You may wish to see an introductory page to this section with a map first.
Plan of Beisan / Scythopolis from "The survey of western Palestine" by Claude Reignier Conder - 1883
Bysan is situated upon rising ground, on the west side of the Ghor (the valley of the River Jordan), where the chain of mountains bordering the valley declines considerably in height, and presents merely elevated ground, quite open towards the west. (..) The ancient town was watered by a river, which flows in different branches towards the plain. The ruins of Scythopolis are of considerable extent, and the town, built along the banks of the rivulet and in the valleys formed by its several branches, must have been nearly three miles in circuit. The only remains are large heaps of black hewn stones, marty foundations of houses, and the fragments of a few columns. I saw only a single shaft of a column standing. (..) The present village of Bysan contains seventy or eighty houses; its inhabitants are in a miserable condition.
Johann Ludwig Burckhardt - Travels in Syria and the Holy Land - 1822
It seems not to have been visited by travellers, until Seetzen in 1806 made an excursion hither from Jenin, and Burckhardt in 1812 took it in his way from Nazareth to as Salt'. (..) Not less than four large brooks of water pass by or through the site of Beisan. The first and northernmost is the Jalud, washing the northern base of the Tell (hill of the acropolis). The other three come from the south-west. (..) The most important ruins are near the Tell; but the ancient city evidently extended up towards the south, and included the tract around the present village. Its circumference could not have been less than 2 or 3 miles. The whole brow round about the village is covered with ruins, interspersed with fragments of columns.
Edward Robinson - Later Biblical Researches in Palestine in the Year 1852
Overall view of the lower town and the acropolis; (upper left corner) section of "Tabula Peutingeriana", a Vth century map of the roads of the Roman Empire showing the Sea of Galilee / Tiberias and the River Jordan: blue dot: Scythopolis; 1) Bosra; 2) Canatha; 3) Tiberias; 4) Caesarea Philippi (or Paneas)
The whole region here is volcanic, like that around and above the lake of Tiberias. All
the rocks and stones round about, as also the stones of the ruins, are black and basaltic in
their character. The Tell, too, is black and apparently volcanic; it resembles much in its
form and loose texture the cone of a crater; and standing out
alone, is visible for a great distance towards the east and west. Robinson
You may wish to see a similar volcanic cone at Philippopolis. The initial settlement on the acropolis was mainly due to military reasons. The hill controlled a route between the Jezreel Valley and that of the Jordan. According to tradition in 1007 BC the bodies of King Saul and of three of his sons were hanged by the Philistines in the main square of the town.
The ascent to the Tell is from the saddle on the west, from which an easy path leads to
the top. Here are seen traces of the thick walls which once surrounded the summit, a level
plot of considerable extent. Connected with it are
some quite large blocks of limestone, and also a beautiful Corinthian capital, built in among
the common black stones. One of the large blocks is bevelled. Robinson
Control of the acropolis was sought by the great powers of the region as well as being fought over by the local nations. Archaeologists have found evidence that it was an Egyptian stronghold between the XVth and the XIIth centuries BC, when a governor resided there. In the VIIIth century BC it was conquered by the Assyrians, but this conquest led to the decline of the town.
(left) The River Jordan shortly after its exit from the Sea of Galilee: (right) the Jordan Valley (Ghor) seen from modern Bet She'an; Pella, another ancient town was situated on the other side of the valley
From the Tell there is a wide view. On the west it includes the whole great valley of
Jezrael. (..) In the plain, west by north, we noticed
a bridge with Roman arches over the Jalud; and beyond it, according to Irby and Mangles,
may be seen the paved way which once led to Akka. (.. ) Towards the east the eye takes in the whole breadth of the Ghor, including Sakut and the various Tells; as also the eastern
mountains, which we had just visited; on which the Kul'at er Rubiid forms here too a conspicuous object. Robinson
Today the River Jordan marks the border between Israel and Jordan from almost its exit from the Sea of Galilee to its emptying into the Dead Sea, apart from a short section when it is entirely within Israel.
(above) The lower town seen from the acropolis: the image shows two of its main colonnaded streets: Silvanus Street-left and Palladius Street-right and some monuments at their junction; (below) model of the town showing "Valley Street", another long colonnaded street at the foot of the acropolis which led to a bridge
Under the Greek dominion, the city received the Greek name of Scythopolis, "City of the Scythians," by which it was known for several centuries. The origin of
this name has not yet been satisfactorily accounted for. Robinson
With the exception of some findings on the acropolis the monuments of Scythopolis were built after the town was re-founded by the Romans (Pompey conquered the region in 63 BC). At that time the site was known as Scythopolis, Scythia being the name the Greeks gave to the land on the northern coast of the Black Sea, roughly corresponding to today's Ukraine. Probably either Alexander the Great or one of his generals (and successors) hired Scythian mercenaries, to whom the town and the nearby land were assigned. This Hellenistic town was almost entirely destroyed by a fire towards the end of the IInd century BC.
Scythopolis was not a Jewish city. Jews indeed dwelt there, but not as citizens;
and they are expressly distinguished from the inhabitants proper. Indeed (..) during the Roman wars the Jews sacked Scythopolis; while, not
long after, the inhabitants treacherously massacred the Jewish residents. (..) Hence it was not unnatural for the Talmudists to speak of
Bethshan or Scythopolis as not a Jewish, but a heathen city. It
was the largest city of the Decapolis, and the only city of that district lying on the west of
the Jordan. Pompey took Pella and Scythopolis in his way, on his march from Damascus into Judea; and he subsequently restored Scythopolis and several other cities to their own inhabitants. Robinson
The Roman reconstruction shifted the centre of the town from the acropolis to the area at its foot. Scythopolis became one of the ten city-states known as Decapolis (Ten Towns) which included Damascus and Canatha in today's Syria. These towns were allowed a degree of self-government and their development was favoured by the Romans. The calendar they adopted counted the years from Pompey's "liberation" of the region (you may wish to see an inscription at Caesarea Philippi).
Ravine and Roman Bridge seen from the acropolis
Through the great valley comes down the stream Jalud. (..) Here it flows under the northern hills. (..) This ravine is joined by another, much broader, from the south-west. Between the two, at the point of junction, rises the steep and sombre Tell, directly north of
the village. Robinson
The Decapolis did not represent an alliance which supported the Romans from a military viewpoint, but it played a role in the overall policy pursued by the Romans to consolidate their presence in the region. They promoted farming to restrict the field of action of the nomadic tribes of the desert areas between the Jordan and Mesopotamia. These tribes were possible allies of the Parthians, the great enemies of the Romans in the East. Farming made the Decapolis towns wealthy because the crops could be sold to the large cities of the Empire and because the Romans introduced advanced construction techniques and irrigation systems.
Over the chasm of the Jalud, just below the Tell and the junction of the other stream, is
thrown a fine Roman arch, with a smaller one on each side, resting upon an artificial mound.
The middle arch is too high for a bridge. Possibly the city wall was carried over upon
the mound and arch; though for that, too, it appears too high. It would seem also quite
problematical whether the wall ever crossed the stream. Robinson
The wealth achieved by Scythopolis was such that its magistrates could embark on building facilities which were not entirely required, but which were a means to show the importance of the town. An imposing bridge was built on a stream which could have been crossed by a much smaller one. An arch at the end of the bridge marked the beginning of "Valley Street" a long colonnaded street which led to the centre of the town.
Theatre: the stage and the "proscenium"
The most perfect of the ruins is the amphitheatre. It is south of the Tell, near the
opposite side of the low area, and in this fertile soil is overgrown with rank weeds. It is
built of the black stones, and measures across the front of the semicircle about 180 feet.
All the interior passages and vomitories are in almost perfect preservation. Robinson
The Theatre is the best-preserved specimen of Roman work in Western Palestine. (..) The building faces north, the wall on that side being 60 feet north of the centre of the circle forming the cord to an arc of 120°, so that the building was originally more than a semicircle. Conder
The measurements taken by Conder explain why Robinson thought he had visited an amphitheatre. Theatres are very often the most impressive buildings of ancient towns; unfortunately many of them have been damaged by excessive reconstructions, e.g. that of Carthage. That of Scythopolis has partly escaped this fate.
Theatre: the "cavea"
are built in black basalt blocks about 2 feet
to 3 feet long, with tunnel vaults sloping
down from the outside, semicircular, of
good ashlar, the keystone narrower than
the haunchstones. The tunnels support
the seats built of black basalt ashlar in
tiers. (..) This ashlar rests
on a good rubble bed of hard cement mixed with chips of
black basalt. (..) In the place
of the seats, which have been taken away, of the divisions into stages, and the staircases
which divided them into wedge-shaped compartments, grow bushes and grass. Conder
The cavea of a Roman theatre was usually divided into three tiers, the lowest one (ima cavea) for the magistrates and the members of the upper classes, the middle one (media cavea) for the middle class and the upper one (summa cavea) for the plebeians. Based on the size of ima cavea archaeologists have estimated that the theatre of Scythopolis could seat an audience of 7,000, so it was smaller than that at nearby Bosra, the cavea of which is very well preserved.
Theatre: (left) detail of the "proscenium"; (right-above) a capital; (right-below) relief where animals or human beings have been erased
The theatre was built in the Ist century AD, but it was renovated in the IInd century when granite columns from Egypt were used to make the proscenium, the decorated high wall which stood behind the stage. The theatre was decorated with reliefs which probably came from other towns of the Empire. The image used as the icon for this section shows another relief which decorated it. You may wish to see the Roman theatres of Aspendos and Orange which retain their entire wall behind the stage.
Fountain of the sacred compound
In the arena is a wall of
blocks of limestone or marble. (..) This was perhaps a portion of
the base of the water-tank used in the naumachia (naval combat). The theatre might easily be filled from the stream, which
was at one time dammed up. The modern name of a spring 'Spring of the Playhouse,' shows
the ancient use of the building to be still traditionally known. Conder
A sacred compound has been identified near the theatre at a lower level than the latter; it included a public fountain with spouts finely depicting lion heads. You can see another of them in the image used as background for this page.
The Hippodrome is almost entirely covered up. It is 280 feet from east to west, and 152 feet north and south, measured within the area of the seats. It was enclosed by a bank, and the
seats, surrounded the area on all
sides. They are of white marble. The number of tiers is not plainly discoverable. (..) The entrance appears to have been on the east. The ashlar is backed with rubble in which chips of basalt are inserted, as in the theatre. The natives state that vaults exist below. Conder
The theatre was not the only large entertainment facility of Scythopolis; a circus for chariot races was built in the IInd century AD at some distance from the town; perhaps it replaced a smaller facility in a more central location which had been dismantled to make room for more houses. In the IVth century it was modified and turned into an amphitheatre for performances involving wild animals.
Capitals along Palladius Street showing Dionysus (left) and a theatrical mask (right)
Long colonnaded streets characterized the richest Roman towns. Scythopolis could not compete with those of Apamea and Palmyra as far as length is concerned, but it had three (or four) of them which converged at the foot of the acropolis. Pagan symbols were taken away when the inhabitants became Christians, but archaeologists have found a capital portraying Dionysus, a god who was highly popular in the Hellenized world. According to tradition the acropolis was the tomb of Nysa, a nymph who tended the infant god in a cave and fed him on honey.
Open air depot in the western part of the town with columns and capitals of many different stones including granite and "cipollino" (lower left corner)
Quanta Roma fuit, ipsa ruina docet (the ruins of Rome spell its past greatness), a saying attributed to a XIIth century French bishop, applies to Scythopolis too. Although many columns and capitals have been used to partially reconstruct the monuments of the town and chiefly its colonnaded streets, a large quantity of decorated material lies on the ground.
Depot in "Valley Street" showing the high level of decoration of lintels and capitals
Go to page two which covers the monuments in the central part of the town or move to:
Ancient Synagogues: Introduction, Korazim, Capernaum and Hamat Teverya
Ancient Synagogues: Bet Alpha, Diocaesarea and Ein Gedi
Necropolis of Bet She'arim