The Shfela (Judean Lowlands) in the Roman & Byzantine Periods

After the previous week’s adventures in the north of the country, it was time to travel south into the area known as the Shfela (or the Judean Lowlands), an area of hills that lies between Jerusalem and the coastal plain.

Today’s focus was on three sites: Tel Maresha (also known as Marissa), Beit Guvrin and Horvat Midras, spanning from the Hellenist period (2nd/3rd century BCE) until the Bar Kochba Revolt in the 2nd Century CE.

Our day began at Beit Guvrin National Park, at the upper part of the site, which is actually the ancient remains of Tel Maresha. This was originally a Jewish town in the First Temple Period, and it is still possible to see part of its original wall. Later, in the 2nd/3rd centuries CE, it was settled by Edomites who hailed originally from the area south of the Dead Sea (hence the Edom mountains in Jordan) but over the years they were joined by Phoenicians from Sidon (now in Lebanon) and retired Greek soldiers from the army of Alexander the Great, once he had conquered the region. The dominant culture seems to have been Hellenist, based on architecture that has been found.

Underground columbarium at Tel Maresha
Underground columbarium at Tel Maresha

The vast majority of the city does not remain, however there are a huge amount of underground caves to explore. These originally functioned as quarries but over the years were converted to form columbaria (pigeon coops), olive oil presses, cisterns, storerooms, even hideaways and living quarters. The attention to aesthetic detail is quite remarkable and the caves are extremely impressive. It was also pleasant to be hidden away from the searing summer heat. Our guide had helped excavate the site and it was nice to hear his anecdotes.

There is a still a lot of the site to excavate and for those who are interested in helping out, there is the Dig for a Day programme. We paid a visit to the sites they are currently excavating; I have participated myself on a couple of occasions and it is good fun, particularly as you always find something. Even if it is just a shard of 2000 year old pottery, it is still quite exciting to have discovered it yourself!

Sidonite Burial Cave at Maresha
Sidonite Burial Cave at Maresha

One of the more impressive caves is the Phoenician burial cave. Discovered last century, the beautiful painted scenes and inscriptions have faded away since being exposed to light, so 20 years ago they were restored.

With this we left the Hellenist period of Maresha and moved forward to the Roman settlement in the area. There was a Jewish town from the 2nd temple period called Beit Guvrin which the Romans took over and developed into a major city named Eleutheropolis (City of the Free). We visited the bell caves which were large quarries in the Roman period, and then popped over the motorway to the other section of the national park.

Roman oval amphitheatre at Beit Guvrin
Roman oval amphitheatre at Beit Guvrin

In this second section it is possible to see an oval amphitheatre; until recently considered unique in Israel (the others were circular; converted hippodromes) although they have just discovered one also in Caesarea and are busy excavating it. We wandered through the ruins and also part of what was once a huge bathhouse covering 4000m2.

To conclude our time at the site we visited the Crusader church which was later converted into a Mamluk fortress; the quality of the soil and water sources in the area meant that it was a popular place for continued settlement.

Squeezing through the tunnels used during the Bar Kochba Revolt
Squeezing through the tunnels used during the Bar Kochba Revolt

From Beit Guvrin, we travelled north to Horvat Midras. Here we learned about the guerrilla warfare developed by the Jews involved in the Bar Kochba Revolt against the Romans in the 2nd century. They adapted or dug tunnel systems under towns to hide within; every now and again bursting out to surprise and attack the enemy. The Romans were unused to this and for a time had no way of dealing with it; however they eventually adapted and the Revolt was quashed. There are little remains of the town of Midras, but it is possible to crawl through the tunnels used by those involved in the rebellion; to see their hiding places and to experience a little what it must have been like to hide down there. A warning: not for the claustrophobic; not a good place to take your best new clothes either!

With this experience our day was over; next week we turn to the impact of the Crusaders on Jerusalem.

What do you think?