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Thursday, February 17, 2011


I leave Beit Alfa’s synagogue with such a good feeling, but this day in Israel continues to astound as we travel to Beit She’an National Park, a place often visited because of the 15 layers of civilization uncovered there. It’s so difficult for me to imagine conquerors incorporating what they find and continuing to build atop the previous civilization-- growing the earth up to a mound and then a hill for archeologists to dig down through that hill to that mound until they reach the flat earth again and an early civilization that lived the best it could on this spot.

Beit She'an

Beit She'an

The most important occupation archeologically because of the pieces of antiquity uncovered was the Egyptian, dating back to the 15th century BCE when Pharaoh Tutmose III made Beit She’an an Egyptian administrative center. It was occupied by the Egyptians for approximately three centuries, and then by Canaanites during whose occupation it was first mentioned in the Bible. Israel conquered it, and in a fight against the Philistines, the dead bodies of King Saul and his son, Jonathan, were hung from the walls and were memorialized in a psalm of David. Antiochus, of Chanukah fame, ruled here too. The Romans ruled as did the Byzantines, but throughout all of these occupations a small Jewish community remained. In 1322 this community produced the first Hebrew book on the geography of Israel.

As we walk on the streets that bore those people in ancient times, I mention to our guide, David, how astounding it is that Israel allows us to tread on the mosaic tiles of the streets and to touch the remaining objects of antiquity. He smiles and reminds me that these streets were built to be walked upon, and that they will be here far longer than any of us. Point well taken. How wonderful, though, to become a part of the history rather than gaze through glass panels in a museum.

Beit She'an

The first place we stop is the Roman bathhouse. Here the clay structures at the bottom were heated by a draft of hot air from an external furnace. Water then dripped down on the hot clay causing steam to rise—a steam room! You can see the seats the men sat upon while they enjoyed their "schwitz."

Beit She'an steam room

There were three rooms in the bathhouse. The Romans were extremely organized about the care of their bodies. They exercised regularly, and these rooms were often used afterward. The hottest room is called the caldarium. If one preferred a lukewarm bath or a place to go between the steam room and the caldarium, the place to go was the ornately decorated tepidarium where one might relax and enjoy a message. Prefer a cold bath? The place to visit was the frigidarium. After a hot bath or a tepid soak, one would go to the frigidarium where the cold water would close the pores of the skin. The frigidarium was usually a swimming area, but it may have also been used as a baptistery because of the decorative cross that still exists.

The bathhouse with its tiled floors, ornate decorations, and, frankly, un-ancient (no such term, I’m sure) perspective, was extraordinary. It must have been magnificent. I can imagine Romans after exercise, relaxing and enjoying this spa just as we do today in much simpler surroundings.

From the bathhouse we walk to the Cardo Maximus. This was the main boulevard in Roman cities running in a north-south direction. It is a wide avenue, like a wide highway, and in Beit She’an, the markets were set up along side the Cardo Maximus. The Cardo is a colonnaded street, and the columns are decorated with depictions of Dionysus and other gods.

Beit She'an

Beit She'an and David
Our Margaret Morse Tour guide, David, explains the sculptured figures and their significance

We can still see the mosaic tiles of the thoroughfare, and it does not take much for our imaginations to imagine the crowds here on market days, purchasing goods, and enjoying the liveliness of street musicians and other entertainers.

On to the Roman theater, built around 200 CE, which originally had three tiers and eight entrances. It seated approximately 7,000 patrons. It also housed a Roman Temple. Some speculate that the theater was also used for gladiator fights with animals because the seating is high enough above the floor of the theater to protect spectators. In any case, it is an extraordinary sight to behold.

Beit She'an

Beit She'an
As amazing as Beit She’an is, we are all anxious to move to our next stop—Jerusalem. Initially we are heading not to our hotel but to Mt. Scopus overlooking this most important of cities, and there we will have a Kiddush and say the Shehecheyanu before we enter the city. This is a special prayer for important moments in our lives. Entering Jerusalem, and for me it is the first time, is, indeed a special moment in my life.

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