Beit She'an ampitheatre, site of many gory, bloody "sports."
Beit She’an ampitheatre, site of many gory, bloody “sports.”

…is one of the hottest places to live on earth, one of Israel’s oldest cities, and Beit She’an also boasts a vast national park of archeology. Just make sure you visit in the winter.

 

Because of its fertility and convenient location, the Beit Shean Valley has been inhabited since antiquity. It is mentioned several times in the Bible.

The earliest occupation dates back to early biblical times. The valley is a part of the Jordan valley, and stretches in a soft slope towards the Jordan, and in the East the Jezreal Valley imperceptibly links with it. The valley has been on the trade route to the east since the earliest times and Beit Shean was just in the right place to control it. It also has a perennial spring, the Harod River. Characteristic fishponds are scattered through the entire valley.

Sacred temple district in Beit She'am
Sacred temple district in Beit She’am

Tel Beit Shean, a part of the National Park on the site, contains 15 subsequent occupation layers. So this means 15 cities jumbled on top of each other! The most important layers are from the Egyptian occupation in Canaan and belong archaeologically to the Bronze Age. The height of the Tel is impressive, 80 meters, but its diameter measures only a few acres. The Tel has been excavated thoroughly from the 1980’s and has harvested some Egyptian objects, but the remains from other periods are rather disappointing.

 

Brief History

As mentioned Beit Shean was controlled by the Egyptians, from the time when Pharaoh Tutmose III (15th Century BCE) made it an Egyptian administrative centre. The city is mentioned in several Egyptian texts, one of them a list of cities that the Egyptians conquered in Israel under the pharaoh Shishak (he is also mentioned in the Bible). The Egyptian occupation lasted for 3 centuries. During this time a temple crowned the top of the tel.

Thereafter it became a Canaanite city. Its first mention in the Bible is also as a Canaanite city. In Judges 1:27 Beit Shean is mentioned as belonging to the conquered area of the Israelite tribe of Manasseh, but in reality the Israelites were not advanced enough yet to be able to conquer a fortified stone city. Besides that, they would have met with the forces of the Canaanites who had chariots, while the Israelites fought on foot.

The Canaanite city was conquered by the Israelites’ eternal enemy, who did ride on chariots, the Philistines, in the 11th Century BCE.

In the famous battle of the Israelites against the Philistines on Mount Gilboa, the dead bodies of King Saul and his son Jonathan were hung on the walls of Beit Shean (1 Samuel 31:10). About this mournful event King David sang his lament, which is one of the best known and moving poems of the Bible (2 Samuel 1:27-27). In his poem David pays homage to King Saul, who pursued David to his death (but did not succeed), and to Jonathan, his best friend “whose love [was] more wonderful than the love of women.”

After this Beit Shean is listed as one of the cities in the kingdom of Solomon (1 Kings 4: 12).

After that nothing seems to have happened anymore (maybe the settlement was moved to Tel Rehov?). There are no sources about Beit Shean until the 3rd Century BCE, when it was a Greek city with the name of ‘Scythopolis’. The name that refers to the Scythes, has not been explained so far.

Probably at this time the city moved to the lower location at the foot of the tel. Under the Syrian king Antiochus IV (the one from the story of Chanukah) the name of the city was changed temporarily again to ‘Nysa’, this was a reference to the Greek god Dionysos, who was said to have been brought up here by his nymphs.

Josephus writes in his Antiquities that the Hasmonean kings also ruled in the city, and that it was destroyed once and rebuilt again during power struggles. In 63 BCE the Roman general Pompey in his victorious march to power in Israel included Scythopolis in his Decapolis, a band of 10 cities which supported the Greek-Roman influence in the region. When the Jewish inhabitants of the city fell into conflict against their Greek neighbours during the First Jewish War, they were massacred.

The city grew enormously in the second Century CE when the Roman sixth Legion was stationed in Scythopolis. At the same time the city became one of the textile centres of the Roman Empire. The linen from Scythopolis was famous. The plant attracted also Jewish peasants from the countryside, but Jewish leaders warned against the corrupting influence of life in a Roman city. Nevertheless Jews kept immigrating to the city. Later Christians joined them, after the Roman Empire had converted to Christianity.

During Byzantine rule the linen workers were reduced to slaves, as the state had full control of the linen industry and could do what they wanted. This resulted in a drift away of skilled linen workers who were in demand in other places. After the Arab conquest the name of the city was changed to the old ‘Beisan.’ The Arabs could not halt the decline of the city, before an earthquake destroyed the city in the 8th Century. Still, a small Jewish community seems to have survived because in 1322 they produced the first Hebrew book on the geography of Israel.