Beit Shean, Archaeology in Israel

    January 2001            
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Beit She'an, Archaeology in Israel


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Beit Shean

By Jacqueline Schaalje

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.

There are many mounds in the valley, which contain cities from the past lying buried in them. Beit Shean is probably the most important of these. 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.

When the excavations in Beit Shean ended, only a few years ago, archaeologists moved to another Tel in the Valley, in search of settlements from the Israelite monarchic period. This Tel, called Tel Rehov, lies 5 kilometres to the south. Its name is not mentioned in the Bible, but the discoveries made in only a few seasons of digs bring to light that it was a main city in the Canaanite and monarchic period. This Tel is much bigger than the one in Beit Shean, in fact it is one of the biggest in Israel. The finds have been very rich: lots of interesting objects of Canaanite, Philistine and Israelite make. There are ample remains of buildings, which date to the times of David and Solomon and the kings of the Divided Monarchy after them, Omri and Ahab (11th-10th Centuries BCE).

Tel Rehov was destroyed by the Assyrian invasion in 732 BCE. Traces of the destruction have been found in a tumbled-down mud-brick wall, which defended the city, and also in 8th Century houses. After this period the Tel was not inhabited anymore.

Tel Rehov has now become the major site for study of the Iron Age (the time of the Israelite monarchy) in Israel. As the excavations are continuing this year, it is a site to watch with interest. A word of warning for the visitor: Tel Rehov and also the Tel in Beit Shean National Park are not very interesting if you're not a professional archaeologist. The Tel of Beit Shean gives a magnificent view of the old lower city, but on the summit you can only see some holes in the ground.

Why then do so many visitors flock to the National Park of Beit Shean? They are not coming for the Tel's, but for the ancient city that was excavated already a long time ago and which forms the best preserved Roman-Byzantine city in the land. Everybody knows the pictures of beautiful white marble pillars lining ancient streets. Also there is a magnificent theatre and some marvellous floor mosaics.


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.


The Park

Beit Shean park seems a bit overwhelming at first glance and in the summer it can be very hot as the city lies in the low-lying valley like a frying pan.

The first site along the route is the huge theatre, built around 200 CE. Although the middle tier has been robbed, and the upper tier has blown off altogether, the preservation is impressive. There used to be seats for 7000 spectators. A stairway on the east side gave access to the theatre for VIPs, and besides that there are 8 other entrances for the common folk. The theatre stayed in use until the Byzantine era. At the foot of the VIP stairs are a Roman temple and a fountain house.

At the back of the theatre, across the street, lie the remains of the biggest Byzantine bath in Israel. They show that exercise madness is from all times: there was a huge colonnaded gym which looked like a temple with swimming pools and heated halls to extract sweat from the body on three sides. The northern rooms were unheated and used for socialising. A monumental entrance leads out to the street.

At the northeast corner of the bathhouse there used to be a small Roman tfor musical perfo. However a later Byzantine building is partly built on top of it, and thereby destroyed it. The Byzantine construction is built in a semicircle consisting of an open market with separate rooms (for shops probably), each of which contains a mosaic. One of the rooms holds a marvellous mosaic of Tyche, the Roman goddess of good fortune. Her crown is a walled city (Scythopolis) and in her hand she holds the horn of plenty, full to the brim with riches. In some of the other rooms archaeologists were busy working during our visit. They are not digging for deeper layers, but restoring the mosaics in its original appearance. In the future there should more to see here.

Outside we step onto the main street of the city. It is paved with basalt slabs, in the middle, flagstones cover a drain. On both sides of the street are sidewalks. Along the western side of the street were shops. Leading to the Tel, the street winded along the whole Tel (this cannot be seen today).

At the Tel, stairs led up to the temple of Zeus, which stood at the summit. The remains at the corner of the street are of the temple of Dionysos, the city's patron god. It had four columns of 10 meter high which supported a triangular stone. Inside steps lead up to the temple itself which rests on a podium.

Next to the temple of Dionysos was a nymphaeum, a decorative fountain. The structure is made from basalt lined with limestone.

Next to it along the street leading eastward is a large public building which was used in Roman times as a sort of roofed forum to do the business of the city. In Byzantine times it was renovated and used as a large market or in the Greek word 'agora'. On the sides were covered shops. On one side lies a beautiful mosaic of a lion.

Next to the market lies another street, and on the other side is another (!) Byzantine public bath. North of this bath lie the eclectic remains of a building that was built in Roman times and then renovated in the Byzantine era. The Roman building was a large ornamental stepped pool, decorated with tall columns. Later it was converted to a row of shops.

There is also a Roman amphitheatre dating from the second Century CE outside the National Park, it can be found a little north of Shaul Hamelech street. This served to entertain the Roman sixth legion and showed gladiatorial and hunting contests. To the north of the Tel is also a monastery with well-preserved mosaic floors, which belongs to the Byzantine city.


from the January 2001 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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