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Bet She'arim

BET SHE'ARIM (Heb. בֵּית שְׁעָרִים; Gr. Besara), ancient city on the southern slopes of Lower Galilee situated on the hill of al-Sheikh Burayk (near Kiryat Tivon on the Nazareth–Haifa road). Although settlement at Bet She'arim apparently started during the period of the divided monarchy (Iron Age II), the first mention of the city occurs at the end of the Second Temple period, when it was a center of the estates of Berenice (the daughter of Agrippa I and sister of Agrippa II) in the Plain of Esdraelon. Josephus speaks of it as Besara (Life, 118–9). According to talmudic sources, important tannaim and amoraim lived there (Tosef., Ter. 7:14; Nid. 27a). Bet She'arim reached a position of great importance and prosperity in the late second century, when *Judah ha-Nasi took up residence there and made it the seat of the Sanhedrin (RH 31a–b). From the beginning of the following century the necropolis of Bet She'arim became a central burial place for Jews of Palestine and the Diaspora (TJ, MK 3:5, 82c). The city was thought to have been destroyed by Gallus during the suppression of the Jewish revolt in 352 C.E., but recent research suggests that the impact of the revolt may have been overstated. Although clearly affected by the earthquake of 363 C.E., the town quickly recovered and flourished during the Byzantine and early Arab periods.

The hill of al-Sheikh Burayk has been partly excavated by B. Mazar (1935–40; 1960) and N. Avigad (1953–58) under the auspices of the Israel Exploration Society. An inscription found there contains the name Besara, confirming the identification of the site with Bet She'arim. Additional excavations were conducted at the site by F. Vitto (1983) for the Israel Department of Antiquities.

The city of Bet She'arim extended over the entire summit of the hill – an area of some 25 acres (100 dunams), 450 ft. (137 m.) above sea level. It was surrounded by a wall, two sections of which were exposed. Remains of various large buildings were uncovered on the northeastern part of the hill. The most important of these was a spacious basilical-type synagogue, 115 × 49 ft. (35 × 15 m.), built of ashlar blocks, of which only two courses have survived. The front of the synagogue was oriented toward Jerusalem and contained three entrances that led into the large columned hall; the bases of the columns have been preserved. The synagogue was decorated in the style characteristic of Galilean synagogues and was dated by the excavators to the third century C.E., though scholars now prefer dating it to the early fourth or fifth centuries C.E. many architectural fragments derived from this synagogue were found scattered among its ruins: column drums, capitals, jambs, lintels, and decorated friezes. The ruins of other buildings and courtyards were found in the vicinity of the synagogue, including a large two-story building with an outer wall 99 ft. (30 m.) long, built of fine ashlar blocks, as well as the remains of what was apparently a glassmaking workshop. Many small artifacts were found: metal, pottery, and glass vessels, inscribed marble slabs, and some 1,200 bronze coins, all of which were struck in the first half of the fourth century C.E. These coins suggested to the excavators the date of the destruction of all the buildings in the area. A gate and an oil press, used chiefly in the Byzantine period, were also found nearby.

The excavations, however, were concentrated mainly in the extensive ancient necropolis that stretched over the slope of the hill northeast, north, and west of the city and over the slopes of adjacent hills to the north and west. Rock-cut catacombs that were prepared to provide burial places to sell to people from outside Bet She'arim were found in all these areas. Some were family vaults, but the majority were for the general public. Each catacomb contained an open court and a number of tomb halls that were connected by a series of chambers to some of the branch burial compartments containing graves. The openings between the chambers are arched. The usual form of a grave is the arcosolium – an arched niche cut into the wall with trough-like graves hewn at the bottom. Kukhim (loculi – "burial recesses") are also found frequently. Some of the catacombs lack all decoration, but many possess chambers that display a variegated ornamentation. The soft rock easily lent itself to carving and incision. The many reliefs, graffiti, and drawings adorning the walls are generally executed in the primitive style of the Jewish folk art popular in the Roman period. Jewish symbols and ritual objects are very common motifs, particularly the seven-branched candelabrum and the Ark of the Law, complete with columns and steps. The shofar, lulav, etrog, and incense shovel are also represented. But secular motifs also occur: human figures, animals, ships, geometric patterns, etc., as well as architectural ornaments that were carved in the rock (columns, capitals, arches, and niches). Ornamental stone doors were decorated to imitate wooden ones, complete with panels, nailheads, and knockers. These were locked by bolts, and lifted by keys. The doors still turn on their hinges. Some of the main entrances are adorned with built arches resting on pillars. The facades of two catacombs (nos. 14 and 20) are built of smooth ashlar stones in the form of an arcade of three arches. Over these facades are structures of monumental steps with prayer niches. A mausoleum was built over catacomb no. 11 and contained rich architectural decorations and reliefs.

Of special importance are the epitaphs, of which some 300 have been discovered. The majority are in Greek and the others are written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Palmyrean. They are incised in the soft rock of the chamber walls, on the sides of the tombs, on lintels, on stone or marble slabs, or are painted in red or black. Their contents are generally restricted to the name of the deceased and his patronymic (or other family descent), with the addition of a word of affection or praise. The rank or occupation of the deceased, and occasionally his place of origin, are sometimes mentioned. Among the callings and titles are teacher, kohen, banker, goldsmith, government official, perfumer, chief warden of a community, chief of a synagogue, and rabbi (written ribbi and bi-ribbi). Typical examples of Hebrew inscriptions read: "Shalom to Judah," or "This tomb is (of) Rabbi Isaac bar Makim, shalom." An unusual Aramaic epitaph was found: "He who is buried here [is] Simeon, son of Johanan, and on oath, whoever shall open upon him shall die of an evil end." In catacomb no. 14 the following epitaphs were found: "Rabbi Simeon"; "This is the burial place of Rabbi Gamaliel"; and "Anina [Ḥanina] the Small." As it is known from the Talmud that before his death Judah ha-Nasi appointed his son Simeon ḥakham, Gamaliel (his second son) patriarch, and his most outstanding pupil, *Ḥanina b. Ḥama , head of the yeshivah (TB, Ket. 103b), one may assume that this catacomb was the burial place of the patriarch and his family. There are 218 Greek inscriptions and Greek was apparently the common language of the Jews at the time. Pure Greek names occur beside Hebrew ones in Greek transliteration. Some inscriptions express a belief in eternal life. The places of origin appearing in the epitaphs indicate that Bet She'arim was a central burial place for the Jews of Palestine-Elath (Exion-Geber), nearby Arabah and Baka, and of the Diaspora – Tadmor (Palmyra), Antioch, Byblos, Tyre, Sidon, and Beirut in Syria, Meishan in northern Mesopotamia, and Himyar in southern Arabia. Two inscriptions found incised on marble slabs in the mausoleum over catacomb no. 11 and in catacomb no. 18 are arranged in the form of Greek epigrams in the Homeric style. The former reads:

  Here lie I, son of Leontius, dead, son of Sappho-Justus, And after I had plucked the fruit of all wisdom I left the light, the miserable parents who mourn ceaselessly And my brothers. Woe to me, in my Besara! After descending to Hades, I, Justus, lie here With many of my people, for so willed stern fate. Be comforted, Justus, no man is immortal.                                     

The mausoleum also contained a reused sarcophagus on which Greek mythological scenes were depicted.

The largest catacomb excavated (no. 20) was comprised of 24 burial chambers with over 200 coffins made of local limestone and many fragments of imported marble sarcophogi decorated with mythological figures. On the coffins birds and animals and even human beings were depicted. These coffins were not apparently used for Jewish burial and were brought into the tomb in the Islamic period as raw material for the purpose of lime burning. The inscriptions found in the catacomb (almost all in Hebrew) reveal that it was occupied by members of the patriarchal family, "holy" rabbis, and other sages.

Additional information on the industrial activities of Bet She'arim was supplied by the discovery of a huge glass slab (11 × 7 ft. (c. 3⅓ × 2 m.) and 18 in. (45 cm.) thick, weighing nine tons) in an underground cistern. It possibly served as raw material for village glassmakers in the region. The slab must have been heated for several days at about 1922 °F (1050 °C) in order to melt it. Recent research suggests that the slab should be dated to the ninth century C.E. Numerous lamps from this period were found within the necropolis, notably in Catacomb no. 20.

Modern Bet She'arim

A moshav named after ancient Bet She'arim, lies 3 mi. (5 km.) further west of it in the northwestern corner of the Jezreel Valley, founded in 1936 by a group of Israel-born and East European settlers. In 1968 the moshav's economy was based on livestock and crops. Its population was 320 in 1968. In the mid-1990s the population was approximately 370.

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. 

UNESCO World Heritage Designation

Criterion (ii): The catacombs of Bet She’arim show the influence of classical Roman art including human images, inscriptions and decorative details and include iconographic motifs and multi-language inscriptions testifying to cross-cultural interaction with  the Greco-Roman artistic cultural world of Europe, Asia Minor and Mesopotamia and the Jewish cultural world. The assimilation of burial types and artistic expression together with inscriptions indicating the origins of those buried in the cemetery testify to the wide dispersal of the Jewish people at that time and the incorporation into Jewish religious culture of influences from the surrounding populations. 

Criterion (iii): The necropolis of Bet She’arim constitutes exceptional testimony to ancient Judaism in its period of revival and survival under the leadership of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch. The extensive catacombs containing artwork showing classical and oriental influences illustrate the resilient Jewish culture that flourished here in the 2nd to 4th centuries AD.


The property includes all elements necessary to convey the Outstanding Universal Value and is of adequate size to ensure the complete representation of the features and processes which convey its significance. The property does not suffer from adverse effects of development or neglect.


The catacombs themselves, preserved in-situ, retain authenticity in terms of location, setting, form and materials. In terms of use and function, the catacombs had ceased to be used for burial purposes by the 6th century, were abandoned and subsequently neglected. Today they are preserved as part of a national park with some open to the public.

Protection and management requirements

The property is protected as an Antiquities Site under the Antiquities Law 1978. No changes can be made without the approval of the Israel Antiquity Authority (IAA). The property and buffer zone are already protected under the National Parks, Nature Reserves, Heritage and National Sites Law, 1998. Paragraph 25 of the Law prohibits any activity, which could in the opinion of the Authority, hinder the designation of the area; it empowers the INPA to take steps against violations of that Law. The northern part of the property and the buffer zone within the jurisdiction of Qiryat Tiv’on Local Council is approved as a national park according to the statutory plan and will shortly be declared officially as a National Park. The southern part within the jurisdiction of Emek Yizreal Regional Council is currently designated as “approved national park at detailed planning” and will be officially declared as a National Park as soon as possible. Meanwhile the buffer zone is protected by Land Use statutory plans while the property and buffer zone are further protected and managed by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) by virtue of the National Parks, Nature Reserves, Heritage and National Sites Law, 1998.A World Heritage Forum within INPA headed by INPA director general and the director of the Archaeology and Heritage department includes directors of the various divisions of INPA, directors of district offices of INPA and of nature reserves and national parks containing World Heritage sites. This Forum convenes every six months to discuss issues pertaining to these sites.


B. Mazar, Bet She'arim… 193640, 1 (Heb., 19572); Avigad, in: IEJ, 4 (1954), 88–107; 5 (1955), 205–39; 7 (1957), 73–92, 239–55; 9 (1959), 205–20; Mazar, ibid., 10 (1960), 264; Brill, ibid., 15 (1965), 261f.; Avi-Yonah, in: Eretz Yisrael, 8 (1967), 143–8; Frey, Corpus, 2 (1952), 177–212; M. Schwabe and B. Lifschitz, Bet She'arim, 2 (Heb., 1967). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: J. Geiger, "The Last Jewish Revolt Against Rome: A Reconsideration," in: Scripta Classica Israelica, 5 (1979/80), 250–57; F. Vitto, "Byzantine Mosaics at Bet She'arim: New Evidence for the History of the Site," in: Atiqot, 28 (1996), 115–46.

[Nachman Avigad / Shimon Gibson (2nd ed.)]

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved;