Exploring one of the best-preserved Roman cities in Israel
Located at the convergence of the Jezreel and Jordan Valleys, Beth Shean is one of the best-preserved Roman cities in Israel. Mentioned several times in the Bible, Beth Shean became one of the Hellenized cities of the Decapolis after the region was conquered by the Romans. Although occasionally overlooked by tourists, Beth Shean is remarkable for both its archaeology and history.
Mentioned several times in the Hebrew Bible (Joshua 17:11, Judges 1:27, 1 Kings 4:12), Beth Shean’s only major biblical appearance comes in the account of King Saul’s death, where after being slain, the Philistines hang him and his sons on the wall of Beth Shean (1 Samuel 31). Despite these few references in the biblical text, however, Beth Shean was one of the most important cities in the region, especially during the Roman and Byzantine periods (c. 37 BCE–634 CE). This was in large part due to its location at the convergence of the Jezreel and Jordan Valleys, both of which served as important trade routes in antiquity.
Occupied since the Chalcolithic period (c. 4500–3300 BCE), Beth Shean became an important Egyptian administrative center in the 15th century BCE when it and many other Canaanite cities were conquered by Thutmose III (r. 1479–1425 BCE), as recorded on the temple walls of Karnak. One of the famous Amarna Letters even mentions Beth Shean. Under Egyptian control, Beth Shean was an important garrison town, likely due to its strategic location. In this period, the town was located on the summit of the site’s large mound (tell), which today rises around 300 feet above the surrounding countryside.
During the roughly 300 years of Egyptian control, numerous monumental buildings were constructed, including administrative buildings and a temple. Several large Egyptian stelae have been found on the site from the time of Seti I (r. 1290–1279 BCE) and his son Ramesses II (r. 1279–1213 BCE). These and other stelae from Beth Shean are some of the most impressive finds from the period of Egyptian control in the Levant.
Roughly coinciding with the Bronze Age collapse (c. mid-12th century BCE), the Egyptian site of Beth Shean was destroyed by fire, probably caused by a conflict with local inhabitants. Following this, the site was rebuilt as a Canaanite city. It was only around a century later that the biblical story of Saul’s death took place, although excavations of the site have not yielded remains of any city wall from this period.
Around the beginning of the Iron Age II (c. 1000–586 BCE), the city became part of ancient Israel, and is listed in 1 Kings 4 as a city that owed tribute to King Solomon. Following the death of Solomon, Beth Shean was sacked by Pharaoh Shoshenq I (biblical Shishak), as evidenced in his famous relief at Karnak and by archaeological remains found at the site. Beth Shean would continue as a small Israelite city until it was again attacked, this time by the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III in 732 BCE.
The city was reinhabited in the Hellenistic period (c. 332–37 BCE) when it took the name Scythopolis (meaning “City of the Scythians”). It was in this period that settlement moved from atop the tell to the area below. The city was captured by the Maccabees in the second century BCE.
In 63 BCE, ancient Judea and Samaria were brought under Roman rule by the Roman general Pompey. At that time, the city became part of the league of Hellenized city-states known as the Decapolis, but was the only Decapolis city located west of the Jordan River. In the Roman period (c. 37 BCE–324 CE), Scythopolis greatly expanded and many impressive architectural features were built, including colonnaded streets, a hippodrome, temples, and one of the largest Roman theaters ever discovered in Israel. Ancient texts indicate the city was one of the great weaving centers of the Roman world.
The city continued to flourish in the Byzantine period (c. 324–634 CE), when numerous churches were built and the former religious buildings were either torn down or repurposed. In 409, Scythopolis became the capital of the district of Palaestina Secunda as well as the archdiocese of the province. Many mosaics and luxury villas date to this time, showing the opulence and wealth of a city that had reached an estimated population of around 40,000.
Falling to Muslim forces in 634 under Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab, the father-in-law of Muhammad, the city reverted to its earlier Semitic name, becoming known as Baysan. Following this conquest, the city would enter a period of decline, with many areas of the city reorganized and repurposed. In 749, Baysan was struck by a large earthquake that leveled much of the city. Despite this, Baysan continued to be inhabited until modern times.
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