Bet Shean Tourist Attractions
Situation and characteristicsBet Shean (the Biblical Bethshan) lies on the river Harod 26km/16mi south of the Sea of Galilee, in the eastern part of the Jezreel plain, which carefully regulated irrigation has made a fertile agricultural area.
According to the Talmud "If the garden of Eden is in Israel, then its gate is in Bet Shean". In addition to such interesting remains as the Roman theater there is evidence that the history of the site goes far back beyond Roman times into the fourth millennium B.C. It also has associations with King Saul.HistoryAmerican archaeologists from the University of Pennsylvania carried out excavations here in 1921-23 and identified 18 occupation levels, the earliest dating back to the fourth millennium B.C. Bet Shean first appears in the records in Egyptian documents of the 19th century B.C. After his conquest of Canaan in the 15th century B.C. Pharaoh Tuthmosis III fortified the town. In the 11th century it was captured by the Philistines, advancing inland from the sea. After the Philistines defeated Saul and his sons in a battle on nearby Mount Gilboa in 1010 B.C. they "put [Saul's] armor in the house of Ashtaroth, and they fastened his body to the wall of Bethshan"; then during the night men from Gilead, beyond the Jordan, recovered the bodies and gave them burial (1 Samuel 31).David, Saul's successor, conquered the Philistine town, which for some unknown reason was abandoned in the eighth century B.C. In the third century B.C. it was resettled by Scythian veterans and renamed Scythopolis. In the Hasmonean period (second and first century B.C.) numbers of Jews came to live in the town. In 63 B.C. Pompey declared it a free city and it became a member of the Decapolis, the League of Ten Cities. Under Roman rule, thanks to its productive agriculture and textile industry, it enjoyed a fresh period of prosperity, to which the numerous remains bear witness. In Byzantine times the town had a population of some 40,000; most of them were Christians, but there was also a Jewish community. This period came to an end with the Arab conquest in 639, and soon afterwards the town was destroyed by an earthquake and abandoned.In the 12th century Bet Shean was held by Tancred, Prince of Galilee. After its conquest by Saladin in 1183 the town had a Jewish population, one member of which was Rabbi Estori Haparhi, who wrote the earliest work in Hebrew on the geography of Palestine. Later increasing numbers of Arabs settled in the town, and its name was changed to Beisan. A relic of the Turkish period is the Seraglio in the Municipal Park, an administrative building erected in 1905. Jews began to return to the town in 1937, and many more have come since 1948.
Excavations of Tell el-Husn have revealed finds from the time of Egyptian rule, as well as a Roman and Byzantine theater, and other Byzantine remains. This is one of Israel's most important archeological sites.
The Roman theater in Bet Shean, built in the late second century, in the reign of Septimius Severus, is the best preserved Roman theater in Israel. It had seating for 6,000 spectators. The lower part of the structure with its semicircular tiers of seating was built into the ground; the upper part is borne on massive substructures, with nine entrances (vomitoria) leading to the horizontal gangway (diazoma) half way up the auditorium. From the vomitoria short, narrow passages branch off, leading to small rooms, originally domed, of unknown function. The upper tiers of seating have been partly destroyed, but the lower rows are excellently preserved. There are substantial remains of the stage wall, which was originally richly decorated with columns and statues; behind it are numerous architectural fragments.
Monastery of the Lady Mary
Byzantine remains were found to the north of Tell el-Husn, on the far side of the Harod valley. Here in 567 a noble lady named Mary and her son Maximus founded a monastery, with fine mosaics which are now under a protective roof.The entrance leads into a large trapezoidal courtyard, with a mosaic pavement depicting animals and birds, two Greek inscriptions and in the center - within a circle of 12 figures representing the months, with Greek inscriptions - the sun god Helios and the moon goddess Selene. To the left is a rectangular room with a mosaic which an inscription records "was completed in the time of Abbot George and his deputy Komitas". Other mosaics (vine tendrils, hunters, animals) are in a small room opposite the entrance, in the east part of the monastery, in the narthex of the church and in the church itself. Within the doorway of the church are peacocks. In the sanctuary are gravestones inscribed in Greek.
Some of the material found in excavations round Bet Shean can be seen in the site museum, housed in a former mosque. Particularly notable is the Leontis mosaic (fifth century A.D.), named after a prosperous Jew from Alexandria who commissioned this mosaic, depicting a scene from the "Odyssey", for his magnificent villa in Bet Shean.
Municipal Park (Seraglio)
On the east side of Bet Shean, on the road from Tiberias, is the Municipal Park, with a small open-air theater. In this park is the Turkish Seraglio of 1905, with antique columns framing the doorway. From here King Saul Street (Rehov Shaul Hamelech) bears right, passes an area in which remains of the Roman hippodrome were found and comes to a road on the right which runs down to the Roman theater.
12km/7.5mi north of Bet Shean is the kibbutz of Newe Ur, occupied by Jews from Iraq and accordingly named after Abraham's home town of Ur in Chaldaea (Mesopotamia). On a hill to the northwest can be seen the remains of the Crusader castle of Belvoir, to which a winding road leads up.
Map of Bet Shean Attractions