A UNESCO committee has named an ancient Jewish necropolis outside Haifa, Israel, a World Heritage site, which will afford it special protection.
The Necropolis of Beit She’arim is in an ancient town of the same name, now abandoned. The necropolis or cemetery consists “of a series of catacombs [that] developed from the 2nd century BCE as the primary Jewish burial place outside Jerusalem following the failure of the second Jewish revolt against Roman rule,” says a press release at the UNESCO website. “Located southeast of the city of Haifa, these catacombs are a treasury of artworks and inscriptions in Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew. Beit She’arim bears unique testimony to ancient Judaism under the leadership of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch, who is credited with Jewish renewal after 135 CE.”
The site is in what is now a park in Western Galilee about 20 km (12.4 miles) from Haifa and has many sarcophagi and tombs, some for families, others that served as public burial places. The tombs were cut into the slopes of hills southwest of the town. Some are simple and small, but others are large and elaborate, particularly the public caves. The caves were damaged and looted over the centuries, says the website Jewish Virtual Library.
Walls of the caves and halls are decorated with reliefs, engravings and paintings with Jewish folk art and Greek influences. Depictions include Jewish symbols of the menorah and shofar and others, geometric motifs, humans, animals and architectural features.
Famous rabbis, merchants, town and national officials and community leaders are mentioned in inscriptions engraved and painted on walls and stone plaques. Jews from places far away, including Egypt, Lebanon and Syria, were buried there and their names inscribed.
Most inscriptions are in Greek and Hebrew and a few are in Aramaic. Here are some examples of typical inscriptions, as given at the Jewish Virtual Library:
This is the resting place of Yudan, son of Levi, forever in peace. May his resting place be [set?] in peace. Of Yudan, son of Levi
This place belongs to priests. Alas!
He who is buried here is Shim’on the son of Yohanan, and an oath, whoever shall open upon him shall die of an evil end.
We [are the sons] of Leontios from Palmyra, the banker
The tomb of Aidesios, head of the council of elders, from Antiochia
This is the grave of Leontios, the goldsmith, father of Rabbi Paregorios and Julianos, the palatinos
Benjamin, the son of Julius, the textile merchant, son of the most excellent Makrobios
Parks authority chief archaeologist Zvika Zuk managed the process for nomination for four years. Archaeologist Zvika Gal wrote the nomination.
“This is a moving testimony from our ancestors of which there is almost no other example in the world,” Zuk said. “In a visit to the Beit She’arim necropolis, you can feel the beating heart of the Jewish people.”
Zuk said findings at Beit She-arim have given physical archaeological information to complement historic texts. The catacombs have holy Jewish objects, including dozens of embossments of menorahs.
Other sites added at the early July World Heritage Committee session in Bonn, Germany, include the Bethany Beyond the Jordan (al-Maghtas) baptism site, Maymand and Susa in Iran and 15 other sites in the United States and several Asian and European countries.
The inclusion of Beit She’arim on the list helps position Israel as a hub for both ancient civilizations and world heritage preservation,” the Jerusalem Post reported. “Beit She’arim is the ninth Israeli site to be inscribed on the World Heritage List, joining Masada; the Old City of Acre; the White City of Tel Aviv; the biblical tels of Megiddo, Hatzor, and Beersheba; the incense route of desert cities in the Negev; Baha’i holy places in Haifa and the Western Galilee; the Nahal Me’arot caves in the Carmel; and mostly recently Beit Guvrin National Park.
Featured image: The Cave of the Horseman at Beit She’arim (Photo by Hanay/Wikimedia Commons)
By Mark Miller
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