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Beit She’an Excavations Continue to Unearth Ancient History of Area

Ancient empires that were the cornerstones of Western civilization left their mark on the Holy Land.

Among other things, they left a public toilet, a brothel and a city reputed to have been founded by the Greek god Dionysus, the son of Zeus and Semele, who was the goddess of fertility and wine and patron of choral music and drama.

These relics from deep antiquity have been unearthed by generations of archaeologists digging away year after year in and around Beit She’an, south of Lake Tiberias.

The Beit She’an excavations are the most extensive in Israel and have been going on since the 1920s.

To date they have unearthed the history of the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine cities, built one atop the other on the site like layers of a cake beginning about 300 B.C.E. They were inhabited continuously until the destruction of the tiered cities by a massive earthquake at the end of the 8th century C.E.

This season’s dig appears to have shed new light on the legend of Dionysus.

The earlier excavations, conducted by British and American archaeologists during the British Mandate period and continued after 1948 by the Israel government’s Antiquity Department and the Hebrew University, concentrated on ancient Roman and Byzantine cities on the plane.

WORK MOVES TO TOP OF HILL

This year, the work switched to the top of the hill overlooking the restored Roman amphitheater which these days is often the scene of jazz concerts.

According to archaeologist Gaby Mazor, who led the latest dig together with Rahel Bar-Natan, legend has it that Dionysus stopped at Beit She’an en route from Europe to India.

He was accompanied by Nysa, the nurse who had raised him as a boy. She died there and was buried on the site by Dionysus, who left behind bodyguards to protect the tomb. He also established the city of Nysa Scythopolis in her honor.

The excavations did not reveal any signs of the nanny’s tomb but did uncover parts of the ancient Hellenistic city.

The hilltop excavators found the remains of several homes, a hoard of pottery, candle holders painted with mythical figures, a weaving loom, wine jars, and other domestic utensils, many bearing manufacturers’ stamps from the islands of Rhodes and Kos.

An exploratory dig nearby had been intended to unearth more of the city. Instead, the workers discovered the remains of a church dating back to the Byzantine period, with a colorful mosaic floor depicting animals and local fruits and vegetables.

The excavations in the Roman-Byzantine city uncovered a colonnaded street built on top of shops from an earlier period. There were the remains of a triumphal arch and a bridge built of huge blocks over Nahal Harod — the main northern entrance to the cities from the first 1st to 7th centuries.

The hippodrome horse-racing arena built on the outskirts of the ancient city may never be found. It is believed to be covered by a suburb of modern Beit She’an.

One of the major tourist attractions is an array of public conveniences. They include a large public toilet, an adjacent bath house and convenient brothel.

The toilet seems to have been used by the Romans as a meeting place to trade gossip while the patrons squatted on about 50 stalls built along a wall.

The seats consist of pairs of stone blocks built over a gully filled by running water from the Harod springs into which excrement was dropped and washed away.

Before flushing the toilets the abundant Harod spring waters were heated and used to fill the public baths.

The brothel consisted of a number of small cells built in a semi-circle around a reception area. The employees were depicted in mosaic likenesses which emphasized each one’s charms.

Modern Beit She’an was established in 1948, shortly after the Israeli state. About 200 of its present residents are permanently employed on the ongoing excavations and reconstruction.

The historical origins of the urban complex in the valley go back further than the Hellenistic city founded by Dionysus. Beit She’an is mentioned in ancient Egyptian documents. A stele (basalt stone) over six feet high dedicated to Egyptian King Seti I from 1318 B.C.E. was unearthed in the early 1920s.

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