Beit Shean is one of the oldest cities in Israel. Often overlooked by tourists, it’s worth a visit. Like most places in Israel Beit Shean has several names – Scythopolis, Tel Beit Shean, Tel el-Husn, Tel el-Hosn, Beisan and Nysa. It is located in the Galilee region of northern Israel where the Harod Valley and Jordan Valley meet, just 27km south of the Sea of Galilee and 5km east of the Jordan River and is one of the country’s largest archaeological sites.
History of Beit Shean
The amphitheater at Beit Shean. Credit: Vad Levin
Beit Shean was settled as early as the Chalcolithic era (about 6000 years ago) and has remained continually inhabited since then. Extensive excavation of a large mound in Beit Shean has revealed over 20 layers of remains from ancient civilizations. Canaanite Temples pre-date Egyptian occupation of the region followed by Israelite rule and the Philistines during the Old Testament period. Beit Shean is mentioned in the Bible several times and is best known as the site where King Saul and his sons were hung from the city walls. The city remained a significant metropolis during the reign of King David and King Solomon. The Hellenistic period followed when the city was renamed, Scythopolis after Dionysus’ nurse who was believed to have been buried here.
In the 1st century AD Beit Shean became a flourishing multi-cultural Roman city and one of 10 cities in the Decapolis regional league. Beit Shean was the Roman provincial capital in the 4th century AD but following an earthquake in 749 AD the city never truly regained its former status. Since then the Crusaders, Mamluks, Ottomans, British and finally Israelis have each settled in Beit Shean.
Beit Shean National Park
Roman street in Beit Shean National Park, Israel. Credit: By Mark via Wiki Commons
Today the main attraction in Beit Shean is the Archaeological National Park where tourists can see the history of Israel through the archaeological remains from each historic period. On the elevated mound are remains of the Canaanite and Egyptian cities and at the foot of the mound are the extensive remains of the Roman city. The excavation and reconstruction offers a clear picture of what the city would have looked like. This former Roman metropolis was home to 30,000 to 40,000 citizens and covered approximately 370 acres.
Visitors to the park can see the ancient wall that surrounded the city, public baths, a Roman temple, stores, artisan workshops and other well preserved structures. The central Palladius street runs for 24 meters and is lined by colonnades. Historians established that the street was named after a 4th century Roman governor after uncovering an inscription. There are rare mosaics and a Roman amphitheater which is still in use today.
Shean Nights – Sound and Light Show
This incredible show brings to life the ancient stones by projecting images of horse drawn carriages, Romans and buildings onto the stones, along the central street and on the theatricality stage.
From Afula, take Road 71 towards Beit Shean, turn right onto 7078 towards the modern city, and the park is signed. From the Sea of Galilee travel south on Road 90, turn right onto Road 71 towards Afula/Beit Shean, and shortly afterwards, left onto 7078.
Bus 412 from Jerusalem goes to Beit Shean
Throughout the modern city of Beit Shean you can see other ancient ruins including a Turkish government building and a Byzantine home. The surrounding area has a number of springs where it is possible to swim in the naturally formed pools. The most popular of these are Sachne (Gan HeShlosha) and Nahal Kibbutzim. Also in the area is the Belvior Crusader castle and Gangaroo, home to Australian animals. There are hundreds of other things to do in the Galilee – combining a day at Beit Shean with other sites is easy.