You don’t have to ask me twice to see a “Necropolis City”. When my cousin asked if I’d like to tour the caves at Beit Shea’rim, I had no idea what I was agreeing to. It just sounded very cool, like something not to miss.
Beit Shea’rim was a third century CE settlement in the north of present day Israel. It was the center of Jewish life at the time it was founded – the home of the Sanhedrin, the most learned leaders. The ruins of the town remain in the hills, but the dwellings and burial caves carved into a hillside are what really remains to be seen there. Because it is a burial place for ancient Rabbis, it is considered a holy place to some. We were not sure what to expect.
The warren of interconnected burial caves and surrounding land is now part of a pleasant national park. There are benches and water fountains and grassy areas. The park is popular with wedding photographers and I was a little surprised to see several brides there with their entourages, taking pictures on the grass and by the entrance to the caves. One (very pregnant & tattoo-ed) bride ventured inside the main burial cave to take pictures beside some of the more elaborately carved sarcophagi. I wasn’t sure if this was extremely cool of her, or in extremely bad taste. There’s the whole circle of life thing, and also the whole hipster thing. It wouldn’t have been my choice, yet I’m dying to see how her pictures turned out.
The caves go on and on and on. There are recesses in the walls, like a decorative arched shelf. It reminds me a bit of the architectural nook in my dining room, where our buffet is placed. But these shelves were used to stack the dried bones, after all the flesh had decomposed. I could just picture them stacked high with bones, skeletons merging together into a mass, individuals no longer distinguishable.
Room after room after room… all filled with narrow stone coffins, and those haunting recesses. It’s quite mind boggling. Also quiet. You get back in there and it’s literally as silent as a tomb. This will forever be my “silent as a tomb” reference point.
It made us all a little uncomfortable, not knowing if we were to act as if we were in a super holy place, or (like my son who climbed into a sarcophagus and went full on Scooby-Doo mummy capers) laugh it off. It’s just so blatantly macabre and unvarnished. But it’s also real and beautiful because of the inscriptions, the enduring human touch in the stone carvings and architectural work. Immense care was taken with the dead here. People were not discarded. They are still remembered. We should be so lucky.
I don’t think I’ll ever see anything quite like this necropolis city again, unless I go back.
I’m so glad we were there.
Photo Credit: Brian Maso