Saturday, August 29, 2020

Ancient Scythopolis, the leading city of Rome's Decapolis

Historically known as Scythopolis, Beth Shean (Beit She'an) is located at the junction of the Jordan River Valley and the Jezreel Valley.   The city was founded in the Late Neolithic or Early Chalcolitic Period (sixth to fifth millennia BCE).  In the Biblical account of the battle of the Israelites against the Philistines on Mount Gilboa, the bodies of King Saul and three of his sons were hung on the walls of Beit She'an.  In Roman times, after Pompey annexed Judea to the Roman Empire,  Beit She'an was refounded and rebuilt by Gabinius. The town center shifted from the summit of the mound, or tell, to its slopes. Thereafter, it became the leading city of the Decapolis, a league of Judean cities, and was the only Decapolis city west of the Jordan River.  

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, a cardo and other trademarks of Roman influence. Mount Gilboa, 7 km (4 mi) away, provided dark basalt blocks, as well as water (via an aqueduct) to the town. Beit She'an is said to have sided with the Romans during the Jewish uprising of 66 CE. Excavations have focused less on the Roman period ruins, so not much is known about this time. The University of Pennsylvania's excavation of the northern cemetery, however, did uncover significant finds. The Roman period tombs are of the loculus type: a rectangular rock-cut spacious chamber with smaller chambers (loculi) cut into its side. Bodies were placed directly in the loculi, or inside sarcophagi which were placed in the loculi. A sarcophagus with an inscription identifying its occupant in Greek as "Antiochus, the son of Phallion", may have held the cousin of Herod the Great.

Copious archaeological remains found dating to the Byzantine period (330–636 CE) were excavated from 1921–23. Beit She'an was primarily Christian during this period, as attested to by the large number of churches, but evidence of Jewish habitation and a Samaritan synagogue indicate established communities of these minorities. The pagan temple in the city centre was destroyed during this period, but the nymphaeum and Roman baths were restored. However, many of the buildings of Scythopolis were damaged in the Galilee earthquake of 363 CE, although by 409 CE it still became the capital of the northern district, Palaestina Secunda.

Image: Sarcophagus from the northern cemetery, tomb 202 A, Iron Age IA, 1200-1150 BCE that I photographed at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia. 

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