Beit She’an National Park contains the most impressive Roman ruins in Israel. An earthquake in 749 CE caused the Muslim Abbayid city to collapse, but many of its public buildings were Roman structures. In the modern era the magnificence of these buildings has been uncovered and they provide a window into how a Roman city looked and how people spent their time in the Roman period.
Beit She’an is located in the water-rich and fertile Beit She’an Valley in the Jordan Rift Valley two miles from the Jordan River. Its importance related to it being located at the confluence of two important roads – an east-west road leading from the Jezreel and Harod Valleys to Trans-Jordan and thence to Damascus and Mesopotamia and a road running the length of the Jordan Valley linking Jerusalem to Tiberias and Lebanon.
This city has seen almost continuous human habitation from the Neolithic period onwards. Settlement was initially on the tel, which is to the north of the Roman ruins and which overlooked Nahal Harod. It was the seat of Egyptian rule during the Canaanite period from the 16th to 12th centuries BCE. At the time of Joshua, it was allotted to the tribe of Manasseh, but they were unable to conquer it (Joshua 17:11-12) and it did not come under Jewish rule until the time of David and Solomon. After the split of the Jewish kingdom, it remained under the control of the Northern Kingdom and was destroyed in 732 BCE when the Northern Kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians.
Beit She’an was resettled by the Greeks after Alexander the Great came to Israel and it became a Greek polis or city state. It was the largest city of an alliance of cities called the Decapolis, which included Sussita. The city was then known by its Greek name Scythopolis. It was subsequently taken over by the Hasmoneans in 104 BCE and repopulated as a Jewish city that was now known by its biblical name Beit She’an. When Pompei conquered Israel in 63 BCE, the city again became pagan and returned to its Greek name of Scythopolis. Its Jewish inhabitants were massacred during the Great Revolt, although they did not participate in it
VISITING ANCIENT BEIT SHE'AN:
Directions: Enter “Beit She’an” into Waze and click on “Bet She’an National Park.”
Admission: This is a site of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. It is open Sunday to Thursday and Saturday 8.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m., and Friday and holiday eves 8.00 a.m. to 4.00 p.m. It closes 1 hour earlier in the winter. Last entry to the site is one hour before closing time. There is a store, WCs and a picnic area. There is an admission charge. This is their phone number 04-648 1122. Click here for their website.
Public transport: A number of bus lines go to Beit She’an from the major cities. Enter “Beit She’an National Park” into Moovit. The National Park is a 900-meter walk from the stop in the city.
Shean Nights is a spectacular audio-visual experience in 3-dimensions that uses the ruins of Beit She’an to create the experience of actually being in historic Beit She’an. It is held Monday to Thursday, beginning just after dark. Reservations can be made by calling 04-648 1122 8.00 am to 4.00 pm.
Silwan St. and the tel in the background.
Roman cities were pretty standard in their type of public buildings. There were usually temples, a theater, at least one bathhouse with flowing water, and often an amphitheater. Scythopolis continued to grow in the Byzantine period, and except for the temples, the Roman public buildings maintained the same functions they had in the Roman period. Jews also returned to the city, although it was now Christian. Remains of a synagogue have been found, although these are not available for viewing. The city was conquered by the Muslims in 635 CE, and Tiberius then replaced Beit She’an as the capital of this region. With its decrease in importance, its population decreased under Umayyad rule.
Among the many buildings here make sure to see the following:
Theaters were ubiquitous throughout the Roman world, and this one at Beit She’an is the best example in Israel. This theater was built at the end of the 2nd century CE, although it was constructed on top of a theater from the 1st century CE. It is here that the people of Beit She’an were entertained with comedies, dramas, pantomimes, choral events, and public events. It had seating for 7,000 people and the audience was usually segregated by class, gender, nationality and profession. This may account for there being 8 arched entrances. The tel can be seen in the background, but this would not have been the case when it was operative. Rather, there was an elaborate 2 to 3 storied 21-meter-high structure in the front of the theater supported by marble and granite columns. This, together with its enclosed semi-circular design, would have created excellent acoustics. It continued to function throughout the Byzantine period, although the Church authorities were not enthusiastic about its performances.
There are two public bathhouses here. The western one by the main Palladius Street thoroughfare is the best preserved. Romans were very conscientious about hygiene. Water flowed continuously into the city and waste flowed out (taps had not yet been invented). Many people went to the baths daily. Soap had not yet been invented and people would cleanse themselves by rubbing oil onto their bodies. This and the dirt would then be scraped off. However, the going to the bathhouse was not only for hygiene. It also had a social function, in that this is where people relaxed, exercised, met friends and discussed business.
Entrance to the bathhouse was inexpensive and open to all, except perhaps slaves. Users would undress and then enter the steam room for sweating (the caldarium). This was heated by a furnace producing hot air that circulated under the floor. You can recognize this by the numerous small pillars under what would have been the floor. Customers would then relax in a warm room, the tepidarium. Finally, there was a plunge or swim in a cold pool. People would also go to the courtyard to exercise in the nude.
The underground heating system in the caldarium.
This was the main thoroughfare that linked the theater with the tel. It was called this because of a dedicatory inscription found at the site. At the side of the street were stores that opened onto a colonnaded, roofed walkway with intricate mosaic floors. The center of the walkway was for vehicles.
The columns on Palladius Street with the tel in the background.
The mosaics on Palladius St.
Don’t get overwhelmed with everything you see here, even though the buildings are very impressive. It is unlikely you would have wanted to live here. It was a society based on slavery. It is estimated that between 10 to 20% of the population in Roman cities were slaves. After all, someone had to work while the citizens relaxed in the pools. Some female slaves were also forced into working in public brothels.
There were also amphitheaters, particularly if legionnaires were stationed in the city. This is where blood sports were held – not gladiators against bulls, but gladiators against each other and starved exotic animals against each other and against humans. There were also executions when prisoners or prisoners of war were set against animals or gladiators. All this was designed to create entertaining spectacles, and they were popular with the people. When the church came to power in in the 4th century all this was discontinued.
The amphitheater is outside but very close to the main park, and you will need to drive on city rather than park roads. It was originally built as a hippodrome for horse or chariot races, but converted into an amphitheater in the 2nd century. This would explain why it is so big. The name amphitheater is Greek for a theater with seats on all sides, as distinct from a semi-circular theater. It could seat 5,000 to 7,000 people. This also collapsed in the earthquake of 749 CE. Many of its building stones were later used by the Crusaders for building the nearby Crusader fort.
Directions to the amphitheater: Enter “Helena” into Waze, press on search, and click on “Helena Bar & Res בית שאן.” There is parking on the road close to this restaurant that overlooks the amphitheater. Close by are the ruins of a Crusader fortress.
The Crusader fort was built on the highest location in the city and was built for one family and not a group of soldiers. However, they could call on soldiers from larger fortresses, such as Belvoir at Kochav Hayarden, if the need arose. Its moat probably contained water.
By the amphitheater you are already in modern day Beit She'an and close to stores and restaurants.