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A city of ancient Palestine on the right bank of the Jordan, S of the Sea of Galilee. In the Bronze and Iron Ages it was known by the name of Beth-shean and, from the Hellenistic period onward, also by the name of Scythopolis, possibly because Scythians were settled there by Ptolemy II in the middle of the 3d c. B.C. It is mentioned for the first time by Polybios (5.70), in connection with its conquest by Antiochos III, who enlarged its territory and granted it autonomy. After the conquest of Palestine by the Ptolemies, it was given the status of a polis and the additional name Nysa, the name of the nurse of Dionysos. The city then officially adopted the worship of that god. At the beginning of the Maccabean wars the city was either bought from its Greek ruler (Joseph. AJ 13.280), or was taken by force by Simon (Joseph. BJ 1.66). According to Jewish tradition, the Greek inhabitants were exiled or left voluntarily (AJ 13.397). After the conquest of Palestine by the Romans in 63 B.C., the city was restored to its former inhabitants (AJ 14.88) and thus separated from Jewish territory. During the Jewish war of A.D. 66 the Roman legions spent the winter at Scythopolis, which had formerly been laid waste by the Jews (BJ 2.458). Our knowledge of it in the later part of the Roman period is scanty. During the latter half of the 3d c. and the early part of the 4th, Christians were martyred there. The Byzantine period was an age of great prosperity for both the Jewish and Christian communities there, as attested by literary sources and archaeological finds.

Extensive excavations took place at the mound during the years 1921-1933. To the Early Hellenistic periods are dated remains of a temple situated on the S part of the mound, where the earlier Canaanite temples were and where later a church was to be built. Of the building (37 x 22 m) only fragmentary foundations remain. It was dedicated either to Dionysos or to Atargatis. Since the small finds and decorated architectural fragments are mostly Roman, there has been a tendency to redate this temple to the Roman period. Other finds relating to the Hellenistic and Roman periods were found in the local necropoleis. To the Byzantine period belong remains of a large round church, built on top of the pagan temple. It consisted of two concentric walls, with an outer diameter of 38.8 m, an apse on the E, and a rectangular narthex on the W. Both narthex and ambulatory were decorated with a mosaic pavement of geometric designs.

The only building excavated before 1950 outside of the limits of the mound was a 6th c. monastery, discovered on the W slope of the mound. Since 1950 excavations within the modern town of Beth Shean have brought to light remains principally of the Byzantine period. A synagogue was discovered to the N of the mound, outside of the limits of the city wall of the Byzantine period. In 1964 there came to light remains of a villa to the SW of the mound. The building, apparently of the courtyard type, was built in the mid 5th c. A.D. Of special interest were the mosaic floors, a panel of which was partly preserved in one of the halls. It had representations of a scene from the Odyssey, a Nilotic scene, and an inscription set on a background of pairs of birds. The inscription contains the name of the owner, Kyrios Leontis, and the Jewish seven-branched candlestick.

In 1960-62 the Roman theater was unearthed to the S of the ancient mound. The building, in an excellent state of preservation, has a diameter of 70 m, and a scaenae frons 90 m long flanked by round staircase towers. The scaenae frons was two stories high, decorated in opus sectile. The marble and granite columns supported a frieze decorated with imaginary animals, masks, and foliage. The theater could accommodate 4500-5000 spectators and was built during the time of the Severii, restored in the time of Julian, and abandoned by the middle of the 5th c. Between the mound and the theater are remains of a colonnaded street and a large bridge, both of the Roman period.


F. M. Abel, “Beisan,” RBibl 21 (1912) 409-23; A. Rowe, The Topography and History of Beth-Shean (1930); G. M. Fitzgerald, Beth-Shean Excavations 1921-1923; the Arab and Byzantine Levels (1931); id., A Sixth Century Monastery at Beth-Shean (Scythopolis) (1939); M. Avi-Yonah, “Scythopolis,” Israel Exploration Journal 12 (1962) 123-34; id., The Holy Land from the Persian to the Arab Conquests (536 B.C. to A.D. 640). A Historical Geography (1966); N. Zori, “The House of Kyrios Leontis at Beth Shean,” Israel Exploration Journal 16 (1966) 123-34; id., “The Ancient Synagogue at Beth-Shean,” Eretz-Israel 8 (1967) 149-67 (Hebrew with English summary).


hide References (2 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (2):
    • Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 13.280
    • Flavius Josephus, The Jewish War, 1.66
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