Nestled between Mt Carmel and Lower Galilee, spellbinding Beit She’arim is pitted with ancient catacombs, many of which you can enter. In the 2nd century AD, the town grew into a vibrant centre for Torah study, and spiritual luminaries were buried here. Walking paths link the beautifully restored cave tombs; most impressive is the triple-arched Tomb of Rabbi HaNassi, who handled political affairs between Jews and their Roman overlords. Pick up a trail map from the visitor centre.
For part of the late 2nd century AD, Beit She’arim was the meeting place of the Sanhedrin (the era’s supreme council of rabbis), headed by Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi, who assembled Jewish scholars and compiled the Mishnah (the earliest codification of Jewish law) at Tzipori but asked to be buried here, inspiring others to do the same.
During the 4th century the town was destroyed by the Romans, presumably in the process of suppressing a Jewish uprising. During the following 600 years the many tombs were looted and covered by rock falls. Archaeologists stumbled upon the remains of Beit She’arim in 1936.
As you drive towards the entrance of the park, the ruins of a 2nd-century synagogue are off to the left. Cave tombs are still being discovered at this vast site; the largest catacomb contains 24 separate chambers with more than 200 sarcophagi. Note the variety of symbols and inscriptions carved onto the coffins, including epithets written in Hebrew, Aramaic, Palmyran and Greek. Some of the people buried here, it is believed, came from as far away as Persia and Yemen.
An additional site in the national park, the six-chamber Menorah Caves Compound, can only be visited by guided tour with prior notice. It’s worth it to see the elaborate stone carvings, including a menorah and Torah Ark.
Beit She’arim is about 23km southeast of Haifa, mostly along Rte 75. By bus, you can take Nateev Express bus 301 from Haifa-Merkazit HaMifratz (13.50NIS, 30 minutes, at least twice an hour); tell the driver you want to go to Beit She’arim and they will let you off at HaShomrim Junction, which is 1km north of the park along Rte 722.