Beit She’an National Park contains the most impressive ruins of a Roman city in Israel. An earthquake in 749 CE caused the Muslim Abbayid city to collapse. Only in the modern era has the magnificence of its Roman buildings been uncovered. These provide a window into how a Roman city looked in this period and how people spent their time.
The ancient city of Beit She’an was 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.
Beit She’an 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. Beit She’an 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 not powerful enough to capture 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; it was destroyed in 732 BCE when the Northern Kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians. It was resettled by the Greeks when 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 of 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 am to 5.00 pm, and Friday and holiday eves 8.00 am to 4.00 pm. It closes 1 hour earlier in the winter. Last entry to the site is one hour before closing time. There is a store, WC’s and picnic area. There is an admission charge. This is their phone number 04-648 1122. Click here for their website.
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 standard in their layout and 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 discovered, although they are not available for viewing. The city was conquered by the Muslims in 635 CE, and in this period Tiberius replaced Beit She’an as the capital of the region. With its decrease in importance, its population decreased under Umayyad rule.
Among the many buildings make sure to see the following:
Theaters were ubiquitous throughout the Roman world, and the one at Beit She’an is the best example found 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 splendid 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. The Romans were very conscientious about hygiene. Water flowed continuously into the city and waste flowed out of it (taps had not yet been invented). Many would go the baths daily. Soap had not yet been invented and people would cleanse themselves by rubbing oil on their bodies and would then scrape this and the dirt off. However, the bathhouse was not only for matters of hygiene. It also had a social function; this is where people relaxed, exercised, met friends and discussed business.
Entrance 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 that produced hot air that circulated under the floor. This can be recognized by 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. They would also go to the courtyard to exercise in the nude.
Underground heating system in the caldarium.
This is the main thoroughfare that linked the theater with the tel. It was called this by its discoverers because they found a dedicatory inscription on the site. At the side of the streets were stores that opened onto a colonnaded and roofed walkway with intricate mosaic floors. The center of the walkway was for vehicles.
Don’t get overwhelmed with everything you see at this National Park, even though it is very impressive. It is unlikely you would have wanted to live here. It was society based on slavery. It is estimated that between 10 to 20% of the population in such cities were slaves. Someone had to do the work while the citizens relaxed in the pools. Some female slaves were 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 where prisoners or prisoners of war were set against animals or gladiators. All of this was to create entertaining spectacles, and they were indeed extremely popular with the population. They would eventually close when the church came to power in in the 4th century.
This amphitheater is situated beyond Scythopolis. 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.
The amphitheater is outside but very close to the main park, and you will need to drive on city rather than park roads. 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 protected one family and not a group of soldiers. However, they could call on the help of larger fortresses, such as at 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.