Maresha/ Beit Guvrin PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
Article Index
Maresha/ Beit Guvrin
"Market" cave
Olive cave
Burial caves
Beit Guvrin
Bell Caves

Maresha's history

We have been standing on Tell Maresha (related to rosh, Hebrew for "head"), taking in the view, but except for the northwest corner, we see not a trace of archaeology around us. In fact the entire surface of the mound was exposed by British archaeologists in 1900, but their arrangement with the owner required that they re-cover it with soil.

The British found two Hellenistic strata from the 4th to the 1st centuries BC and, beneath them, remains of a city from the time of Judah, (Iron Age II ). Amos Kloner, excavating the towers in the northwest corner in 1989 and 1991, also found items – but no structures – from the Persian period (538-332 BC). There have been no Canaanite finds. Unlike neighboring Moresheth-Gath, which had had a small Canaanite settlement, Maresha was just a bare hill until the Judahites built a city here as part of their western defensive belt around Jerusalem – an action attributed to Rehoboam son of Solomon.

Asa, Rehoboam's grandson, is also said to have fortified the cities of Judah. 2 Chronicles (14: 9-12) reports a battle he fought near Maresha:

There came out against them Zerah the Ethiopian with an army of a million troops, and three hundred chariots; and he came to Mareshah. Then Asa went out to meet him, and they set the battle in array in the valley of Zephathah at Mareshah. Asa cried to Yahweh his God, and said, “Yahweh, there is none besides you to help, between the mighty and him who has no strength. Help us, Yahweh our God; for we rely on you, and in your name are we come against this multitude. Yahweh, you are our God. Don’t let man prevail against you.” So Yahweh struck the Ethiopians before Asa, and before Judah; and the Ethiopians fled.

In 701, however, when the Assyrian swooped down, no miracle saved Maresha. We can be confident it was part of Hezekiah's revolt, because the British archaeologists found a likely sign of preparation: 17 seal impressions on jar handles with the words "For the King" (la-melekh; some 37 were also found at Moresheth-Gath).

Maresha was surely among the 46 cities that Sennacherib boasted of taking. He would have deported the captives whom he let live. We have no indication whether King Josiah built it up again, as he did (in part) Lachish. In any event, when the Babylonians attacked Judah from the north in the early 6th century BC, the southern part of the country, from Adoraim near Hebron to Maresha and beyond, fell to the Edomites, who had long sought an opportunity.
The reaction of Jerusalem to this opportunism is reflected at the end of Psalm 137.

The Sidonian burial cave at MareshaAfter Alexander the Great's conquests in 332, a colony of Phoenicians from Sidon – then allied to the Greeks – settled here beside the Idumeans (Edomites).

The Idumean-Sidonian town must have been very small, for the next city here, after the Judean one, was Hellenistic. It was built in blocks ("insulae") with streets at right angles to each other (the Hippodamic system). This was the pattern not only on the 6-acre tell (now the acropolis), but also around it for 80 acres.

Compare Lachish, once the master of the southern Shephelah. In the Hellenistic period, Lachish had a temple but no city. Maresha was now the major urban center on the southern route between the Great Trunk Road and the mountain. Zenon, for instance, reported on a journey through Idumea in 259 BC, during which he bought slaves at Maresha.

In quarrying to build their houses, the Mareshans dug caves. These are what make the site breathtaking, and we shall treat them separately.
Pottery from Maresha

The main population was still Idumean in 113 BC when John Hyrcanus, a Hasmonean, conquered Idumea for the Jewish state. "In many parts of the excavation," writes Kloner, "it became clear that the lower city and its installations were damaged in the second half of the second century BCE. The lower city was apparently overcome by some major calamity and never resettled, except for a few caves. Later finds were extremely rare. Neither could any of the dozens of amphorae and Rhodian jar handles be dated any later." The calamity was almost certainly the work of John Hyrcanus.

Buried in the floor of a house, for instance, the excavators found a jug containing 25 silver coins, the latest of which was dated to the year 200 of the Seleucid era, that is, 113/112 BC. These were valuable, but their owner had been in no condition to retrieve them. The first floor of the house itself has been partly reconstructed (the rubble of a second was found in the ruins). From its courtyard, a staircase led down to caves that served as cisterns. The house and its caves can be visited.  

Hyrcanus gave the Idumeans a choice: convert to Judaism or be gone! (Among those accepting conversion was the paternal grandfather of Herod the Great.) Since the Idumeans already practiced circumcision, their conversion may not have been very difficult. Nevertheless, inscriptions show that precisely at this time Idumean names became plentiful in Egypt.

When Pompey took the land for Rome in 63 BC, he tore the formerly Greek cities, including Maresha, away from Jewish sovereignty. A few years later Gabinius, proconsul of Syria, rebuilt them, but the new Maresha never spread beyond the tell.

The whole of Idumea was shifted to the hands of Herod in 40 BC. That was the year when his enemy, the Parthians, temporarily got the upper hand. After looting Jerusalem, they swept down into the Shephelah and wiped Maresha off the map. No other city was so diligently destroyed, raising the possibility that it had a special importance for Herod (his birthplace?).   

The location was too crucial to remain abandoned. Soon a new town sprang up nearby. This was Beit Guvrin, destined to become one of the land's six "excellent" cities. We shall treat it separately.