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Beth-Shean, Roman and Byzantine Period

The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Archaeology What is This? Contains accessibly written entries for topics covering the religious, historical, and social aspects of the Bible.

Beth-Shean, Roman and Byzantine Period

Settled over Tel Beth-Shean (Tel el-Husn, the “Fortress Mound”), at the southern bank of Harod Stream that bisects Beth-Shean Valley, ca. 12 miles (20 km) south of the Sea of Galilee as the crow flies, ancient Beth-Shean, among the oldest cities in the Near East, was from time immemorial a central and significant participant in the historical chapters of the region. The valley, situated ca. 459 ft (140 m) below sea level, enjoys a semiarid climate, although some 30 to 35 springs, with an annual output of ca. 1,302,433,160 square ft (121 million m2) of water, rendered the Beth-Shean Valley one of the richest and most fertile regions in the country. Its location at one of the major crossroads (caput viarum) connecting the coastal ports (Caesarea) in the west with the Transjordanian poleis in the east, on the one hand, and Aila and Jerusalem in the south with Damascus and Antioch in the north, on the other, contributed to the city’s strategic and political prominence as well as its flourishing economy.

H. Reland was the first scholar to visit the site (1714), followed by several nineteenth-century travelers. The visits of U. J. Seetzen (1806) and J. L. Burckhardt (1812) resulted in brief but accurate descriptions of the site. C. L. Irby and J. Mangeles surveyed the theater and the northern cemetery (1818), and E. Robinson described the ruins on the mound and summarized the site history, followed by V. Guérin’s description of the site in 1870. The first comprehensive survey of the site (Survey of Western Palestine) was conducted by C. R. Conder (1882) of the Palestine Exploration Fund; Conder provided the first map of the site.

Pioneer excavations were conducted on the mound, the northern cemetery, and the monastery of Lady Mary (1921–1933) by C. S. Fisher, A. Rowe, and G. M. FitzGerald under the auspices of the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia (henceforth, University Museum Expedition [UME]), resulting in adequate publications. These were followed by numerous small-scale excavations conducted by the Israel Antiquities Department between 1951 and 1969. During the years 1986 to 2000, the Beth-Shean Archaeological Project conducted vast excavations at the site under the auspices of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). The expeditions’ directors included A. Mazar, Y. Tsafrir, and G. Foerster of the Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and G. Mazor, R. Bar-Nathan, and J. Zeligman of the IAA. Along the vast excavations, large-scale preservation and reconstruction works were conducted, turning the site into a tourist attraction. This was followed by research work and final report publications, which have yielded nine volumes to date.

The Hellenistic Period.

Following the conquest of the region by Alexander the Great (332 B.C.E.), Coele Syria was densely inhabited, with over thirty semiautonomous poleis with Hellenistic culture and Greek names. The city name Scythopolis (Σκυθων πόλις, “City of the Scythians”) used “by the Greeks” (Josephus, Ant. 12.348, 13.188) was enigmatic for both ancient sources and modern scholars. Pliny lists among the cities of the Decapolis “Scythopolis, previously called Nysa as Liber Pater (Dionysos) buried his nurse (Nysa) there, having settled Scythians (in the site)” (Nat. 5.74). The legend was repeated more expansively by the third-century C.E. writer Solinus (Collectanea rerum memorabilium 36), while other scholars theorize that Nysa may have been a dynastic name of the Seleucids, born by the daughter of Antiochus IV. The legendary myth of Dionysos’s double birth (Dithyrambos) from his mortal mother Semele, daughter of Cadmus of Thebes, and from his father’s (Zeus) thigh and his later nurturing by the Mount Nysa nymphs was depicted on both Hellenistic seals (bullae) and Roman-period city coins. An altar decorated with portraits of Dionysos, Pan, and Silenus accompanied by Dionysiac attributes—thyrsos, syrinx, and pedum—was found in the agora basilica and dated to 141/142 C.E. The altar carries an inscription that presents Dionysos as the city god (κύριος) and founder (κτίστης).

Following the foundation of Ptolemais (Akko), the Ptolemaic naval base and administrative center of Coele Syria (mid-third century B.C.E.), it became imperative to secure the connection between the coast and the Hellenistic centers of Transjordan. Hence, Nysa-Scythopolis was founded as a military stronghold and administrative center by Ptolemy II Philadelphus (r. 285–246 B.C.E.) on top of Tel Beth-Shean (Pl. 1:2). The long-term excavations by UME revealed in stratum III pottery (incised Rhodian amphora handles) and coins of the third to second centuries B.C.E., including a hoard of 20 silver tetradrachms of the years 259 to 249 B.C.E., along with a colossal marble head of Alexander depicted as Dionysos, though with no accompanying architecture. In the first quarter of the second century B.C.E., the settlement on Tel Beth-Shean was expanded. A well-planned polis was founded by Antiochus IV at nearby Tel Iztabba, situated above the northern bank of Harod Stream (Pl. 1:13).

The excavations of the IAA revealed a well-planned Hippodamian urban setting, characteristic of Hellenistic city-planning tradition. Bisected by streets 2 to 3 meters (6.6 to 9.10 ft) wide, insulae with residential and public buildings were created. The residential quarter consisted of two-story houses with inner courtyards, the walls of which were built of sun-dried mud bricks laid over basalt foundations and covered by colored fresco imitating ashlar masonry. The vast assemblage of finds consists of local and imported fine tableware and storage jars, Rhodian amphorae with stamped handles, coins, loom weights, sling stones, clay figurines, and lead weights. These were adequately separated into finds originating from the first- and second-floor rooms, thus resulting in a comprehensive study of daily life activities and functions. One of the houses yielded around 100 seals with various mythological scenes, presumably representing a private archive of a merchant or banker residing in the city. Paved streets that divided insulae were equipped with drainage channels that served the houses along the streets. The public structures consisted of various complexes, in which large courtyards were surrounded by numerous rooms. Bases, column drums, and Ionic capitals of the finest white limestone indicate the nature of the public complexes’ architectural decor. A section of the city wall and one of its watchtowers constructed out of limestone ashlar preserved a partial picture of the city’s fortifications.

Excavation results indicate that Nysa-Scythopolis was first established as a military stronghold and administrative center on Tel Beth-Shean. Its originally Greek inhabitants, army personnel, and civic functionaries were gradually reinforced by a deeply hellenized population of Syrian origin. Eventually, these population changes led to the founding of a new Hellenistic polis next to the continuing military and administrative center. The urban nature of the new polis, its architectural decor and abundant material culture remains, and its imported tableware from the Aegean islands and wine amphorae from Rhodes clearly indicate the Hellenistic nature of the polis and its citizens’ ongoing connections with their homeland. The Hefzibah inscription (202/201 B.C.E.) provides insight into the Seleucid administrative organization of the region, while the priestly inscription from the mound (145/143 B.C.E.) attests to the citizens’ ethnicity as it mentions Epibelios, son of Epicrates of Greek descent, and Hyracalides, son of Serapion of Egyptian descent, both priests of Zeus—the official cult of the Seleucid dynasty—and the savior gods. Along with the triad of Zeus, Dionysos, and Tyche/Nysa, in particular Dionysos, the patron god of the city and its founder, and Demeter, with her daughter Kore-Persephone, represent the main deities worshiped in that deeply hellenized polis.

The city was mentioned during the campaign of Judas the Maccabee to free the Jews of Gilead (2 Macc 12:29–31) and again when Trypho confronted Jonathan the Hasmonean within the city’s chora (1 Macc 12:40–41; Josephus, Ant. 13.188). In 108/107 B.C.E. Epicrates surrendered the city to the Hasmoneans (Ant. 13.280). Excavation results show that John Hyrcanus burnt the city down and exiled its citizens, presumably to other nonconquered poleis of the Decapolis.

The Roman Period.

Pompey’s conquest of Syria (64/63 B.C.E.) established a Roman province in a region that was densely settled by flourishing Greek cities. The poleis of the Decapolis were declared free by Pompey, adopted the Pompeian era, and were rebuilt and refounded by Gabinius, governor of Syria (57–54 B.C.E.), to be returned to their former Hellenistic inhabitants (Josephus, J.W. 1.7, 7; Ant. 14.4, 2). To commemorate this refoundation, Nysa-Scythopolis, as the largest polis of the Decapolis and the only one located west of the Jordan River, for a while minted coins with the title Gabinia Nysa.

Due to the improved security provided by the Pax Romana, the city abandoned the well-protected mounds and was newly constructed south of Harod Stream in the vast Amal basin and over the surrounding hills. The urban plan of the new civic center was already established at the late first century B.C.E. and early first century C.E. It evolved around the agora, as was customary in republican urban planning in the West (Pl. 1:1). The agora, surrounded by paved streets with shops running alongside, contained a basilica in the northeast and two temples in the southwest. A theater, in which two phases were observed—the first from the time of Tiberius and the second Flavian—flanked its southern side, while a bath complex was built in the northeast. The city’s main arteries were connected to city gates constructed to mark the city pomerium (city boundary marked by the sacred plow).

In spite of the vagueness of the historical sources, it seems that the city was among the territories granted by Anthony to Cleopatra. After Actium, neither Nysa-Scythopolis nor Ashkelon was annexed by Augustus to Herod’s kingdom; they remained with Provincia Syria. Josephus reports that the Jews of Scythopolis were massacred following the riots at Caesarea in August–September 66 C.E. As a result, a cavalry unit was stationed in the city under the command of Neopolitanus (J.W. 2.457–469). When the Nabataean kingdom was annexed and turned into Provincia Arabia with Bostra as its capital and Via Nova Trajana was constructed in 106 C.E., Nysa-Scythopolis entered the second century C.E. with even greater importance and economic prosperity due to its strategic location.

The unrest that shook the region during 117–120 C.E. resulted in the upgrading of Judea into a consular province. Consequently, another legion was stationed at Kefar Othnai (Legio) at the edge of the Jezreel Valley en route from Caesarea to Nysa-Scythopolis.

The urban planning of Nysa-Scythopolis during the second to early third centuries C.E. might be best termed “from functional to monumental.” Its architecture was characteristic of the new imperial architecture with its Baroque decor, which represents a further developed architectural koine (common [vocabulary]) prevalent all over the Roman provinces around the Mediterranean since the reign of Augustus. The agora, the focal point of the civic center, was renovated, surrounded by colonnades, and flanked by shops along its western side, while the basilica and the agora temples were monumentally adorned (Pl. 2:20). The city’s main arteries were turned into colonnaded streets in Ionic and Corinthian orders, flanked by shops and adorned by monumental staircases that provided access to various complexes constructed over differing levels: fountains (nymphaea), arches, piazzas, and resting spots (exedrae).

The southern theater was rebuilt and two thermae (public baths) were constructed along the western and eastern sides of the civic center. Two bridges spanned the Harod Stream, while five monumental freestanding gates marked the city entrances. At the southern premises, a hippodrome was constructed. The city’s colonnaded streets and monuments were adorned by a rich assemblage of marble statues representing most of the Greco–Roman pantheon. The Gilboa Mountain quarries, owned by provincial authorities, were opened to supply the city with limestone of superb quality for its monumental enterprises. In addition to this treasure from the region, marble and granite were imported from Asia Minor and Egypt at the end of the century.

During Hadrian’s eastern tour (128–132 C.E.) the emperor presumably visited the city sometime between the end of 129 and the middle of 130 C.E. As attested by inscriptions once displayed in the agora temples, he was welcomed by the governor of the province, Tineius Rufus. At the nearby legionary camp of Tel Shalem, a triumphal arch and a bronze statue of the emperor were erected in Hadrian’s honor by the senate and the Roman people. Hadrian’s visit strengthened provincial and military infrastructure, while a sophisticated regional road network integrated all urban centers. Urban culture flourished, and in every city of the eastern provinces the construction of temples, imperial cult precincts), public halls and auditoria, thermae, and city gates was accelerated. Urban prosperity, already increased by Hadrian, was boosted still further by his successors Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius and reached its climax during the Flavian renaissance of Septimius Severus. Around 200 C.E. Nysa-Scythopolis accomplished the monumental, Baroque-oriented appearance that would characterize it for centuries to come.

Colonnaded streets, piazzas, and city gates.

In the early second century C.E., the main arteries of the city were upgraded into monumental colonnaded streets that encircled the agora and connected the civic center to all five city gates, two of which were excavated, while the others were surveyed and recorded. Exiting the civic center toward the northeast, the 79 ft (24 m) wide Valley Street (Pl. 2:17) stretched along 1,942 ft (592 m, or 2,000 Roman ft). The 26 ft (8 m) wide, basalt-paved street was flanked by 16 ft (5 m) wide porticoes supported by 22.6 ft (6.9 m) high Corinthian columns erected over pedestals, plus 10 ft (3 m) wide shops on both sides. At mid-length a round square of 171 ft (52 m) diameter was adorned by a round portico, shops, and a decorative monumental column at its center (Pl. 1:19). The square incorporated various streets: Valley Street entered the square in the southwest and exited in the northeast. Another colonnaded street reached it from the southeastern city gate (Pl. 1:7, Gerasa Gate), while the paved road circling the tell entered the square from the northwest. At the point where it exited the piazza, Valley Street crossed the Harod Stream via a complicated skewed bridge (Jiser el-Maktuאa) whose intricate system of vaults spanned the streambed at a 131-degree angle over four 106.6 to 121 ft (32.5–37 m) long vaulted piers and massive stone ramps incorporating storage rooms on both banks (Pl. 1:14). The total length of the high bridge and its colossal ramps reached 656 ft (200 m), and it carried Valley Street to the northeastern city gate (Pl. 1:3, Damascus Gate). The monumental, hybrid-type, freestanding gate consisted of a central single entrance arch and two flanking rectangular, projecting towers. The outer and inner facades of the central arch were adorned with freestanding Corinthian columns erected over pedestals and crowned by a lavishly decorated entablature. This architectural pattern resembles the northern city gate of Hadrian’s Colonia Aelia Capitolina (today’s Damascus Gate).

Another colonnaded street of similar architecture and pattern exited the civic center toward the northwest and ran through a natural saddle (Pl. 2:11, Northern Street). At the foot of the tell it presumably met a similar square (Pl. 1:19) that funneled both entering and exiting sections of the colonnaded street, along with a colonnaded street that ran toward the southwestern city gate (Pl. 1:5, Neapolis Gate) and the street that exited the square at the northeast and encircled the mound. Adorned by propylaea, Northern Street ascended the mound and entered the caesareum, then continued along the Harod Stream and reached the northwestern city gate (Pl. 1:4, Caesarea Gate). The monumental, hybrid-type gate consists of a central tripartite archway flanked by rectangular towers, whose outer protruding sides are semicircles. The arch’s outer and inner facades were richly decorated by freestanding Corinthian columns erected over pedestals and crowned by a rich entablature and ornate niches with statues. Along the inner facade two nymphaea faced a large rectangular, basalt-paved plaza flanked by porticoes. The gate finds its best parallel in the western city gate of Gadara. The paved road that reached the gate from Caesarea crossed another bridge (Pl. 1:15), whose remains were discerned under an Ottoman bridge erected by Sultan ʾAbed el-Hamid (1877). An unparalleled well-planned, belt-type junction was thus created in the northern part of the city, connecting all four main city gates into a central junction. Travelers from the coast or inland destined for Damascus or Arabia could avoid the city’s hectic civic center as they passed through, while remaining within its jurisdiction and bound to its tax regulation.


The rectangular agora (Pl. 2:20), the focal point of the civic center since the early first century C.E., was built over the streambed of the Amal basin, which was first leveled by constructing a wide-scale platform over a vaulted foundation network. It was enclosed by paved streets (Pl. 2:35) and contained a basilica (Pl. 2:19) and a sacred precinct (temenos) housing two temples (Pl. 2:22, 23). During the early second century C.E., the agora was renovated and surrounded by porticoes of the Corinthian order and a line of shops flanked its northwestern portico.

At the ground floor, the two-story shops flanked the agora portico to which the shop entrances were turned, while at their upper floor they flanked the colonnaded street that stretched along the agora on a higher level (Pl. 2:6). Most of the lower levels of the shops were well preserved up to their ceiling’s corbeling. The complete tavern counters included large clay jars and stone basins, presumably containing various preserved food products, above their floors. Two wide staircases with adorned propylaea (Pl. 2:4) bisected the line of shops at its center and at the northeastern end descended from the colonnaded street to the agora.


The basilica (Pl. 2:19, 230 × 98 ft [70 × 30 m]) served as the administrative and juridical center of the municipal mechanism during the first to fourth centuries C.E. Entered from the southwest by a wide staircase, its inner structure consisted of a rectangular setting of stuccoed columns with capitals and corner pillars. Its walls were plated by polychrome marble, and its marble-decorated apse in the northeast had a raised bema. In the apse a hexagonal altar, dated to the year 141/142 C.E., was revealed. It was dedicated to the Lord (kyrios) and founder (ktistes) Dionysos and sported masks of Dionysos and Pan all around, along with Dionysiac attributes such as the panpipe (syrinx), a shepherd staff, and crossed thyrsoi (staffs) ending in pinecones.


Three temples have been revealed in the city center, all associated with the main cults practiced in the city and attested on coins and inscriptions. The first temple, 121 ft (37 m) long, 72 ft (22 m) wide, and of the prostyle-tetrastyle type, was constructed of superb white limestone rising above a high podium in the Corinthian order on the city’s acropolis and dedicated to Zeus Akraios (Pl. 2:33). The temple was first erroneously dated by the UME to the Hellenistic period and later redated by its colossal capitals to the Flavian period.

The agora temenos contained two more temples. The southwestern (Pl. 2:22), rectangular in shape, was erected over a 5 ft (1.5 m) high podium and constructed out of soft limestone coated by white fresco and adorned with profiled base and cape moldings. The temple’s prostyle-tetrastyle facade of the Corinthian order was approached from the north by a wide staircase erected between profiled antae. An interior wall divided the temple into pronaos and naos, and the upper entablature of the temple was decorated with plastered lion heads. A semicircular libation vat stood at the rear of the temple. At its northern facade, a square, basalt-paved platform that presumably carried an altar was revealed. Next to the temple a round pedestal was found, carrying an inscription mentioning Cassiodoros, the temple builder, priest of the Lord, and emperor, who also served as the head of the gymnasium and as the city’s agoranomos (elected official who controlled the marketplace). The inscription does not specify the deity to which the temple was dedicated, though it mentions Lord (kyrios) and emperor and might refer to the imperial cult and the cult of Dionysos, the mythical founder of the city.

Beth-Shean, Roman and Byzantine Period

Overview of Beth-Shean. Kim Walton

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From the temple compound a wide staircase flanked by a colonnade leads to the lower, southeastern part of the compound that housed the temple of Demeter and Kore-Persephone (Pl. 2:23). The square temple (33 × 33 ft [10 × 10 m]) was erected over a 11.5 ft (3.5 m) high podium and surrounded by columns. Its inner room, square outside and round inside, had a raised bema for a statue. The temple was approached by a 29.5 ft (9 m) wide staircase erected between antae and built over a subterranean vault. The vault was entered from the east by a staircase, had a window in the west, and accommodated an altar. East of the temple and its staircase two nymphaea were built on different levels; the upper, marble-plated one was round and had a central column, while the lower was rectangular and included a deep pool whose facade was decorated with spouts in the form of lion and lioness heads that had lead pipes in their mouths. In front of the pool stood a large stone basin and an altar. Between the two nymphaea a portico led to the subterranean vault. An upper courtyard contained various altars with inscriptions dedicated to both goddesses.

Imperial cult.

The genius of the emperor integrated into local myths and cult practices was worshiped in three designated complexes. Widely stretched over the western hill and overlooking the civic center, a caesareum was erected in the early second century C.E. (Pl. 2:5). The large temenos (459 × 344 ft [140 × 105 m]) was surrounded by porticoes of the Ionic order on three sides, while the fourth accommodated a monumental basilica surrounded by columns of the Corinthian order erected over pedestals (Pl. 2:9). A rectangular setting of colonnades with heart-shaped corner columns subdivided the basilica’s inner hall into nave and aisles, while an elevated apse that might have housed the statues of Dea Roma and the emperor adorned its southern side. The compound’s southern portico was flanked by an odeum (a small, roofed theater; Pl. 2:8) and two halls. Other remains might indicate that a temple was erected at the center of the compound. The caesareum was entered by a monumental propylaeum from Northern Street (Pl. 2:11) and by a staircase from Palladius Street (Pl. 2:6).

A small sanctuary, possibly a heroon (shrine to a hero) or a kalybe (shrine to express loyalty to Rome) dedicated to the imperial cult, was discovered at the junction of two colonnaded streets at the foot of the mound and facing a paved plaza (Pl. 2:14). A wide staircase led from the plaza to a prostyle adorned by four monumental columns of the Corinthian order mounted over high pedestals. Another flight of steps led farther up to a semicircular naos resting over a podium of well-planned vaults. A circular base for a statue was found in front of the sanctuary, bearing an inscription dedicated to the emperor Marcus Aurelius. The inscription states the ethnicity of the citizens of Nysa-Scythopolis: “a Greek city of Coele Syria.”

East of the plaza a monumental nymphaeum was revealed (Pl. 2:15). Its semicircular facade was adorned by a two-story, colonnaded facade of the Corinthian order, together with niches for statues. A shallow, rectangular pool was located in front of the facade.

Next to the nymphaeum (Pl. 2:17) stood a podium adorned on three sides by alternating semicircular and rectangular niches (Pl. 2:18). A wide flight of steps and narrow staircases led up the podium floor, the superstructure of which was surrounded by columns of the Corinthian order and crowned by a cupola. The architectural parts of the elevated monument, presumably an honorific altar of the imperial cult, were composed of imported marbles such as cipollino from Karistos in Euboea and marble from Proconnesos in Marmara. The supporting pedestals were adorned by busts of Dionysos over wreaths held by cupids, Nereids riding sea monsters driven by cupids, and wreaths adorned by ribbons, while rich acroteria adorned the roof. The imperial cult was also reflected in various inscriptions and two statues of cuirassed emperors, the armor of which was adorned by representations of Medusa, griffins, and Zeus’s eagle.

Entertainment facilities.

Two magnificent public thermae, two theaters, an odeum, and a hippodrome, later replaced by an amphitheater, composed the city’s leisure and entertainment facilities. The western bath complex (Pl. 2:3) covered 91,493 ft2 (8,500 m²) and was built in the Roman period according to the spacious pattern of imperial bathhouses and enlarged during the Byzantine period. Erected over a high plateau west of the agora, it contained all characteristic components of bathing and social facilities. The central bath building was composed of eight large halls set in a T-shaped pattern, including a cloakroom (apodyterium), a cold room (frigidarium), a warm room (tepidarium), a hot room (caldarium), and a steam bath (laconicum). The halls were heated by 10 furnaces, and subterranean heating systems (hypocaust) and clay pipes in the walls (tubuli) distributed the heat. All halls had marble pavements, frescoed walls, pools, and wide windows and were roofed by high vaults.

Surrounding the central bath building was a Π-shaped court (palaestra) paved by mosaic floors. Five roofed swimming pools (natatio) equipped with nymphaea were located in the palaestra. Surrounding the court on three sides were porticoes of the Corinthian order paved with mosaic floors into which numerous mosaic-paved rooms opened that had triclinium benches along their walls as well as several latrines. While the bath building presented the bathing facilities, the palaestra and its surrounding rooms accommodated a variety of social activities like sports, social and political meetings, rhetoric and poetry reading, and taverns. Over 15 inscriptions on limestone slabs and mosaic floors in various parts of the therma attest the provincial governments’ involvement in the periodical renovation of the bath, mainly during the Byzantine period. The palaestra was entered from three sides, via a grand propylaeum ascending from the colonnaded street in the east (Pl. 2:4), another propylaeum from the south, and a grand entrance from the caesareum in the north.

The eastern therma (Pl. 2:25), located east of the agora, was first built as a small bath during the first century C.E., then enlarged and renovated during the Roman and Byzantine periods. Built over the Amal Stream, it required a leveled platform consisting of a wide-scale subterranean vault system, later used for the bath-heating furnaces and drainage network. The bath complex was entered from the north by adorned propylae leading to wide passageways in the east and west, which were flanked by porticoes (Pl. 2:26). A third portico in the north of monumental columns of the Ionic order, accommodating an inner swimming pool, completed the Π-shaped plan, the central part of which contained numerous large halls for bathing facilities. Furnaces and hypocaust systems marked the hot and warm halls, while elaborate halls with large pools functioned as cold baths. The walls of the cold halls possessed adorned niches housing marble statues of the Greco–Roman pantheon like Dionysos, Athena, Aphrodite, Apollo, Heracles, and Leda, all of which were found within the premises. At the southeastern side of the bath complex a large latrine with an inner peristyle was entered from both the therma and the nearby theater (Pl. 2:24). Colonnades of the Corinthian order, marble-plated pools, marble-paved passages, and halls with frescoed walls and numerous richly decorated wall niches with marble statues attest the exquisite, almost extravagant decor of the thermae, whose construction and maintenance were financed by provincial authorities.

Two theaters were revealed on both ends of a colonnaded street. The southern (Pl. 2:1) was newly built during the Severan period over an earlier theater, which existed in two phases during the early and late first century C.E. With a capacity of around 10,000, the auditorium (cavea) was built partly over the hill slope and partly over a network of vaults. It was divided into three horizontal sections and crowned by a portico. It was entered by eight double and one triple vomitoria (entrance and exit passageways) that also entered nine oval acoustic cells. The stage house was separated from the cavea by the orchestra and side-vaulted passages (aditus maximi). The wide stage (pulpitum) had a subterranean cellar and side staircase towers (versurae). The rear wall of the stage (scaenae frons) was adorned by an elaborate, three-story facade composed of columns and a rich entablature of imported marbles and granite in various colors. The friezes were adorned by rich reliefs with floral motifs, animals, and cupids inhabiting acanthus scrolls in various hunting scenes.

The second, northern theater (Pl. 2:13) was built during the second century C.E. into the southern slope of the tell and therefore faces south. The cavea was divided into two sections, and the scaenae frons was adorned by a two-story columnar facade built of local limestone. An elaborate portico adorned its southern side, which faced the plaza.

The small, theater-shaped odeum flanked the southern portico of the caesareum. The odeum was roofed; it had a small cavea accommodating ca. 600 people, and its small stage was not as richly decorated as the one of the theaters (Pl. 2:8). It was used for music recitals or singing (ode) and might have also served the city council as a bouleuterion (council meeting hall).

At the southern side of the city a hippodrome was built at the second century C.E., measuring 886 ft (270 m) in length and 230 ft (70 m) in width (Pl. 1:24). The seats were erected over ramps set within perpendicular walls and substructure vaults. During the fourth century it was partly dismantled, while its western part was turned into an amphitheater, 394 ft (120 m) long and 220 ft (67 m) wide. The tiers were supported by vaults, and the arena had a 10 ft (3 m) high wall adorned by a fresco depicting hunting scenes. Low-level entrances for animals and gladiators led to the arena, while upper-level vomitoria led spectators into the cavea. The middle seating area included paved tribunes; under the northern one a vaulted sanctuary (sacellum) for gladiators was found.

The Byzantine Period.

The fourth century C.E. witnessed remarkable global events that significantly influenced and reshaped the political and religious situation in the Orient. The following centuries, the Byzantine period or late antiquity, marked a new era, during which Christianity gradually established prominence in the region and, of course, in Nysa-Scythopolis. Larger changes in the city’s structure, however, came as a result of major disaster. On 19 May 363 C.E. a major earthquake partly destroyed Nysa-Scythopolis. A major renovation phase followed, in which collapsed monuments were restored, not including all three cult centers—the mound temple and agora temples—that were dismantled and covered. Remarkably, the agora temples were cautiously dismantled, and their components (including all offerings) were stashed within the sanctuary vault and covered. Such care suggests that newly Christianized pagans reserved warm feelings for their traditional pagan cults and culture.

By contrast, some imperial cult monuments, such as the caesareum and the kalybe, continued to function well into the mid-fifth century C.E.; and others, such as the nymphaeum, altar, inscribed pedestal, and cuirassed statues of emperors, existed until the end of the Byzantine period. This situation seems to reflect how Constantine and his successors maintained the imperial cult for centuries as a potent vehicle to consolidate power and political aspirations. At the turn of the century, Nysa-Scythopolis was proclaimed the capital of Provincia Palestina Secunda. Soon afterward the city was considerably enlarged at its southern side and surrounded by a 2.9 mile (4.8 km) city wall connecting all former city gates, while a new gate was erected in the south. During the sixth century C.E. the city reached its zenith as a flourishing, affluent administrative center; its population may well have reached 40,000 inhabitants. A second renovation stage occurred at this time, in which both thermae were renovated and the agora was newly adorned, while at its southern side a wide-scale, paved plaza with a portico and a nymphaeum adorned the theater. Palladius Street (Pl. 2.6) was renovated, and a monumental sigma adorned the center of its western portico (Pl. 2.7). Taverns and apses of the sigma opened to a semicircular piazza paved with mosaic floors including inscriptions with Homeric verses. The mosaic in one of the rooms depicted Tyche in its central medallion.

The earlier restoration stage following the earthquake concentrated on rebuilding the collapsed buildings (anastylosis), while the later reused spolia for newly erected monuments. As a result, the city remained faithful to the Roman imperial architectural trends of the second century C.E. and never lost its magnificent Baroque character and cultural appearance. As in Caesarea, the civic center of the provincial capital remained secular. In contrast to other Greco–Roman cities in the region, like Gerasa, Gadara, and Hippos, no churches were built in the civic center of Nysa-Scythopolis.

Throughout the Byzantine period Nysa-Scythopolis presented a flourishing monumental landscape, immense economic resources, and a constantly growing population of heterogenic ethnicity. These diverse communities practiced a well-balanced harmony and peaceful coexistence in the face of diverse polytheistic and monotheistic religions.

During the fourth to seventh centuries the Beth-Shean Valley was densely settled by Jewish villages, whose richly adorned synagogues document the wealth and prosperity of their communities. Considerable numbers of their Hellenistic upper-class families, including merchants and industrialists of the flourishing linen industry, established economic and social ties to, as well as residency in, the city, as attested by the construction of a synagogue and numerous finds of lamps of Jewish origin.

At the same time members of the Samaritan population took refuge in Roman cities in growing numbers. Both of the main poleis of Syria Palestina, Caesarea and Nysa-Scythopolis, situated on both terminus points of the connecting traffic artery between the coast and Provincia Arabia, became main focal points for Samaritan migration. Inscriptions attest to the involvement of distinguished members of that community in the renovation enterprises of the city and to their influential ties to the imperial court at Constantinople.

The legalization of Christianity by Constantine must have paved the way for the new monotheistic religion into the political, cultural, and religious circles of the empire. Nevertheless, the gradual transition from paganism to Christianity in the Greco–Roman poleis of the region was not completed before the sixth century C.E. The Christianization of Nysa-Scythopolis, a Greek city of Coele Syria and the capital of Provincia Palestina Secunda deeply evolved in its traditional Hellenistic culture, was slow; and its impact on the urban architectural plan and its social and cultural life was gradual.

Already at the end of Diocletian’s reign a small Christian community resided in the city, in whose church Procopius, a native of the city and the first Palestinian martyr, served as a reader, exorcist, and translator of the scripts. As reflected in other cities of the region, like Gadara and Gaza, members of the urban upper class were well educated in classical literature, philosophy, and rhetoric, while others acquired law degrees from Gaza and Beirut. Their highly sophisticated intellectual spectrum of classical literature and Christian scripts and a deep knowledge of the Greek language and culture enabled them to participate in intellectually demanding debates over Christian dogma.

Bishop Patrophilus, a supporter of Arius, represented the city at the council of Nicaea (325 C.E.); and most fourth-century bishops along with a majority of the city’s Christian community were Arian. Later, the city was known as a shelter for Monophysites and Origenists. Cyril of Scythopolis, whose father was the legal adviser of the bishop, became a monk and the hagiographer of the venerated Judean desert monks. His writings reflect the highly intellectual debates about the Orthodox dogma in the region in general and the Judean monasteries in particular.

Nysa-Scythopolis was a Greek polis with a deeply rooted Hellenistic culture. Its Christianity grew on fertile Hellenistic cultural soil and was Hellenistic in cultural terms; so, too, were its Jewish and Samaritan communities. Pagans converting to Christianity during the Byzantine period might have changed their cult but not their culture. Christianity in the urban Orient was fundamentally Hellenistic by culture. It gradually grew to prominence among the heterogenic, diverse communities of the city, of which most citizens, polytheistic and monotheistic, shared the same Hellenistic culture.

Nysa-Scythopolis was also a monastic city as many monasteries were uncovered and surveyed within the city and its close vicinity (chora). The UME revealed the round church of John the Baptist on the tell (Pl. 2:34); this was presumably preceded by a basilica church, perhaps erected by Bishop Patrophilus, who was probably buried in it. The early church was burnt during the reign of Emperor Julian and rebuilt anew. Next to it a monastery was revealed, and on the tell’s northeastern terrace a group of spacious houses was uncovered. The UME cautiously suggested that the tell might have served as an ecclesiastic compound.

On the western part of Tel Iztabba, attached to the city wall the sixth-century monastery built by Lady Mary was revealed by the UME (Pl. 1:11). Its courtyard has a mosaic floor depicting the zodiac; another room has a rich mosaic floor depicting grape harvesting, while the chapel mosaic depicts numerous birds.

The IAA expedition revealed another monastery, of the martyr Basilius, at Tel Iztabba, composed of two parts. The northern part, termed the “Old Church,” and monastery (Pl. 1:9) were built in the late fourth century C.E. and later left outside of the city wall and approached by an arched doorway. During the Samaritan revolt of 529 C.E. that presumably started at Nysa-Scythopolis, the Old Church was burnt and later rebuilt anew within the city wall (Pl. 1:10, the “New Church”), financed by a grand sum of money allocated by the emperor and obtained during Sabas’s visit to the imperial court. Both old and new monasteries had basilica churches, a small one in the former and a large trefoil apsidal one in the latter, both richly adorned by mosaic floors bearing inscriptions.

About a dozen other monasteries were either mentioned in Cyril’s report of Sabas’s visits to the city or partly revealed or surveyed around the city’s boundaries. Numerous citizens of Nysa-Scythopolis were known to have joined monasteries and seclusion cells in the region, while distinguished abbots, mostly from the Judean desert monasteries, were ordained bishops of Nysa-Scythopolis, and others, like Sabas, participated in the Christian affairs of the city’s daily life.

Nysa-Scythopolis was conquered by the Moslems in 635 C.E. Under Beisan’s Umayyad authority the Christian community, along with most of its monasteries, prevailed, as did the city’s high urban culture. A century later, in 749 C.E., the city was entirely destroyed by an earthquake and left mostly in ruins.

Nysa-Scythopolis, a leading member of the Decapolis and a Hellenistic polis of Coele Syria, remarkably reveals the historical role played by various Hellenistic poleis of the region. Declared in its inscription and distinguished as a “Greek city,” it singled out its origins, culture, and ethnicity as attested by the excavation results. The material culture of Hellenistic Nysa-Scythopolis, founded over a deeply rooted Hellenistic tradition, was widely renovated during the Roman and Byzantine periods in accordance with the ground lines of Roman imperial architecture, thus granting the city its remarkable scenic view. Along its fundamental Hellenistic tradition and intellectual Greek culture, the heterogenic, ethnic, cultural, and religious affiliations of its population widely shaped the Christian nature of the Greco–Roman polis and its relation with paganism, on the one hand, and other monotheistic religions that coexisted in the polis, on the other.


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Gabriel Mazor

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