Beit Shean National Park has the best-preserved remains of an ancient Roman city in Israel. Scythopolis remained in good condition due to an earthquake, but we will get to it later. Let’s begin exploring!
Note: sometimes Beit Shean is spelled as Bet She’an. Both these names refer to the same thing.
Beit Shean National Park, as the name suggests, is located in Beit Shean, a city in the North District of Israel.
Map of the area:
A drive to Beit Shean from Tel Aviv using toll road #6 will take around 1.5 hours (117 km). You can also drive there without taking road #6 (using only free roads). And in that case, it will take around 1 hour and 40 minutes (116 km).
Haifa is closer to Beit Shean, and a typical drive will take approximately one hour (70 km). Getting from Jerusalem to Beit Shean, there are two main options. The shorter one (2.5 hours and 131 km) will take you along road #1 and #90. If you do not want to drive across the Green line (near Jericho, for example), then you can take highway #1 towards the center and then use, for instance, toll road #6 north. It will be a slightly longer drive (2.5 hours and 159 km). Of course, all times are approximate and may vary depending on the traffic.
If you plan to get around using public transport, then there are two options. You can use the train to get to Beit Shean. And then take a bus, taxi or walk (the distance from the train station to the national park is 3 km). Or you can use buses. Several sites include bus routes of all companies. Moovit is one of them. And they also have an app for smartphones. Here is a link to Moovit, where the endpoint is already set. Enter the starting point, and you will get the updated directions.
Sunday – Thursday And Saturday: 8:00 – 17:00 (16:00 during winter).
Friday and holiday eves: 8:00 – 16:00 (15:00 during winter).
On the eve of Yom Kippur, Passover, and Rosh Hashanah: 8:00 – 13:00.
The entrance fee depends on two parameters. Whether you have a subscription or a combo ticket, and the format of your visit. If you have a combo ticket or a subscription (I covered these topics at National Parks And Nature Reserves), regular entrance will be free. Otherwise, the individual entrance ticket will be:
Adult – 28 NIS.
Child – 14 NIS.
In case you want to visit Beit Shean Nights (we will discuss the night show towards the end of this post), then the price will be 55 NIS for an adult, 45 NIS for a child, and 28 NIS for a subscriber.
If you are going to visit several National Parks, then consider purchasing a combo ticket. You can find additional info at National Parks And Nature Reserves.
Note: opening hours and ticket prices were updated in November 2020. In any case, recheck the official site before visiting.
If I had to describe the weather in Beit Shean in two words, I would say sunny and hot.
When I checked the annual temperatures for Beit Shean, I saw that it rises above 30 degrees C (up to 36 C) from June to September. And it never goes below 10 degrees. Moreover, there is almost no shade in this national park. Moreover, there are many structures, which makes it feel even hotter. Therefore, if you can choose, I would advise against visiting Beit Shean during the summer. And if you have no choice, then come either early or late. In any case, take plenty of water and use sunscreen.
Another option is to visit the night show called Beit Shean Nights (additional details towards the end of this post).
And if you are wondering what the best season to visit Israel is, then the short answer is Spring. In Events And Festivals By Season, you can find both information about Israeli weather and various events.
Here is a short video I created during one of my visits.
What Does Beit Shean Mean?
I was interested in this question, and even after investigating, I did not find a clear answer. While researching, I found several different possible explanations. And here are the two most common:
- According to the English Wikipedia, the word Shean relates to the modern word Sheannanut. Thus, Beit Shean means “House of Tranquillity.”
- According to Hebrew Wikipedia and biblewalks.com, Shean was probably the name of an ancient god. Hence the meaning is “House of Shean,” and it probably refers to an ancient temple to the Shean god on this site.
Beit Shean In The Bible
Beit Shean is mentioned several times in the Bible. For example, at the battle of the Israelites against the Philistines on Mount Gilboa, the bodies of King Saul and three of his sons were hung on the walls of the city.
They put his armor in the temple of Astarte;[a] and they fastened his body to the wall of Beth-shan.
1 Samuel 31:10
Here are a few additional examples:
But Manasseh did not drive out the people of Beth Shan or Taanach or Dor or Ibleam or Megiddo and their surrounding settlements, for the Canaanites were determined to live in that land.
Also in Issachar and in Asher Manasseh had Beth-Shean and its villages, and Ibleam and its villages, and the inhabitants of Dor and its villages, and the inhabitants of En-dor and its villages, and the inhabitants of Taanach and its villages, and the inhabitants of Megiddo and its villages; the third is Naphath.
Here is the map of Beit Shean National Park from the brochure that you receive at the entrance:
Note: you can click on the image to enlarge it.
The suggested route is a cyclic trail that goes through all POI on site. The route starts with the Roman Theater (#1), then continues to Bathhouse (#2), Palladius street to the Tel (#9), and returning using Silvanus street.
History Of Beit Shean National Park
Here is the Historical extract from the Israel Nature and Parks Authority site.
Egyptians, King David, And Alexander The Great
Beit Shean was first settled in the fifth-millennium NCE on a mound south of the Harod Stream, in the heart of a region of great fertility and abundant water, and at what became a major crossroads.
During the Late Bronze Age (16th-12th centuries BCE), the Egyptians made Beit Shean the center of their rule over Canaan. According to the Bible, the Israelite tribes were unable to capture Canaanite Beit Shean. After a battle at nearby Mount Gilboa, the Philistines hung the bodies of King Saul and his sons on the city’s ramparts.
King David conquered Beit Shean together with Megiddo and Ta’anach, and in King Solomon’s day, it became part of an administrative region encompassing the country’s northern valleys. In 731 BCE, the Assyrian King Tiglath-pileser III destroyed the city.
In the second half of the fourth century BCE, at the time of Alexander the Great, Beit Shean was reestablished as a Greek polis, with all the trappings of Greek culture in the East: colonnaded streets, temples, theaters, markets, fountains, and bathhouses.
Later in the Hellenistic period, the city was named Nisa Scythopolis.
In 107 BCE, the Hasmoneans conquered Scythopolis. The pagan inhabitants, who were given a choice to convert or leave, chose exile, and Jews resettled there, restoring the old biblical name Beit Shean. In 63 CE, the Romans took the city, transforming it into an essential member of the alliance of cities called the Decapolis.
During the Great Revolt of the Jews against the Romans (66 CE), the Jews of Beit Shean were murdered by their pagan neighbors, who took over the city and gave it back its pagan name. It developed significantly during the reign of Emperor Hadrian (117-138 CE) and Marcus Aurelius (161-180), and during the Late Roman period, Jews, pagans, and Samaritans lived together there. Magnificent public buildings were built, adorned with inscriptions and statues.
In the fourth century when Christianity became the empire’s religion, the city’s lifestyle changed again. They neglected the amphitheater where gladiators had fought, although the theater and the bathhouses continued in operation. Churches were built, but the center of town retained its pagan character for a long while.
In 409 CE, Beit Shean became the capital of the administrative region known as Palaestina Secunda. The city extended to 1,300 dunams (325 acres) and prospered, mainly thanks to the linen industry, and its population reached an unprecedented 40,000-50,000.
The Decline And Reestablishment
After the Arab conquest in the first half of the seventh century, the city gradually declined, losing its hegemony to Tiberias. Then, in 749 CE, an earthquake rocked the region and devastated Beit Shean–its evidence was prominent everywhere in the excavations. The name Scythopolis was eventually forgotten, and the place became known as Beisan, recalling the ancient biblical name.
The Abbasid period saw a village established here. In the Middle Ages, settlement focused mainly on the rise to the south of the old city center, and the Crusaders built a fortress east of the destroyed amphitheater.
After the founding of the State of Israel, Beit Shean was reestablished and began to grow. The ruins, which are the city’s pride, have undergone major restoration and reconstruction, allowing special events and performances to take place in the ancient streets and theater.
When you enter the site you can find a model of the city:
The entrance is one of the viewpoints of the city. And I shot this Panorama of the city from there.
While looking at the photographs, you might wonder how the town remained in such good condition? Beit Shean is located above the Dead Sea transform fault line, and as such, it is one of the cities in Israel, which is at high risk for earthquakes. And an earthquake occurred in 749 CE. A layer of stones and ground concealed the city. Thus for centuries, nothing was touched (of course, the standing pillars are part of reconstruction).
One of the most impressive structures is the theater (number #1 on the map).
It is a 7,000 seat theater. Only the lowermost tier of seating (out of three) survived intact. Thus, in the photo above, we see about 2,000 seats, and the original construction was three times higher.
As in other Roman theaters, acoustics is phenomenal. If you stand on the stage and talk without a microphone, you will be heard.
Many people confuse between a theater and an amphitheater. Do you know what the difference between the Roman Theater and Amphitheater is? For a full explanation, check out Is Caesarea Amphitheater really an amphitheater? And as you can understand from that post, Beit Shean and Caesarea National Park have theaters. And the only amphitheater in Israel can be found at Beit Guvrin National Park.
As you can see some parts are being reconstructed:
And now we will be leaving the scene and going on to the Western Bathhouse (numbered #2 on the map).
It was accustomed to working out, usually weightlifting or wrestling, before washing. And the square in the photo above probably served for these workouts.
Water was heated using fire and injected inside. This circulation made the rooms above sweltering, basically a sauna.
Since they did not have soap, they covered their body with olive oil and scraped it off with a stick.
But besides the hot rooms, there are many others as well. For instance, after hot places, they visited warm rooms (for relaxation purposes) and then cold plunge baths.
Also, on the premises, you can find many small rooms. Masseurs and hairdressers could have used them.
The large bathhouse was built at the end of the 4th century CE and was in use throughout the Byzantine period. It is 100 m long and 90 m wide. The bathhouse had a courtyard surrounded by porticoes, with rooms facing into it on three sides, from the outside, most of them paved with mosaics of colored marble tiles. The central courtyard served as a palestra – a place for physical exercise. Inside the bathhouse were eight halls and four open bathing pools, surrounded by columns. Fountains stood between the pools.
Note: unless stated otherwise, all quotes were taken from the official site.
It is a 150 meters long colonnaded street.
On its northwest side, there was a covered patio which opens into a row of shops. A dedicatory inscription was found in the portico mosaic. The inscription recounts the construction of the portico in the days of Palladius, governor of the province. Thus this street was named Palladius.
Weather-Related City Planning
I have taken the following photo from a low angle because I wanted to show the slopes. There are two slopes, one to each side, and there is a functional drainage system. Many modern towns in Israel has a worse drainage system than this one from the Roman period. And all this even though Beit Shean does not get much rainwater (average annual rainfall is 344 mm per year).
If I mentioned the weather, I should also say that it is quite hot in this area. Thus, the streets in Beit Shean were straight. Straight roads allowed better wind circulation throughout the city. And again, most modern cities in Israel do not use this simple technique. Only in the last couple of years, there are talks of how the street’s shape and its buildings affect the wind (mainly regarding skyscrapers built along the coastline in Tel-Aviv).
That is quite amazing. The middle part of this column is not touching the ground, and nonetheless, there is grass there. Survival mechanisms are amazing.
Tel Beit Shean
I took the Valley Street to climb Tel Beit Shean, A.K.A. Fortress Mound.
If you are interested in finding out what Does the word Tel means, check out my guide about Megiddo.
After a couple of dozen stairs, you reach a viewpoint where you can find models and drawings demonstrating how some of the buildings of Silvanus Street looked.
In the following photo you can see the model and the remains of Nymphaeum (numbered #8 on the map):
Nymphaeum is a public fountain from the 2nd century. As you can see in the model, there was a pool in front of the building. Water spilled on it. Also, decorative elements were found on the site, and incorporation will be made in the future.
From there I continue the climb, and you can see my previous spot (next to the Palms).
While you climb, you will see many small holes in the sides of the mountain. I thought maybe birds, and after several minutes I saw two guests.
Little bee-eater reaches the length of 15–17 cm, which makes it the smallest African bee-eater. Unlike other bee-eaters, these are solitary nesters, building tunnels in sandy banks.
If I mentioned birds, there are many storks in this area. While I was on site, I saw stork thermals (lift) above Tel Beit Shean. But unfortunately, I was far away at that moment. There is a bird-watching center in Kfar Rupin (their site), which is only several kilometers away.
Almost at the top:
At the viewpoint on top of the Tel:
Modern Vs. Ancient
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, in 2013, the population of Beit Shean was 17,263. And the inhabitants of Scythopolis reached 40,000-50,000 people. As one of the guides told us: “We do not want empty slogans from politicians. We want Beit Shean to reach the same size as Scythopolis.”
Before an earthquake destroyed ancient Beit Shean, 40,000-50,000 residents lived in the city. But, what you see today is only a small part of that city. Archaeological studies show that there is still more underground than discovered. Restoration and digging continue. And every time I visit there (on average every several years), I see new additions. Unfortunately, there is not enough money, therefore work is done at a slow pace.
You can see the modern city above the ancient one. There are documented cases where residents wanted to build new shelters or storerooms, and when they started digging, they found remains of the old city. But, as I mentioned before, there is not enough money, and such findings are usually put on hold until better times.
You might think that the Tel (mound) has only viewpoints, but this is not the case. Archeologists uncovered twenty settlement strata, the most ancient dating from the 5th millennium BCE and the most recent of medieval times.
Best preserved is the Egyptian governor’s house:
The last view from the top and let’s go down.
Getting Down from Fortress Mound
Central monument in front of Valley Street:
In the photo above I have incorporated a woman so that you can have a sense of scale.
I find the following building fascinating (numbered #13 on the map). Probably because by today’s standards, it looks strange. But, before that, try to guess what it is?
The photo above and below shows public lavatories. These public toilets are located next to the theater.
As you can see in the picture above, there is a small courtyard with columns. That is the waiting area. If there were no empty places, people waited and sometimes used this area to close deals.
The photo below gives a closer view of the sitting places, but the exciting part is the water system. There are two different “pipes”: one straight beneath the sitting places, and the second one is much narrower in front of the sitting place, and it was used to wash hands. And I used the word “pipes” to emphasize that there was running water at all times.
Sacred compound (numbered #14 on the map):
And back to the theater.
That ends our cyclic trail, and before talking about Beit Shean Nights, I wanted to give some time estimations. If you are doing an overview tour (without climbing the Tel), then completing the trail will take about one to one and a half hours. And if you are doing a more in-depth visit, it will probably take you between two and a half to three and a half hours.
Shean Nights – The Light Show
As I mentioned before, it is usually hot during the day in this area. But during the night the weather is pleasant. Not sure if the weather is the main reason, but several years ago, a new audiovisual display was created. It is called Shean Nights.
Note: the official name is Shean Nights, but many call it the Night Show or the Light Show.
Since Shean Nights is quite popular, you have to call the Israeli Nature And Parks Authority in advance and make a booking. Their phone number is *3639.
Shean Nights starts with a short movie about the history of Beit Shean. The movie was projected on the theater’s back wall.
Then a guide arrives and you start the tour.
I arrived at Shean Nights with a tripod. And one of the workers asked me to hand in the tripod for the duration of our visit. So, photography is allowed, but if they suspect a “professional photographer,” they might ask you to stop. I asked our guide about it, but he was not aware of any policy.
The tour goes around the cyclic trail, which is similar to the one I mentioned above. With one change, it starts from the bathhouse and ends in the theater.
Also, you do not climb the Tel, as the Tel is not lit.
And here are several additional photos from Shean Nights.
The tour usually lasts about an hour. And that was the duration of other tours during our visit. But since our guide saw that we were enthusiastic about the subject, he made it longer, almost two hours.
Overall, Shean Nights give a lovely short overview tour during the cooler hours of the day. But it is too short for my liking.
If you are already in this area, then consider the following nearby attractions:
- Bet Alfa Synagogue National Park is located at a kibbutz with the same name not far from Beit Shean. And it has one of the most preserved and beautiful mosaics in Israel.
- Megiddo National Park allows you to walk at the remains of Tel Megiddo. It is an ancient city known for its historical, geographical, and theological importance, especially under its Greek name Armageddon.
- Gan Garoo is an Australian thematic zoo in Nir David.
- Jordan Star National Park (Kokhav HaYarden) has Belvoir Fortress, an almost complete Crusader castle.
Hotels, Hostels, And Apartments
In the nearby attractions section, I mentioned only the most popular ones. But there are others as well, and I would suggest taking a look at my Israel Trip Planner for additional info. And if you will be spending more than one day in this area, you will need a place to stay. Here is a link to booking.com with properties in the Beit Shean area.
Beit Shean National Park has the best-preserved ancient Roman city in Israel. It is also an impressive city, but keep in mind that it is boiling in this area during the summer. Thus, I would suggest visiting Beit Shean during Spring or Autumn and preferably not during the hottest hours of the day. In any case, take plenty of water, a hat, and sunscreen.
Moreover, there are guided tours on-site, and I would recommend joining them. Either check in advance or ask about tours when you buy tickets. On several occasions, when we visited during Saturdays, we saw volunteers who offered free tours.
Regarding Beit Shean nights, as long they keep it a one hour show, in my opinion, it is not worth the drive. But if you are staying in the area, then you can add it to your to-do list.
The bottom line is that it is one of the most impressive national parks in Israel. And it is unquestionably worth a visit.
Have you ever visited Beit Shean National Park? Tell us about your experience in the comments below.
That’s all for today, and I’ll see you in future travels!
Additional ResourcesHere are several resources that I created to help travelers:
- Israel Trip Planner is the page that will help you to create your perfect travel route.
- National Parks And Nature Reserves page lists and put all national parks on the map. There is also a top list, information about ticket types and campsites.
- If you are looking for things to do, here are the pages for Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Sea Of Galilee, and Makhtesh Ramon.
- Wondering what events are there in Israel? Here is the Events And Festivals By Season guide.