Beit She'an: Gateway to Eden

Once home to gladiator exhibitions, the Jews have reclaimed the ancient Roman showcase city of Beit She'an.

Shalom Pollack,

Beit She'an Street
Beit She'an Street
Israel news photo: (Ministry of Tourism)

“If the Garden of Eden is in the land of Israel, then its gate is Beit She’an.”
 
Thus our rabbis described the lush wide valley in the north of Israel. Indeed, this fertile expanse, the crossroad of three continents, has always attracted attention.

Aerial view of Beit She'an
Courtesy, Ministry of Tourism


It was on the walls of Beit She’an that the Philistines hung the decapitated bodies of King Saul and his son Yonatan (Jonathan). The Jews of Gilead crossed the Jordan and bravely cut the bodies down to give them a proper burial. They thus repaid an earlier kindness when Saul’s first act as king of Israel was to liberate them from the yoke of the sadistic Nachash, king of Amon.
 
After the ten tribes were carried away by the Assyrian king Sancherev, the area fell into neglect.

Pillars toppled in an earthquake
Courtesy, Ministry of Tourism


During the Great Revolt against Rome, its Jewish inhabitants claimed neutrality, but at the encouragement of the Romans their long-time pagan neighbors turned on them and massacred them all.
 
It is quite possible that the great Talmudic author Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish performed as a young gladiator in the recently unearthed amphitheater of Beit She’an. Before he changed his ways, the rabbi was a successful bandit and gladiator.

Beit She'an theater stage
Wikimedia Commons

Beit She’an was the Roman showcase city of the East near the frontier with the Parthians, the neighboring superpower. Rome wanted to impress the locals with its magnificence and beauty. It therefore battled for the hearts and minds in its struggle against its competing superpower.
 
If the excavated remains are any indication, one could not help but be wowed by this city. It had something for everyone: theaters, amphitheaters, bathhouses, libraries, beauty salons, and shopping centers. It was better than any super mall!

Public toilets in the Byzantine bathroom
Courtesy, Ministry of Tourism

One can imagine the impression all this made on a farmer selling his produce or a traveler coming through. The archaeologists have indeed found the finest examples of Roman art and design.
 
The rabbis debate whether it is permissible for a Jew to attend a theater (where there was non-violent entertainment) or an amphitheater (where there was animal and human combat). It is interesting to note that they all agree that one should not attend the theater but there was debate about the amphitheater. This is because the crowds watching the contests often could influence the fate of a combatant.
 
A city that was marveled at for centuries and must have taken generations to build was smashed into splinters in twenty seconds. In the year 734 CE, a devastating earthquake reduced the showcase city to rubble. Visitors are always amazed by the beauty and sophistication of the city, but as the Book of Proverbs says, “Many are the thoughts of Man. However, G-d’s Will shall prevail.”

Antiquities viewed from Roman theater
Courtesy, Ministry of Tourism

Indeed, the Jews are back in Beit She’an today. The local Jewish workers benefiting from the national project have unearthed the “glory” of Rome in the reborn Jewish country – something hardly imaginable to the Romans.

Restored corner of the Roman theater
Coutesy, Ministry of Tourism

I recall visiting the excavation site just as they began to dig about 27 years ago. I’ll never forget what I saw sticking out of the ground at the upper most layer of excavation – a tail of a Soviet-made Katyusha rocket that had been fired a few years earlier by PLO’s terrorists from across the Jordan. This was the latest remains of a “civilization.” Yes, some people build and others destroy. We all have our jobs.

In 1948, Beit She’an was a tiny Arab village that housed invading forces. The town was liberated by Israeli forces and today Jews forced to flee Morocco -- and lately, Ethiopian and Russian immigrants -- are part of the ingathering of the exiles as they help uncover the glory of a civilization that was sure it was to supplant the Jewish nation and its message.
 
I wonder if anyone ever told the Romans that the game is not over until the fat lady sings...

Shalom Pollack is a veteran Israel tour guide, who guides and plans tours for families and groups. He also writes and lectures on Israel and will be on a lecture tour in the US this coming October-November. Pollack recently produced a DVD, "Israel - Ancient Roots, Modern Miracle.” Clips can be seen on his website, www.shalompollacktours.co.il


 


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