Located in the Judean southern lowlands (the Shephelah), Maresha was a thriving city in Biblical times and the Hellenistic period. It is especially known for its maze of caves from the Hellenistic period, which are a popular tourist attraction.
History and Archaeology of Maresha
Maresha 25 miles southwest of Jerusalem, in a fertile region and close to an important road system. In the Bible it is first mentioned in the Book of Joshua. According to the Book of Chronicles it was fortified by Rehoboam in the 9th century BCE (1 Chronicles 11:8), and later it was the site of a critical battle in which Assa King of Judah held against an African Assault (2 Chronicles 14:8-10). Maresha may have been also the hometown of Prophet Micha (Micha 1:1).
Following the Babylonian exile, Maresha was abandoned. However, during the Persian and Hellenistic periods, a combined group of Edomites and Phoenicians settled in the city. They carved hundreds of caves through its soft chalk limestone, creating a maze of cavities that were used in various ways – as quarries, dwellings, storerooms, water cisterns, tombs and more.
Maresha’s Doves Industry
Over 85 caves in an around Maresha were used as dovecots (Columbariae). Tens of thousands of triangular niches were carved in these caves, to raise doves. The doves were exploited for their meat and eggs as food, and their droppings as a fertilizer. Doves were also commonly used in ancient rituals. They were sacrificed at temples both by Jews, Samaritans and Pagans.
Excavations in Maresha
Maresha was intensively excavated in the early 20th century, by a British archaeological expedition. Unfortunately, its acropolis, which was exposed in its entirety, was later covered up. However, some of the many caves surveyed around city’s center were later excavated and are accessible.
Combined with adjacent Beit Guvrin, Maresha is a 1,250 acres size national park, and a World Heritage site by UNESCO. A marked trail leads through points of interest in the site. Most interesting are:
The “Polish Cave” – A bell shaped cave hewn in the Hellenistic period, and used as a dovecot (Columbarium). During the Second World War, Polish soldiers from General Andrer’s army – which joined the allied forced and was stationed in Palestine for a while – visited the cave. They carved on its central pillar “Warsaw, Poland” “1943”, and an eagle, the symbol of the Polish army.
The Industrial Dovecot Cave – Opposite the Polish Cave another cavity was used for raising doves, yet quite larger. Over 2,000 niches were carved in this double cruciform cave, demonstrating the scale of this industry in the Hellenistic period.
The Olive Press Cave – Over 22 underground Olive presses were documented in Maresha, all dating to the Hellenistic period. The Olive oil was used in baths, cooking, and most commonly – for operating oil lamps.
The Underground Maze – In two areas north of Maresha’s acropolis, a connected complex of caves demonstrates well the use of underground halls under dwellings as well. One complex, under a villa of 150 sq. meters, is comprised of several bell-shaped caves that had several functions. Another complex, further north, is known as “the maze” as it has so many spaces and entries you feel you could get lost in it.
The Painted Burial caves – Next to the northern parking lot are two burial caves richly adorned. They provide the best detailed insight on Maresha’s dwellers in the Hellenistic period. One inscription mentions the burial of the “head of the Sidonians community in Maresha”. Other inscriptions indicate many of the deceased were of Edomites descent, although some adopted Greek names. The walls of one of the caves are decorated with a fantastic scene of a procession. Most of the figures are of African exotic animals such as a lion, a giraffe, and rhinoceros, and more. There are also some legendary animals like the gryphon and the Cerberus. The inner most hall is decorated with thymes from classical Greek art and architecture.
It is also possible to participate in half a day digging experience at one of the caves of Maresha, through Dig-for-a-day.
A visit to the site can be combined with a guided day tour in the Judean Foothills (the Shephelah).