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Beit She’an National Park contains the most impressive Roman ruins in Israel. An earthquake in 749 CE caused this Muslim Abbasid city to collapse. Many of its public buildings had been Roman structures. The magnificence of these buildings has been uncovered in the modern era and these structures provide a window into how a Roman city looked and how people spent their time in Roman times.

Ancient Beit She’an is located in the water-rich, fertile Beit She’an Valley in the Jordan Rift Valley two miles from the Jordan River. It was strategically located at the confluence of two important roads – the east-west Via Maris 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 that linked Jerusalem to Tiberias and Lebanon.


The city has seen almost continuous human habitation from the Neolithic period onwards. Settlement was initially on the tell, which is to the north of the Roman ruins overlooking the Harod Stream. The tell was the seat of Egyptian rule during the Canaanite period from the 16th to 12th centuries BCE.  At the time of Joshua, the city was allotted to the tribe of Manasseh, but they were unable to conquer it (Joshua 17:11-12). It did not come under Jewish rule until the times of David and Solomon. After the split of the Jewish kingdom, it remained under the control of the Northern Kingdom. The city was destroyed in 732 BCE when the Northern Kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians.


Beit She’an was resettled by the Greeks at the time of Alexander the Great 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 and its name changed back to its biblical name Beit She’an. When Pompei conquered Israel in 63 BCE, the city became pagan and its name reverted to the Greek Scythopolis. Its Jewish inhabitants were massacred during the Great Revolt against Rome, although they did not participate in it.


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, restrooms and 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 major cities. Enter “Beit She’an National Park” into Moovit. The National Park is a 900-meter walk from the bus stop in the city.


Shean Nights is a spectacular audio-visual experience in 3-dimensions that utilizes the ruins of Beit She’an to create the experience of being in historic Beit She’an. It takes place Monday to Thursday, beginning just after dark. Reservations can be made by calling 04-648 1122 from 8.00 a.m. to 4.00 p.m.

Silwan St and the tel.jpeg

Silwan St. and the tel in the background.

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Roman cities were very similar in their public buildings. They had 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, its public buildings maintained the same functions they had in the Roman period. Although now Christian, Jews returned to the city during this time. The ruins of a synagogue have been discovered from this period, although they are not available for viewing. The city was conquered by the Umayyad Muslims in 635 CE, and they made Tiberias, rather than Beit She’an, the capital of this region. Given its decrease in importance, its population decreased under their rule.


Among the many buildings here be sure to view the following:


The theater:

Theaters were ubiquitous throughout the Roman world. The theater at Beit She’an is the best example in Israel. It was built at the end of the 2nd century CE, although it was constructed on a previous theater from the 1st century CE. It is here that the people of Beit She’an were entertained with comedies, dramas, pantomimes, and choral events. Public events were also held. It had seating for 7,000 people and the audience was segregated by class, gender, nationality and profession. This may account for there being 8 arched entrances. The tell can be seen in the background, although 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 the performances.


The bathhouses:

There are two public bathhouses in this park. The western one by the main Palladius Street thoroughfare is the best preserved. Water flowed continuously into the city and waste flowed out (taps had not yet been invented). Romans were very conscientious about their hygiene and many went to the baths daily. Soap had not yet been invented and people would cleanse themselves by rubbing oil onto their bodies. This and dirt would then be scraped off. Going to the bathhouse was not only for hygiene. It also had a social function and this is where people relaxed, exercised, met friends, and discussed business. 

Admission 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 hot air from a furnace that circulated under the floor. Note the numerous small pillars under what would have been the floor where the hot air circulated. 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.

Palladius Street:

This was the main thoroughfare that linked the theater with the tell. It was given this name because of a dedicatory inscription found at the site. On 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.

Palladius street.jpeg

The columns on Palladius Street with the tel in the background.

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The mosaics on Palladius St.

The amphitheater:

It all looks very impressive, but it is unlikely you would have wanted to live here. This 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 do the work while the citizens relaxed in the bathhouse. Some female slaves were forced into working in public brothels.


Some cities had amphitheaters, particularly if legionnaires were stationed there. 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 fought 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 the 4th century this was all discontinued.


The amphitheater is outside but very close to the main park, and you will need to drive on city rather than park roads to get there. 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. Like the other buildings, it collapsed in the earthquake of 749 CE. Many of its building stones were used by the Crusaders for building the nearby Crusader fort.


Directions to the amphitheater: Enter the restaurant “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 one family lived here and not a group of soldiers. However, they could call on soldiers from larger fortresses nearby if the need arose, such as Belvoir at Kochav Hayarden. Its moat probably contained water.

Amphitheater at night.jpeg

By the amphitheater you are already in modern day Beit She'an and close to stores and restaurants.

Links to the HOME PAGE and best family activities, hikes and historic sites in the GOLAN, EASTERN GALILEE, UPPER GALILEE, LOWER GALILEE, JORDAN VALLEY & LAKE KINNERET, the SHEFELAH, TEL AVIV-YAFFO and surroundings, NORTH of TEL AVIV, and SOUTH of TEL AVIV.

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