On a hill overlooking the Jezreel Valley stands a statue of a bold, muscular young man mounted on his horse. He seems alert and ready for action, inspecting the vast valley with his eyes. This is the statue of Alexander Zaid (1886-1936), a legendary figure in recent Israeli history.
He was born in Siberia in 1886 and immigrated to the Land of Israel at the age of 17, during the Second Immigration wave. He was one og the founders of the "Hashomer" organization, guarding the Jewish villages and fields against any attacker and providing them with security to cultivate their land in peace.
In 1926 he came with his wife to the hills of Sheik-Abreq, built his home here, and discovered the remains of ancient Beit-She'arim, a Jewish town from the Roman period. Alexander Zaid was killed in 1938, ambushed by Arab villagers.
His equestrian statue on the top of the hill in Beit She'arim is a symbol of courage, hard struggle and determination. The view of the Jezreel Valley from the hilltop is beautiful. It can also be a very romantic spot, admiring the statue and the view, feeling the gentle wind, thinking of the man who lived and died here.
During the 3rd and 4th centuries AD Beit-She'arim was a very desirable place to get buried in: a thriving town which used to be the seat of the Sanhedrin (the Council of the Elders), where the great Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nassi, who compiled the Mishna (codex of Jewish laws) chose to be buried.
As a result, a magnificent necropolis was built in Beit-She'arim. Jews from all over the Jewish world came to be buried here. They believed that being buried in the Land of Israel was like being "under the altar" in the temple, and when Messiah came they would be resurrected first. Jews buried in the diaspora, in contrast, would have to roll through tunnels (!) to the Holy Land to be resurrected. Small wonder, then, that Jews from far away communities from the Arabian peninsula to northern Syria made the effort to be buried in the Land of Israel, and if there then in the most prominent burial site, Beit-She'arim.
The tombs are very well preserved. The catacomb walls, graves and sarcophagi bear inscriptions with the names and professions of those fortunate enough to be interred here: goldsmith, physician, perfume merchant, textile merchant, rabbi, head of a synagogue, banker...
An interesting feature in the decorations of the sarcophagi is the blend of Jewish motifs (candelabra, citron, palm tree) and motifs from the Greco-Roman world. The Jewish communities in the Galilee in those days were pluralistic and open minded.
The catacombs are situated on the slope of a hill, with rich vegetation surrounding it, giving the Beit-She'arim necropolis the appearance of a beautiful park. Today it is an historic National Park, administered by the National Park Authority.
Ancient Beit-She'arim was a thriving Jewish community between the second and fourth centuries AD. On the hill, above the famous necropolis, you will find the remains of the town's synagogue right next to the road.
Arches, walls, capitals all attest to the former glory of this synagogue and this community.
The site is always accessible, 24 hours a day. It is certainly worth a stop on the way to or from the necropolis.
This is the largest of the excavated caves in the National Park. It is 75 meters in length and width with many rooms branching off the main corridors. You will find very beautifully decorated coffins. These decorations mainly show animals like bulls, eagles and fishes. There are several coffins with inscriptions, many refering to Rabbis. I enjoyed walking around being amazed by the huge amount of coffins and their decorations.
In this cave you will find the tomb of Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi which turned the site of Bet Shearim into the important burial cave town. On the way to the grave of Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi you will pass tombs of other Rabbis. There were candles burning in the cave and I decided to wait a little as I heard a woman praying in the chamber of Yehuda Hanassis tomb. The cave is different to the others as it is quite large with several rooms. All bones that were found in the National Park were taken away for the dignity of the people that were burried here.
This cave structure has twelve rooms all together. It is built quite impressively into a narrow rock gap and has two levels. There are several inscriptions around the cave of which one says in Hebrew: 'This is the last resting place of Yodan son of Levy, Levy is in Eternity, at peace, may the grave remain worthy of Yodan son of Levy'.
It is possible to climb up also to the upper door, but it is slightly difficult to get down again in case the rock is wet. Somehow this cave gives the feeling of being Indiana Jones ;)
This is the cave of the Lulavim, which means plam branch referring to engraved palm branches on the wall inside of the cave. There is an inscription on the lintel of the door which says: 'Lord, remember Thy servant Sarcadus'. It is possible to go inside the cave, which is pretty dark.
The Cave of the Lone Sarcophagus had a front wall with an arch. As original plan the cave was a coffin burial, but arcades were added and more burial places hewn into the rock. One decorated coffin was found in the cave. There is an opening on the right of the cave from where you can look down into the Cave of the Coffins.
The 'Cave of Itzak Zaira Son of Shimon' is said to be a typical group of tombs for Bet Shearim. It has a courtyard which is reached by stairs and has 4 rectangular tombs. The facade has a stone door imitating a wooden door.
Here in this picture you can see some ancient Hebrew, the letters are read from right to left, so at the far right the first letter is Kuf, the second is Yud and the third is Resh....the other two I could not make out so I am not sure what is written here, the name of the person who was at one time buried here or a name of town or blessing.
A simple design of a wreath, similar to what you can see on the doors of many people at holiday time in the USA.. I wonder if in addition to the Jewish burials here there were a few Christians who wanted to be buried near the Rabbi HaNanasi who was considered by many to be not only a religious scholar, but also at his death a holy man.
Here you see the entrance area to the burial place of the Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi. His burial cave is not the largest or most elaborate, only the entrance decorations are the most impressive, being graced with three doors instead of the common one.
I suggest going to the parks authorities website, choosing English in the upper left hand corner, then "Parks and Preserves", then "lower Galilee and valleys", there you will find Beit Shariem National Park.
Above one of the doors there is an inscription in greek: 'The burial place of Theodosia, also called Sarah, from Tyre'. The name shows Phoenician origins.
The 'Mausoleum' are the remains of a squared building which served as a foundation for a stone memorial.
This structure of benches is located ontop of the 'Cave of the Coffins'. It served as a meeting place to commemorate the dead.