Northern Sites Stories
Beit She`an - portals to the Garden of Eden...
"If the Garden of Eden is in the land of Israel, its portals are in Beit She'an".
So said Rabbi Simeon Ben Lakish in the third century CE,
and he knew whereof he spoke.
The ancient city of Beit She'an did indeed have an enviable location.
Situated in the lush area of the Jordan Valley south of the sea of Galilee,
the city was built on a rise between two streams, Nahal Harod and Nahal Asi.
These and other streams in the area provided the rich soil and fresh water
that made the Beit She'an Valley one of Israel's most fertile plains.
The two streams also supplied the city with its earliest defenses.
It was a natural choice for settlement, and human habitation in this
area goes back as far as the Neolithic period, 7,000 years ago.
When Egypt and Assyria fought over Canaan, the land bridge that linked them,
Beit She'an's location had additional significance.
It stood on a strategic stretch of the highway linking the northern coast of Israel
with Transjordan. East of Beit She'an, this road intersected the main north-south
road through the Jordan Valley to the Hula Valley and Lebanon.
The Egyptians of the New Kingdom (sixteenth to twelfth centuries BCE) made
Beit She'an the regional center of northern Canaan.
The biblical Song of Deborah relates:
" In the days of Shamgar, son of Anat, in the days of Jael,
caravans ceased, and travelers kept to the byways" (Judges 5;6).
Scholars think that this may be a description of the political unrest that
characterized the end of the Late Bronze Age. This period saw invasions
by the Sea People and the Israelite tribes, and the end of Egyptian rule
over Beit She'an.
According to the biblical account of the division of the land among the
tribes of Israel, Beit She'an was assigned to the tribe of Manasseh.
The tribe was unable to complete the takeover of the city and settled
among the Canaanites there (Josh. 17:11-12, Judges 1:27).
The Book of Samuel reports that after the battle between the Israelites
and the Philistines on nearby Mount Gilboa, the Philistines
"found (King) Saul and his three sons fallen on Mount Gilboa.
They cut off his head, and stripped off his armor…They put
his armor in the temple of Ashtarot, and they fastened his
body to the walls of Beit She'an" (1 Sam. 31:8-10).
King David captured Beit She'an together with Megiddo and Ta'anach.
During the reign of King Solomon, the city was ruled by Israelite governor
Ba'ana, son of Ahihud(1 Kings 4:12). Israelite control continued until the
Assyrian conquest in 732 BCE, after which Beit She'an virtually ceased to exist.
It was not resettled until Alexander the Great conquered the East in the
second half of the fourth century BCE. Beit She'an became a polis (Greek city-state),
and the towering temples, flowing fountains, bustling markets, elegant theater,
and odium that were the hallmarks of a polis and the glory of the later Roman town
may have made their appearances there at this time.
So far, archaeologists have found only scant evidence
of the existence of the Hellenistic city.
Eventually, Beit She'an became the largest of the cities in the regional alliance
known as the Decapolis, and it took the name by which it would be known for
much of the next 900 years: Scythopolis, or Nysa-Scythopolis.
According to tradition, this is where dionysis,
the god of wine, buried his nurse, Nysa.
At the beginning of the second century BCE, the land of Israel changed hands
repeatedly between the Egyptian Ptolemies and the Syrian Seleucids,
the two ruling dynasties that had inherited the Kingdom of Alexander the Great.
Ptolemy Philadelphus II (283-245 BCE), whose name appears on excavated coins,
rebuilt the city in order to guard the strategic crossroads, but in 200 BCE,
after years of fightings, the city fell into Seleucid hands.
From that time onward, Scythopolis began to grow, expanding northward to
what is now Tel Iztabba. When Scythopolis was conquered by the Hasmoneans
in 104 BCE, its citizens were given the choice of converting to Judaism or leaving
the city; they chose the latter.
The Hasmoneans restored biblical name of Beit She'an and repopulated the city.
After the Romans conquered the land of Israel in 63 BCE, Beit She'an returned
to pagan hands, and the name Scythopolis was reinstated. At the beginning of
the Great Revolt (66-70 CE), the pagan Scytopolitans massacred the city's Jewish community.
Scythopolis began to prosper during the reign of Emperor Hadrian (117-138 CE),
reaching its zenith after the Bar Kochba revolt, under Antoninus Pius (138-161 CE)
and Marcus Aurelius (161-180 CE).
Jews returned to the city, and the Samaritans also established a community.
After Rabbi Judah Hanasi ruled that the Jews of Scythopolis were exempt from
the tithing and donation commandments that applied to other residents of the
land of Israel, they were able to compete commercially with their non-Jewish neighbors.
Temples, bathhouses, and theaters were constructed in the city,
and wide, paved roads were installed to connect these sites.
With the arrival of Christianity in the beginning of the fourth century CE,
the city's architecture and lifestyle gradually changed.
The amphitheater, scene of cruel contests between gladiators and animals,
was shut down, though the theater, bathhouses, and fountains continued to
function. Further changes followed the earthquake of 363 CE. The Christian
inhabitants did not reuse pagan buildings that had been damaged, though
most of them were not dismantled. Churches were constructed, but not in
the center of the city, which retained its pagan character.
In the early part of the seventh century, Scythopolis began to lose some
of its luster. Many of the imposing public buildings of the Roman and
Byzantine periods had long given way to more functional structures,
whose purpose was to serve the town's economic needs.
The city's downward spiral continued with the Muslim conquest
of the land of Israel. Soon after the Muslim conquest,
Scythopolis was replaced by Tiberias as capital of the region.
In the early morning hours of January 18, 749, another earthquake struck.
Its effects can be seen today in overturned stones and charred remains in
sites all over Israel and Jordan.
After the earthquake, a small group of refugees returned to rebuild the city.
However, apart from a modest mosque constructed under Abbasid rule (750-970),
remains from the period are few.
The new city was built in 1949 by the Israeli government,
in which new immigrants, mostly North Africans were settled.
The first excavations in Beit She'an were conducted by
a team from the University of Pennsylvania from 1921 to 1933.
The artistic and cultic finds it uncovered comprise one of the most
important collections of objects from the second millennium BCE.
In 1962, a theater from the Roman and Byzantine period was excavated,
and a dig was conducted in the tell's Early Iron Age stratum in 1983.
But large scale archaeological exploration was not resumed until the launch
of the current dig, carried out jointly by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem
and the Israel Antiquities Authority.