Beit She’arāyim (“House of Two Gates”) was an ancient Roman-era Jewish village established at the top of a chalk hill toward the end of the first century BCE. Built during the reign of King Herod, it is located twenty kilometers east of Haifa, Israel.
Early on, the residents of the village dug into the base of the chalk hill, to create burial chambers. The soft chalk made digging and carving relatively easy. The dry environment was also ideal for preservation.
A number of notable individuals were buried beneath the hill, including Rabbi Judah the Prince, a beloved leader and compiler of the major written collection of Jewish oral traditions, known as the Mishnah. He is reported to have lived sometime between 217 and 135 CE. Other notables of the time and centuries thereafter were also buried in temples carved into the hill. When the Mount of Olives was closed to Jewish burials in 135 CE, Beit She’arāyim became a preferred alternative made desirable because of the proximity to Rabbi Judah’s shrine.
Not all were buried at the base of the hill, however. Perhaps the cost was too high. Perhaps the area was simply too active with other burials and some could not be delayed. Chalk mounds existed around the base of the hill, providing other possibilities.
Today, the area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known as Beit She’arim National Park. Excavation of the site began in 1936. Over time catacombs, mausoleums and sarcophagi adorned with ornate symbols and figures, some even painted, have been revealed. Inscriptions written in Hebrew, Aramaic, Palmyrene and Greek attest to the lives of those who were long-ago buried within. Some temples and burial chambers are opened for public viewing, but not all.
Within walking distance but closed off to the general public are other chambers. Chambers that are difficult to reach because the openings are small – so small that not every adult will fit through them. Those who do fit through the cavity must be able to do so on hands and knees or waddling like a duck. Once inside, however, the ceilings are high enough to stand.
In one such cave, known as the “Cave of the Warrior and his Menorah”, the sarcophagus of a Roman soldier is carved to illustrate his devotion. On the carving’s head is a seven-candle menorah. On the inner wall of the sarcophagus is the carving of a large clam shell, possibly suggesting time spent at sea. Remnants of red paint suggest that the carvings were originally stained and that, perhaps a mural may have adorned the external base. The carving of the menorah resting on the soldier’s head suggests that he was born a Jew and that he became a soldier of Rome. Perhaps he joined willingly, or perhaps he was forced – one might only speculate. Yet, despite his journey in the service of Rome, he wished all to know that he was not tempted by the beliefs of his fellow soldiers. Instead, he remained true to his Jewish faith.
Beit She’arim National Park is a beautiful testament to the ancient Jewish culture, and the burial sites carved into chalk walls, but, the most outstanding revelations are those found in the restricted areas, with stories not commonly told.
*All photos by Jerena Tobiasen, November 23, 2019