Travelers to Israel can discover ancient civilization

Descend into the caves of the former civilization at Maresha, and the adventure begins.

Of all the country's national parks, none offers such all-around and all-year accessibility and convenience as Tel Maresha/Beit Guvrin.

Located 45 minutes' drive southeast of Tel Aviv and west of Jerusalem, the site provides diversion for all ages. They're cool and shady in summer and warm in winter.

Until a few years ago, the area's main attraction was the cavernous Bell Caves at Beit Guvrin. The abandoned quarries of Beit Guvrin are pleasant enough, but try the recently expanded neighboring Tel Maresha for its mysterious caves. Entrance fee includes a visit to abandoned quarries of Beit Guvrin and the extensive subterranean caves of Tel Maresha.

Above ground, Tel Maresha looks like an archeological excavation site of little interest to the general public. But once you descend into the caves, the adventure begins.

Former citizens of Maresha took advantage of the soft stone to dig underground water cisterns and work spaces beneath their homes. Though destroyed in ensuing wars over the centuries, these ancient caves are slowly being uncovered.

Today the excavations advance under the care and devotion of Amos Kloner of the Antiquities Authority. Kloner supervises two other archeologists, three restorers and about 50 other workers on site.

Together, Maresha and Beit Guvrin encompass a rich continuous history of the Land of Israel from the Israelite conquest to today.

Maresha is mentioned eight times in the Bible, beginning with the book of Joshua, where it is described as one of the cities in the tribal allocation of Judah. After that it was reincarnated several times over, depending on the reigning authority.

Alexander the Great's conquest of Judea in 332 BCE brought Greek culture to the region, and Maresha grew. Residents took advantage of the naturally soft limestone to quarry water cisterns, olive presses and columbaria (pigeon coops) beneath their homes. Some 20 olive presses, which produced an estimated annual yield of 270 tons of olive oil, have been uncovered.

Maresha developed as a diverse town with Sidonians, Greeks, Jews and Egyptians arriving and settling there. This pluralism ended during the Hasmonean reign of John Hyrcanus I in 113 BCE when he destroyed much of the city. The town was finally dessimated by the Parthians in 40 BCE. The major metropolis of the region moved across the road to Beit Guvrin.

In 200 CE the Roman emperor Septimus Severus changed its name to Eleutheropolis (city of the free). He allowed residents to mint their own coins, built a large ampitheater and provided them with ample land holdings from Ein Gedi to Gadara.

Though the Talmud refers to the site as "the city of the free," the Mishna calls it "the city of the cave dwellers." After visiting the site, you'll understand why.

One of the more interesting finds discovered in the caves in 1994 was an ostracon of a marriage contract dating to 176 BCE, making it the oldest one found in Israel.

If you visit only one site at Tel Maresha, make it the Columbarium Cave, where you descend into a tremendous cross-shaped columbarium. At its height, the columbarium was home to more than 2,000 pigeons used extensively for food, ritual sacrifice, communication and fertilizer. So far more than 60 columbaria have been found in the Maresha region.

Also see the reconstructed olive-oil press. Olive-oil manufacturing has historically been a crucial part of the economy in most of the Land of Israel, but very few places allow us to see how the process worked. Here at Maresha, the National Parks Authority did an excellent job reconstructing the whole procedure.

In a large, reconstructed home, a narrow staircase leads down into a series of cisterns and baths. The most recent section to be opened to the public is the Sidonian burial caves, complete with elaborate pictures adorning the interior.

Unfortunately, the images raised more than an eyebrow for the local iman (leader) of the Arab village of Beit Jibrin. He sent in his disciples to deface the human and animal figures in the caves. But a few archeologists learned of this and copied down what remained.

The site was finally excavated and the defaced figures restored to their original splendor. However, history repeated itself in 1991. As the site was being prepared for the public, a group from the extremist Keshet movement defaced it with swastikas, contending that the archeologists were disturbing Jewish graves.

After exploring Tel Maresha and the Bell Caves of Beit Guvrin, take a peek at work in progress on the ampitheater of Beit Guvrin. It was used for gladiator and animal fights, mainly to entertain the Roman garrison stationed in the area.

One price entitles you entrance to both Tel Maresha and Beit Guvrin plus a clear and informative brochure that allows you to take a leisurely self-guided tour.