by Adi Erlich
ASOR February 2018
Few Jewish sites in Israel are as renowned as Beit She’arim, which today receives many thousands of visitors a year. But while best known for its catacombs and tombs, Beit She’arim was much more than a cemetery. New excavations are bringing that living dimension into focus for the first time, and refining our understanding of the Jewish Galilee as a whole.
After the Roman period there is no mention of the site. Beth She’arim declined in the Byzantine period and later was reoccupied in the 13th century and again in the Ottoman period, when the Sheikh Abreik tomb was erected and a small village occupied the hill. In the early 20th century the Jewish National Fund bought the land and archaeological excavations commenced in 1936.
During the 1930s and 1950s pioneering archaeologists Benjamin Mazar and Nachman Avigad excavated the site for the Israel Exploration Society. Their soundings concentrated mostly in the cemetery on the slopes of the Sheikh Abreik hill, revealing decorated caves and catacombs filled with inscriptions in Hebrew and Greek.
But the town on the hill was hardly explored. Only a few buildings were excavated – a synagogue, some houses, an olive press and a basilica, and the results have never been fully published. Today the site is occupied by the Beth She’arim National Park and by a small village named Beit Zaid.
In 2014 I renewed excavations on the Sheikh Abreik hill in the Beth She’arim National Park on behalf of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa. The project is funded by the Israel Science Foundation, and carried out by our staff, students and volunteers. We are grateful for the support and cooperation of the National Parks Authority, the Beth She’arim National Park, our friends in the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Jezre’el Valley municipality, and residents of Beit Zaid.
Seven areas were excavated on the northern slope and on the eastern edge of Sheikh Abreik. Area A, situated near the basilica, revealed domestic structures of the Roman period (2nd-4th centuries). Different water installations were also found, including a cistern, an underground installation with a staircase leading to a mikveh (ritual bath), and a plastered pool with an arch to support the ceiling.
This building was destroyed in the mid-4th century and a new one with poorer masonry was built in the second half of the 4th century, using and altering the old structure. The early Byzantine building was destroyed, possibly by an earthquake, in the first half of the 5th century CE . A special find from this phase is a rare pottery object, perhaps a lantern, engraved with human figures and architectural motives. Many finds of the 13th century CE have also been excavated, including a hoard of weapons, along with scant Ottoman remains.
The Roman and early Byzantine phases are well attested also in Area D, mostly as water installations like channels, a plastered vault and two cisterns connected at their bottom. The concentration of water collection installations in Area D is due to its location on the lower part of the hill, where water naturally drains. Area C on the east of the hill has two buildings flanking a street whose drainage survived. These buildings were erected in the 3rd century and were then abandoned and collapsed in the early 5th century. A hoard of 21 coins found on one of the floors attest to the date of its destruction.
Area B, close to the summit, was used during the Ottoman period as a garbage dump and for debris burning pits, which created a large fills for us to remove. These fills covered and preserved ancient remains but also cut through and robbed them. The earliest remains in this area are small Hellenistic pits quarried in the soft bedrock and some walls, and Hellenistic pottery typical of Southern Phoenicia. During the early Roman period (1st century CE), a building was constructed over the pits, followed by another in the 2nd – 3rd century CE, with stone-paved floors.
Area Z is situated beside the road leading to the national park. There we discovered an Early Byzantine building, which was built on an earlier mikveh. The Roman mikveh was vaulted, hewn in the rock and plastered, with a staircase leading downward. When the 2017 season ended and the first rains came, we could witness how it is being filled with water again after some 1800 years.
Outside and north of the gate we uncovered a round pottery kiln that produced pottery dated to the 4th century CE, mostly storage jars, and above it the remains of a glass workshop. The industries seem to postdate the nearby gate. Vast amount of pottery, mostly storage jars, was recovered in the kiln.
The story of Beth She’arim that is emerging from our excavations starts in the Iron Age II period, of which only sporadic sherds of pottery survived. From the Hellenistic/Hasmonean period (3rd-1st centuries BCE) there are buildings, quarried pits, and small finds. The Early Roman period (1st century CE), the era of Queen Berenice’s estate on the hill, are represented by impressive walls in area B, possibly belonging to that estate, and small finds.
The heyday of Beth She’arim (2nd-4th centuries CE), the days of the Jewish Sages and the cemetery, are well attested in buildings, streets and alleys, cisterns, quarried installations, and many small finds. The town was well planned, perhaps fortified, and the dwellings and public buildings indicate the high socio-economic status of the residents. Various installations for collecting water were constructed. The Jewish character of the inhabitants is attested by ritual baths and the use of stone vessels, typical of Jewish households. The town was destroyed in the mid-4th century CE, perhaps by the 363 CE earthquake.
The town recovered for a short time (ca. 380 to 420 CE), but was ruined again, probably by another earthquake. The pottery and glass industries north of the gate belong to that period. There are also some Late Byzantine finds (5th-6th centuries CE), but only little architecture and it seems that the town declined in the mid-5th century. The almost lack of Byzantine coins is striking in this regard. A building with mosaics excavated by Fanny Vitto, dated to the 6th century CE, is probably part of the small settlement in the late Byzantine period, perhaps a small farm or monastery.
The origin and decline of the Jewish Galilee is the subject of considerable debate. Some scholars see a period of decline in the mid-4th century CE (whether the 351 Gallus revolt or the 363 earthquake), while others maintain there was no crisis and that it continued to flourish throughout the Byzantine period. The story emerging at Beth She’arim offers a middle way; the settlement recovered for a short time, but no longer flourished after the mid-5th century, and probably was small and insignificant in the Late Byzantine period. The cemetery was probably still in use, but the town no longer existed.
But Beth She’arim also stands out in the Jewish Galilee with its large public buildings decorated with marble slabs and well-planned town, atypical for Galilean towns. The large gate we have discovered, probably the town’s main gate, is also unique in Roman Galilee, attesting to the high status of Beth She’arim. Other features are unique to Beth She’arim, such as the double cisterns and large reservoirs. The special place of Beth She’arim as a living Jewish town, the home of Rabbi Judah and the Sanhedrin, is now coming into better focus.