Israel and Jordan, 2011—Day 5

Overview of Bet She'an National ParkBet She’an National Park.  Bet She’an is a wonderful Israeli National Park in the northern Jordan Valley, and includes the ruins of the ancient city, Bet She’an-Scythopolis, and the small mountain known as Tel Bet She’an (tel means hill of many layers).  Bet She’an guarded the eastern entrance to the Jezreel Valley.  Archaeological excavations reveal that the site has been occupied since the 14th century BC, including the Canaanites with Egyptian rule—six Egyptian temples have been discovered here; the Philistines who displayed the bodies of Saul and his sons on the city walls; King David’s rule; King Solomon’s reign; Assyria; Greece; the Hasmoneans; the Roman Empire whose population here consisted of pagans, Jews, and Samaritans; the Byzantine Empire in which the city became mostly Christian; the Arabian Empire; the Crusaders; the Turks; and finally the modern state of Israel.  Ruins, Bet She'anDuring the period covered by the New Testament, Scythopolis was the major city of the Decapolis. The Gospels record that Jesus went through this region (Mark 7:31). Only about 10 percent of the 400 acres has been excavated, but the ruins displayed a magnificent city. Visible are portions of the theater, bathhouse, public toilets, other public buildings, colonnaded street, amphitheater, and other ruins from the Roman and Byzantine periods. The city was complete with its own water and septic systems, and even included an underground tunnel providing a shortcut for residents to get from one area to another. It was obviously a very lavish and affluent city.

During the Late Bronze Age (16th–12th centuries BC), the Egyptians made Bet She’an the center of their rule over Canaan. According to the Bible, the Israelite tribes were unable to capture Canaanite Bet She’an. After a battle at nearby Mount Gilboa, the Philistines hung the bodies of King Saul and his sons on the city’s fences.  King David conquered Bet She’an together with Megiddo and Ta’anach, and in King Solomon’s day it became part of an administrative region encompassing the country’s northern valleys. In 731 BC, the city was destroyed by the Assyrian King Tiglathpileser III.  In the second half of the fourth century BC, at the time of Alexander the Great, Bet She’an was reestablished as a Greek polis, with all the trappings of Greek culture in the East: colonnaded streets, temples, theaters, markets, fountains and bathhouses.  Later in the Hellenistic period, the city was named Nisa Scythopolis. The name derived from Greek mythology according to which Dionysus, the god of wine, interred his nurse, Nisa, in the city, and settled it with Scythians, tribesmen from what is now southern Russia, who were his personal guards.  In 107 BC, the Hasmoneans conquered Scythopolis. The pagan inhabitants, who were given the choice or converting or leaving, chose exile, and Jews resettled there, restoring the old biblical name Bet She’an. In 63 AD, the Romans took the city transforming it into an important member of the alliance of cities called the Decapolis.  During the Great Revolt of the Jews against the Romans (66 AD), the Jews of Bet She’an were murdered by their pagan neighbors, who took over the city and gave it back its pagan name. It developed greatly during the reign of Emperor Hadrian (117–138 AD) and Marcus Aurelius (161–180), and during the Late Roman period, Jews, pagans and Samaritans lived together there. Grand public buildings were built, adorned with inscriptions and statues.  In the fourth century, when Christianity became the religion of the empire, the city’s life-style changed again. IMG_0392The amphitheater where gladiators had fought was neglected, although the theater and the bathhouses continued in operation. Churches were built, but the center of town retained its pagan character for a long while.  In 409 AD, Bet She’an became the capital of the administrative region known as Palaestina Secunda. The city extended to 1,300 dunams (325 acres) and prospered, mainly thanks to the linen industry, and its population reached an unprecedented 40,000–50,000.  After the Arab conquest in the first half of the seventh century, the city gradually declined, losing its hegemony to Tiberias. Then, in 749 AD, an earthquake rocked the region and devastated Bet She’an––its evidence was prominent everywhere in the excavations. The name Scythopolis was eventually forgotten and the place became known as Beisan, recalling the ancient biblical name.  The Abbasid period saw a village established here. In the Middle Ages, settlement focused mainly on the rise to the south of the old city center, and the Crusaders built a fortress east of the destroyed amphitheater.  After the founding of the State of Israel, Bet She’an was reestablished and began to grow as a part of a modern city.

Inside the Church of Annunciation, NazarethNazareth.  On our way to Nazareth, we traveled once again through the Jezreel Valley.  Nazareth, boyhood home of Jesus, is now a modern city of some 80,000 people, including both Palestinians and Jews.  During Jesus’ time, the city’s population was only about 200. It is much more a Middle Eastern city in terms of its culture than was Tiberius.  After entering the city we walked through the Church of the Annunciation, so named to reflect the angel’s announcement to Mary that she was with child and would have a son who would be named Jesus. The church was filled with artwork from all over the world depicting Mary. Below the church are ruins which some believe to be that of Mary’s home. Following the church tour we visited a local pastry shop, then had lunch at a local restaurant.

Megiddo.  Our next stop was at Megiddo, an archaeological site reflecting some 25 layers of civilization and 7,000 years of history. The site was replete with hilltop ruins of stables, a sacrificial site, an independent water system, a grain storage site, and other features necessary for commerce and military protection. Many ancient kings fought here.  Solomon and other Israelite kings used this as a major center. From atop Megiddo, one has a broad view of the Jezreel Valley.

The sacred area and sacrificial altar, Megiddo ruinsStrongly fortified throughout the ages, Megiddo boasted a stone Syrian-type gate in the days of Canaanite inhabitation.  This gate was straightened to accommodate chariots, was later than the bent-axis gate, constructed as a defensive measure, and earlier than the famous "Solomonic" gate, part of the construction of King Solomon described in 1 Kings 9:15.

Part of a large religious complex from the third millennium B.C., this sacrificial altar is striking in its size (10m diameter)IMG_0449 blog and location (behind the temple). A staircase leads up to the altar, a small temenos fence surrounded it, and large concentrations of animal bones and ashes were found in the vicinity.

Needing secure access to its water supply, Megiddo utilized different water systems over its history.  In the 9th c. B.C., Ahab constructed a massive system with a 30 meter deep shaft and a 70 meter long tunnel. This Iron Age tunnel connected the bottom of Ahab’s shaft to the spring.  Before its construction, Megiddo residents had to leave the city walls in order to get water from the spring.  This tunnel was hewn from both ends at the same time (like Hezekiah’s Tunnel) and its builders were only one foot off when meeting in the middle.  This continued in use until the end of the Iron Age.

Kay and Sherry at entrance to EmmausEmmaus.  Our final stop before entering Jerusalem was at Emmaus  The site contained ruins and is believed by many to be where Jesus broke bread with his two apostles who were on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection (Luke 24:13-35). The author of Luke places the story on the evening of the day of Jesus’ resurrection. The two disciples have heard the tomb of Jesus was found empty earlier that day. They are discussing the events of the past few days when a stranger asks them what they are discussing. "Their eyes were kept from recognizing him." He soon rebukes them for their unbelief and gives them a Bible study on prophecies about the Messiah. On reaching Emmaus, they ask the stranger to join them for the evening meal. When he breaks the bread "their eyes were opened" and they recognize him as the resurrected Jesus. Jesus immediately vanishes. Cleopas and his friend then hasten back to Jerusalem to carry the news to the other disciples, and arrive in time to proclaim to the eleven who were gathered together with others that Jesus truly is alive. While describing the events, Jesus appeared again to all who were there, giving them a commission to evangelize. Then he took them out as far as Bethany and blessed them before ascending back into heaven. Many of the travelers on this tour, including Kay, had been on the “Walk to Emmaus" and this was a poignant time in their pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Jerusalem.  Our plans were to visit the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem prior to checking in at our hotel. However, the Jewish Sabbath was only an hour away, and no parking places could be found for the bus, though our driver drove completely around the walled Old City. Consequently, it was off to the hotel, and a really good dinner. Tomorrow, we are off to Bethlehem.

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