The settlement of Beit She`an began in the fifth century B.C.E. on a hilltop south of Nahal Harod, in the heart of a fertile area with plenty of water and at the crossroads of major thoroughfares.
During the late Canaanite period (sixteenth to twelfth centuries B.C.E.), the hilltop was the seat of Egyptian rule in Eretz Israel. According to the Bible, the tribes of Israel were unable to capture Canaanite Beit She`an. After the battle on nearby Mount Gilboa, the Philistines hanged the bodies of King Saul and his sons on the city walls. King David captured Beit She`an together with Megiddo and Ta`anach, and during King Solomon`s reign the city was included in the administrative district of the valleys. Beit She`an was destroyed in 732 B.C.E. when Tiglath Pileser III, King of Assyria, captured the northern part of Eretz Israel.
This area was resettled during the time of Alexander the Great, in the second half of the fourth century B.C.E. The new residents founded a polis (city-state), and gradually Beit She`an had all the trappings of a typical Hellenistic city in the East: colonnades, temples, theaters, markets, bathhouses, and fountains.
During the Hellenistic period, a city with the Greek name Scythopolis-Nysa was built here. According to tradition, this is where Dionysis, the god of wine, buried his nurse, Nysa. The Scythians - members of a tribe from south Russia who were counted among Dionysis` entourage - were also brought here to settle. The statue of Dionysis uncovered in the excavations illustrated that the Dionysian cult was widespread in the city.
In 107 B.C.E., the Hasmoneans captured Scythopolis. Faced with the choice of conversion or leaving the city, the residents departed en masse. The Jews who later settled the city called it by its former name, Beit She`an. After the Roman conquest in 63 C.E., Beit She`an returned to gentile hands. Beit She`an was one of the ten federated cities known as the Decapolis alliance and the most important city in northern Eretz Israel.
During the revolt against the Romans in 66 C.E., the Jewish residents were slaughtered by their gentile neighbors. The Romans returned the city, again called Scythopolis, to its former residents. The city flourished at the time of Hadrian (117-138 C.E.) and had its golden age after the Bar Kochva revolt, under Antoninus Pius (138-161 C.E.) and Marcus Aurelius (161-180 C.E.). During the Roman period, pagans lived side-by-side with Jews and Samaritans. As the city grew, ornate public and governmental buildings sprung up, each with numerous inscriptions and statues.
After Christianity was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century B.C.E., the lifestyle and architecture of the city changed. The amphitheater - site of cruel contests between gladiators and wild animals - went to seed, but the theater, the bathhouse, and the fountains were kept up. Although churches were built in Beit She`an, the city center retained its pagan character. The basilica and pagan temples were only slowly replaced by churches.
In 409 C.E., Theodosius divided Eretz Israel into three districts. Beit She`an was chosen as the capital of the second, Palestina Secunda, which included the Galilee.
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