Bet She'an (Tell al-Husn), ancient Scythopolis, lies at a main crossroads leading to Jerusalem (across the Jordan Valley) and to Gilead in the Transjordan (across the Jezreel Valley). This strategic location and the fertility of its farm land, due to a continual supply of water from the Harod River, gave Bet She'an some prominence among the ancient cities of Syro-Palestine.
The city was one of the few Levantine cities almost continually inhabited from Chalcolithic to modern times. The archaeological evidence suggests that Beth-She'an was most important in the Bronze Age (Canaanite times) and during the Roman-Byzantine Periods (63 BCE – CE 324). The site was of little significance during Israelite occupation.
The first historical reference to Bet She'an appears to be in the nineteenth-century BCE Egyptian Execration Texts. The city appears in various Egyptian sources from the time of Thutmose III (ca. 1470 BCE) to Rameses III (twelfth-century BCE), e.g., in the Great Temple of Amon at Karnak, in the el-Amarna Letters, in the Papyrus Anastasi, and the like. It seems that Seti III, after defeating the Sea Peoples, established a military garrison at Bet She'an. The site appears in the list of cities conquered by Shishak around 928 BCE.
The biblical text only occasionally refers to Bet She'an. The first reference to this settlement is at Joshua 17:11 where allocation of the city was to the tribe of Manasseh. Nevertheless, Judges 1:27 states that "Neither did Manasseh drive out the inhabitants of Beth-She'an and her towns ... but the Canaanites would dwell in that land."
I Samuel 31:12 provides a poignant account of the desecration of the corpses of Saul and his sons: "And they [i.e. the Philistines] fastened his body to the wall of Beth-She'an." In the following verses, the people of Jabesh-gilead arose and stole their bodies to give them proper burial. Since the next reference to Beth-She'an is in the context of Solomon's fifth district (I Kings 4:12) the implication is that Israelite troops under King David took the city.
The city lie abandoned around 700 BCE.
During the Hellenistic Period (167-332 BCE), Bet She'an came to be known as Scythopolis ("the city of the Scythians") due to a unit of Scythian mercenaries which settled there under the control of Ptolemy II. Later, during the Seleucid rule (second century BCE) the city came to be known as Nysa Scythopolis honoring Nysa, Dionysus' nurse. A popular legend placed her burial there.
Around 107 BCE, troops of John Hyrcanus I conquered Bet She'an. During the Hasmonean Period the city became an important administrative center and Alexander Yannai (Jannaeus) built ramparts around it.
In 63 BCE, Pompey restored Hellenistic culture to the city after his conquest of Palestine. The Roman proconsul in Syria, Gabinius (57-54 BCE), enlarged it. Beth-She'an became the capital of the Greek federation known as Decapolis ("ten cities" of which nine were in the Trans-Jordan).
When the First Jewish War (CE 66-73) erupted in the country, the rebels attacked Scythopolis defended by its Jewish and Gentile population alike. However, according to Josephus, the Gentiles distrusted the Jewish inhabitants and executed some 13,000 of them (Josephus, Wars xviii:3-4).
Jews speaking a Galilean dialect inhabited the city during the second and third centuries CE. They dedicated themselves to the production of textiles turning Bet She'an into an economic center. The presence of a synagogue during the Byzantine Period (CE 324-638) evidences a continuous Jewish presence.
Bet She'an became the capital of the province called Palestina Secunda at the beginning of the fifth century CE. The city became Greco-Byzantine Christian and the seat of a Byzantine bishop.
Following the Arab conquest of CE 636, the city regained a form of its ancient name and became known as Beisan.
At the present time, the village of Bet She'an (adjacent to the mound) is the home of some 15,000 Israelis.
Excavations carried out between 1921 and 1933 by American teams revealed that the tell consists of 18 levels of occupation ranging from the Chalcolithic to the Early Arab period. Excavation of the Lower City, which started as a major settlement during the Hellenistic period, was since the 1950s. Excavations are now taking place in both the Upper and the Lower cities.
The present excavation of the Lower City has the goal of turning the site into an elaborate archaeological park to attract tourists and to stimulate the local economy (thus helping the present-day inhabitants of Bet She'an in coping with serious unemployment.
Chalcolithic and Bronze Period
Levels XVIII and XVII date to the Chalcolithic Period.
The Early Bronze Period, represented by Esdraelon ware and copper tools, were found in an apsidal house located in the XVI stratum of a deep sounding. Stratum X comprised influence of the period of Hyksos in Palestine (Middle Bronze II).
Representation of the Late Bronze is by Stratum IX evidencing construction of a temple, with an orientation east-west, of difficult architecture. Diverse artifacts were found in this structure including a relief of a dog fighting against a lion and an image of Mekal the patron god of Bet She'an. Two stelae found in secondary use in later strata, mention some martial affairs and the Apiru.
Stratum VII had a temple with the typical Late Bronze orientation in Canaan (north-south). While some controversy remains regarding the chronology of strata in connection with Egyptian rulers this one most likely belongs to the period of Amenhotep III. The style of the temple at Bet She'an greatly resembles the style of the temple at el-Amarna built at the close of Amenhotep III's reign.
Stratum VI evidenced continuing use of the temple with some modification. This level of occupation yielded a great number of incense stands of different styles.
Stratum V reflected the first hint of a transition between the Bronze and Iron ages, specifically, the typical east-west orientation for its two temples (one dedicated to the goddess Anat and the other, possibly, to Dagon (cf. II Chronicles 10:10). While the Philistines did not make any major change to these structures the Israelites built a large gate to the south of them.
Iron Age, Hellenistic an Roman Periods
Stratum lV (ca. 815-700 BCE) was a poor settlement. There is no evidence of town planning and few remains survive. Strata II and III comprise the Hellenistic and Roman periods of Bet She'an. There is little data from the Hellenistic Period. The Roman Period, however, included monumental architecture illustrated by structures such as a Roman theater (with capacity for around 8,000 spectators), a hippodrome, an amphitheater (with capacity for around 5,000 to 7,000 spectators), and two large colonnaded streets.
Byzantine and Arab Periods
This is stratum I of the site. Around the fifth century CE, a circular structure serving as a church building was built. A monastery from the sixth century CE lies across the Harod River. Of interest are sixth and seventh century CE synagogues with mosaic floors and various artifacts including a menorah and inscriptions in Greek and Aramaic.
The Early Arab Period, which did not leave many representative structures nor artifacts. It lasted from the 'Beisan Day' (636 CE) to the twelfth century CE. Determination of the latter date was from the presence of red-and-white geometric ware.
Excavations in the Northern Cemetery yielded some 230 tombs cut into the rock during Middle Bronze I. Reuse of these tombs occurred in Middle Bronze II, Iron I, and, especially, in the Hellenistic-Byzantine Periods.
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