Beit Shean National Park has one of the largest excavations in Israel. It is unique in that over 18 successive cities have been discovered in the tel. The city of Beit Shean dates back to the 5th millennium BCE.
Beit Shean, in the Northern Jordan Valley, was initially built in 5000-4000 BCE. The Egyptians ruled Beit Shean from the 16th -12th centuries BCE. King Saul tried to conquer it from the Egyptians, but after the battle at Mount Gilboa nearby, the Philistines hung the bodies of King Saul and his sons from the ramparts of the Beit Shean.
King David conquered Bet Shean, and it was under Jewish control until 731 BCE, when the Assyrians destroyed the city. Alexander the Great reestablished the city in the 4th century BCE as a Greek polis. During the Hellenistic period, the city was renamed Nisa Scythopolis. In 107 BCE, the Hasmoneans conquered the city, the pagan residents chose to leave the city rather than convert, and the Jews renamed the city Beit She’an. In 63 CE, the Romans conquered the city.
The Jews of Beit Shean were murdered by their Pagan neighbors in 66 CE, during the great revolt, and the Pagans recalled the Pagan city name. During the late Roman period, Jews, Pagans, and Samaritans lived together and the city flourished. In 363, an earthquake damaged many of the buildings of Scythopolis.
When Christianity became the religion of the area, in the 4th century, the amphitheaters were neglected, churches were built, and the city continued to flourish.
After the Arabs conquered the area in 634, the city was renamed Beisan and fell into a decline. The Roman-Byzantine architecture was neglected, building were built in the streets and the main plaza was converted into a cemetery. In 749, an earthquake destroyed the city. Although a village was there for the next 500 years, the Crusaders built a fortress to the east, known as Belvoir, in 1140, where they stayed for about 40 years, until they were ejected.
During Mamluk rule, in the 1291-1516 centuries, Beit Shean was again a major town in the area. A Jewish community thrived there under Arab rule, but during the 400 years of Ottoman rule, Beisan again lost importance, and fewer than 100 homes were there in the early 1800s. The city of Beit Shean was reestablished after 1948 by the state of Israel.
Excavations began in 1921 by the University of Pennsylvania, and continue to this day. The excavations have revealed at least 18 successive towns built on the tel. The site is remarkable in its size and the number of remains. Here are a few of the highlights:
The theater, built around 200 CE, had about 7000 seats. The theater had 9 entrances, including one for the important guests. At the foot of the stairs for the VIP entrance, is a Roman temple.
The Byzantine bath house had a colonnaded gym with pools and heated rooms. Additional rooms seem to have been used for socializing.
An open air Byzantine market place with individual shops has a mosaic in each room. The main street of the city is paved with basalt, with flagstone covers for the drains. Sidewalks are on each side of the street.
The temple of Zeus was at the summit of the tel. The temple of Dionysos, the city’s patron god, was at the corner.
The Roman amphitheater from the 2nd century was used for gladiatorial contests.
A monastery, a Samaritan synagogue, and many villas contained many mosaic floors. The synagogue was unique in having only geometric designs and abstaining from human or animal images.
Tip: Beit Shean is a national park and is open during the standard times for national parks in Israel. The park is signposted from within Beit Shean city.
Tip: There is an entrance fee.