The city was conquered by Egyptian pharaohs such as Thutmosis III and Shoshenq I; it is mentioned in the Bible under the name “Bayshan,” as belonging to the Israelite Tribe of Manasseh; it was on the city walls that the Philistines hung the bodies of Saul and his sons, after defeating them in the battle at Mount Gilboa.
In the 4th century BCE, the city was captured by Alexander the Great, who established some thirty Hellenistic poleis in the region. One such polis, built by Alexander’s heir, Ptolemy Philadelphus, was Nysa Scythopolis, named after Dionysus’s nurse, the forest nymph who was buried there. According to Greek mythology, Dionysus brought in the Scythians (tribesmen from Euro-India) to protect and guard her tomb. The city maintained this name up until the Arab conquest in the 7th century.
In the 2nd century BCE, the Hasmoneans conquered the city and forced its inhabitants to either convert to Judaism or be expelled. Thus, the city remained Jewish until 63 BCE, when it was conquered by Pompey, who returned it to its earlier dwellers.
Approximately in the year 400 CE, Beit She’an became the capital of the province known as Palestina Secunda (the land of Israel was divided into three Roman provinces). It retained this status until it was conquered by the Muslims in the 7th century, after which Tiberias became the new capital of the Province. In 749, the city was destroyed in an earthquake, and never regained its former grandeur.
Archeological digs on the hill near the modern town of Beit She’an commenced in the 1960s. This process unearthed the city’s theatre, and later, in 1986, the archeological study dug deeper and discovered the remnants of the Roman city, Nysa Scythopolis, which are now open to public display.
Prominent among the findings in this city were the two public baths. Five pools, including a large swimming pool (natatio in Latin), were found in the outer yard of one of these public bath houses. There was also a changing room (apodyterium), where the bathers left their clothes to be guarded by their servants. The Roman spa was an attraction to the rich and the poor alike, as there was only a symbolic entrance fee and children entered free of charge. Some of the baths were heated by a furnace, which was kept working 24 hours a day, to provide hot air circulation around the walls and beneath the floor.
The pools were filled by a constant flow of water that came from the numerous springs in the area of the Beit She’an Valley (also known as Springs Valley). Each day these brought into the city 1 cubic meter of water per capita, an enormous amount, which was used to fill the pools of the public baths, service the latrines, and maintain the decorative fountains of the nymphei, scattered throughout the city.
One of the two main roads of Scythopolis is the colonnaded street of Paladius (named after the governor of the city). Built in the 2nd century, it features beautiful marble pillars with their highly ornate Corinthian capitals, typical of the decorative architecture of the era. East of this street is the city forum or agora, where numerous shops sold their wares.
The hill in the city was not populated; it was the location of the Caesareum, the temple. Built at the top of the hill, it was the designated place to worship Caesar’s genius (in Latin: guardian spirit). The temple was removed in the Byzantine era. More recently, in 1973, the tree (wild, not cultivated) located at the top of the hill where the Caesareum once stood was used to film the crucification scene in the movie Jesus Christ Superstar.
The Roman amphitheatre that was discovered in the city is noted for its opulence: it has three levels of seating, black basaltic columns imported from Turkey, and decorations made of red granite that was imported from Egypt and marble from the region of the Sea of Marmara (also Turkey).The theatre, which could seat 10,000, was equipped with a sound system consisting of large inverted canisters that created an echo and amplified the actors’ voices. The marble frontal façade was carved with images of lions and Roman gods.
Next to the Beit She’an National Park is the Jewish town of Beit She’an, which was established just after Israel’s independence, in proximity to the ruins of what was once a major city of the Roman Empire.