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Beit Guvrin (Tel Maresha)

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Highlights of  Beit Guvrin (Tel Maresha)


Maresha is located in the Judean lowlands (Shefelat Yehuda) approximately 30 km southeast of the modern town of Ashkelon and approximately 40 km southwest of Jerusalem (Map reference 140.110). The consensus of scholarly opinion agrees that it should be identified with Tell Sandahanna. This is predicated on references in the Biblical text, Josephus and Eusebius. Biblical references include Maresha among the Judean cities in Joshua 15:44 along with Keilah and Achziv. It is included in the list of cities fortified by Rehoboam (2 Chron. II: 7-9) following Adullam , Gath and along with Adoriam, Ziph and Lachish. It is mentioned again with Lachish, Adullam, Achziv and Moreshet-Gath (Micah 1:13-15). Josephus (Antiquities VIII, 246) repeats the list, with Maresha located in the vicinity of the towns in the Judean lowlands. Eusebius (Onomosticon 130:10) corroborates this, mentioning that the town was 2 miles from Beit Guvrin.

The excavations have shown that there was a distinct presence at Maresha (Bliss and Macalister 1902:58; Kloner 2003:5) only from the beginning of Iron Age II, meaning from the eight to sixth century BCE. During the late seventh and early sixth centuries BCE the kingdom of Judah had been weakened by the conquering Babylonians. It appears that at this time there was an incursion by Edomites from the south into this region, to such an extent that they became the dominant ethnos; a fact that is possibly reflected in the name of the region which became known as Idumaea (Greek for Edom). This phenomenon is reflected in the large number of ostraca which contain Idumaean names. With the Persian conquest in 539 BCE Maresha became an important center and also the capital of Idumaea. Excavations in the upper city revealed walls from both the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. In the fourth century BCE Phoenicians from Sidon settled here, probably introducing Hellenistic culture.

Following the death of Alexander the Great (323 BCE), the region became a battleground between the Ptolemaic and Seleucid Empires. The Ptolomies dominated Maresha in the third century BCE when it became the central city of the region and much of Maresha's olive oil was exported to Egypt at this time. The site is mentioned in a number of the Zenon papyri (P. Cairo 59006,59015, 58537) dated to ca. 259 BCE testifying to the intensive commercial ties between Maresha and the Ptolomies. It was the seat of various government officials and remained in Ptolemaic hands until the Seleucids defeated the Ptolomies at the Battle of Paneas in 198 BCE at which point the city came under Seleucid control.

According to the I Macc. 5:66 Maresha was used by the Seleucids as a base from which to launch attacks on Judea and therefore became subject to retaliation from the Maccabees (2Macc.12:35). According to Josephus (Antiquities XIII, 257), during the reign of the Hasmonean king John Hyrcanus I (137-104 BCE), Maresha along with the rest of Idumaea, was conquered and the inhabitants given the option of conversion to Judaism (circumcision and forced to "...make use of the laws of the Jews...") if they wished to remain in the country. Destruction levels in the recent excavations as well as those carried out by Bliss and Macalister in 1900 testify to the destruction of the city in 112/111 BCE. It should be noted that the grandparents of Herod the Great were among those who remained in Maresha.

While it is probable that after the conquest by John Hyrcanus I , the Hasmoneans continued to rule the city (Josephus, Antiquities XIII, 396) it appears, at least from the archaeological evidence, to have been a limited presence. The 25 Hyrcanus I coins discovered on the tell during the 1900 excavations (Kloner 2003:6) represent the latest coins found in a stratigraphic context there. This is probably the final occupation of Maresha and suggests that no more than a relatively small force remained in the upper city, possibly in order to prevent the return of a civilian population (Kloner 1991).

While according to Josephus (Antiquities XIV, 75; Wars I, 156) the city was rebuilt in the time of Gabinius, governor of Syria from 57-55 BCE, there is no archaeological evidence of such a city [except for one coin discovered at Beit Guvrin which is presumed to have been minted by the people of Maresha in the first century BCE (Qedar 1992/3)]. It is assumed that this city was given to Herod, along with all of Idumaea, in 40 BCE, the same year in which the Hasmonean king, Mattathias Antigonus, with his Persian allies, destroyed the city.

Maresha consists of an upper city which is the tell (the mound) and a lower city that surrounds the tell and includes numerous subterranean complexes.

The first to identify Tell Sandahanna as Maresha was E. Robinson in 1838, based primarily on the ancient references mentioned above. The site identification has been verified by a tomb inscription discovered by Peters and Thiersch ((1905:36-39) that mentioned the Sidonian community "residing at Maresha". Since then this information has been reinforced by the discovery of two ostraca in the subterranean complexes of Maresha that mention the toponym "Maresha" (Kloner and Stern 2007:205-238). The early excavations of Bliss and Macalister focused primarily on the upper city or tell which measures ca. 250 x 400 m while 20-30 m below the tell lies the lower city. It became clear during the excavations at the end of the 1980s that the lower city of Maresha had been built up extensively in antiquity, primarily during the Hellenistic period (mainly 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE). Portions of the outer wall of the lower city were discovered at this time. To date, approximately 170 subterranean complexes which cover approximately 80 acres or 320 dunams have been identified.

The area of Maresha consists of layers of hard limestone and softer chalky material from the Senonian, Paleocene and Eocene periods (Kloner 2003:1-3). The majority of the material is the chalk. The fact that this relatively soft, compact and homogenous rock is covered by a relatively thin layer of limestone known locally as 'Nari', prevented it from eroding. At its thickest point at the tell, the thickness measures 30-100m. It was within this soft layer that the subterranean complexes around Maresha were hewn.

The process of quarrying was rather simple. Beneath the hard limestone crust, whose thickness measured up to three meters, lay a compact layer of chalk. The stonemasons would first create an opening in the hard upper crust, either as a shaft or as steps. Once they had penetrated well into the chalky material it was possible to hew out large underground chambers that were relatively stable. This was important due to the fact that the crust was made up limestone that had a tendency to collapse (Kloner 1987:27-28, Kloner 2003:4) and therefore it was essential that the ceiling of these underground rooms did not reach the less stable limestone crust but was within the layer of chalk. The existence of thousands of relatively stable subterranean chambers is predicated on these geological conditions. It should not be surprising then, due to the relative ease and accessibility, that millennia ago thousands of underground caves were created here, first as quarries and then morphing into water cisterns, oil presses, columbaria, stables, cultic rooms, hideaways, and burial areas (Bliss and Macalister 1902:204-270; Kloner 2003:4).

During the Hellenistic period the upper city could no longer accommodate the expanding population and therefore Maresha expanded down to what is known as the lower city, increasing the size of the city from 6 acres on the tell to 80 acres. The dwellings excavated in the lower city indicate that they were built of rectangular blocks of chalk, arranged in insulae or islands surrounded by streets and narrow alleys. The discovery of staircases leading to an upper floor as well as remains of collapsed debris from upper areas indicates that many of these dwellings were two stories. Decorative architectural elements found testify to a high standard of living.

The large number and variety of subterranean chambers is a reflection of population and economy of Maresha in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE. The population of the city at this time is estimated to be approximately 10,000 people (Kloner 2003:154).

To build and maintain the structures that were above the surface required a continuous supply of the building blocks from the soft chalky layer. These blocks would have to be replaced on a semi regular basis due to wear and tear and this would in turn require further quarrying beneath the surface. It should not be surprising to note that at the floor level of almost all the subterranean chambers excavated so far at Maresha, there are signs of quarrying. This testifies to the fact that these caves were almost always being enlarged due to the constant need for more building blocks for repair work on the surface.

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