This national park encompasses some 1,250 acres of rolling hills in the Judean lowlands, where for thousands of years people dug quarries, burial caves, storerooms, hideouts, and dovecotes in a subterranean labyrinth of unparalleled complexity. In the Second Temple period, millions of pilgrims ascended to Jerusalem to offer animal sacrifices. At Beit Guvrin, doves were raised on a vast scale to supply the pilgrims' need. Unlike many ruins, this national park allows you to readily envision life 2,000 years ago, both above- and underground.
The antiquities sprawl around the kibbutz of Beit Guvrin, just beyond the junction of Routes 38 and 35. These are bits and pieces of the 2nd- to 3rd-century AD Beit Guvrin, renamed (around the year 200) Eleuthropolis, "the city of free men." The amphitheater—an arena for Roman blood sports and mock sea battles—is one of only a few discovered in Israel.
After entering the park, drive south toward the flattop mound of ancient Maresha,
known today as Tel Maresha. King Rehoboam of Judah fortified it, but it was during the Hellenistic period (4th to 2nd centuries BC) that the city reached its height and the endless complexes of chalk caves were dug. Maresha was finally destroyed by the Parthians in 40 BC and replaced by the nearby Roman city of Beit Guvrin. The view from the tell is worth the short climb.
Ancient Mareshans excavated thousands of underground chambers to extract soft chalk bricks, with which they built their homes above-ground. Residents then turned their "basement" quarries into industrial complexes, with water cisterns, olive-oil presses, and columbaria (derived from the Latin word columba, meaning dove or pigeon). The birds were used in ritual sacrifice and as food, producers of fertilizer, and message carriers.
The most interesting and extensive cave system is just off the road on the opposite side of the tell (the trail begins at a parking lot). It includes water cisterns, storerooms, and a restored ancient olive press. The excitement of exploration makes this site a must for kids (with close parental supervision, though the safety features are good), but the many steps are physically demanding.
The great "bell caves" of Beit Guvrin date from the late Roman, Byzantine, and early Arab periods (2nd to 7th century AD), when the locals created a quarry to extract lime for cement. At the top of each bell-shape space is a hole through the 4-foot-thick stone crust of the ground. When the ancient diggers reached the soft chalk below, they began reaming out their quarry in the structurally secure bell shape, each bell eventually cutting into the one adjacent to it. Although not built to be inhabited, the caves may have been used as refugees by early Christians. In the North Cave, a cross high on the wall, at the same level as an Arabic inscription, suggests a degree of coexistence even after the Arab conquest of the area in AD 636. More recently, Beit Guvrin was an Arab village, depopulated in 1948.
After leaving this system, continue walking down the hill to visit the Sidonian Burial Caves. These magnificent 3rd- to 2nd-century BC tombs—adorned with colorful, restored frescoes and inscriptions—have important archaeological evidence as to the nature of the town's ancient Phoenician colonists.
The undeveloped complexes of caves near the tell are off-limits to visitors. Keep to the marked sites only. The brochure at the entrance has a good map of the site.