Introduction

Have you ever experienced something that you had a hard time putting into words? Beit Lehi is like that. There is something captivating about the place and we want to share that with you.

Location

Map of Beit Lehi
Location map of Beit Lehi

Beit Lehi or Beit Loya is an active archaeological site located about an hour and a quarter’s drive southwest of Jerusalem. It is situated within a geographical region known as the Judean Shephelah, or Lowland, sandwiched between the Judean Hills in the east and the coastal plain in the west. Throughout antiquity, a major road that led to and fro the coastal port city of Gaza passed by the site.

Excavations

Small-scale excavations were first carried out at the site in the early 1980s by the late Prof. Yoram Tsafrir of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, uncovering parts of an impressive Byzantine church complex. The site would then lie untouched for nearly two decades before work would be resumed in 2005, this time under the directorship of Dr. Oren Gutfeld, also of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (and at the time Prof. Tsafrir’s doctoral candidate). Since then, Dr. Gutfeld and his team have carried out an average of two excavations each year, with the generous support of the Beit Lehi Foundation

Name

Almost every town or city is named for something – a person, an event, or a nearby geographical wonder. Beit Lehi is no different. "Beit" in Hebrew means house or dwelling of, while "lehi" means jawbone. This name seems to have originated in biblical times, apparently referring to the traditional resting place of Samson after he slew one thousand Philistines with the jawbone of an ass: "But God clave an hollow place that was in the jaw, and there came water thereout; and when he had drunk, his spirit came again, and he revived: wherefore he called the name thereof En Hakkore, which is in Lehi unto this day" (Judges 15:19).

We suggest to identify the site of Beit Lehi with “Beit Tzedek”, or the “House of Righteousness” mentioned by the 1st-century-AD Jewish historian Josephus Flavius. Josephus recounts how, during the time of the Great Revolt against Rome (66–70 AD), a group of Jewish rebels escaped to a village by this name.

Settlement history

Timeline of Beit Lehi
Timeline of settlement at Beit Lehi

This history of Beit Lehi captures well many of the historical milestones experienced by the Land of Israel throughout her history.

The site was apparently first settled around 800 B.C. (the Iron Age II) as part of the Kingdom of Judah, only to be abandoned during the Babylonian conquest in 586 B.C., and subsequently reoccupied by the pagan Idumeans, who came from the southeast (King Herod was half-Idumean). Around 112 B.C. the area reverted to Jewish control under the Hasmoneans/Maccabees, remaining so into the Herodian, or Late Second Temple, period. Following the First Jewish Revolt against Rome, between 66–70 A.D., the site seems to have been abandoned – to be resettled only some 300 years later, in the Byzantine period, as a Christian village. Although the site remained Christian following the Arab conquest of the Land of Israel ca. 636 A.D., by the late 8th century its Christian inhabitants seem to have been replaced by Muslims. During the following centuries, Beit Lehi seems to have existed as a small, modest village, finally abandoned around the 13th or 14th century. Since then, it lay undisturbed, with centuries of rain and wind doing their best to cover the existing structures.

Subterranean structures

This region of Israel is geologically characterized by a 4-foot layer of hard limestone covering a much deeper layer of soft limestone. It would thus not have been particularly difficult for the ancient inhabitants of the site to carve out large subterranean structures – which would have been cool in summer and dry in the winter. Among our discoveries are an oil press and adjacent Jewish ritual bath (miqveh), a massive dovecote (columbarium), a chapel, a stable, and a number of water cisterns – all hewn from bedrock and all which were filled with centuries’ accumulation of earth and debris. There is still much more to unearth and your financial assistance can help us do so! As we continue to expose these underground wonders, we will provide photos and descriptions, as well as offer tours at the site.