Maresha, Eleutheropolis, Tel Sandahannah, located ca.1.5km south of Beit Guvrin and 39km east of Ashkelon. In the Hellenistic period it was called Marissa or Marisa (the present-day Tel Maresha, or Tell Sandahannah, the ruin of a church, St. Anna, which inspired the Arab name for Bet Guvrin, “Sandahanna”), and is the best-known preserved town of Hellenistic Palestine. Excavations have revealed Hellenistic inscriptions, painted tombs in caves, and the finest mosaic pavement yet found in the region.
Maresha, which is identified as the biblical city with the same name, is mentioned among the cities of Judea in Joshua 15:44 and in the Book of Chronicles 11:8. The city is said here to have been built by king Rehoboam (920 BCE) and in a further excerpt king Asa battled to Maresha against “Zerah the Ethiopian”.
In 587 BCE the city was devastated by the Babylonians.
During the Persian period all of southern Judea including Maresha was conquered by the Edomites, and so became a part of Idumea. From the fourth century BCE Sidonians (from Sidon, a principal city of Phoenicia) and Greeks settled in the city. Maresha became an important business town, especially for the slave trade with Egypt. During this time the lower city of Bet Guvrin was built and people started living there and also the first caves were hewn.
The Hasmonean king John Hyrcanus I was the next to rule over the city (125BCE), whose pagan citizens he forced to convert to Judaism to ensure their loyalty. Josephus Flavius chronicled that not so long after that the Romans incorporated it into their empire. Bet Guvrin flowered as a Jewish city until the Second Jewish War against the Romans from 132-135 CE.
After a period of silence and probably a thin population it seems to have rehabilitated again because the city, now known by its Greek name Eleutheropolis, is heard from again in the Talmud and Midrashim from the third and fourth centuries CE.
The amphitheatre lies on the other side of the road to Kiryat Gat. The wild animals who fought here were kept in the dungeons under the theatre and were hauled up to the arena by an elevator. The structure was erected during the second half of the second century CE and served its original function for about 200 years, until the late fourth century CE, presumably falling into disuse in the wake of the severe earthquake of May 363 CE. The city of Eleutheropolis is depicted in the Madaba mosaic map as a large settlement to the southwest of Jerusalem. At the time the city had an amphitheatre where gladiatorial contests were held, a large Jewish cemetery and a synagogue. The inhabitants of Beth Guvrin-Eleutheropolis included Jews, Christians and pagans. During the Roman and Byzantine periods it became the largest Roman city territory in Palestine.
The Crusaders also landed in Bet Guvrin, just as the Arabs before and after them who dug the bell caves. The Crusaders built their fort right over the amphitheatre. Next to it they built a church of which there are some ruins. Building under the ground in Bet Guvrin was easier than building above ground. Directly under the soil lies a thin crust of very tough limestone, nari, which makes for solid roofs for the caves. Under the nari are very thick layers of soft limestone are called kirton .Once the difficult nari is penetrated digging becomes easy. The cave diggers at Bet Guvrin found the caves perfect protection against the scorching summer heat. In addition they could hide in them in times of danger, for instance during the Second Jewish War.
Lots of other caves have been found around Bet Guvrin. Of the bell caves there are 800 in the area, They were all dug by the Arabs from the 7th to the 10th century. They were used for quarrying stone. The Bet Guvrin stones have been found in houses and buildings from Lod to Ashkelon. The digging procedure went from the first round hole at the top in growing circles, until the bell shape was formed. This was apparently a safe method for quarrying. The rope treks can still be seen in the caves, along these the stones were pulled up.
One of the most spectacular caves around Maresha is the “Colombarium cave”. Its form is that of a double cross. A few meters above eye level there are hundreds of small alcoves in the walls. They were for pigeons, which were held in ancient times for their meat, and dung, which was used as fertilizer. Because pigeons were cheap, they were widely popular among Jews and pagans as sacrificial animals. After the Greek era these dove cots went out of use.
Another interesting cave is an underground olive oil plant. The production of oil was very important in Judea, it was used among other things for light and food. Surrounding the top of the tel are houses from the Greek period. These have enormous complexes of caves underground, which are much larger than their space aboveground. The different rooms were used as cisterns: the water dripped from the roof and courtyard via channels underground. There are also chambers for baths, columbaria and olive presses.
The “Sidonian caves” are the only ones that are painted inside. These are modern repaintings of the old designs. The caves, lying off the tel, were burial caves for the Greek, Sidonian and Edumite inhabitants of Bet Guvrin. The first and biggest cave has paintings of animals, real and mythic, above the niches where the corpses were laid.The animals sometimes have a symbolic function. For instance the cock crows to scare away demons. The three-headed dog Cerberus guards the entrance to the underworld. A bright red eagle on the sarcophaguses is a phoenix, which is reborn from a ritual fire and symbolizes the life after death.
The reason the cave are called “Sidonian” is because of an inscription which mentions Apollophanes, the leader of the Sidonian community in Bet Guvrin. This was his family tomb. The inscription above the dog Cerberus is in Greek and is scribbled by two lovers who were separated by an arranged marriage. The woman complains that she is not happy and that she lies with someone else thinking about her true love. The man writes back that he still has her cloak at least (he hopes that she will come back to pick it up). The woman says that she will not bother him but instead will run away. A critical third person comments that the lovers should not speak about their problems and should only be giving each other secret nods in public.
The second Sidonian cave, the “Tomb of the Musicians” is smaller but has a beautiful painting of a man blowing a flute and a woman playing a harp. Presumably they accompanied the dead with sweet music to their afterlife.