Beit Shean National Park has probably the best preserved ancient Roman city in Israel. This impressive city remained in good condition due to an earthquake, but we will get to it later.
Also, by visiting Beit Shean, I am closing a loop. When I started this blog, my first post was about Beit She’an National Park. And today, in this post, #130 two and a half years later, I am returning to the same place.
Beit Shean National Park (official site) as the name suggests, is located in Beit Shean, a city in the North District of Israel.
Map of the area:
History of Beit Shean National Park
Historical extract from Israel Nature and Parks Authority site (official 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 or converting or leaving, 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. Grand public buildings were built, adorned with inscriptions and statues.
In the fourth century, when Christianity became the religion of the empire, 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 pride of the city, have undergone major restoration and reconstruction, allowing special events and performances to take place in the ancient streets and theater.
At The Entrance
While looking at the photographs you might wonder, how come the town remained in such good condition? Beit Shean is located above the Dead Sea transform fault line, and as such, is one of the cities in Israel that 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).
It’s 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, the acoustics is phenomenal. If you stand on the stage and talk, without a microphone, you will be heard.
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 didn’t have soap, they covered their body with olive oil and scraped it off with a stick.
But beside the hot room, 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 or 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: all quotes were taken from the official site.
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 wanted to show you the slopes. There are two slopes, one to each side and there is a functional drainage system. Many modern towns in Israel have worse drainage system than this one from the Roman period. And all this despite the fact that Beit Shean doesn’t get a lot of rains (average annual rainfall is 344 mm).
If I mentioned the weather, then 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 don’t use this simple technique. Only, in last couple years, there are talks of how street’s shape and its buildings affect the wind (mainly in regards to skyscrapers that built along the coastline in Tel-Aviv).
Climbing to Tel Beit Shean
I took the Valley Street to climb Tel Beit Shean, A.K.A. Fortress Mound.
After a couple of dozen of stairs, you reach a viewpoint where you can find models and drawings of 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.
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, making 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.
Modern Vs. Ancient
According to 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 don’t 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 slow pace.
You can see the modern city above the ancient one. There are documented cases where residents wanted to build new shelters/storerooms, and when they started digging, they found remains of the old city. But, since as I mentioned before there is not enough money such findings 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 from medieval times.
Getting Down From Fortress Mound
In the photo above I have incorporated a woman so that you can have a sense of scale.
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 watering system. There are two different “pipes”: one straight beneath the sitting places and the second one is much narrow one 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.
Beit Shean Nights
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 on site. It is called Beit Shean Nights. I visited Beit Shean Nights as a part of a company event. Thus, it might be a little different for a private visit, but I will tell you my experience so that you will know what to expect.
We sat behind the theater and saw a short movie in Hebrew about the history of Beit Shean. The movie was projected on theater’s back wall. Here is the official film:
When the film ended a guide came up, and we did a short tour around the city. Most of lower city was lighted, and it was a pleasant experience. The only downside is that it was too short. We did not have time to wander by ourselves, and both the movie and tour lasted about an hour.
To buy tickets, you have to call Israeli Nature And Parks Authority. For additional info visit official site.
Beit Shean National Park has probably the best preserved ancient Roman city in Israel. It is also an impressive city, but keep in mind that during the summer it is boiling in this area. 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 and use 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. Several times, when we visited during Saturday’s, volunteers were making free trips. 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.
Have you ever visited Beit Shean? How was it? Tell us in the comments below.
That’s all for today, and I’ll see you in future travels!