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

Beit Guvrin/Eleutheropolis

After the destruction of Maresha by the Parthians in 40 BC, this strategic spot – on the crossroads joining Gaza, Ashkelon, Lydda, Hebron, and Jerusalem – was bound to be repopulated. By the 1st century AD, a village named Beit Guvrin had risen less than a mile from the ruin of Maresha, sitting smack on the junction.

Beit Guvrin/Eleutheropolis and its connections

Why the name "Beit Guvrin"? No one can be sure. In Hebrew the words mean Place of Men or Heroes – and this can be extended to Giants. Perhaps the tremendous height of the many abandoned caves suggested that giants had once lived in them.

The Shephelah played a major role in the Bar Kokhba revolt. After quelling it, Hadrian probably stationed a legion here. Indirect evidence is the amphitheater, built on the northwest fringe of the city in the 2nd century AD. The amphitheater at Beit GuvrinAmphitheaters were intended for the bloodiest spectacles. In the Roman provinces, we find them only at places where the army was stationed. After the revolts against Rome in this land, they appeared at Scythopolis, Neapolis, Caesarea Maritima and here. The first three were adapted from hippodromes. Only the one at Beit Guvrin was originally built as an amphitheater. It is the best example in the country.

The closest survival in today's world is the bull ring, but even that is a step removed, because the ancient audience entered the amphitheater knowing that they were about to watch human beings die violent deaths. In a famous passage from his Confessions (VI 8), Augustine describes what happened to a friend who went to Rome:

"He, not relinquishing that worldly way which his parents had bewitched him to pursue, had gone before me to Rome, to study law, and there he was carried away in an extraordinary manner with an incredible eagerness after the gladiatorial shows. For, being utterly opposed to and detesting such spectacles, he was one day met by chance by various of his acquaintance and fellow-students returning from dinner, and they with a friendly violence drew him, vehemently objecting and resisting, into the amphitheatre, on a day of these cruel and deadly shows, he thus protesting: Though you drag my body to that place, and there place me, can you force me to give my mind and lend my eyes to these shows? Thus shall I be absent while present, and so shall overcome both you and them. They hearing this, dragged him on nevertheless, desirous, perchance, to see whether he could do as he said. When they had arrived thither, and had taken their places as they could, the whole place became excited with the inhuman sports. But he, shutting up the doors of his eyes, forbade his mind to roam abroad after such naughtiness; and would that he had shut his ears also! For, upon the fall of one in the fight, a mighty cry from the whole audience stirring him strongly, he, overcome by curiosity, and prepared as it were to despise and rise superior to it, no matter what it were, opened his eyes, and was struck with a deeper wound in his soul than the other, whom he desired to see, was in his body; and he fell more miserably than he on whose fall that mighty clamour was raised, which entered through his ears, and unlocked his eyes, to make way for the striking and beating down of his soul, which was bold rather than valiant hitherto; and so much the weaker in that it presumed on itself, which ought to have depended on You. For, directly he saw that blood, he therewith imbibed a sort of savageness; nor did he turn away, but fixed his eye, drinking in madness unconsciously, and was delighted with the guilty contest, and drunken with the bloody pastime. Nor was he now the same he came in, but was one of the throng he came unto, and a true companion of those who had brought him thither. Why need I say more? He looked, shouted, was excited, carried away with him the madness which would stimulate him to return, not only with those who first enticed him, but also before them, yea, and to draw in others." (Translated by J.G. Pilkington.)

Beit Guvrin: Arena of the amphitheater

Such spectacles aroused the sex drive. Prostitutes waited outside the arena to make another kind of killing.

When the show was over, the crowds streamed out through gates called vomitaria, so named because they appeared to be puking the people out. There were up to 14 rows of seats, the lowest just above the reach of the leaping lion. Underground tunnels led to a hole in the center of the arena (see the last two pictures above) – perhaps the beasts emerged into light there. Beneath the bleachers is a hall where the gladiators waited their turns. For a chilling reconstruction of a moment beneath the stands, see Livia's speech to the gladiators in the TV series I Claudius, based on Robert Graves' historical novel of that name.

Beit Guvrin: Beneath the amphitheater
In 200 AD, the Roman emperor Septimius Severus made a journey through the land, distributing gifts to his hosts in the form of new rights and privileges. On Beit Guvrin he conferred the ius italicum, renaming it Eleutheropolis, "city of freedom" or "city of free men." Eleutheropolis had more territory under its jurisdiction than any other city in the land. It was bigger than Jerusalem. A 4th-century historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, numbers it among the country's "Five Cities of Excellence."  

The built-up urban area amounted to 163 acres. So large a town required much water. The Shephelah gets 17 inches of rain per year, but the rock surface (nari,) prevents percolation, so springs are scarce. Most of the Hellenistic cisterns were probably out of use, although the inhabitants dug new ones. In addition there was the typical Roman solution: aqueducts. Eleutheropolis had at least two. A duct 15 miles long came from the vicinity of Hebron. A second, not 2 miles long, came from Tel Goded (Moresheth Gath). Near it is a well, though it is lower than the duct. The operators may have used a kind of wheel, like a small Ferris wheel with buckets attached, each of which in its turn lifted water from the well and poured it into the duct. 

Only a small northern extension of the Roman city has been excavated, including the amphitheater and a bathhouse. The large hill south of the modern road contains the ruins of Eleutheropolis. Looking at Scythopolis or Gerasa, one can imagine what splendor may be waiting here.

In the 8th book of his Church History, Eusebius records the names of Christian martyrs – "our Savior's athletes" – including three from the Shephelah. One was Zebinas of Eleutheropolis. Around 310 AD, when Emperor Maximinus renewed the decrees against Christians, Zebinas stepped forward with two co-believers and boldly preached to the Roman governor of Palaestina, who was in the act of making a pagan sacrifice. The governor had them executed.

By 325 AD,  Christianity was legal, and Eleutheropolis had become a bishopric, represented at the Council at Nicaea. We know from the Talmud that there was also a Jewish community here, including scholars. 

Its position on the Gaza-Jerusalem road ensured the city's survival through the ages. After the Arab conquest (636-640 AD), the inhabitants reverted to a version of the name Beit Guvrin: Beit Jibrin. Its quarries, known as the Bell Caves, were then at the height of production, no doubt enriching the area. The head of the conquering Rashid army chose to live in Beit Jibrin. Christian influence must have remained strong, however, for in 796 an anti-Christian Bedouin group destroyed the town.  

It recovered. Two centuries later, we have this description from the Muslim geographer, al-Muqaddasi:

"[Beit Jibrin] is a city partly in the hill country, partly in the plain. …[T]here are here marble [sic] quarries. The district sends its produce to the capital [Ramla]. It is an emporium for the neighbouring country, and a land of riches and plenty, possessing fine domains. The population, however, is now on the decrease and impotence possesses the men."
Despite the Crusader conquest in 1099, the Muslims managed to hold Ashkelon, from which they made attacks on the Shephelah. In order to check them, the Crusaders circled that city with a ring of castles , starting with Beit Jibrin (which they thought was Beersheba). They dug the southern moat where the modern road is (and where a major east-west road of Eleutheropolis had run). The fort was finished in 1136. In 1153 a triapsidal church was built up against it. Three restored arches of the church's north end catch the eye as one enters the site.

Beit Jibrin in 1859In 1153 Ashkelon fell to the Crusaders. The strategic value of Beit Jibrin declined. Nevertheless, writes Benvenisti (p. 186), "it continued to be an important crossroads where, according to a Moslem traveler of the time, taxes were levied on passing caravans."

During the War of 1948, Palestinian refugees from Jaffa took shelter in the bell caves. Six months later, in October, the town's strategic position attracted the attention of Israel's army. The Jaffan refugees moved again, this time toward Hebron, joined by Beit Jibrin's 2000 villagers. Kibbutz Beit Guvrin arose near the  site in 1949.

A house of Beit Jibrin