Added to Unesco's World Heritage list in 2014, the Caves of Maresha and Beit-Guvrin is an archaeological site, natural wonder and feat of human ingenuity all rolled into one. The site contains approximately 3500 underground chambers carved into the soft chalk of Lower Judea under the former towns of Maresha and Beit Guvrin. Some of the caves are natural, the result of water eroding the soft limestone surface. Others, however, are thought to be the result of quarrying by the Phoenicians, builders of Ashkelon’s port between the 7th and 4th centuries BCE. During the Byzantine period the caves were used by monks and hermits and some of the walls are still discernibly marked with crosses. St John the Baptist is said to have been one of the pious graffitists.
Excavations at Maresha have uncovered remains from a 3rd-century synagogue and various Greek and Crusader artefacts, all of which are now on display at Jerusalem’s Rockefeller Museum. Some Byzantine mosaics also found here are now in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Among the finds that haven’t been transported elsewhere are the ruins of the 12th-century Crusader Church of St Anna (or Sandhanna).
The easiest caves to explore are those west of Maresha – you can see tracks leading from the road. Some of the caves have elaborate staircases with banisters leading down below ground level. The rows of hundreds of niches suggest that they were created for raising small domesticated doves to be used in the worship of Aphrodite by the Sidonian colony between the 3rd and 1st centuries BCE.
The park is fairly large and the sights are spread out. The only practical way to visit is by private car. To get here, take Rte 38 south until it hits Rte 35, then take Rte 35 west for 2km until you see the entrance to the park.