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

 Bell caves

Until the 1990s, the main attraction of Beit Guvrin was a series of caves whose vaulted heights lift the visitor's spirit as in a cathedral. They were quarries.

Starting perhaps in the late Roman period and continuing through the 10th century, people removed the soft limestone here, burning it to get lime for cement. Yehoshua Ben Arieh, who studied these caves, found heavy use of cement in the former Arab houses of the Shephelah. There was also much use in the ancient coastal cities. For instance, Ashkelon's Roman-Byzantine city wall had a huge amount (Keel, p. 868). By contrast, people on the mountain of Judah preferred to build dry, using well cut stones, as in the mighty retaining walls of Herod's temple-enclosure.

Beit Guvrin Bell CavesThe Beit Guvrin quarriers started from the surface. They dug a meter-wide cylinder through the brittle crust of the nari. It was important to keep this opening small, so that the underlying chalk would not become nari itself – rather, remain soft and moist.
After a yard or two, the quarriers reached it. Here they began chiseling downward and outward, leaving enough of a vault to support the upper surface against collapse. They quarried chunks of 10 – 14 pounds each. These could be transported to the building sites or burned right here. (Beside most of these caves, traces of kilns were found.) The burning of limestone required much wood. No doubt it was a factor in the land's deforestation.

Sometimes the quarriers chiseled a figure or an inscription, which can with luck be discerned today from below. Among the symbols are crosses. As the cave deepened, it took the shape of a bell. When very deep, an alternative entrance would be made from the side.

There are at least 800 of these quarry caves within a two-mile radius of Beit Guvrin, and about 3000 in the Shephelah as a whole.