Within a deep valley characterized by fertile plains and plentiful access to precious water sources lies the ancient city of Beit She’an. Due to its high agricultural potential and strategic location at the crossroads of many transcontinental trade routes, Beit She’an consistently played a significant role in the internal structure of a long succession of civilizations that ruled in the region. Egyptians, Canaanites, and many others relied on the city and, in turn, contributed to its historical development.
During the late second millennium BCE, the Philistines inhabited Beit She’an and much of the surrounding countryside. In their wars to expand their empire, the Philistine army fought King Saul’s Israelite army atop nearby Mount Gilboa. The biblical account reports that following the defeat of the Israelites and King Saul’s death, the Philistines took the king’s body back to Beit She’an and hung it from the city walls as a trophy. The walls from that period in Beit She’an’s history have been excavated and can be seen today.
Some time later, King David and the Israelites took over Beit She’an and used it for a number of years as an administrative center in the region. When the Assyrians won control of the area, however, they burned down Beit She’an.
The city was not rebuilt until the period of widespread Hellenization when the Greeks reconstructed the city and named it Scythopolis. Among other major structures, they built a large temple on the site of ancient Beit She’an. Historians are not sure to which Greek god the temple was dedicated; however, local Greek mythology of the time contended that the wine god Dionysus had founded the city and that his nursemaid, Nysa, was buried there. For this reason, the Greeks often called the city Nysa-Scythopolis.
At the height of the Roman Empire, Scythopolis became the leading city of the Decapolis – a confederation of ten of the region’s most prominent Greco-Roman cities. Throughout the years of the Pax Romana, the city thrived as a major urban center. Most of the impressive ruins visible today remain from this period, when people from many nearby towns would come to Scythopolis for its bustling markets, its diverse entertainment, and its cultural events.
Today, visitors can examine a remarkable variety of ruins and artifacts remaining from many different stages in the city’s long history. Against a backdrop of towering mountain ranges and wide expanses of agricultural land, the wealth of archaeological discoveries at Beit She’an point to the city’s years of grandeur and promise hours of fascinating exploration.