One day last week, while on the job, I took the liberty of re-visiting a place I had last seen in early 2008. I was on a senior year of high school trip to Israel and one of the places we visited was the Beit Guvrin National Park. One of my favourite sites that we saw on our trip was a Roman amphitheatre, the likes of which I had never seen in my life. Like something out of a movie – on our trip we re-enacted scenes from Gladiator – the amphitheater left quite an impression on me and since moving to Israel I have been eager to revisit the place. It was only about a year ago that I actually confirmed exactly where we went back in 2008 (we were so tired on our trip that we slept everytime the bus took us places, making it hard to know exactly where we were for future reference). So, you can imagine my happiness getting the chance to explore the amphitheatre once again, this time in uniform, and with a gun.
I must say, I did feel this sensation while I was there, this sensation of Jewish pride. Built during the time of Bar Kochba’s rebellion, the amphitheatre was intended to keep the local Roman garrison entertained and content, with bloodsports and the like. So here I was, a Jewish soldier standing on the ruins of the mighty Roman Empire, watching not bloodsports but my own shadow, hearing not screams of tortured violence but the sound of peaceful traffic. I could have stayed there a lot longer.
A little history about the site, the Beit Guvrin – Maresha National Park contains a whole lot more than just a Roman amphitheatre. Some of the park’s sites include ancient cemeteries, a large columbarium (dovecote), caves and ruins of all sorts – all ranging from 2,400 to 1,800 years old. The amphitheatre is actually across the road from the main park area and may be visited free of charge. The park’s boundaries incorporate the ancient cities of Maresha and Beit Guvrin. A city that has been settled by many of the ancient kingdoms, Maresha was re-conquered from the Greeks by the Hasmoneans and was finally destroyed by the Parthian Army from Northeast Iran. After that, a new Jewish city – Beit Guvrin – rose from the ruins. Some 65 years after Bar Kochba’s rebellion against the Romans, Emperor Septimus Severus had the city renamed to Eleutheropolis (“City of the Free”) and built up the city, as the Romans did best. The Jewish population moved back and the city flourished. During the Byzantine era Beit Guvrin became important to the Christians and thus churched were built. Fast-forward to the Crusader times and the city was a small fortified hub. In recent times, the Egyptian Army controlled the area until the IDF took it back in 1948 and now it is a National Park.
This post, however, is just about the Roman amphitheatre as I did not have a chance to visit the full park. According to historical researchers, the amphitheatre was used to house fights between gladiators, slaves and wild animals – the beasts being contained under the amphitheatre until “showtime.” Built to house some 3,500 spectators, I can imagine a scene on a hot summer day where a relentless gladiator, wearing dented metal armour and swinging a heavy broadsword, slashes out at a confused lion or tiger – which actually lived in Israel back then – while the crowd of rowdy Roman soldiers cheered on, goading the combatants to fight… and fight some more.
As one can see in the above photos, there is a whole complex of ruins which sadly I didn’t have the time to explore (neither did I explore them back in 2008) as I was literally “on the job.” One such piece in the ruinous jumble is a large Roman bathhouse which contained several rooms and impressive arches. After the Romans, during the Byzantine era, the amphitheatre was supposed to have been used as a market. And when the Crusaders took over, a fortress was built atop it all. But, as history has shown us time and time again, each ancient superpowers fell one-by-one and all we have left is a fun archaeological site which I’d love to visit again, whenever I get the chance.