Israel has ten World Heritage sites – and on my first trip a few years ago, I visited nine of them. The tenth – Bet Guvrin-Maresha National Park, inscribed on the list for its fairly unique conglomeration of distinct-purpose cave complexes – was on the itinerary back then as well, but on the day I approached its gates there was a missile activity from Gaza, which necessitated the closure of a number of national parks.
This time around, I was able to add the missing site to my visited roster, albeit in an abbreviated fashion. Here are some pictures from the visit.
The Bell Caves are an awesome sight. These are quarries from the Byzantine period. Their builders dug out a narrow, round opening in the caliche deposit, and then quarried down, widening the pit more and more, resulting in a bell-like shape. Some caves reach a height of twenty-five meters. There are several dozen such bell pits in total in the complex. Their walls in many places broke down in later times, creating a network of hollow spaces with eye-catching rock formations.
In places, the patterns of rock strata look like prehistoric paintings.
Another area of the park is home to Sidonian Burial Caves, carved out by Phoenicians over 2,500 years ago. The Apollophanes Cave is a true visual delight, full of inscriptions and animal drawings.
Yet other areas offer various kinds of caves, the most prominent of which are columbariums. The short nature of our visit meant that I only had time to enter one of those.
There are also ruins of a church that may have been the largest church in the world at some point early in the Byzantine period.
This is basically all in terms of photography. I am including a bit of an explanation as to why this visit was shorter than expected for those inclined to read on.
Long story short, my World Heritage chase was not at the forefront of this trip’s itinerary. Bet Guvrin was identified as a target, but very loosely at that. As we adjusted our plans based on the collective family sentiments, one afternoon offered an opportunity. I knew that the park likely required no less than 3 hours to see properly, but paring it down to just the main highlights looked like a reasonable bid to stay within the space of an hour and a half, a threshold that in my experience should not be exceeded when visiting something as a group with varying degrees of enthusiasm among the participants. What I failed to consider is that it could **not** be an hour and a half right before the closure.
The main sightseeing clusters at Bet Guvrin-Maresha National Park are connected by a circuit road that happens to run one way for a significant part. A full hour before the park closes, the gates to the initial stretch of the road are locked. You may be inside the park, but you can no longer navigate the full circuit in a car. You can instead use walking trails to get around but at that point there is no time to cover sufficient ground on foot.
The Bell Caves and the Apollophanes Cave are in the “later” parts of the circuit. I had them as must-sees during preparations, so we went to those areas first. And then, when I thought we still had about 45 minutes to check out at least one another area, we were faced with a literal roadblock, unable to drive there. We did walk up one trail for about 15 minutes, which allowed me to see that one single columbarium and enjoy a few panoramic views. And that was it.
Furthermore, there is a separate area of the park across the road that includes a Roman amphitheater and a couple of Crusader sites. It wouldn’t be part of this visit anyway, but it basically stops allowing people to get in at the same time as the circuit road gets blocked for the night, at 4 pm, a full hour before the official park closure.
My fairly permissive rules for counting WH sites allow me to mark Bet Guvrin as visited, on the strength of making the effort and actually seeing some of it. But it clearly requires that I come back for a better look in the future.