscriptions reveal the names of the deceased, their professions and places of residence, and curses upon those who would open the tombs, along with lamentations and prayers sending the dead on their way to the afterlife.

Catacomb 20 is the largest of all the caves, containing 125 stone coffins. Catacomb 14 contains about 30 burial niches, most of them carved into the floor. Inscriptions in this cave mention the sons of Rabbi Judah the Prince, Shim’on and Gamaliel, and it is believed that the rabbi himself was interred at the far end of this cave.

If you visit Beit She’arim, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority recommends exploring the ruins of the adjacent ancient village. “Near the remains of a basilica, apparently built during the lifetime of Rabbi Judah Hanasi, is a bronze statue of the pioneer Alexander Zayid astride his horse. Zayid, who established the defense organization called Hashomer, discovered a burial cave in 1926. Nearby on the hill, with its magnificent panorama of the Jezreel Valley and Mount Carmel, is the double-domed tomb of the Muslim Sheikh Abreik,” according to the INPA website.

An ancient engraving inside Catacomb 1. Photo by Tsvika Tsuk/Israel Nature and Parks Authority
An ancient engraving inside Catacomb 1. Photo by Tsvika Tsuk/Israel Nature and Parks Authority

Beit She’arim joins eight other Israeli UNESCO World Heritage Sites declared over the years since 1981 as places worthy of preservation and protection: The Old City of Jerusalem and its walls, Nahal Me’arot Nature Reserve, the Baha’i gardens in Haifa and Acre, the Old City of Acre, the Incense Route and its surrounding Nabatean towns, the biblical tels of Megiddo, Hazor and Beersheva, the “White City” of Tel Aviv, Masada and “Land of a Thousand Caves” Beit Guvrin-Maresha.