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

Burial caves

The Egyptian connection went beyond olive oil to the grave. Sixty underground tomb complexes, all from the 3d and 2d centuries BC, have been found around the lower city of Maresha. The most striking of these lies just southeast of the tell. It contains forms and motifs that seem transplanted from Hellenistic tombs in Alexandria. Over one of its chambers, the British archaeologists found the following inscription (now vanished):

"Apollophanes, son of Sesmaios, who headed the Sidonians at Maresha for 33 years. He was treasured as the best and as one who loved his kindred exceedingly. He died after living 74 years."

This inscription, by the way, is a rare piece of direct evidence that the city was Maresha. For the name has not been preserved in that of the tell, which was called by the local Arab population Sand'hanneh.

From the words about Apollophanes, it seems the cave served descendants of the Sidonian colony. Its 30 inscriptions and 5 graffiti indicate that the fathers generally bore Semitic names, as did the Phoenicians of Sidon, but they gave Greek names to their sons. Some of these Sidonian descendants, however, had Idumean (Edomite) names, indicating assimilation to the main part of Maresha's population.

Shortly after the tombs of Maresha were discovered in 1902, iconoclasts from the nearby village of Beit Jibrin eradicated the faces of any human images they saw. The archaeologists rushed back and made copies of all that remained. These became the basis for the reconstruction, on metal sheets attached to the rock, that we see today in the middle chamber of the Sidonian tomb.

On the right door jamb, as we enter, is Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guarded the entrance to the Greek underworld. In the middle chamber are seven gabled openings, loculi, on either side. (The whole cave has 41 of these.) The corpse was laid in a loculus, and this was sealed. When all loculi were filled and a new death occurred in the extended family, a loculus was opened (preferably one that had been sealed for at least a year) and the bones were removed to another loculus, which served as a repository for many.

The evidence is for burial, not cremation, but at the far end of the tomb, flanking the entrance into the more elite chambers, are two amphorae such as the Greeks had long used for the ashes of the dead. Thus the Greek influence came through, despite the difference in custom. Its immediate source was Alexandria, whose architecture inspired the same motifs on the tombs of Petra during this period – see, for a supreme instance, the "Treasury" there.
 Sidonian tomb: detail

In this middle chamber, above the gables of the loculi, are pictures of animals, including (on the right as you enter) a leopard, a lion, a snake, a giraffe (designated here as a camel-panther), a wild boar, a griffin (legendary), an oryx, a rhinoceros, an elephant, and a figure representing Africa. In the northwest corner are two fishes, one with an elephant trunk while the other has a large head with a snout like a rhinoceros. More animals follow. "The animal frieze," writes Kloner, "is undoubtedly influenced by the Ptolemaic menagerie drawings, which are known to have existed in Alexandria in the Hellenistic period. Under Aristotle's influence, there was much popular interest in the natural sciences at that time. From descriptions of the menagerie of Ptolemaeus II…we know that it included lions, leopards, other felines, rodents, buffaloes from India and Africa, a wild ass from Moab, large snakes, a giraffe, a rhinoceros, and various birds – these are in fact some of the very animals represented at Marisa. … The fishes with elephant face and rhinoceros face are taken from the legends based on the belief of Greek scholars that an exact correspondence existed between land and marine animals. …The animal frieze at Mareshah is a unique document of its kind in the Hellenistic world. Only Roman mosaics show influences from the Hellenistic-Egyptian sources from which the artist at Marisa drew his inspiration."

Images of animals in Sidonian cave 

The Sidonian cave is famous for one particular graffito. Found on the right of the entrance to the middle chamber, it seems to be a note left by someone making an illicit appointment. One possible translation goes as follows: "I can neither suffer anything for you nor give you any pleasure. I lie with another, although I love you. But truly, by Aphrodite, I am exceedingly glad that your cloak lies as security. Don't knock on the wall. That makes noise. Rather [give a sign] through the door with a nod. Arranged!"

A few yards south we can visit another burial cave, called the Tomb of the Musicians: it includes a male flautist and female harpist descending a slope – apparently to the realm of the dead.