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Beit Shean – then and now

January 20, 2021

Once a strategically important crossroads along the Syrian-African rift, connecting between Egypt in the south and Syria and Asia in the north, Beit Shean has been intermittently settled since pre-historic times, becoming a city of major importance during biblical times and then again during the reign of the Roman Empire.

Dominated by an archeological mound, diggings have found evidence of settlements going back beyond the Bronze Age with Canaanite graves dating back to 2000 BCE. During the 15th century BCE the city was conquered by the Egyptians, who set it up as an administrative capital and occupied it for almost 300 years.  After losing its control over the Eastern Mediterranean, the site was completely destroyed by fire and abandoned by the Egyptians, who did not attempt rebuilding it.

Beit Shean is mentioned in the Bible as the site where the bodies of King Saul and his sons were hung on the walls, after their defeat against the Philistines, although it was not a prominent city at the time.

Beit Shean revival began in the Hellenistic period reaching its heights of prosperity during the Roman era, when it was moved to the lower slopes of the mound, and became the leading city of the region, with its name changing to Scythopolis. At its peak, the city was inhabited by some 40 thousand, and had an amphitheater, hippodrome and various temples and other magnificent buildings. Many of these can be seen in today’s Beit Shean archeological and nature park reserve, with the amphitheater having been restored to a functioning theater.

Beit Shean was destroyed by a catastrophic earthquake in 749, and has never returned to its former glory. Although settled during the Muslim, Mameluke and Crusader times, it was never more than a village in terms of inhabitants, however due to its locality is remained an important township, being a relay station between Cairo and Damascus, finally losing its regional importance during the 400 years of Ottoman rule.

Today Beit Shean is a pleasant and quiet town, with an almost entirely Jewish population. During the early years, before the peace accords with Jordan, it was sometimes subject to rocket and terrorist attacks, but nowadays it is peaceful, with the magnificent antiquities park having restored its historical importance, and contributing to a budding tourism industry.

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