The Israel Pass was launched a few months ago. This card combines the Rav Kav public transportation card with reduced tickets to national parks in Israel. And this made me think about the public transportation leading to those national parks. Is it easy reaching the parks by public transportation, or is it better to get there by renting a car? I’ve decided to not count on Google Maps to find the answer and go out to find it by myself.
The first national park I decided to visit was Beit Guvrin National Park, which is officially called Beit Guvrin- Maresha National Park. This is one of the most beautiful national parks in Israel, situated in the Land of a Thousand Caves, the Israeli Lowlands or in Hebrew, the Shfela. It is also a World Heritage Site. It is about 53 km from Jerusalem, so if you drive to it by rented car it would take you about an hour. I took the bus, or to be precise – two buses. In order to get from Jerusalem Central Station to Beit Guvrin National Park you need to take Egged bus number 446 to Kiryat Gat and then switch to Dan bus number 66 to Beit Guvrin. The whole ride would cost you about 26 ILS one way, and takes about two hours. Whether you choose to get there by car or by public transportation, Beit Guvrin National Park is a great day trip from Jerusalem.
The History of Beit Guvrin National Park:
So, the history of this area begins not in Beit Guvrin but in Maresha. Maresha was first mentioned in the Bible as a fortified city of Judah. During the Persian period, the area was settled by Idumeans, an ancient nation that came from the Negev area. Later, in the 4th century BCE, the Sidonians and the Greeks joined the settlers here, bringing with them the Hellenistic culture. During this time, many caves were created in the area, what granted the region its name – “The Land of a Thousand Caves”. That is what Maresha is so famous of today – its large number of man-made caves, made for different purposes. Many of the caves were used for agricultural purposes, as the settlers of Maresha made their livings as farmers. The city of Maresha was destroyed in 40 BCE by enemies of the Roman empire.
About 100 years after the destruction of Maresha, the Romans arrived in the area in 68 CE and conquered the nearby Jewish village of Beit Guvrin. This village was in a great position, near the water source of the springs in the Judean hills, on an easy route that went through the lowlands, and near a lot of agricultural fields. So, the Romans decided to build a city here, called Eleutheropolis, which was well connected to other cities in the area.
The most recent history of the place is connected to the Independence War of 1948. On the hidden remains of Beit Guvrin stood an Arab Village called Bet Jibrin, and the nearby police station was taken over by the Egyptian army in June 1948. The Israel Defense Forces was able to take over the place in October 1948, and the kibbutz of Beit Guvrin was established on the grounds of Bet Jibrin a short while later, in May 1949. The archeological finds of Maresha were already found in the beginning of the 20th century by the British Palestine Exploration Fund, and since 1989 the Israel Antiquities Authority is excavating the site. It was opened as a national park in 1989, and was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2014.
Getting to Beit Guvrin National Park by Public Transportation:
So… Let’s begin. I started my day at 6:50 AM in the Jerusalem Central Station. Egged bus number 446 leaves from platform number 7 on the third floor of the station. Its final stop is actually Be’er Sheva, but it stops at Kiryat Gat, a small city in Israel. It takes about an hour and 10 minutes to get from Jerusalem to Kiryat Gat. Their central station is very small, so it’s very easy to find the way to the next bus. You just have to walk to the main street, where you’ll see some platforms. Dan bus number 66 leaves from the most outer bus stations on the street and unlike the Egged bus, this bus is blue-colored. Getting from Kiryat Gat to Beit Guvrin takes about 25 minutes. This line leaves only once in two hours, so it’s important to catch it if you don’t want to be stuck for two hours! I recommend using Google Maps to see exactly when you should leave Jerusalem in order to get to Beit Guvrin early.
So, I got to Beit Guvrin at around 9:00 AM. Beit Guvrin is a quiet and beautiful kibbutz in the Shfela. The bus drops you at the center of the kibbutz, so you need to walk down to the road that separates the kibbutz from the national park. There’s a massive yellow gate at the entrance to the kibbutz, which opens only by cars that come and go. When I was there, a car came very quickly so I didn’t have to wait long for the gate to open. But when I got to road number 35, which I had to cross, I got cold feet and walked back up to the kibbutz. Cars were driving along road number 35 at enormous speeds, and I couldn’t see the park’s entrance from where I stood, so I thought to myself “maybe this trip wasn’t a good idea”.
I made quite a long detour to reach the other side of the kibbutz, waited quiet a long time at a different gate and then got to the nearby gas station. Next to it is a part of the national park, but it was closed and a big sign on it said that you can enter this part only with a ticket, which you get at the ticket booth on the other side of the road. So, I had no choice but to cross road number 35. From the gas station it was easier for me, because I could see the road leading to the national park right in front of the gas station. All I had to do was wait for the right moment to run from one side of the road to the other. But instead of doing what I did, I recommend you to cross the road very carefully from the point in front of Kibbutz Beit Guvrin, when there are no cars around. Then, on the other side of the road go beyond the roadside and walk on the ground next to it. Don’t walk on the road, because it’s very dangerous! Within 3 minutes or so you’ll get to the road that leads towards the park entrance, which is a very quiet road.
It’s a short walk from the beginning of the park’s access road to the park’s box office. The entrance price is 28 ILS per adult, but if you’re a student it will cost you 24 ILS (true to January 2020). You get a ticket, which you need to keep for the second part of the national park, the part situated on the other side of the road, and you get a map. The map has a lot of text telling you about the different sites, and there’s also lots of signs in English throughout the park, so don’t worry about understanding what you are seeing.
I started making my way to the first stop on the map. The way to the first station is full of beautiful green scenery. After about 10-15 minutes of walking along the park’s paved access road, I got to the sign that signaled left towards the beginning of the route. There’s a dirt parking lot next to a picnic area, and beyond it starts the dirt trail that leads to the first station.
The First Station – The Agricultural Installation Complex:
The first thing you’ll see is a large mix of stones laying all together in one place. Those stones are ancient architectural elements and agricultural equipment, gathered here from different parts of the COUNTRY. The items on display here date from the Hellenistic period, which is the 3rd century BCE, to the late Islamic period, which is the 8th century CE).
But the more interesting part in my view is the complex situated a bit below this gathering of stones. There you will find replicas of agricultural items – An ancient oil press and a threshing floor. All is accompanied by wonderful signs both in Hebrew and English, telling about the agricultural processes.
The Second Station – The “Polish Cave”:
From the Agricultural Installation Complex, you need to cross another dirt parking lot to continue on the trail, which climbs up a bit and reaches the first cave on the route. As I have already mentioned in the “History of Beit Guvrin National Park”, Maresha is famous for its great number of man-made caves, which were used for different purposes. The “Polish Cave” was originally made as a cistern in the Hellenistic period, but was later turned also to a columbarium, as niches for doves were carved into its walls. These doves use this cave until today.
At the bottom of this small cave is a block of stone, which was part of a supporting pillar. This stone gave the cave its name, because Polish soldiers from General Wladislaw Ander’s army arrived here during World War II and left their mark on the pillar – the year 1943 together with the inscription “Warsaw, Poland” and an eagle symbolizing the Polish army.
It was hot outside when I visited, so it was nice entering this cave and all the others, since the temperature is cool and nice inside. Just watch your step when climbing down the stairs!
The Third Station – The Columbarium Cave:
I had visited Beit Guvrin National Park before and have also visited the Columbarium Cave, but even though, when I climbed down to the cave and stood inside it, I was amazed again by its impressive internal appearance. The Columbarium Cave is said to be one of the most beautiful caves in Maresha-Beit Guvrin. Inside the tall walls of this cave are over 2,000 niches for doves. The people of Maresha might have raised those doves for food or they might have used their droppings for fertilizing their agricultural fields. They might have also used them for ritual matters.
The Fifth Station – The Oil Press Cave:
After visiting the Columbarium Cave, you need to continue on the trail through the amazing landscape of the Israeli lowlands. After a while, you reach another area with caves. I haven’t mentioned the fourth station, because it’s a very small cave which I didn’t find much interest in. Beside it is the fifth station, which is the Oil Press Cave. Inside it you can see the restoration of one of 22 underground oil pressed found in the park.
The Sixth Station – The Villa:
After visiting the Oil Press Cave, I continued on the trail towards the next cave, which is The Villa. Actually, the Villa is not a cave. It’s a restored house that was used for dwelling and for commercial purposes in the Hellenistic period. But if you really want to see more caves, there are underwater cisterns underneath the Villa. I climbed down to the cisterns and made a short visit. There’s also a large quarry inside, which is today linked to the cisterns.
After visiting the Villa, I decided to climb up to the top of Tel Maresha and enjoy the outstanding view of the Shfela, the Israeli lowlands. I enjoyed the landscape as much as I enjoyed the caves. It was amazing! The climb up to Tel Maresha is very short, but you don’t have to climb up to there in order to enjoy the view, because the landscapes are everywhere you look along the way.
The Seventh Station – The Maze Cave:
The trail leads down to the Maze Cave, which is really like a maze. There are lots of underground spaces inside, which are connected by small and winding passages. At some point you even reach an impressive columbarium, and at the end of this underground adventure you pop out at a restored oil press.
Then, you continue down the trail towards the souvenir shop, where you will find restrooms, drinking water and another very impressive cave. By the way, it takes about one hour and a half to reach the souvenir shop area by foot from the park’s box office, so if you need to go to the restroom before, there’s a restroom near the first station of the park.
The Eighth Station – The Apollophanaes Cave and the Way to the Bell Caves:
So, as I mentioned, not far from the souvenir shop is one of the most impressive caves of the part. I personally love it. It’s a family burial cave, which is most probably connected to the Sidonian population that lived in Maresha. When the cave was discovered in 1902, it was discovered with beautiful colorful paintings along its walls. Those original paintings were eventually vandalized and faded away, but luckily, they were photographed. Based on those photographs, the paintings were restored. The paintings include different creatures, amongst them a giraffe with a short neck, a smiling lion and a what looks like a rhino. The front (or back) of the tomb looks like the front of a Greek temple, with two long pitchers on both sides. The ribbons connected to them might be symbolizing, according to the Greek-Hellenistic burial traditions, the victory of the soul over death. Above it all you can see two eagles, which are supposed to take the soul to the Heavens.
From the Apollophanaes Cave you can continue on a dirt trail to the Bell Caves. Unfortunately, when I visited the Bell Caves were closed due to safety issues. I hiked along the trail anyway, just to see how it goes. According to the map, it’s a 1.5 km trail, and it goes through the beautiful landscape of the area. On the way there’s the huge apse of the St. Anne’s Church, which was originally built in the Byzantine period and later restored in the Crusader period. This church was so dominant, that the Arabs who lived here called this area “Tell Sandahanna” after the church. You can also see this apse from the top of Tel Maresha, if you choose to climb up for the view (near the Villa complex).
Second Part of the Park – Beit Guvrin:
From the Bell Caves, you can continue on the paved road back to the entrance of the park, to road number 35. Cross the road very carefully and walk up to Beit Guvrin, the newer part of the park. It is situated next to the gas station, which also has a small restaurant and restrooms, so you can stop here before continuing to the park.
To enter you need to press the button of the camera-intercom and show your ticket to the camera when requested to do so. Then you can open the gate and enter this part of the park, which was uncovered by the archeologists in the end of the 20th century. This part of the park is from the Roman period.
The most impressive building in the compound, in my view, is the Roman Amphitheatre, which was built here by the Romans in the mid-2nd century CE. The park really did a great job in restoring the place, and they even added some figures to demonstrate how the Amphitheatre might have functioned. There are dozens of figures “sitting” on the benches facing the arena, there are some gladiators “fighting” for their lives and there’s the emperor sitting up above and “deciding” whether or not he wants them to die. You can step down into the arena and read all the interesting signs.
Then, the second building is the Church and Mosque Under One Roof. This building is also quite impressive, especially its outstanding arch ceiling. It was built as a large church in the 12th century and later was turned into a smaller mosque. You can still see the Michrab, the Muslim praying niche, in the southern wall of the building.
I finished my visit by climbing up to the top of the building, where there is a beautiful view of the surroundings. There is also a sign telling the story of the huge bathhouse located right next to the building, which was at one point also a fortress.
Then, I had to hurry back to kibbutz Beit Guvrin to catch the bus. I caught it at around 1:15 PM. If I had missed it, I would have had to wait thee until 4:30 PM for the next bus. And that’s how I arrived at Jerusalem at around 4 PM (due to afternoon traffic).
So, to sum it up:
Getting to Beit Guvrin National Park by public transportation is possible, but you will need to be very strict on the hours since bus number 66 is not very frequent. I recommend leaving Jerusalem on the 6:50 AM Egged bus in order to reach the national park as early as possible. The whole trip took me about 9 hours, from Jerusalem to Beit Guvrin and back, so it’s a perfect day trip from Jerusalem. If you love archeology, caves and beautiful landscapes, I totally recommend taking a day to explore this World Heritage! If you don’t have so much time to spend, you can always come here by rented car and save about 5 hours of the day.
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