In the 1930s and 1950s, archaeologists excavated a labyrinthine network of burial caves (photo below) carved into the rolling hills of southwestern Galilee, not far from the ancient town of Beth She’arim and about 12 miles east of modern Haifa. When the digging was done, a total of 27 catacombs had been discovered—the remains of a vast necropolis that, between the late second and mid-fourth centuries C.E., was one of the most important burial sites in all Palestine. Here the bodies of numerous esteemed rabbis and their relatives were interred, as were the remains of prominent Jews from all parts of Palestine and the Diaspora.

Most of these bodies were laid to rest inside arcosolia—individual burial niches with arched ceilings cut into the walls of the burial caves. But the catacombs at Beth She’arim contain evidence of other burial methods as well, including the use of stone sarcophagi (photo below). In catacomb 20 alone, archaeologists discovered the remains of 130 sarcophagi. Many of them are ornamented with floral and geometric designs, while some are additionally graced with the sculpted figures of animals (photo above) and even, occasionally, humans. The catacombs have also proved to be a rich depository of epitaphs and inscriptions, most of them in Greek, and of carvings featuring Jewish religious symbols, such as the Torah shrine and the seven-branched menorah (photo below).

The combination of Jewish and Hellenistic motifs in the art and architecture at Beth She’arim attests to the lively interaction of cultures that characterized life in Galilee during the late Roman period. Of particular interest to archaeologists is the fact, conspicuously demonstrated at the necropolis, that many Jews of this period had no objection to artistic representations of animals and humans. Such, as the accompanying article points out, was not always the case in ancient Israel.

The necropolis at Beth She’arim achieved its greatest prominence as a result of its association with the revered rabbi Judah ha-Nasi (Judah the Prince), who is remembered primarily for his redaction of the Mishnah—the compilation of written and oral Jewish legal traditions completed in about 200 C.E. Sometimes known simply as Rabbi, Judah spent many years as a resident of Beth She’arim, where, according to tradition, he not only pursued his work on the Mishnah, but also founded a yeshiva. Following his death in the early third century C.E., his body may have been interred in the spacious monumental tomb known to modern scholars as catacomb 14. For more than a century thereafter, the burial grounds at Beth She’arim served as the central necropolis for Jews of importance throughout Palestine and the near Diaspora, whose bodies were brought from places far and wide to be buried near the remains of the honored Rabbi Judah. The epitaphs at Beth She’arim memorialize the heads of synagogues in Tyre, Sidon and Beirut, in modern Lebanon; the head of the Council of Elders of Antioch, in modern Turkey; men and women from Byblos, Palmyra and Messene in southern Babylonia; and the head of a Jewish community in South Arabia.

Only after Roman legions destroyed the town of Beth She’arim while suppressing a Jewish uprising (the so-called Gallus Revolt) in the mid-fourth century C.E. did the famed necropolis fall into disuse.