When they say “History is underfoot”, they must have Israel in mind. You can’t dig more than a few feet anywhere in this country without turning up antiquities of some sort. In this case, we’re talking about the recently opened section of the Beit She’arim (House of Gates) catacombs, nicknamed “The Menorah Caves”,which we visited on an atypically cool, cloudy and occasionally rainy Saturday morning.
Each of the catacombs varies in size and number of burial places, the largest being the “Horseman’s Cave” with about 380 burial niches at various levels in 16 corridors. The original “residents” of these catacombs came from as far away as Yemen in order to be buried alongside some of Judaism’s greatest scholars. (Celebrity Catacombs?) Like the tomb of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, the most impressive catacomb on site, many of the entryways still have their original stone door, which swings on a stone hinge, has a “deadbolt” and is made to look like a wood door reinforced with iron plates and studs.
Originally explored in the 1930′s and 40′s, funding to develop this area of the catacombs for visitors was only received within the last few years and opened to the public late 2009. Visits are presently limited to about 2 dozen people per tour, so if you love squeezing through really small doorways to check out burial caves, make sure to sign up in advance with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and bring your flashlight.