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Beit She'an

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Beit She'an

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Basic Information

Location Beit She'an, Israel
Country Israel
City Beit She'an

General Information

Open to visitors yes
Need appointment no
Handicap accessibility no
Geographical Coordinates 32.4971,35.49734


General

Beit She'an (Hebrew: בֵּית שְׁאָן‎‎ Beth Šəān; Arabic: بيسان‎, Beesān, Beisan or Bisan) is a city in the North District of Israel which has played an important role historically due to its geographical location at the junction of the Jordan River Valley and Jezreel Valley. It has also played an important role in modern times, acting as the regional center for the numerous villages in the Beit She'an Valley Regional Council.

History and time period

Egyptian period After the Egyptian conquest of Beit She’an by pharaoh Thutmose III in the 15th century BCE (recorded in an inscription at Karnak), the small town on the summit of the Tell became the center of the Egyptian administration of the region. The Egyptian newcomers changed the organization of the town and left a great deal of material culture behind. A large Canaanite temple (39 meters in length) excavated by the University of Pennsylvania Museum may date from about the same period as Thutmose III's conquest, though the Hebrew University excavations suggest that it dates to a later period. Artifacts of potential cultic significance were found in the temple. Based on a stele found in the temple and inscribed with Egyptian hieroglyphs, the temple was dedicated to the god Mekal. One of the University Museum's most important finds near the temple is the Lion and Dog stela (currently in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem), which depicts two combat scenes between these two creatures. The Hebrew University excavations determined that this temple was built on the site of an earlier one. During the three hundred years of Egyptian rule (18th Dynasty to the 20th Dynasty), the population of Beit She’an appears to have been primarily Egyptian administrative officials and military personnel. The town was completely rebuilt, following a new layout, during the 19th dynasty. The University Museum excavations uncovered two important stelae from the period of Seti I and a monument of Rameses II. Pottery was produced locally, but some was made to mimic Egyptian forms. Other Canaanite goods existed alongside Egyptian imports or locally-made Egyptian style objects. The 20th dynasty saw the construction of large administrative buildings in Beit She'an, including Building 1500, a small palace for the Egyptian governor. During the 20th dynasty, invasions of the "Sea Peoples" upset Egypt's control over the Eastern Mediterranean. Though the exact circumstances are unclear, the entire site of Beit She'an was destroyed by fire around 1150 BCE. The Egyptians did not attempt to rebuild their administrative center and lost control of the region.

Biblical period An Iron Age I Canaanite city was constructed on the site of the Egyptian center shortly after its destruction. Around 1100 BC, Canaanite Beit She'an was conquered by the Philistines, who used it as a base of operations for further penetrations into Israel proper. During a subsequent battle against the Jewish King Saul at nearby Mount Gilboa in 1004 BC, the Philistines prevailed. 1 Samuel 31, states that the victorious Philistines hung the body of King Saul on the walls of Beit She’an. Portions of these walls were excavated on Tel Beit She'an recently. King David was able to capture Beit Shea'an in a series of brilliant military campaigns that expelled the Philistines from the area, pushing them back to their coastal strongholds of Ashkelon, Ekron, Gath, Gaza, and Ashdod. During the Iron Age II period, the town became a part of the larger Israelite kingdom under the rule of the Biblical kings David and Solomon (1 Kings 4:12) refers to Beit She’an as a part of the district of Solomon, though the historical accuracy of this list is debated. The Assyrian conquest of northern Israel under Tiglath-Pileser III (732 BCE) brought about the destruction of Beit She'an by fire. Minimal reoccupation occurred until the Hellenistic period.

The Hellenistic and Roman Periods The Hellenistic period saw the reoccupation of the site of Beit She'an under the new name Scythopolis, possibly named after the Scythian mercenaries who settled there as veterans. Little is known about the Hellenistic city, but during the 3rd century BCE a large temple was constructed on the Tell. It is unknown which deity was worshiped there, but the temple continued to be used during Roman times. The local Greek mythology holds that the city was founded by Dionysus and that his nursemaid Nysa was buried there; thus it was sometimes known as Nysa-Scythopolis. Graves dating from the Hellenistic period are simple singular rock-cut tombs. From 301 to 198 BCE the area was under the control of the Ptolemies, and Beit She'an is mentioned in 3rd–2nd-century BC written sources describing the Syrian Wars between the Ptolemid and Seleucid dynasties. In 198 BCE the Seleucids conquered the region. The town played a role after the Hasmonean Maccabee Revolt, Josephus records that the Jewish High Priest Jonathan was killed there by Demetrius II Nicator. The city was destroyed by fire at the end of the 2nd century BCE. In 63 BC, Pompey made Judea a part of the Roman empire. Beit She'an was re founded and rebuilt by Gabinius. The town center shifted from the summit of the Tel to its slopes. Scythopolis prospered and became the leading city of the Decapolis, a loose confederation of ten cities that were centers of Greco-Roman culture, an event so significant that the town based its calendar on that year. The city flourished under the Pax Romana, as evidenced by high-level urban planning and extensive construction, including the best preserved Roman theater of ancient Samaria, as well as a hippodrome, cardo, and other trademarks of the Roman influence. Mount Gilboa, 7 kilometers (4.3 mi) away, provided dark basalt blocks as well as water via an aqueduct. The town is said to have sided with the Romans during the Jewish uprising of 66 CE. Excavations have focused less on the Roman period ruins, so less is known about this period. The University Museum excavation of the northern cemetery, however, did uncover significant finds. The Roman period tombs are of the loculus type: a rectangular rock-cut chamber with smaller chambers (loculi) cut into its side. Bodies were placed in the loculi or inside sarcophagi which were the placed in the loculi. A sarcophagus with an inscription identifying its occupant in Greek as "Antiochus, the son of Phallion" may have held the cousin of Herod the Great. One of the most interesting Roman grave finds was a bronze incense shovel with the handle in the form of an animal leg and hoof, now in the University of Pennsylvania Museum.

Byzantine period Copious archaeological remains were found dating to the Byzantine period (330 CE – 636 CE) and were excavated by the University of Pennsylvania Museum from 1921-23. A rotunda church was constructed on top of the Tell and the entire city was enclosed in a wall. Textual sources mention several other churches in the town. Beit She'an was primarily Christian, as attested to by the large number of churches, but evidence of Jewish habitation and a Samaritan synagogue indicate established communities of these minorities. The pagan temple in the city center was destroyed, but the Nymphaeum and Roman baths were restored. Many of the buildings of Scythopolis were damaged in the Galilee earthquake of 363, and in 409 it became the capital of the northern district, Palaestina Secunda. Dedicatory inscriptions indicate a preference for donations to religious buildings, and many colorful mosaics, such as that featuring the zodiac in the Monastery of Lady Mary, or one picturing a menorah and shalom in the House of Leontius' Jewish synagogue, were preserved. A Samaritan synagogue's mosaic was unique in abstaining from human or animal images, instead utilizing floral and geometrical motifs. Elaborate decorations were also found in the settlement's many luxurious villas, and in the 6th century especially, the city reached its maximum size of 40,000 and spread beyond its period city walls. The Byzantine period portion of the northern cemetery was excavated in 1926. The tombs from this period consisted of small rock-cut halls with vaulted graves on three sides. A great variety of objects were found in the tombs, including terracotta figurines possibly depicting the Virgin Mary and Child, many terracotta lamps, glass mirrors, bells, tools, knives, finger rings, iron keys, glass beads, bone hairpins, and many other items.

Arab Caliphate period In 634, Byzantine forces were defeated by the Muslim army of Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab and the city was renamed Baysan. The day of victory came to be known in Arabic as Yawm Baysan or "the day of Baysan." The city was not damaged and the newly arrived Muslims lived together with its Christian population until the 8th century, but the city declined during this period and its glorious Roman-Byzantine architecture was lost to neglect. Structures were built in the streets themselves, narrowing them to mere alleyways, and makeshift shops were opened among the colonnades. The city reached a low point by the 8th century, witnessed by the removal of marble for producing lime, the blocking off of the main street, and the conversion of a main plaza into a cemetery. Abu Ubayd al-Andalusi noted that the wine produced there was delicious. On January 18, 749, Umayyad Baysan was completely devastated by the Golan earthquake of 749. A few residential neighborhoods grew up on the ruins, probably established by the survivors, but the city never recovered its magnificence. The city center moved to the southern hill where a Crusader fortress surrounded by a moat was constructed. Jerusalemite historian al-Muqaddasi visited Baysan in 985, during Abbasid rule and wrote that it was "on the river, with plentiful palm trees, and water, though somewhat heavy (brackish.)" He further noted that Baysan was notable for its indigo, rice, dates and grape syrup known as dibs. The town formed one of the districts (kurah) of Jund al-Urdunn during this period. Its principal mosque was situated in the center of its marketplace.

Special discoveries

In 1933, archaeologist G.M. FitzGerald, under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania Museum, carried out a "deep cut" on Tell el-Hosn, the large mound of Beth She'an, in order to determine the earliest occupation of the site. His results suggest that settlement began in the Late Neolithic or Early Chalcolithic periods (sixth to fifth millennia BCE. Occupation continued intermittently up to the late Early Bronze Age I (3200-3000), according to pottery finds, and then resumes in the Early Bronze Age III. A large cemetery on the northern side of the mound was in use from the Bronze Age to Byzantine times. Canaanite graves dating from 2000 to 1600 BCE were discovered in 1926.

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