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Rome of the Valley

Beit She'an perhaps does not connect in one’s mind with the capital of the boot-shaped country, but its impressive archeological site reveals an absolutely magnificent Roman city. By: Yuval Ben Ami
by: Israel Traveler   |   05.09.2011

In the beginning of the 1950s the Lugassy family came to Israel from Morocco. They where housed in an especially poor and meager transit camp, in a valley with an inhospitable weather. The family stood up, left the valley and moved to Jaffa, but the younger son, Yossi, missed his first home in Israel, and when he could he went back there.

To his amazement , when he arrived to the place in which once stood the transit camp he could not even find the land on which its tents stood. Where once the transit camp stood now was a huge gaping hole in the ground, out if which peeked white columns and ancient walls. The archeological excavations at the Beit She'an site have begun. Lugassy went in and for the first time in his life encountered the art of the mosaic.

Today Lugassy is one of the most well-known mosaic artists in Israel and his home in Jaffa serves as a magnificent gallery of mosaic portraits. So how much influence has the magnificent archeological site of Beit She'an, which is situated to the south of the Sea of Galilee, had on other Israelis? For many of the Israelis, the city of Beit She'an, which is located in a distance of less than a two hours drive from the center of the country, is a somewhat out-of-the-way place. There are many Israelis who visited Roman ruins in Rome itself but have never been to Beit She'an.

This is very unfortunate, as Beit She'an is an invaluable and very impressive historic treasure. Six thousand years of history have left their mark on the city, which is more ancient than Jerusalem or Jaffa. No less than eighteen civilizations existed here during one period or another. Among the ruins here were found ancient Egyptian inscriptions and Greek and Roman remains. We know that the Greeks have called this city "Scythopolis” and that it reached its peak in the Byzantine period. The wonderful street layout which Lugassy has seen from the hill, as well as the mosaic of the synagogue which he has discovered, remain from those days.

The Gate of the Garden of Eden

So what is actually the Byzantine period? In the beginning of the 4th century CE, three hundred years after the birth of Jesus Christ, the Romans still worshiped the gods of their Mythology and persecuted the Jews as well as the Christians. At that time Constantine the Great, a Roman nobleman, conquered the entire Empire from separatist leaders who tried (successfully) to break it apart. According to the Christian tradition, Constantine had a revelation during the battles and following his victory, he converted the whole Empire to Christianity.

Thus, the Byzantine Empire is a continuation of the Roman Empire and in its beginning it has inherited its sense of aesthetics: the look of the columns, the use of marble, the clothes and the carriages. The empire was even called the "Roman Empire” hundreds of years after Constantine’s death and its people thought of themselves as Romans. This is the reason for the obvious Roman look of Beit She’an, even though most of its structures were built in a relatively later period. This is also the reason that it is so impressive and beautiful. The Byzantines reorganized the area which they were given by the previous Empire and turned Beit She’an into the capital of a huge region: "Palestina Secunda”, which spread from the Mediterranean Sea all the way to Madaba in the Transjordan region.

Beit She’an became a large city of 50,000 residents. It already had a huge Roman Theater for two hundred years, and now it was time to add avenues to it and to expand the bath houses and public structures. The Roman Temples were gradually turned into churches and the Jewish population flourished in the city and loved it. In the "Babylonian Talmud” it was said that if the Garden of Eden was in Israel, Beit She’an would be its gate.

Bur even a city that sits at the gate to the Garden of Eden is influenced by political decrees. Beit She’an became great as the capital of a region, but when the map changed again with the Muslim conquest and its title was taken away from it, it slowly started to diminish. The Muslims moved the capital somewhere else. The Crusaders did not really notice the town and neither did the Mamluks. Rabbi Ashtori HaParhi who lived in it in the 14th century actually lived in an agricultural environment, even if a very nice one. In his writings Rabbi Ashtori HaParhi says about Beit She’an that it is "blessed and sated with joys – an opening to Paradise.”

Going against the flow

The visitors in Beit She’an today go through it in the opposite direction to its history. The Beit She’an site has a train that brings visitors from the city of Beit She’an’s central station into the depth of Beit She’an’s mysterious past. First the visitors pass by the Ottoman Government House- the "Saraya”, the gate of which is held by two ancient Roman columns with capitals. From there the visitors "drop” in time straight to the Byzantine period: a Byzantine street and an impressive amphitheater are located outside the area of the archeological site and it is very much worth while to go and visit them.

Within Beit She’an’s archeological site Rome and Byzantium receive visitors together, while in the distance the ancient mound which predated them both rises high. There is no doubt regarding the fact that the most impressive feature of the Beit She’an archeological site is its vast Colonnade Avenue which leads from the Roman Theater to the ancient mound. Along the Colonnade Avenue the columns stand straight but in its farther end are scattered the broken parts of a few of them that fell down to the ground during an earthquake which took place here during the 8th century. These broken down and scattered marble giants provide an impressive scene, but it was exactly here that approximately 1,600 years ago one could view an even more impressive sight. It was precisely here that the nymphaeum stood: an elegant water fountain in which the water of the springs of
Beit She'an flown through marble cascades. The beautiful shattered and scattered capitals that lie around, decorated with flowers and delicate designs in stone, once decorated this wonderful structure. The base of the fountain still exists and if you close your eyes in front of it for a moment you can perhaps imagine this city for a second in the 5th century in the height of its power.

Enemies mentioned in hieroglyphics

The valley is filled with interesting remains, starting with a well preserved theater, built in a semi circle like the one in Caesarea (this theater is different from the completely circular amphitheater that is located outside the Beit She'an archeological site) and ending with the Roman Bath House and the public toilets structure, which served the visitors of the public buildings. One can also find here the remains of temples, an ancient market square and a whole system of streets which were excavated by dedicated archeologists.

The climbing to the top of the ancient mound of Beit She'an is a little arduous but from up there a magnificent view is revealed, and the pleasure of walking into the most hidden back rooms of history is great. Here were excavated the foundations of ancient structures, some of which were partially reconstructed, and among them one can find the house of the city’s governor in the Canaanite period. Among this structure’s rooms stands a grey monument: a reconstruction of an Egyptian inscription in hieroglyphics which was found here, in which are mentioned Beit She'an and Egypt’s other historic enemies.

In front of these ancient inscriptions one can continue to imagine the city in its past glory: as a busy Canaanite fortress, an Egyptian city, a Greek city, a distant and dusty Roman city which is very far away from Rome, and again as a magnificent Byzantine capital. One can also look toward the future here; perhaps the man from Jaffa with his mosaic will not be the last one who will draw inspiration from this place.


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