Beit She’an: a City of Violence and Pleasure 

By: Gabriella Gomperts  |  September 20, 2023

By Gabriella Gomperts, Staff Writer 

This summer I was trekking through the ancient Roman ruins of Beit She’an, and all I could think about was the heat as well as my intense craving for an ice cold banana date smoothie from Rebar.

Despite the Israeli heat, I was so fortunate to have the opportunity to join an archaeological dig in Jerusalem and travel to the north of Israel under the auspices of Yeshiva University and the leadership of Dr. Jill Katz and Dr. Steven Fine. We started the three week program by touring and learning about various archaeological and historic sites, including Tzipori, Usha, and Beit Alpha. 

But now that I’m home, Beit She’an is the one place that I find myself reflecting upon the most. The name Beit She’an means House of Tranquility, and while today this sleepy town can be described as quiet and serene, this place experienced a storied and tumultuous history. 

Beit She’an sits at the junction of the Jordan Valley and Jezreel Valley in between Jerusalem, Jericho, and the Galilee, guaranteeing its strategic importance for many ruling powers. 

In the Book of Samuel I, the Navi writes that King Saul and his three sons were slain by the Philistines when they attacked Israel during the Battle of Gilboa. Their bodies were impaled on the walls in Beit She’an. King David reconquered the city and used it as an administrative center, but the city was later destroyed by the Assyrians. 

Known as Scythopolis during the Hellenistic period, the Greeks believed Dionysis, the god of wine and pleasure, buried his nurse here. The Hasmoneans conquered the city in the 2nd century BC and repopulated it with Jewish residents, but the city was once again repopulated by gentiles when the Romans conquered the area. 

After the failed Jewish revolt in 66 AD, a period of peace and construction followed, with artwork adorning the numerous public buildings. In 749 AD, an earthquake devastated the city and Scythopolis was abandoned, with the city now known as Beisan and inhabited as a rural settlement during the Abbasid period. The polarity between the two aspects of this city is emblematic of a common theme in human history, with times of war and peace constantly in flux. Beit She’an has certainly seen this tendency transpire, with the pattern being very clear: the city will prosper, face horrible conquests or destruction, get rebuilt by its new rulers, rinse and repeat. 

The Roman conquest and reconstruction of the city included the establishment of bathhouses, temples, and a theater. These places were built for relaxation, worship, and entertainment, only for them to fall into disuse and destruction. 

It’s interesting that this dichotomy also exists in the religious writings that mention this city. One of the only mentions of Beit She’an in Tanach was to provide the setting of Saul and his sons’ gory and tragic deaths. In Greek mythology, the city is associated with Dionysis, who represents pleasure. 

Beit She’an has been conquered, destroyed, and rebuilt in much of Jewish history, once again prospering under the State of Israel.