Beit Shean in Israel. Ruins of the ancient Roman city.

Beit Shean

Beit Shean

Hidden in the holy land of Israel is the modern city of Beit Shean, built on the site of a settlement whose history goes back 4 thousand years. Over the years it has experienced times of prosperity and power, decline and desolation, great losses and battles, one of which was lost forever. An earthquake in 749 almost completely destroyed all the buildings and structures, silencing the city for centuries.

A little history of the ancient city

At the site of the city of Beit Shean, which means “City of the Sun” in Greek, stood the ancient city of Scythopolis, which is one of the oldest in Israel. The fortunate location at the intersection of major trade routes, the large amount of water and the availability of fertile land made Scythopolis a strong and solid city.

The first mention of the local settlement was found in Egyptian papyri and dates back to the 19th century BC. Thanks to excavations that began in the 20th century and continue to this day (and excavated only 10% of the city), was discovered about 20 cultural layers, beginning with the ancient Egyptian. The findings tell a unique and rich history of this forgotten site. For comparison: the ancient city was populated by about 40 thousand people, while in the modern Beit Shean – only 17 thousand.

What can we see in the ancient city?

The main and unified historical attraction of Beit Shean are the excavations of the ancient civilization, where archaeologists have found perfectly preserved objects that anyone can walk around and take pictures:

  1. The Roman Amphitheater (2nd century AD) – which held about 7,000 spectators. The first 14 rows, made of marble and perfectly preserved to this day, were for the elite. Subsequent rows – made of basalt – for the common people, were destroyed, but partially restored in modern times. Throughout the theater, niches and recesses can be seen – sculptures and bas-reliefs were placed there.
  2. The central street of Palladius (600 A.D.) – there are columns on both sides, the left and right being of different styles, which was not characteristic of Roman times. The street paved with stone slabs is 150 m long and runs from the theater to the hill.
  3. The transverse Silvanus street with 20 columns is the main trading place. There are also excavations of local stores, commercial stalls and production visits.
  4. Between the two streets is the central square of the city (5th century AD), which was decorated with a huge number of mosaic images of animals and inscriptions in Greek. What we see is a modern replacement, while the original mosaics are preserved in the Museum of Israel.
  5. At the end of Palladius street are the ruins of a Roman temple (2nd century A.D.) that was destroyed by an earthquake. There are steps leading up to the temple in the Classical style and many inscriptions on the columns. The height of the building is 15 m.
  6. The city fountain of Nymphion (2nd century A.D.), in the center of which there was a wall on a hill. Water from the fountain flowed into pools.
  7. This artificial hill is 80 meters high and can be easily ascended by a paved road. From its height there is a stunning view of the ancient city and the valley of the Harod and Jordan Rivers. The view is especially impressive in the spring when everything around wakes up and blooms. At the top of the hill is a nearly extinct temple of Zeus, there are also the remains of houses.
  8. The complex of baths (thermae) consists of 8 halls (4 in AD) with the area of 900 sq.m. and could accommodate 1500 people at a time.
  9. The public toilet is a remarkable place for 50 people, given that previously there was no division into male and female. The interesting thing is that it was here that important issues were resolved, contracts were signed, etc., and it was the first place to receive a visit.
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The cost of a one-day tour with a visit to the ancient city of Beit Shean is from $28 for an adult and from $11 for children. The price includes transportation, a visit to the ancient city, and a guide.

If you are getting to the excavation on your own, look carefully for a small brown sign as you enter the city. Open-air museum hours are from April to September from 08:00 to 17:00, and from October to March from 08:00 to 16:00. The cost of admission: for adults – $8, for children – $4.

Since 2008, anyone can visit the ancient excavations at night with a unique laser program. Video images accompanied by sound are projected onto the remains of the ancient city. A short film, during which photography is prohibited, gives an insight into the life and ways of the inhabitants of that time. After the movie the guides will offer a night tour of the ruins. Tour times are Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 8:30 to 10:45 p.m., Saturday from 9 a.m. to 10:45 p.m. The cost is $11 for an adult and $30 for a child.

Night show in the ancient city

Where to stay?

There are not many places to stay in the small, modern town of Beit She’an. For example, Gilad’s View Hotel, located at 1 Ben Gurion Street, offers apartments for two people starting at $100 per night.

Where to eat?

There are a huge variety of cafes, restaurants, and pizzerias that offer a wide variety of meals. There is also a McDonald’s. So you can find food to your liking and your wallet.

How to get there?

The city of Beit Shean is located in the northern district of Israel, in the Jordan Valley, about 20 km south of Lake Tiberias.

If you are going to get to the ancient city on your own, then focus on the following routes:

Beit Shean. The ruins of the ancient Roman city in Israel.

Want to feel the glory days of ancient Rome? Then the city of Beit Shean in Israel is a great place to do this. This well-preserved historic monument is one of the best attractions in the country.

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Much of the ancient Roman city is well preserved. The streets with columns and the remains of the temple give you a glimpse of the way of life during Roman rule.

Beit Shean is an ancient Roman town in Israel.

Beit Shean is now part of the Beit Shean National Park.

Roman Theater

Start your tour of Beit Shean with the Roman Theater. It was built during the reign of Septimus Severus, at the end of the 2nd century. The theater is perfectly preserved here.

Roman theater in Beit Shean

It once held about 6,000 spectators. The lower part of the building was built into the ground and had semicircular tiers for seating. The upper part was built on massive supports with nine entrances that lead to a horizontal aisle halfway up the auditorium.

Entrance to Roman theater

The entrance to the Roman theater

The upper tiers of seating are partially destroyed, but the lower tiers are well preserved. There are also large remains of the stage wall. Originally it was decorated with columns and statues.

Tel el-Husn

To the north of the Roman theater you will see Tel el-Husn, the main attraction of the local archaeological excavations.

Excavations in this ancient site in the 1920s uncovered stele and sculptures from the Egyptian period.

Many of the finds, such as the stele of Pharaoh Setos I and the stele of the goddess of war, Anat, are now in the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem. Subsequent excavations since 1986 have produced such important results that Beit She’an has become one of the major archaeological sites in Israel.

View of Beit Shean from Above

General view of Beit She’an from above

Beit She’an has a large number of ruins so it is not possible to see them all in one day. If you have a short trip here planned, then try to make sure that Tel el-Husn is first on the list of sights to see.

Since Beit Shean was destroyed by an earthquake almost immediately after its conquest by the Arabs, the building materials of the ruined city were not used afterwards. This made the job easier for archaeologists who only had to rebuild the walls and buildings destroyed by the earthquake.

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Another well-preserved Roman-Byzantine theater was found in the southern part. It could also hold up to 6,000 spectators. To the north of it is a bathhouse from the Byzantine period. It is surrounded on three sides by colonnades and contains remnants of the original mosaics and marble.

Beit Shean baths

Beit She’an Baths

An excellent example is the mosaic of Tihe (ca. 6th century AD). It was found in a Byzantine building northeast of the baths. It depicts Tihe, goddess of fortune and good luck, with a horn of plenty.

Beit Shean Mosaic

Mosaic of the goddess Tiché

From the baths the steps lead to a columned street connecting the theater and baths with the city center. At its northern end a wide staircase leads to the remains of the Roman temple of Dionysus. To the east of this temple are the foundations and architectural fragments belonging to the nymphaeum and the basilica, which served in Roman times as a marketplace and meeting place. To the southeast of the basilica, a series of monolithic Roman columns and part of a Byzantine street with stores lead to the southern part of the city.

An interesting fact is that nowadays you hardly ever hear the name Tel el-Husn, as it is simply called Beit Shean. That is, in fact, it is the same thing. The modern city of Beit Shean lies to the southwest of the excavations.

Remains of the Byzantine era

Byzantine artifacts were found north of Tel el-Husn, on the other side of the Harod Valley. Here, in 567 A.D., a noble lady named Mary and her son Maximus built a monastery decorated with mosaics.

The entrance goes into a large courtyard with a mosaic covering depicting animals and birds.

Mosaic in Beit Shean

Two Greek inscriptions and in the center – in a circle of 12 figures representing the months – the sun god Helios and the moon goddess Selene. On the left you will see a rectangular room with a mosaic that reads “was completed in the time of Abbot George and his deputy Komitas”.

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Mosaic in Beit Shean

Other mosaics (grape tendrils, hunters, animals) are in a small room opposite the entrance, as well as in the eastern part of the monastery. The tombstones in the sanctuary are signed in Greek.

A few tips

  • Take with you any headgear and plenty of water. It is very hot in this place and there is little shade.
  • The buses of route 961 leave daily from Jerusalem to Tiberias. The route goes through Beit Shean. So it is easy to get to Beit She’an from both Tiberias and Jerusalem.
  • If you have time be sure to visit the fortress of Masada and learn its terrible legend. It’s about 150 km south of the city.

A little history of Beit Shean

American archaeologists from the University of Pennsylvania identified 18 different sites during excavations in 1921-23. The earliest date back to the 4th millennium B.C.

Beit Shean is first mentioned in Egyptian records from the 19th century B.C. After Pharaoh Thutmose III seized the city in the 15th century BC, he greatly fortified it. In the 11th century BC it was conquered by the Philistines. However after 3 centuries the city for unknown reasons was abandoned.

Beit Shean

In the 3rd century BC it was inhabited by the Scythians. Then the city was called Scythopolis. In the 2-1 centuries BC the Jews began to settle there. The Roman consul Gnaeus Pompey in 63 BC declared it a free city, which became a member of the Decapolis, or the Decapolis Ten. This was the name given to the union of ten cities on the eastern border of the Roman Empire.

Under Roman rule, Beit Shean became prosperous due to its advanced agriculture and textile industry. Many historical artifacts testify to this.

During the Byzantine Empire, the city had about 40,000 inhabitants. Most were Christians, but there was also a Jewish community. The Arabs conquered Beit Shean in 639. But soon after the city was destroyed by an earthquake and almost abandoned.

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A prime example of a modern abandoned city is the famous ghost town of Colmanskop in Namibia.

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