The Beit She'an National Park

Explore ancient Roman life in the North

The Beit She’an National Park (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)
The Beit She’an National Park
(photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)
 Those ancient Romans thought of everything. When they took over a region, they sized up the geography and set their formidable resources to work creating urban centers. Engineers planned the layout, laid down roads and set water flowing on top of aqueducts to supply the population’s needs. Architects designed offices, temples, shops, public baths and markets. Manpower was no problem: there were plenty of slaves to hew out stone for construction.
The Romans didn’t neglect entertainment, either. A city such as Scythopolis, standing at an important crossroads for government and trade in northern Judea, provided its residents with a hippodrome for horse and chariot races, later converted to grounds for animal and gladiator games, and an amphitheater for artistic performances that seated 7,000 spectators. Today, the site is the Beit She’an National Park, where intermittent excavations have been in progress since 1921 and will continue, under Israeli authority, with no foreseeable end in sight.
Scythopolis was the capital city of a region that included 10 cities – nine of them east of the Jordan River. The whole area was called the Decapolis. The Romans doubtlessly thought that the powerful capital city, a hub of politics, military might and trade in Judea, would endure forever. But they were only the latest to build over the traces of earlier civilizations in the region. Before the Romans, it had been a Greek city, which in turn was constructed over Israelite, Philistine, Canaanite, and Egyptian remains. After them would come the Byzantines, Crusaders, Arabs, the British and finally modern Israel.
People have always settled in the area, appreciating its plentiful water sources and fertile valleys below, and above, a hill, today’s Tel Beit She’an, that gave a full view of the area – useful for observing local movement and possible enemy incursions. Archaeologists have discovered 20 layers of civilizations in diggings conducted in the tel, the oldest going back to the Chalcolithic period of the fourth millennium BCE.
Imagine an ordinary Roman citizen – a householder with a job in a government office – walking through Scythopolis. Entering the city from the north side, under the tel, he would pass through a sculpted marble gateway. He might have had to step aside and wait for a noisy religious procession winding its way through, marching to the great temple of Zeus on the tel. He would have stopped to refresh himself with a drink at the two-tiered public fountain. If he looked up while strolling through the Cardo (main road), he would have seen a double row of magnificent marble columns supporting a roof that shielded pedestrians from the weather, and imposing buildings with high roofs. When he looked down, he saw floors inlaid with mosaics impervious to the tread of dusty sandals.
All around, sculptured marble panels depicted flowers, gods, animals. Statues to gods stood in niches. The market area and shops near the Cardo teemed with vendors and shoppers. The bathhouses offered exercise rooms, hot and cold baths, massages and even a separate room where, having relaxed the body, a citizen could stimulate his mind with lectures given by local scholars in the library. Or he could have chosen to find a seat at the amphitheater to watch a play. If his need for entertainment included blood lust, there was the hippodrome, where seats were stacked up three meters over the arena for the public to watch in safety as gladiators fought animals – or each other.
The ancients didn’t know that Scythopolis stood on the Dead Sea Transform, a long geological fault making the city vulnerable to earthquakes. There was an earthquake in the year 363 CE, but the city was rebuilt under the Byzantines, who followed the Romans. At the city’s historical peak, it was surrounded by a thick wall, covered 400 acres and housed 40,000 people, including Jews. Remains of two synagogues have been found.
The event that stands out in biblical Beit She’an is the defeat of King Saul and his sons at nearby Mount Gilboa. The triumphant Philistines took the bodies of the Jews to Tel Beit She’an and hung them on the walls for all to see.
The Umayyads of Arabia conquered Scythopolis in 635 CE and renamed it Beisan. They also moved the capital to Tiberias, leaving Beisan to deteriorate into relative insignificance. In 749, a massive earthquake shook the Golan, destroying Beisan in its wake.
We know that the destruction was the result of an earthquake, not fire nor war, because the Roman marble columns tell us so. When the earth shook, the pillars fell, all lying in an east-towest direction. This could only have occurred as the result of a violent earthquake.
Tour guide Avi Taranto remarked to In Jerusalem, “Earthquakes, unlike sieges, may make everything fall over, but they also leave more for archeologists to discover in later years. More than a hundred years prior to the earthquake, the Umayyad caliphs had moved the regional capital from Beit She’an to Tiberias. As a result, no great investment was made in rebuilding Beit She’an, and its stones were not removed to be used in nearby cities. Thus, we have the largest preserved Roman theater in the Middle East in Beit She’an.”
The survivors vacated the city. Its devastated streets and buildings remained as they were through the ages, with skeletons on the ground, until modern Israeli authorities removed the dead from the site and brought them to respectful burial. Today the site is designated as a national park, with ongoing excavations and part of the ancient town reconstructed. Many columns have been restored and lifted back onto their stands, crowned with their carved capitals. Most were left as they fell, to illustrate the event for visitors. Most of the residential area is still underground, and part of modern Beit She’an stands over it. One might be munching falafel and ordering a Coke on top of a Roman clerk’s villa.
One of the first things you’ll come upon on entering the park is a model of the ancient city. Study it to get orientated. Then enter the amphitheater through one of the vomitoria, which have nothing to do with Romans emptying their stomachs but are narrow arched entrances that allow access the tiers of seats, one person at a time. It was an efficient crowd control system. Notice the square holes between seats where wooden pillars supported a roof that kept the sun off the spectators. Naturally, performances were given by daylight. Test the acoustics; they’re still pretty good.
There were two bathhouses. You can view the heating system of the western bathhouse, which consisted of clay cones that were constantly subjected to hot air from a furnace, the floor of the bathhouse being laid over them. A display of ancient hygiene tools is encased there, with a curved strigil (a curved blade for scraping oil off the body after a workout), tweezers and ear cleaners. The adjoining public latrine always intrigues tourists.
Walk along the Cardo, with its basalt floor wide enough for a wagon or chariot to run along, and its mosaic sidewalk. To the side, you can see large niches where shops stood. Walk further to the Sigma, a semicircular space in front of 12 basalt stone buildings. In the center building you’ll find a mosaic floor depicting the city’s patroness, the goddess Tyche, crowned with the city gates and holding a horn of plenty. There’s the Nymphaeum, the remains of a public fountain where thirsty people could drink and douse their heads in clean water. Observe the Roman temple ruins and more buildings, mosaics and community centers. A walk through the area takes two to four hours.
Scattered over the site are helpful visual guides, but the way to get the most out of the visit to Beit She’an National Park is to go with a guide. Weekday group tours cost NIS 500 at the time of this writing, but individuals and families can join free guided tours at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. The weekend guides are local volunteers who have passed an eight-month course. Hardy visitors can climb up to the top of the tel to view Egyptian, Roman and Crusader ruins and to view the entire ancient city laid out below.
There is also the spectacular nighttime sound-and-light show. Nissim Badosh, manager of the site, told In Jerusalem, “Seeing the site at night is a thousand times more beautiful than seeing it by day. It’s similar to the sound-and-light show at David’s Citadel in Jerusalem.” He adds that two-thirds of the visitors are tourists.
There’s a 10-minute video that sums up the site’s history, followed by a walk through the site for one hour. You’ll be immersed in special effects of Romans passing, shops, chariots rumbling, the noisy market, the city fountain spouting water. At the end, you return to the dramatically lit amphitheater, where everyone can be an actor for six minutes. The nighttime shows start at nightfall and a new one starts again every half hour.
Now is the time to visit the site by day, because it’s uncomfortably hot in summer. Make sure to bring plenty of water, or to buy some at the kiosk by the entrance. The night tour is by reservation only (see below for contact details). The site is partially disabled accessible.
Beit She’an National Park opening times:
April-September: Saturday- Thursday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
October to March: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Entrance fees:
Adult: NIS 28
Child: NIS 14
Group (over 30): Adult – NIS 23, child – NIS 13
Entrance fees for the night tour:
Adult: NIS 55
Child: NIS 45
Member: NIS 28 Student / regular soldier: NIS 45
For reservations: (04) 658-7189 or *3639; call between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.
See the park’s website for more information: ParksAndReserves/betshean