Chalk slopes are honeycombed with catacombs around this attractively landscaped ancient site—today called Beit She'arim National Park. Orthodox Jews pilgrimage here to the Tomb of Judah HaNasi, chief editor and redactor of the Mishnah, the seminal text of rabbinic Judaism, but you don't need to be religious to appreciate the role this vast necropolis has played in the development of modern Judaism. The landscape is soothing, there are pleasant walking paths, and some
of the caves have an Indiana Jones–style intrigue. Equipped with a flashlight, a free park brochure, and a map, you'll discover ornately carved sarcophagi that attest to the complex intercultural relations in the Roman world.
A Jewish town flourished here after the eclipse of Jerusalem brought about by Titus's legions in AD 70 and its reconstruction as a pagan town by Hadrian in AD 135. For generations, Jews were denied access to their holy city and its venerated burial ground on the Mt. of Olives, so the center of Jewish life and religious authority shifted first to Yavne, in the southern coastal plain, and then northward to the Lower Galilee.
By around AD 200 Beit She'arim had become the unofficial Jewish capital, owing its brief preeminence to the enormous stature of a native son. Rabbi Yehuda (or Judah) "HaNasi" (the Patriarch: a title conferred on the nominal leader of the Jewish community) was responsible for the city's inner workings and for its relations with its Roman masters. Alone among his contemporaries, Yehuda HaNasi combined worldly diplomatic skills with scholarly authority and spiritual leadership.
The rabbi eventually moved east to Zippori because of its more salubrious climate, and there gathered the great Jewish sages of his day and compiled the Mishnah, which remains the definitive interpretation of biblical precepts for religious Jews. Nonetheless, it was in his hometown of Beit She'arim that Yehuda HaNasi was finally laid to rest. If Beit She'arim was a magnet for scholars and petitioners in his lifetime, it became a virtual shrine after his death. With Jerusalem still off-limits, the town became the most prestigious burial site in the Jewish world for almost 150 years.
Two major expeditions in the 1930s and '50s uncovered a vast series of 20 catacombs. The largest of these is open to the public, with 24 chambers containing more than 200 sarcophagi. A wide range of carved Jewish and Roman symbols and more than 250 funerary inscriptions in Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Palmyrene throughout the site testify to the great distances people traveled—from Yemen and Mesopotamia, for instance—to be buried here. Without exception, the sarcophagi were plundered over the centuries by grave robbers seeking the possessions with which the dead were often interred.