Beth She’an (Scythopolis) and the Decapolis – Israel

Beth She’an (Beit She’an) is one of the most impressive collections of ruins found on earth. This city was an important location in the ancient world. The Jordan River and Harod Spring are located nearby which made the area good for agriculture.  Linkage roads to both the Via Mare and the King’s Highway were also present.

The earliest reference to Beth She’an is found in the Egyptian Execration texts, which date back to the 19th Century BC. Down through the ages, there are a number of other Egyptian references. It is cited in reference to Thutmose III (@ 15th Century BC) and Ramses III (@ 12th Century BC). It is mentioned in the Temple of Amon at Karnak. The el Amarna tablets (1400BC) speak of Beth She’an as well. 

All of this indicates the strategic value the city held. In fact, we know the Egyptians eventually established a military garrison here. This took place after they defeated a nation that is referred to as the ‘Sea Peoples’ or ‘People of the Sea’. Eventually, the Philistines wrested control of the city from Egypt. When Israel entered the Land, they had a great deal of difficulty securing Beth She’an.

Scriptural Significance

Beth She’an does appear in the Bible:

  • Its territory was allotted to the Tribe of Manasseh (Josh. 17: 11)
  • However, the Israelites were unable to initially drive the Canaanites out of Beth She’an (Judges 1:27)
  • At nearby Mount Gilboa, King Saul was wounded in battle against the Philistines – rather than allow himself to be taken prisoner, Saul fell on his sword (1 Samuel 31: 1 – 6)
  • The Philistines then desecrated Saul’s body (and those of his sons) by nailing them to the walls of this city (I Sam. 31: 7 – 10)
  • Inhabitants of Jabesh-Gilead undertook a daring raid and secured their bodies from the walls (I Samuel 31: 11 – 13)
  • The city was apparently taken by David, for it is listed as part of the 5th District and is taxed by King Solomon (I Kings 4: 12)

The city was raised @ 732 BC when Assyrian forces under Tiglath-Pileser III invaded the Northern Kingdom of Israel. For all intents and purposes, the city remained abandoned until the Greeks came on the scene. It was during this Hellenistic Period (starting @ 333 BC) that Beth She’an was reoccupied. 

The city came to be known as “Scythopolis”, the city of the Scythians. Scythian cavalry units, who belonged to the Egyptian Army of Ptolemy II[5], were garrisoned here and soon came to settle in this area. Another name given to the city was “Nysa-Scythopolis”. The Greeks worshipped the goddess Dionysus – according to their mythology, Nysa (the nurse of Dionysus), had been born here.

In 107 BC, the Jews regained control over the city. John Hyrcanus, as part of the Maccabeean revolt against Greece and a Hellenized lifestyle, took control of the area and fortified it. Such sovereignty was short-lived however. 

In 63 BC, Roman forces under Pompey conquered the Land.  Hellenistic culture was restored and Jewish influence diminished. Under a Roman Governor by the name of Gabinius, a Greco-Roman federation of 10 cities was set up. These 10 cities would become known as the “Decapolis” (meaning “10 cities”).  Beth She’an served as the capital of this league. Beth She’an alone was on the western side of the Jordan – the other 9 cities were on the eastern side.

The Decapolis covered a large swath of territory that today would take in much of modern-day Jordan and part of Syria. 

Scriptural Significance

The New Testament refers to Decapolis particularly in the Gospels:

  • Large crowds followed the Lord into Decapolis (Matt 4: 25)
  • The Gadarene demoniac was from this area. After being healed by the Lord, he published in this region all that the Lord had done for him (Mark 5: 11, 13, and 20)
  • Jesus healed many throughout Decapolis (Mark 7: 31)

Before the Romans came, inhabitants of Beth She’an lived on the large tel or mound that had formed over time. Once Rome had conquered the Land (and given Roman prowess of the day), its inhabitants felt more secure in moving down off the tel and closer to the plain. 

Under Roman rule, the city thrived and became a prominent economic center.  Elaborate buildings went up and the city took on a true Greco-Roman character. 

Looking down from the tel of Beth She’an

During the 1st Century, religious Jews considered Beth She’an and the area of the Samaritan Mountains to be off limits. In other words, they considered this an area that was worldly and polluted with a false and compromised religious system. For the most part, they were correct.

When the Jews rebelled against the Romans in 66 AD, the Gentile inhabitants of Beth She’an murdered en masse some 13,000 Jewish residents of the city. Rome put down the revolt and for a short time, the Jewish population waned in the city. 

According to Eusebius, Christians suffered terrible persecution here at the hands of the Romans. During the period of Byzantine rule (324 – 632 AD), the Church faired better. Churches and monasteries were erected – and the city’s population may have reached 40,000. 

The Arabs finally took the city and Islam entered the Land. Following the Arab conquest in 636 AD, the city regained a form of its ancient name and was renamed ‘Beisan’. In 749 AD, a massive earthquake hit Israel and flattened the city.

Archeologists estimate they may be digging in this impressive site for another 250 years, before exhausting all that is to be found here. 

This is the Cardo – a street running north to south.  Notice in the middle of the street is a kind of hump.  This is a drainage system. Columns surround the street. Excavators refer to this road as ‘Palladius Street’.

This is the Silvanus – a street running roughly east to west.  Notice the impressive rows of columns that enforced and beautified structures of the time.

This shows a bathhouse dating from the Byzantine period. The Romans used a hypocaust system for heating rooms. In short, basement furnaces were used to heat columns of tiles that held up the floor of the bath.  The columns (seen here to the right) would then quickly heat up the room above. Bathers would often have to wear special wooden sandals to keep their feet from being burned.


This Amphitheater has been estimated to seat more than 7,000.  The lower portion has been restored to its former condition.

View from inside the Amphitheater