Modern excavations reveal ancient civilizations

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BET SHE'AN, Israel — Most Christians who travel to the Holy Land concentrate their tours on well-known religious sites. But other sites can add enriching experiences, not just for their biblical history, but also for their cultural relevance in the history of civilizations.

About 30 kilometers south of the Sea of Galilee, along the Jordan River valley, lies the city of Bet She'an. Today a modern community of 15,000 residents, the city boasts one of the most spectacular archaeological excavations of ancient civilizations in all of Israel.

Dating back to the 12th to 16th centuries B.C., this one-time Canaanite city was not immediately captured by the Israelites. As recorded in First Samuel 31, it was at nearby Mount Gilboa that King Saul was wounded in a battle with the Philistines. Rather than be captured by his enemies, he fell on his sword. The Philistines then cut off his head and hung his body and his sons' bodies on the wall of this ancient city, then known as Beth Shan.

The city was later captured by King David and became the administrative center of the region during the reign of King Solomon.

In 732 B.C. the city was captured and destroyed by the Assyrians. In subsequent years it was rebuilt and became Scythopolis, the capital of the 10 Greek cities known as the Decapolis.

During the second century B.C. it was captured by the Hasmoneans and became a Jewish community until the Roman conquest of Israel in 66 A.D.

Much of the modern-day excavation is uncovering this period of Roman, and subsequently Byzantine, rule which lasted until the land was conquered by Arab Muslims in the seventh century, then destroyed by a massive earthquake in 749 A.D.

While some excavations were begun in the 1920s, the major effort has been ongoing since 1986. Thousands of tons of dirt have been meticulously removed.

Among the finds are large bath houses with sophisticated heating systems, mosaic floors, public lavatories, a Roman temple, colonnaded streets, a most impressive Roman theater that was built around 200 A.D. to seat up to 8,000 people, and a Roman amphitheater or hippodrome used for horse and chariot races.

Today, the 400-acre site is a National Park and is open to visitors. The theater is also used for large outdoor events.