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Issues of the Day Visiting the Past: Megiddo and Beit Sha’rim

I visited the Megiddo and Beit Sha’rim National Parks in northern Israel over the Succoth holiday and was struck once again by how much history has taken place in this land.


Megiddo, on the eastern fringe of the Jezreel Valley, and Beit Sha’rim are both highly significant sites in Jewish history. They were also meeting points for numerous other civilizations –in  the case of Megiddo, over twenty societies left its imprint on what constituted a strategic city on a small hillock that guarded the approach to the Galilee from the noth, south, east, and west. 

Here Kings Solomon and Ahab maintained palaces and quarters for warriors and courtiers and stables for the horses in their service. As described on the website of the Megiddo Expedition, the archeological endeavor led by Tel Aviv University and a consortium of American universities,


Megiddo is the jewel in the crown of biblical archaeology… the city dominated international traffic for over 6,000 years — from ca. 7,000 B.C.E….creating a multi-layered archaeological legacy that abounds in unparalleled treasures that include monumental temples, lavish palaces, mighty fortifications, and remarkably-engineered water systems.


As I explored the ruins with a friend, Colm, visiting from Galway, Ireland, I was struck by how so many diverse peoples – Assyrians, Greek, Israelite, Roman, Byzantine and many others – converged on and coveted the site.

The engineering is most impressive. Considerable wealth was invested in sustaining the site, which includes grain storage and sophisticated waterworks to maintain the population living within its walls.    


While Colm and I had planned to visit Megiddo, I had no idea a few days later that friends whom I was visiting at the veteran Jezreel Valley moshav, Sde Yaakov, would be taking me to Beit Sha’rim. We started off at the site of the shrine housing the grave of Sheik Bureik, a 16th century Arab leader of a village that once existed there.

Legend has it that the grave rests on the same spot as the burial place of the Biblical leader Barak Ben-Avinoam, who is recounted in the Book of Judges: The battles where Barak participated took place in this small valley. The hill is where Alexander Zaid,  a member of the Shomer, Jewish watchman’s organization that defended Jewish settlements in the early twentieth century came across a cave on the hillside filled with Hebrew inscriptions.


Subsequent  archeological excavation revealed that the caves were part of Beit Sha’arim, a Jewish town founded in the first century BCE and that later became the seat of the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish civic and religious council that emerged after the destruction of the Second Temple following the Roman conquest.


Here, Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi, the revered head of the Sanhedrin presided over the codification of oral Jewish law known as the Mishnah. The Sanhedrin had migrated from Jerusalem to Yavne, Usha and then to Beit Sha’arim, where Yehuda HaNasi and other leading rabbis are buried, mostly above ground (though Rabbi Yehuda requested that he be buried subterraneously, attesting to his humility) in sarcophagi placed throughout numerous caves that have been unearthed at the site.


While Hebrew descriptions note the identity of many of those buried in the necropolis, Greek was prevalent on many of the tombs. Relics of Hellenic and Roman influence were also frequent, including rosette and similar decorations. Depictions of lions and other animals as well as plants, including the lulav (which is one of the four species of Land of Israel plants that are ritually used during the Succoth holiday) were also used to adorn many of the stone caskets.  


My visit to these historical sites reinforced the notion that no civilization develops in a vacuum and  the cross-fertilization of cultures has always been part of peoples and societies.  Heritage is best protected not by attempts to sequester it behind hermetic walls, but by keeping roots firm while participating as part of the entire human mosaic. 

© Yosef Gotlieb, . All rights reserved