Beth She'arim, located in the Lower Galilee about 20 kilometers southeast of Haifa, is a town from the period of the Mishnah and the Talmud (the Roman and Byzantine periods) extending over an area of some 100 dunams (25 acres). Known by its Arabic name Sheikh Ibreik, it was only identified as ancient Beth She'arim in 1936 with the start of excavations. During excavations an inscription on a marble tablet was discovered mentioning Beth She'arim's name in Greek, Beisara.
Beth She'arim became a prominent Jewish cultural center when the Sanhedrin, the religious-social leadership body of the Jews, moved there following the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE. Prior to its move to Beth She'arim, the Sanhedrin had sought refuge in the cities of Yavneh Gamnia), Usha, and Shefar'am.
It was at Beth Shelarim that the Mishnah Jewish Oral Law was codified. The Sanhedrin's leader, Rabbi Judah the Prince, the most eminent figure in the Jewish community at the end of the second century and the beginning of the third century CE, resided there. Later Rabbi Judah moved to Sepphoris where he sickened and died but he was brought back for burial to Beth She'arim. Eventually as people sought burial near the great rabbi, an ancient cemetery grew up around his tomb. Most of those buried at Beth She'arim were sages from the land of Israel but numerous inscriptions also note the origin of some of the deceased from the region of today's Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
The town's vast necropolis, carved out of soft limestone, contains more than 30 burial cave systems. Although only a portion of the necropolis has been excavated, it has been likened to a book inscribed in stone. Its catacombs, mausoleums, and sarcophagi are adorned with elaborate symbols and figures as well as an impressive quantity of incised and painted inscriptions in Hebrew, Aramaic, Palmyrene, and Greek, documenting two centuries of historical and cultural achievement.
The wealth of artistic adornments contained in this, the most ancient extensive Jewish cemetery in the world, is unparalleled anywhere. Carved on tomb walls or on the sarcophagi themselves are many depictions of animals, seven-branched candelabras (both incised and in relief), stone and marble statues, scenes from the pagan world, and ships. Especially remarkable are the hundreds of inscriptions, noting names of the deceased, professions, places of residence, energetic curses upon those who would open the tomb, lamentations, and prayers sending he dead on their way to the afterlife.
Most of the dead were placed on shelves carved into the rock, or in stone and marble sarcophagi (especially in Cave 20). Lead sarcophagi were also discovered. Some of the burial systems are huge multi-chambered caves. Caves 14 and 20 are centrally located, with impressive triple-arched facades.
Cave 14, some 44 meters long, contains approximately 30 burial niches, most of them carved into the floor.
Inscriptions mention the sons of Rabbi Judah the Prince, Shim'on and Gamaliel. It may be suggested that the burial place of Rabbi Judah the Prince himself at the far end of this cave. Cave 20 is the largest of all the caves. Its length and width are each about 75 meters. Within Cave 20 were discovered 125 stone sarcophagi, about one-third of which were adorned.
Excavations in the area of the city of Beth She'arim have uncovered five periods of construction: The first extended from the first century BCE to the beginning of the second century CE. The second period spanned the end of the second century CE to the beginning of the third century CE. To this period the large burial systems and the public basilica unearthed in the southwest part of the city may be ascribed. The third period dates from the second quarter of the third century CE until the mid-fourth century CE, during which the synagogue was constructed. This period ended with a conflagration that must have occurred during the repression of the revolt against Emperor Callus in 351 CE. The fourth period is the Byzantine period and it lasted from the mid-fourth century until the end of the 7th century. During this period the city went into decline, and only meager structures were constructed. Such structures also characterized the fifth period, the time of the early Muslim conquest through the Mameluke periods, 7th to 15th centuries.