After the excitement of the High Holydays, life could seem a little flat. Fortunately, November saw the start of the new academic year, with two new Open University courses – one, on music (The 4 Symphonies of Brahms) and one, continuing my exploration of the Bible. This year’s course deals with the northern kingdom of Israel, concentrating on the prophets Elijah and Elisha.
Moreover, I signed up for another course of field trips with Yad Ben Zvi. This time, I chose a series of archaeological tours, focusing on the latest archaeological discoveries in Israel.
The first field-trip took place on a sunny Wednesday in mid-November, in the middle of a heat wave. The temperatures were between 28 – 30 degrees Celsius as we drove north to the Beit Shean valley, which is, in any case, one of the hottest places in the country.
We started the day with a visit to the Crusader fortress of Belvoir, or Kochav Hayarden (כוכב הירדן – Star of the Jordan) as it is known in Hebrew. During the Roman and Byzantine periods, there was a Jewish settlement nearby, known as Kochav or Kochava (Star) and that name is preserved also in the Arabic name of the fortress, Kawkab al-Hawa (Star of the Winds).
On approaching the site, the first thing one encounters is a sculpture garden, exhibiting the works of Yigal Tumarkin.
Strangely enough – or maybe not – the shape of the sculpture featured above echoes the shape of the pointed archways of the fortress.
The fortress was built by the Knights Hospitaller in 1168, on a plateau 500 metres above the Jordan River Valley, which commanded the approaches from Gilead, on the eastern side of the Jordan, to the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Here, the Knights held off Muslim attacks even after the crushing defeat suffered by the Crusader armies at the hands of Saladin on July 4th,1187 in the Battle of the Horns of Hattin, and the subsequent fall of Jerusalem, in October of that year. But after a siege lasting a year and a half, the Saracens succeeded in breaching the eastern wall of the fortress and its defenders decided to surrender, on January 5th, 1189.
We travelled next to the nearby Beit Shean National Park, which encompasses both Tell Beit Shean, the site of the Biblical city, and the later Hellenistic and Roman city of Scythopolis.
Beit Shean, strategically situated at the junction of the Jordan River Valley and the Jezreel Valley, was allotted to the tribe of Menasseh, but owing to the military superiority of the Canaanite inhabitants, they were unable to dispossess the latter (Judges 27:28). After the defeat of the Israelite army led by King Saul, on Mount Gilboa, where Saul and his three sons, including Jonathan, met their deaths, the victorious Philistines stripped his armour, cut off his head and nailed his body and those of his sons, to the walls of Beit Shean. When they heard what had been done to the body of their king, the men of Jabesh-Gilead, east of the Jordan, came stealthily by night and took down the bodies, which they then took back to Jabesh-Gilead for honourable burial (1 Samuel 31:6-13).
Alas, I have no pictures of the Tell, the earliest part of the city, because after we had climbed it, in the hottest part of a very hot day, I felt faint and had to sit down and close my eyes, so I missed this part of the tour 😦
At any rate. the city eventually fell to King David, whose son, Solomon, made it an administrative centre for the region (1 Kings 4:7-12). With the conquest of the Galilee by the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III, in 732 BCE, the site was destroyed by fire, as we can tell from the layer of burnt debris and pottery vessels dating from this period, which was excavated by archaeologists from the Hebrew University, led by Prof. Amihai Mazar, between 1989 – 1996.
In the Hellenistic period (3rd – 1st century BCE), a new city was founded on this spot, and named Nysa-Scythopolis. Local legend has it that Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, buried his nurse, Nysa, here and then settled the region with Scythians from among his followers. The story about Dionysus, we can, of course, dismiss – but it is possible that Scythian mercenaries from the army of one of Alexander the Great’s successors, settled there as veterans and gave the city its name.
At the end of the 2nd century BCE, the Hasmoneans conquered the city and expelled its gentile residents. The city remained predominantly Jewish until the Roman conquest in 63 BCE, when the Jews again became a minority. The city itself became the most important city in northern Israel, one of the ten cities of the Decapolis. Magnificent public buildings were built, adorned with statues, decorated with mosaics and engraved with inscriptions.
Here is a panoramic view of the ruins, seen from the steps descending from the Tell:
And here is the theatre. Built in the 1st century CE, it could hold 7000 spectators, in three tiers of seating, of which only the lowermost was preserved intact.
Behind the theatre, you can see one of the main streets, known as Palladius Street, a 150-metre-long colonnaded street which crossed the city from the slopes of the Tell to the theatre.
It was built during the Roman period and renovated during the Byzantine period, when the portico was added. This was in the days of the provincial governor, Palladius, as we know from a dedicatory inscription which archaeologists found in the portico mosaic – which is why they called the road “Palladius Street”.
In the centre of Palladius Street was a semicircular concourse, dating to the Byzantine period, surrounded by rooms which might have been shops – one of which, at least, may have been a brothel. Several of the rooms were paved with coloured mosaics.
One mosaic depicts Tyche, goddess of luck and fortune (hence her Latin name, Fortuna), the guardian goddess of the city, wearing a crown representing the city walls and bearing a cornucopia.
It is likely that the “golden Jerusalem” which Rabbi Akiva bestowed on his wife, Rachel, was something similar.
At the end of the street, we can see an interesting juxtaposition of ancient and modern art.
Another important feature of the Greco-Roman city was the bath-house. At least two have been excavated in Beit Shean.
Here is one, featuring a typical Roman heating system. Yes, 2000 years ago, the Romans had central heating and hot, running water – thanks to the hypocaust. See the link for an explanation of how it worked.
When the Jews rebelled against the Romans in 66 CE, the Jewish citizens of Scythopolis were slaughtered by their gentile neighbours.
During the Byzantine period, the city, which had previously had a mixed population of pagans, Jews and Samaritans, became largely Christian, with a population of between 30,000 – 40,000. However, after the Arab conquest, the population dwindled and the city’s importance declined, until 749 CE, when a severe earthquake dealt the city a blow from which it did not recover until modern times. The name Scythopolis sank into oblivion and was replaced by a small rural settlement nearby known as Beisan – the Arabic name preserving the ancient, Biblical name.
Meanwhile, the once thriving city lay in ruins, its mighty columns and carved capitals lying where they had fallen, struck down by the implacable forces of nature, until archaeologists began researching the ancient city in the 1920s. So far, only about one tenth of the city’s area has been uncovered.
Our last port of call was Kibbutz Ein Hanatziv, to see the replica of a mosaic inscription found at nearby Tell Rechov. The original is in the Israel Museum. The inscription is worded similarly to portions of the Jerusalem Talmud relating to mitzvot (religious obligations) which are only relevant and binding in the Land of Israel, such as tithes and the Seventh (shmita) year, when the land was to lie fallow. The inscription, therefore, can tell us a great deal about the boundaries of the Land of Israel at the time the inscription was made.
We sat there, listening, fascinated, as our guide, Eran (whose in-laws live on the kibbutz) expounded on the Halakhic (religious-legal) significance of this find, while flocks of birds flew overhead, as the sun slowly set.
It was completely dark by the time we left, and drove back to Jerusalem, under a full moon.