National Park: Beth Shean (Scythopolis)

We just returned from 5 days in the Galilee area and this was our first stop along the way. I want to make mention that the purpose of this trip was to acquaint the students with the area where Jesus was raised, where He was known and the place where most of His apostles were from.

The Galilee area is divided into the lower and upper Galilee and Beth Shea (now a national park) is near the junction of the Jezreel and Jordan Valleys and 20 miles south of the Sea of Galilee.

Even though Beth Shean is situated on an elevated hill, it is 350' below sea level. The most important factor in the success of this city was their source of water because it had not only a river but also a natural spring.

Photo: The Jezreel Valley was very fertile and the city prospered.

Photo: Beth Shean from a distance.
Photo: Model of Beth Shean. The city guarded two trade routes.

The name Beth Shean had several meanings but all relate to house of safety, tranquility or house of rest. It was also named by the Greeks as Scythopolis when in the 3rd century BC, Sythian mercenaries (soldiers) lived there. During the Byzantine era, a synagogue, a basilica church and a monastery were built in Scythopolis.

Photo:This was one of the cargos (main streets) of Beth Shean. > Photo: Note the mosaic walkways.

Photo: Can you imagine making the walkways mosaic?
Photo: Notice the three layers of the walkway in the cargo. Once they were mosaic walkways which were later covered by stones and then by marble slabs . . .each distinguished the civilizations that lived there.

It was also an important crossroads city in the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine eras and is one of the best preserved Roman cities still standing. It had facilities typical of a Roman city which included a theater, an amphitheater, a bathhouse, colonnaded cardo, a town hall, temples and a public fountain.

Photo: Walls and structures were made of two types of stones: basalt and limestone.

In the fifth century, Beth Sean was once a metropolis of thirty to forty thousand inhabitants so walking through these ruins was like walking through thousands of years of civilizations. Note the columns are made of Egyptian rose marble.

The city has had many conquerors, among them the Egyptians some 3,500 years ago. A few hundred years later, the Philistines were in battle in the Jezrel Valley in the famous battle of Mount Gilboa. When the Philistines went to war against Israel, the Israelites fled and thousands were slain on Mount Gilboa. (1 Samuel 31: 8 – 11) The Philistines were determined to kill Saul and his sons so once they had struck down Jonathan, Abinadab and Malchishua (sons of Saul), they converged on Saul.

Photo: King Saul. When in battle, King Saul was struck by an arrow and severely wounded so he asked his servant to kill him with his sword. When his servant refused, Saul killed himself and his servant did likewise. The Philistines then cut off Saul's head, took his armor, stripped him naked and fastened his body to the wall of Beth Shean as the ultimate insult against Saul.

Photo: Steps leading up the hill where the Philistines hung the decapitated corpse of King Saul in the ultimate humiliation.

In that culture, to have your dead body treated this way was considered a fate worse than death itself. They also displayed Saul's armor and his head in the temple of Ashtoreth. King Saul was one of the tragic figures in the Old Testament and the relationship between King Saul and David was dramatic but Saul and David were the first two kings of Israel. Both of them were great, heroic warriors but both of their lives ended tragically.

In 2nd Samuel 1, David lamented over the death of Saul and his sons, one of which (Jonathan) was David's best friend.
Therefore, David and his friends sneaked into Beth Shean during the night and took Saul's body, his head, and armor so they could give him a proper burial.
Photo: David and warriors.

Photo: It's important to know that Saul was the son of Kish, of the family of the Matrites and a member of the tribe of Benjamin, one of the twelve Tribes of Israel. Beth Shean became part of the kingdoms of David when he became King and was eventually destroyed in a fire, apparently at the hands of the King of Assyria (in 732 BCE).

The city extended over an area of some 370 acres, and you can still see the remains of the wall that surrounded it.

Photo: Sylvanus Street. I was particularly interested in this street because my father's name was Sylvan!

Photo: Sylvannus street was one of the main cardos of the city.

This main street was decorated with statues. Seen below is a Corinthian capital of a pillar, bearing the head of the Greek god Dionysus, the god of wine and the patron of the city. According to Greek mythology, the city was founded by the wine God, Dionysos, who lived in the city.

Photo: After a major earthquake that affected most of the Galilee (363 AD), Scythopolis was damaged but was reconstructed and rebuilt and continued to grow.

Photo: The theater holds up to seven thousand people and is still used for special events.

Photo: Path to bathhouse.

Photo: Bathhouse.

Photo: Signs in the bathhouse.

Photo: In the bathhouse hot-room, boiling water from a furnace flowed among these pillars which supported a tile floor.

Photo: Public latrine. One of the first places the students wanted to visit was the public latrine. There are 57 stalls in all.

Photo: Public latrine.
Photo: Seats at the latrine. You sit between between the two seats and water carried the waste into a sewage system. They used sponges to clean themselves as clean running water flowed in front of each stall. I must say it was hard to straddle between the two seats . . . maybe I need a larger rump?

Public toilet from the Roman period without separation between women and men.

Photo: Monkey see, monkey do!

Photo: Baptismal font.

Photo: This tree on top of the hill was used in the film, "Jesus Christ, Super Star" which was popular in the 70's. This tree was the one the actor in the film was nailed to.

Photo: The students are always eager for an original photo.
Photo below: It is very possible that Jesus walked these streets as this was one of the cities in the Galilee area. We feel so privileged to have the opportunity to travel, learn and study the scriptures in depth and as we do, the Old and New Testament come to life. We have to pinch ourselves because we truly are "living the dream."