The Cardo Maximus and Tell at Beit She’an, Israel
Beit She’anis a city in the North District of Israel which has played an important role historically due to its geographical location at the junction of the Jordan River Valley and Jezreel Valley. It essentially controlled access from the interior to the coast, as well as from Jerusalem to the Galilee. Settlement of the site began in the Late Neolithic or Early Chalcolithic periods (6th to 5th millennia BC).
After the Egyptian conquest of Beit She’an by pharaoh Thutmose III in the 15th century BC, the small town on the summit of the Tell became the center of the Egyptian administration of the region. During the 20th dynasty, invasions of the “Sea Peoples” upset Egypt’s control over the Eastern Mediterranean. Though the exact circumstances are unclear, the entire site of Beit She’an was destroyed by fire around 1150 BC. The Egyptians did not attempt to rebuild their administrative center and lost control of the region.
A Canaanite city was constructed on the site of the Egyptian center shortly after its destruction and around 1100 BC the Canaanite Beit She’an was conquered by the Philistines. During a subsequent battle against the Jewish King Saul at nearby Mount Gilboa in 1004 BC, the Philistines prevailed. 1 Samuel 31 states that the victorious Philistines hung the body of King Saul on the walls of Beit She’an. The Jewish King David was able to capture Beit Shea’an in a series of brilliant military campaigns that expelled the Philistines from the area, pushing them back to their coastal strongholds of Ashkelon, Ekron, Gath, Gaza, and Ashdod. The Assyrian conquest of northern Israel under Tiglath-Pileser III (732 BC) brought about the another destruction of Beit She’an by fire. Minimal reoccupation occurred until the Hellenistic period which saw the reoccupation of the site of Beit She’an under the new name Scythopolis, possibly named after the Scythian mercenaries who settled there as veterans. Little is known about the Hellenistic city, but during the 3rd century BC a large temple was constructed on the Tell. From 301 to 198 BC the area was under the control of the Ptolemies until the Seleucids conquered the region. The town played a role after the Hasmonean Maccabee Revolt: Josephus records that the Jewish High Priest Jonathan was killed there by Demetrius II Nicator. The city was destroyed again by fire at the end of the 2nd century BC.
In 63 BC, Pompey made Judea a part of the Roman empire. Beit She’an was refounded and rebuilt by Gabinius. The town center shifted from the summit of the Tel to its slopes. Scythopolis prospered and became the leading city of the Decapolis, a loose confederation of ten cities that were centers of Greco-Roman culture. The city flourished under the Pax Romana, as evidenced by high-level urban planning and extensive construction, including the best preserved Roman theatre of ancient Samaria, as well as a hippodrome, cardo, and other trademarks of the Roman influence.
In the Byzantine era many of the buildings of Scythopolis were damaged in the Galilee earthquake of 363, and in 409 it became the capital of the northern district, Palaestina Secunda. In the 6th century the city reached its maximum size of 40,000 and spread beyond its city walls. In 634, Byzantine forces were defeated by the Muslim army of Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab and the city was renamed Baysan. The city was not damaged and the newly arrived Muslims lived together with its Christian population until the 8th century, but the city declined during this period. On January 18, 749, the city was completely devastated by the Golan earthquake of 749. A few residential neighborhoods grew up on the ruins, probably established by the survivors, but the city never recovered its magnificence. The city center moved to the southern hill where a Crusader fortress surrounded by a moat was constructed.