Beit She’arim was founded at the end of the 1st century BCE, during the reign of King Herod, and reached the height of its prosperity in the Roman period. The town suffered greatly during the repression of the Jewish rebellion in 351 against Gallus Ceasar (the ruler of the Orient under the Emperor Constantius II) and then declined; it was abandoned during the Early Arab period (7th century).
The town in southern Galilee was first mentioned by Josephus Flavius (Life 118-119) as Besara, the administrative center of the estates of Queen Berenice in the Jezreel Valley in the 2nd century. The locality became known as Beit She’arim, and a rabbinical academy was established there. Later in the same century the town gained fame when the Sanhedrin (Jewish legislature and supreme council after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE) was moved to Beit She’arim and Rabbi Judah Hanasi took up residence there. The revered Rabbi is especially known as the redactor of the Mishnah (collection of oral laws) and though he died in Zippori, he was buried in Beit She’arim. In the 3rd and 4th centuries, many Jews, both in the Land of Israel and in the Diaspora, were buried in Beit She’arim, and its cemetery became a necropolis.
During ten seasons of excavation conducted in the 1930s and 1950s in the urban area of Beit She’arim and in its cemetery, many finds confirmed the identity of the site and the town’s centrality in Jewish history, as recorded in written sources.
Beit She’arim was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2015, becoming the ninth Israeli cultural monument to be added to the list. Israel’s other UNESCO World Heritage Sites include Masada, the Old City of Acre, Tel Avivs White City (Bauhaus buildings), the Spice Route, the Biblical tells (Megiddo, Hazor and Be’er Sheva), the Bahai Gardens in Haifa, the Nahal Me’arot nature reserve and the Beit Guvrin National Park.
Beit She’arim was built on the top and on the southern slopes of a hill; in the Roman period it covered an area of about 25 acres. Remains of a number of large and very well-built public buildings were uncovered. Worthy of mention are the basilica with a 40 x 14 m. hall, divided by two rows of columns, which served as a meeting place for the discussion of secular matters; and the ancient synagogue measuring 35 x 15 m. next to it.
The prayer hall of the synagogue, with two rows of columns along its sides and an elevated podium at the back, was entered from the south (the direction of Jerusalem). The interior walls were plastered and painted; some dedications to public office holders were found on the plaster.
The large cemetery of Beit She’arim contained many tombs and catacombs, some of them family tombs, others public burial places. Hewn into the slopes of the hills southwest of the town, some tombs are small and simple, but many became, in time, complex networks of catacombs. It would appear that the cutting of burial caves was an important part of the town’s economy. Over the centuries, the caves were broken into, damaged and their contents robbed.
The public caves are particularly large and elaborate, with entrances via large courtyards. Their decorative stone façades are in Roman architectural style. The entrances have three openings with heavy pivoting stone doors, carved in imitation of wooden doors with panels and nails. From the entrance, one descends several steps to the burial cave, which consists of a central hallway and a network of halls, at times two stories high. One of the catacombs consists of 16 burial halls with 400 assorted burial places, including troughs, pit graves, arcosolia and loculi. Sarcophagi made of local limestone or marble and a few of clay or lead, were found in the caves. There was also evidence of burial in wooden coffins, of which only the metal parts survived.
The walls of the halls were decorated with carvings, paintings and engravings, providing examples of Jewish folk art of the period, and also Hellenistic influences. Obvious Jewish symbols are the seven-branched menorah (candelabrum), the Torah Ark (sometimes in a niche), the lulav (palm frond), etrog (citron), shofar (ram’s horn) and incense shovel. There are also geometric motifs, figures of humans and animals, ships and architectural items, such as an arched gateway or a column with a capital.
Many inscriptions engraved or painted on the walls and on stone plaques mention famous rabbis, community leaders, merchants and officials of the town and the country. Of particular interest are inscriptions naming distant Jewish communities in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Babylonia and even in southern Arabia, from where the remains were brought for burial.
Most of the inscriptions are in Hebrew and Greek, with a few in Aramaic. The text is usually short: the name of the deceased and shalom (peace) or haval (alas!). The longer inscriptions provide information about the deceased, such as genealogy, occupation and place of origin abroad.
Typical Hebrew inscriptions:
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!
A typical Aramaic inscription:
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
Typical Greek inscriptions:
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
Two elaborate burial complexes found on the northern slope of the town are particularly noteworthy. Semi-circular structures in the form of small theaters with benches, built above the caves, probably served as places for prayer and sermons when families and friends met on memorial days.
Cave complex No.14 probably belonged to the family of Rabbi Judah Hanasi. Hebrew inscriptions mentioning Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Gamliel and Rabbi Hanania, the sons and student of Rabbi Judah Hanasi, were found on the walls:
Simon my son shall be hakham (president of the Sanhedrin), Gamaliel my son patriarch, Hanania bar Hama shall preside over the great court
The most important burial complex (No. 20) has a central corridor, about 50 m. long, from which numerous halls branch off. Some 130 limestone sarcophagi decorated in a local version of Roman mortuary style were found here, as well as marble sarcophagi decorated with mythological scenes, which had been broken and used for the manufacture of lime in later periods. Most of the decorations on these sarcophagi are foreign – bulls’ heads, eagles, two lions facing each other – but there are also Jewish symbols, such as the menorah. Some 20 Hebrew inscriptions were found on the walls of the cave and on sarcophagi, in which rabbis and famous persons and members of their families are mentioned:
This is the coffin of Rabbi Hillel [Halil], the son of Rabbi Levi, who made this cave
This is the coffin of Kyra Mega, the wife of Rabbi Joshua, son of Levi, Shalom