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The Last Days of Beit She’an (2005)

On 18th of January 749 CE ‘Abed the merchant woke up for another day in Beisan, a major city in the northern Jordan valley. ‘Abed was doing well. He had a shop on the main street where he sold flax cloth. In the back of his store he had vats for dyeing the fabric to any color. The flax of Beisan was highly sought after. The edict of the Emperor Diocletian (298 CE) declared Beisan’s flax as the best in the Roman Empire(!). It was also the most expensive. About a century earlier, Beisan, where ‘Abed was born and raised, was conquered by the Muslim Arabs from the Christian Byzantines. The streets still bore some of the Roman-Byzantine architectural elements. The big bathhouse was still used, but the local theatre and temples had gone out of use long before, their stones partly re-used by the locals. Yet the market street was as busy as ever. The road followed the alignment of the Roman main street, but shops now extended into the pedestrian zone, making the market look more crowded and busy than ever.

General view of the center of Beit-she'an
General view of the center of Beit-she’an. In the Classical periods the city was named “Nyse-Scythopolis”, but under Muslim control the Biblical name was re-used, though with an Arabic slant – Beisan. The main street of the city, restored in modern times, was still in use in Muslim times, but most of the other public buildings went out of use.

Aside flax, merchants offered local agricultural products and locally made pottery vessels, as well as imported jewelry and metalwork. Two inscriptions made of glass mosaic stones adorned the entrance to the market street. Some of the stones were covered in golden leaves. Similar wall mosaics decorated the Dome of the Rock inJerusalem, the construction of which had just been completed.

The inscriptions were in honor of ‘Abd Alla the Khalif, and Ishaq bin Qabisa the governor, who renovated the market place and put up the inscriptions.

One of the mosaic walls which was fixed at the entrance into "Hisham's market" in Beisan
One of the mosaic walls which was fixed at the entrance into “Hisham’s market” in Beisan

Beisan had a long and rich history. In Canaanite times it was a small fortified site on the top of the tell, the acropolis of the city. At that time, Beisan was called Beit-She’an ( Hebrew: “the house of Shean”). The Philistines held the site for a while and displayed on its walls the body of Saul after he was killed in battle at nearby Mt Gilboa (I Sam. 31:10).

In the Greco-Roman periods the city developed in the valley south of the tell. It was renamed “Nyse-Scythopolis”, associating its local religious cult with Nyse and the Scythians, figures related Dionysus. Scythopolis was a member of the Decapolis, an association of ten towns, in the time of Jesus, and he may have passed through the city. After conquering the city in 635 AD, the Muslims reverted to the Semitic name of the city, but with an Arabic slant – “Beisan”. In 749 CE Beisan was mostly Muslim, but there were still small Christian and Jewish communities in the city. But all the residents were about to face the same fate. Around 9:30am on 18 January, the earth suddenly began to shake. For about 30 seconds the earth moved like a raft in stormy water. Fearful people ran screaming in all directions. Buildings fell, most in the same direction, to the north. Fire broke out in the olive oil stores. Some people were caught under the falling stones. Many were injured and some died as a result. The glorious city, with its long and rich history, fell into ruins, sealed by the debris until the 20th century CE. ‘Abed’s fate is unknown but his store was left with all its contents, including some gold coins inscribed in Arabic.

In 1986 the Ministry of Tourism of the State of Israel launched a 16-year excavation project at Beisan-Beit She’an. Directed by a joint expedition of the Hebrew University and the Israel Antiquities authority, the large scale excavations was also to include reconstruction of various buildings in the lower city, and on the tell, all to promote tourism to the site and the region.

As of 2005 the main street is fully exposed and visitors can stroll along it, imagining the merchandise that was once offered here. The theatre is also active again and summer concerts here are very popular. The western bathhouse complex is also developed for visits, and on the tell an Egyptian style palace has been reconstructed. The site is a pearl and receives growing crowds on annual basis.

But the abundant small finds from the excavations are be displayed at the site. No budget has been allocated yet to create a local museum. To compensate, the HebrewUniversity has set up recently a special exhibition of the small finds at the university’s Mt Scopus campus, in the main hall of the Humanities building. The Muslim gold and glass wall mosaic inscriptions adorn the entrance. The cases display small finds that show the wealth and identity of the local people: Arabic gold coins, a large gold pendant depicting two flanking lions, and a zoomorphic (animal shaped) clay pot. All are typical Muslim artifacts.

Arabic gold coins attest to the Muslim majority inhabiting Beisan in the 8th century CE
Arabic gold coins

Gold pendant depicting lions
Gold pendant depicting lions

zoomorphic clay pot
zoomorphic clay pot

Two lamps, one of clay and the other of bronze, on which are depictions of the Jewish menorah (seven branched candelabra), were probably owned by a Jew.

A clay oil lamp decorated with a menorah near its nozzle
A clay oil lamp decorated with a menorah near its nozzle

a bronze oil lamp depicting a menorah above the handle attest to the Jews living in Beisan in the 8th century
a bronze oil lamp depicting a menorah above the handle attest to the Jews living in Beisan in the 8th century

A fragment of a red clay bowl depicting a Christian saint was probably owned by a Christian.

Fragment of a red clay bowl depicting a Christian saint
Fragment of a red clay bowl depicting a Christian saint, most likely originally belonging to a Christian resident of Beisan.

Scales and weights illustrate the commercial activity that once took place in the shops along the market street. One of the shops may have belonged to ‘Abed.

All of these artifacts were buried under the destruction layer caused by the devastating earth quake. Beisan did not recover from this catastrophic event and although kept been inhabited throughout the Middle Ages, it was a much smaller and less important site.