Beit She'an is one of the oldest, most fascinating Israeli cities. It is located along the Via Maris, the Ancient Orient's most important road, which led from Egypt to Mesopotamia. The city was first mentioned around 1800 B.C. in the Egyptian Execration Texts. Beginning at the Hellenic Period Beit She'am expanded beyond its original location on the Beit She'an mound and renamed Scythopolis. During the Roman age it became a mixed city where different nationals resided. The Byzantine Period marked the zenith of Beit She'an; it became an important Christian city numbering 40,000 residents. An earthquake in 749 reduced the city into a forsaken backwater. Much later, during the late Ottoman Period and early British Mandate, it enjoyed a significant revival.
Beit She'an offers tourists a unique chance to see some of Israel's finest archaeological remains. Our tour here will follow the paths specified in the map handed out at the entrance, so make sure that you have a copy at hand.
The seat of the Ottoman authorities was built in the late 19th Century on the orders of Sultan Abdul Hamid II. Until then, Beit She'an (Arabic: Bisan) was a mere town of the Ottoman Empire. The entrance to the Seraya complex is adorned with columns and capitals from the nearby ancient ruins.
This 2nd-Century site, the name of which means double theater in Latin, was built to hold gladiator fights. Only three rows of stone seats have survived, yet it is likely that many more (made of both stone and wood) stood above them, allowing the site to accommodate up to 7,000 spectators. The seats are located 10.5 feet above the arena so as to prevent the wild animals used in the fights from mauling any viewers. Beneath the arena was a small temple where prayer was offered to the Gods before the fights. Small confined spaces where the animals were held before being unleashed can also be seen.
The Western Bath:
One of the favorite pastimes of local inhabitants was to visit the public baths, where they could socialize while enjoying a dip in hot or cold water. The Western Bath, constructed starting in the 4th Century, is the largest in Israel. It was built for the use of the general public and was open at all hours. Behind the courtyard were rooms where massages could be enjoyed and meetings held. In the 8th Century the baths were destroyed in the great earthquake, and never restored.
The Cardo, or colonnaded street, was the main thoroughfare of Scythopolis. Running from the south to the east, it is half a mile long and 23 feet wide, and flanked by impressive colonnades. It was a bustling commercial center with numerous stores. A famous inscription named a certain Palladius as the ruler who had the Cardo laid out.
The Byzantine conquerors destroyed the pagan temple but did not replace it with a church, leaving the façade intact for decorative purposes. The temple is thought to have been dedicated to Dionysus, as an altar in his honor was discovered in the nearby Basilica. Furthermore, archaeological excavations unearthed four marble statues of the god.
This splendid marble fountain is dedicated to the legendary nymphs, and quenched the thirst of passers-by. The fountain was incredibly wide, measuring an astounding 75 feet. Its main part to survive is the apse, which rises nearly 10 feet above ground. A Greek inscription traces the construction of the Nymphaeum to the 4th Century.
The Main Monument:
The once-majestic structure is adjacent to the Nymphaeum. Its only visible portion to survive is a stone foundation rising 13 feet above the ground. The original shape of the structure has yet been determined, yet is known to have been constructed of different types of marble. Connected to the monument is an impressive basilica, the roof of which was supported by four colonnades. Inside is a hexagonal altar dedicated to Dionysus built at 142 CE. The altar bears the likenesses of Dionysus and Pan.
No less than 20 layers have been unearthed at the mound, representing the different settlements that existed here; the oldest layer goes as far back as 5000 B.C. The remains of a Canaanite town, Byzantine temples, the residence of the Egyptian governor, and a fortress were discovered as well. The mound was the city up until the Hellenic Period. The Romans built a temple to Zeus on the mound; in the Byzantine and early Arabic Periods, it was a fortified suburb of the city.
The east-west oriented Decumanus is the city's longest street. An inscription found here mentioned an attorney named Sylvanus who contributed to the laying out of the street. The 18-piece colonnade stands on a long foundation and adorned with Greek capitals. An elaborate, marble-lined pool was constructed in front of the colonnade. In the Byzantine age the street was raised above its original level and the pool filled in and covered with a majestic mosaic floor.
The Eastern Bath:
This structured served as a public lavatory, consisting of a single room. Some 40 men could use the facilities simultaneously. A large jug containing sand was placed inside for the men to clean their hands. In addition, ampoules containing perfume to overcome the odor were discovered.
This Seleucid structure was built to hold plays and shows. During the Roman age comedies and pantomimes supplanted the morose tragedies the theater was originally built to stage. A theatrical show was the only instance in which people could laugh at the Emperor without suffering severe reprisal. The Beit She'an Theater took advantage of the hilly terrain, and could hold more than 5,000 spectators. The stage was made of wood, and copper jugs were scattered across the theater so as to enhance its acoustics.
The Small Temple:
Behind the Theater is a small temple, where icons of the goddesses of death and nature were discovered.
In the summer evenings the ancient city hosts a unique light and sound show held among the ruins, depicting daily life in the city.
Your visit to the city will not be complete without an excursion to the Valley of the Springs.
Hotels, bed & breakfasts and guesthouses of various classes are found in abundance in and around the city.
1,500 Year old Samaritan synagogue
uncovered in Beit She'an