Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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from the trenches
Off the Grid Volume 61 Number 5, September/October 2008
by Jodi Magness

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill archaeologist Jodi Magness's favorite overlooked site in Israel is the Hellenistic city of Maresha.

The site: Founded in the Iron Age, Maresha came to prominence during the Hellenistic era (fourth to first century B.C.), when it was an important city in the ancient province of Idumaea. Today you can see its spacious and well-preserved Hellenistic houses and walk through a maze of underground caves that held cisterns for storing water and food. The chambers also housed olive oil presses, dove coops, and painted tombs. The cool caves are the perfect place to visit during the hot Israeli summer.

Side trip: After the Hellenistic era, the city of Bet Guvrin, about a mile away, rose in importance. Excavations there have revealed a Roman amphitheater and a bathhouse. You can also see the apse of a Crusader church dating to the 12th century.

Why you've never heard of Maresha: Despite its impressive underground remains, Maresha gets overlooked because it isn't a major Biblical site. It doesn't have any famous Jewish history associated with it, like Masada, and there are no claims that Jesus ever traveled there (though Herod the Great's father, an Idumaean, may have been from Maresha).

If you're going: Maresha is an hour's drive southwest of Jerusalem, near the town of Bet Shemesh on highway 35. The site was restored 15 years ago by the Israeli Parks Department, so there are well-marked walking trails, making it easy to get around. Give yourself at least two to three hours to see the site.

Trivia: If you've watched Jesus Christ Superstar or Rambo III you've already seen the huge bell-shaped caves, a byproduct of limestone quarrying, that lie between Maresha and Bet Guvrin. Scenes from both movies were shot there.