Continuing on with my trip that covered thus far the Gilboa Hot Air Balloon Festival and Beit Shturman and Beit Alpha, I left the base of Mount Gilboa and drove into the city of Bet Shean. I was headed for the national park which holds the ruins of ancient Bet Shean (or Scythopolis, as it was known in Roman times). Entering the park, I was absolutely overwhelmed by the magnitude of the ruins uncovered and on display- how have I taken so long to visit? Having to consult the visitor guide’s map to decipher the endless rows of broken structures, I began with the iconic Roman theatre.
Built to seat some 7,000 spectators, the half circle rows of limestone benches face the stage which, during Roman times, was backed by a twenty metre-high scaenae frons, an elaborately decorated background which usually rose to the height of the ceiling. In the case of this particular ruin, the scaenae frons was mostly destroyed, as well as the upper rows of seats, so renovations are taking place to recreate the theatre to its original glory.
Leaving the theatre, I next explored the vast bathhouse which covers some 9,000 square metres of prime real estate. As in most large Roman cities, the bathhouse was a central public building where citizens would come to exercise, bathe and socialise. One thing that I noticed was the intricate mosaic work even in the large rooms, where simple floor tiles would have been easier. Another thing was the revolutionary hypocaust, an underfloor heating method which warmed the floor and the room itself. I had seen the same construction in a small Byzantine bathhouse outside the mountaintop ruins of Avdat in the Negev, and here the technology was explained in full.
Leaving the bathhouse complex I began my walk down Palladius Street, a colonnaded road of large white columns dividing the bathhouse and “sigma” from the Byzantine agora. I paused to take a look at the sigma, a semicircular concourse lined with small mosaic-floored rooms – including one with a medallion of Tyche, the city’s guardian goddess.
Crossing the street, I looked at the agora which is relatively unadorned, having served as a commercial centre during those times. Continuing along the main road, I reached the junction between the Northern Street and the continuation of the city’s nucleus to the east. It seems as though the excavators and renovators have given up on the Northern Street, as it is absolutely littered with ancient rubble, including large building chunks and broken pillars. So I focused my attention on identifying the numerous structures before me, including the Roman Temple and Nymphaeum, an ornate public fountain.
It was about now, standing amid a chaotic collection of crumbled construction, that I realised I had made a grievous error not bringing any water along. The midday summer sun that permeates the valley was starting to dry me out. I wrapped my button-down shirt around my head and shoulders and forced myself to continue onwards. I walked along the Valley Street which leads to the northern end of the city, but I was headed not north, but up. Standing at the base of the tel (archaeological mound), I began my conquest of the harsh yellow hill. The stairs going up were tough indeed, but at the very top was a view that really captured the magnificence of the city sprawl down below.
However, it was only the Romans who occupied the ruined area, previous civilisations inhabited the summit of the hill, with their subsequent constructions one atop the other – a stratum of ancient foundations. Nearly as prolific as the glorious tel of Megiddo, some twenty layers have been uncovered at Bet Shean, including those of Jewish rule. It was at a lookout with an audio guide that I found a stout water fountain – the fountain of life for my parched lips. Drinking desperately from the weak flow of warm water, I listened to the tender voice informing me of the place I was kneeling upon, and the surrounding view. Following the trail, I saw a good number of ancient walls from Canaanite and Egyptian occupation, including the Egyptian governor Ramses-Weser-Khepesh’s palace with an uncovered stone lintel depicting him kneeling before his master, Pharaoh Ramses III, in hieroglyphics. If that’s not interesting, I don’t know what is.
Perhaps of greater interest is the Biblical story of King Shaul, when he and his sons were killed in battle with the Philistines at nearby Mount Gilboa, and were brought to Bet Shean to dangle from the city walls as trophies. On a lighter note, to the north of the tel is Nachal Harod and the churning water can be both seen and heard way down below. A ruined Roman bridge is also visible, as well as the ruins of several Byzantine churches on the opposing hillside.
Passing the numerous excavated temples, fortresses and various buildings, I came to a lone skeleton of a tree, supported by rusted metal against the stark stone ground. It reminded me of a particularly absurd play/film called Waiting for Godot, which I was made to watch in high school.
Trotting back down the hill, I swung eastward, walking down Silvanus Street which is similarly colonnaded. When the street ended and a dirt path began, I passed another bathhouse and then public lavatories that serviced the theatre and bathhouse visitors. Just beyond that I found a cultic compound with an assortments of altars and similar structures amid a temple. I then re-entered the magnificent theatre where I began my tour of the ancient city and made my way back up to the visitor centre to watch a short film about the city in general in the comfort of shade and strong air-conditioning. Without too much time to lose, I decided to skip the Roman amphitheatre (oval as opposed to the mostly circular theatre) and the nearby Crusader/Ottoman fortress and other Ottoman buildings, uncharacteristic as that may be.
I had stumbled upon the fortress two years ago while driving through the city with my army truck and didn’t see anything of extreme interest. Plus, time was not on my side and I still had a few more places I wanted to visit including the Crusader castle of Belvoir just a few kilometres northward.