Beit She'an revisited

Located in the Jordan Valley, the once-Roman city is a treasure trove of ancient archaeological remains.

beit shean 88 224 (photo credit: Edgar Asher)
beit shean 88 224
(photo credit: Edgar Asher)
As one stands on the highest point of the ancient tel (hill), overlooking the Roman city of Beit She'an, it is hard to imagine that the vista of roads and buildings set out below only reveals about 10 percent of the area of the original city. Since 1986 the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), together with archaeologists from the Hebrew University, have been slowly but surely revealing the wonders of this ancient city and painstakingly reconstructing buildings, installations and streets. The present city, which is located in the Beit She'an national park some 20 kilometers south of the Sea of Galilee, was first seriously excavated in the 1920s. In theory, most of the city could be excavated without having to demolish modern structures. However, it will take many decades to further enlarge and understand the important role of Beit She'an to the Romans and the earlier peoples who inhabited the area. In addition, there is still a lot of work to be done on the existing revealed 10 percent. A no less important consideration is the cost of such large-scale excavations. The oldest part of the area is the ancient tel itself. Archaeologists discovered about 20 settlement strata, the oldest dating back to the 5th century BCE - the Neolithic period. There appears to have been continuous activity up until medieval times on and around the tel. Remains of walled Canaanite cities and temples, as well as later buildings from the Egyptian period are just a few of the treasures that can be seen - but only for visitors prepared to ascend to the top of the tel by means of a modern and well-built staircase starting from the Roman city below. An added bonus, for the more energetic, is an incredible view across the Roman city and the Beit She'an valley below. The Roman connection with the area began about 63 BCE, following their conquest of the region. Beit She'an became one of a group of 10 cities, known collectively as 'Decapolis' (ten cities) on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire in Syria and Judea. All of the cities, except Beit She'an, were constructed east of the Jordan River. The Romans set up the self-governing cities to encourage Roman culture to flourish far from the center of their empire in Rome. The cities were permitted to mint their own coins and each was built in a similar style with a central cardo, temples, theaters, baths and other public buildings. Only Jerash in Jordan and Beit Shean in Israel have left any significant remaining architectural features today of those ten cities. During the revolt against the Romans in 66 CE, the city's Jewish residents were murdered by their gentile neighbors. In the Byzantine period the city became mainly Christian with a population of about 35,000 inhabitants. A severe earthquake virtually destroyed the city in 749 CE and only small settlements remained around the parts of the city revealed today. Following the establishment of the State of Israel, plans were put in place to carry out a long-term excavation of the city. The national park is carefully maintained by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA). Each passing year seems to see more of the city rising from the ground below as walls, colonnades and streets are repaired and placed back in their original positions. Visitors are given a map of the city with a detailed route to follow through the excavations. There are many highlights to see, including the 1st-century 7,000-seat amphitheater, the western bathhouse and the 150-meter long 'Palladius Street' - three tourist attractions all within a short distance of each other. Many artifacts have been found, including many mosaics. A few of these mosaics have been removed to museums, but in each case identical copies have replaced the originals so that the visitor can still appreciate the skill of the artisans who built the city.