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A town i n the Valley of Jezreel on the border of Lower Galilee. The site, known by its Arabic name esh-Sheikh Ibreiq, was identified by an inscription found on the site. It was the center of the royal estates of Berenice (Joseph. Vit. 24.119). By the name of Beth Shearim it is mentioned in the Talmud. In the 2d and 3d c. A.D. it was a Jewish town, and for some time the seat of the Sanhedrin and of several famous Jewish scholars, outstanding among which was Rabbi Judah the Patriarch.

The town extended over an area of 4 ha, occupying the summit of a hill, on the slopes of which was a large Jewish necropolis. The site has been extensively excavated and the five occupation levels range from the late 1st c. B.C. to Mameluke times. Of most interest are the results of the excavations in the necropolis. The number of catacombs, ranging from small family sepulchers to large public catacombs, some with more than 400 burial places, is estimated at ca. 100. Of these about 30 have been excavated. Some of the larger catacombs are arranged in two or three tiers, access to which is given by means of a deep, narrow corridor in which staircases hewn in the soft rock lead to the openings of the burial halls. Most of the catacombs are of the type just described, but two are outstanding in plan and architectural decoration. Both are preceded by spacious courts, and the facade of each is decorated by three arches. Of great interest is the decorative repertoire. On the walls of the catacombs are many representations of the menorah and of human beings. On the sarcophagi are animals (lions, oxen), various birds (mostly eagles), and even scenes taken from Greek mythology, such as the Amazonomachy and Leda and the Swan. One sarcophagus displays a head of Zeus. The art of Beth Shearim confirms what is otherwise known from that of contemporary synagogual art.

Of the many inscriptions found at Beth Shearim a great number are in Greek. Hebrew inscriptions are also quite numerous; Aramaic and Palmyrene are rarer. Some of the inscriptions reveal the social standing and occupation of the deceased. Many of the deceased were brought from the Diaspora, mostly from Phoenicia, Syria, Palmyra, and Arabia.

The extensive excavations at this site are a major source for the study of the architectural, artistic, religious, social, and economic history of the Jews of Palestine and the Diaspora in the Late Roman period.


N. Avigad, Beth Shearim, Volume Three: The Archaeological Excavations during 1953-1958 (1971). In Hebrew. (English edition is forthcoming.)


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