Beit Shean is one of the oldest cities in Israel. Over 20 layers of human civilization are tucked away inside its large ancient tell or mound. Spread out to the south below Tel Beit Shean are the extensive ruins of a magnificent Roman city. Beit Shean had all the necessary ingredients for an ancient city. It was built on a hill, rising above the banks of the perennial stream of Nahal Harod, surrounded by fertile agricultural land and at the junction of major ancient roads.
Beit Shean – Historical Background
Beit Shean was already a major urban center in antiquity, the ruins of several Canaanite temples were discovered on the tell. During the Late Bronze age Beit Shean was a seat of Egyptian rule in the region. Beit Shean remained a Canaanite city after the Israelite conquest of the country. It became infamous in the Bible after the bodies of Saul and his sons were hung from its walls.
Later conquered by David, Beit Shean was an important regional administrative center during the reign of Solomon.
Following Alexander the Great’s conquest of the region, Beit Shean became a Hellenistic city and was renamed alternately: Scythopolis, the city of the Scythians or Nysa, after the wine god Dionysus’ nurse, who was reputed to have been buried there.
Late in the 1st century Beit Shean became a flourishing Roman city with a mixed population of Jews, pagans, Samaritans and later Christians as well. The only city of the Decapolis (a regional league of 10 Roman cities) located in Israel, Beit Shean went on to be a provincial capital in Roman Palestine in the 4th century C.E. The city continued to flourish in the Byzantine period, when its population may have reached as many as 40,000. Beit Shean was destroyed by an earthquake in 749 C.E. and would remain a relatively small rural town for the next 1,200 years.
Touring the Bet Shean Ruins
The ticket booth at the park entrance will provide you with a good fairly detailed brochure, containing a site map.
We recommend beginning at the impressive Roman theater and then proceeding on to the extensive bathhouse complex immediately to its west. After exploring the hypocaust style bathhouse, continue to the ancient street below to the east dubbed ‘Palladius’, on the basis of a dedication inscription found in its portico.
Follow the street north to the junction at the bottom of the tell. Several of Roman Beit Shean’s major monuments are located at this junction, including a Roman temple, Nympheum and the city’s Central Monument.
If it is not a very hot day and you have the energy, climb up to the top of the tell by way of the steps located on its slopes at this junction. From the top of the tell there is an outstanding view of the surrounding region, but even more so of the site itself, standing frozen in time since its destruction by earthquake in 749 C.E. The Tell also affords a tremendous photo-op of the ruins below.
Descending back to the ruins, follow ‘Sylvanus Street’ to the east to view its colonnade before returning to the park entrance or taking more time to explore.
There is partial wheelchair access to the site.
There is also a sound and light show – further details Bet Shean Sound & Light.
Alternative Touring Suggestion
An alternative interesting approach Beit Shean National Park is from the west. Get off at the bridge on Route 71 where it crosses Nahal Harod (the Harod Stream) and then walk along the dirt track above Nahal Harod to the top of Tel Beit Shean and begin your tour there.
This route provides a great visual effect when you first see the site from the top of the tell, but it requires either two cars or a driver, who can drop you off and then meet you later at the main entrance. We recommend calling ahead to the Beit Shean National Park office to ensure that the gate is open on this side: 04-658-7189.
Amphitheater outside the Bet Shean National Park
Near the park on Shaul Hamelech St. are the ruins of a Roman amphitheater – Located along the roadside and open to the public without entry fees or visiting hours, it is worth stopping to have a look.
The amphitheater was used for gladiator competitions, both between each other and for fights between men and wild animals, which may be why the seats were built 3 meters above the arena floor. The openings at the arena level may have been pens for animals used in the competitions.
With the beginnings of Christian rule in the 4th century the amphitheater fell into disuse (guess they weren’t throwing Christians to lions anymore – so much for the Olympics). Later in the Medieval period many of its stones were used to build the local citadel. Today only three courses seats remain from the original structure.