Bet Shearim National Park is one of Israel’s most important archeological sites and a valuable destination for anyone seeking to understand the history of the Holy Land.
Located in the middle of the Jordan Valley, Bet Shearim was an important city dating back to ancient times. Saul was killed near here in a battle with the Philistines, who fastened his dead body to the walls of the city. During the time of Jesus it was the capital of the Decapolis, an alliance of ten Roman cities on both sides of the Jordan. Excavations have revealed some 20 levels of occupation dating back millennia.
Bet Shearim National Park preserves the remains of the Roman-Byzantine era city, a large complex of picturesque ruins and columns as well as one of the best-preserved Roman theatres in Israel, one that once held 7,000 spectators.
Natural springs were used to operate many fountains and ornamental pools, creating an oasis of coolness in the midst of an often brutally hot valley. Particularly interesting is its Byzantine bathhouse, the largest in Israel, where the populace went to exercise, get clean and keep up on local gossip (sort of like a modern health club).
If you’re interested in how people in the Middle East got clean before the advent of hot showers, this is the place to visit. Also of note are two majestic colonnaded streets, a Roman temple, a decorative fountain building known as a nymphaeum, and a reconstructed mosaic of Tyche, the Roman Goddess of Good Fortune, holding the Horn of Plenty.
The archeological site is overlooked by a large tel, or artificial hill, on top of which are the remains of a palace dating back to when the city served as the administrative headquarters for Egyptian rule from about the 15th to the 12th centuries B.C.
The hill offers a panoramic view of the ruins and the surrounding countryside, including the mountains of Jordan to the east. The top of the hill also includes a tree that was used in the filming of the movie Jesus Christ Superstar.
Bet Shearim was destroyed by an earthquake in 749 A.D., as is evidenced by the marble columns tossed around like they were Tinkertoys. After that the town fell into obscurity.
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Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.