Beit Gurvin National Park is one of 10 UNESCO World Heritage sites in Israel. It’s also one of the newest, earning that distinction in 2014. One of Beit Gurvin’s nicknames is the “Land of a Thousand Caves.” While there are about 800 caves in the general area, roughly 80 of them are actually in the park. The park also contains the ruins of the Church of St. Anne, and a Roman amphitheater where gladiators fought for the entertainment of the Roman troops.
Beit Gurvin Bell Caves
The Bell Caves are what drew me to Beit Gurvin. All of the caves were hand carved over the course of several centuries. Many of the caves in the park are connected by underground tunnels, which I did not get to explore.
Creating these huge caves was not complex, but it did require a lot of (probably literally) back breaking labor. Initially, a small hole (less than a meter in diameter) was drilled into the ground, cutting though about 3 meters of limestone (known locally as “nari”). Once they reached the soft chalk below the nari, the hole was widened to better allow for excavating the chalk. The workers would chisel downwards at a 45 degree angle, giving the caves their distinctive shape. They would chisel out pieces of chalk about 30cm in diameter and use rope to pull them to the surface.
Archeological digs have been going on at Beit Gurvin since the early 1900’s and the site has been open to the general public for all of that time. From 1988 to 2002 Israel initiated a huge project to improve access to the park. With the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s, a lot of Russians immigrated to Israel. This provided Israel with the labor needed to renovate the park. The workers installed walking paths, picnic areas, bathrooms, roads and a myriad of other modern facilities to accommodate the parks 200,000 annual visitors.
A columbarium is a place for the respectful and usually public storage of cinerary urns (i.e., urns holding a deceased’s cremated remains). The term comes from the Latin columba (dove) and originally referred to compartmentalized housing for doves and pigeons called a dovecote.Wikipedia
When it comes to Columbariums in Beit Gurvin, we are talking about the old school dove and pigeon definition. There have to be several thousand pigeon holes throughout Beit Gurvin. There are several large holes drilled into the rock that would allow the birds to enter and exit the columbariums as they pleased.
Most of the columbariums that we crawled through had high ceilings, level floors and were well lit. Going from one columbarium to another was something of a challenge though. I’m just shy of 2 meters tall and on a couple of occasions the entrance to another cave was barely a meter high slightly narrower than my shoulders. All of my friends though it was very entertaining to watch me crawl through these holes on my hands and knees. Through a combination of low light, speed and luck, there are no pictures of me trying to squeeze through a hole a size too small for me.
On the Surface
If crawling around caves and possible monster lairs is not your thing, have no fear. There is plenty to see without going spelunking. Olive presses are on display, the landscape in and around the park is beautiful, and there is a lay down area where they put a lot of old stonework.
The Romans were pretty much everywhere in the Old World and they left their mark. On the northwestern edge of Beit Gurvin, lies the remains of a Roman amphitheater. The amphitheater also included underground galleries but unfortunately, those were closed to the public.
The amphitheater was originally built in the second century CE. It saw about a century of continuous use until it was destroyed by the Galilee earthquake of 363. It was re-discovered in the mid 1990’s and has sense been rebuilt.
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