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Behind the Headlines: at Beit She’an, an Ancient Site Brings New Hopes for the Future

Situated about 20 miles south of the Sea of Galilee and within hiking distance of the Jordanian border and the soon-to-be opened border crossing between Israel and Jordan, this town of 15,000 is banking on tourism to ensure its future.

A poor, underprivileged development town just 10 years ago, Beit She’an has spent the past decade developing a tourism industry around its one resource: an ancient Roman-Byzantine city boasting 20 layers of civilization going back to the 5th century B.C.E.

Arguably the most exciting archaeological site in Israel today, ancient Beit She’an was located on the great caravan route linking Damascus to Egypt.

According to Jewish tradition, the Philistine rulers of the city displayed the bodies of Saul and his sons on its walls after they were killed in the Battle of Mount Gilboa. King David conquered the city, which later became one of the administrative centers of Solomon’s kingdom.

During the 1920s and 1930s, archaeologists uncovered finds dating back to the period of Egyptian rule over Canaan during the 16th to 12th centuries B.C.E.

In subsequent excavations, most notably those undertaken by the country’s Antiquities Authority since 1984, archaeologists have found magnificent buildings and statuary from the Greek, Roman and Byzantine periods.

At the end of the fourth century C.E., the city became the capital of the province known as Second Palestine. Two centuries later, its population reached 30,000 to 40,000. Then, in the first half of the seventh century, when the city was in Muslim hands, it was leveled by an earthquake.

Although ancient Beit She’an had an illustrious past, its modern incarnation was, until recently, an impoverished town with a bleak future.

BUILT ON A SHOESTRING

Like other development towns built in the early years of the state to accommodate new immigrants, modern Beit She’an suffered from high unemployment and low self-esteem.

Built on a shoestring, much of the town became a slum. Anyone visiting the area 10 years ago found a hot, dusty, litter-strewn community where residents, mostly poor immigrants from North Africa, crowded into substandard housing, with little chance of getting ahead.

Today, visitors get a very different impression. Most of the dust and dirt are gone, replaced by green parks and cool, inviting fountains.

Though the ugly apartment complexes remain, many have been repainted and renovated. Better, newer homes have also been built –including a section of large, expensive private houses — reflecting the higher standard of living that many residents now enjoy.

This startling transformation, which has relied heavily on the continued excavations of the 400-acre archaeological site, is no accident.

According to Shulamit Kaminsky, assistant project director of the city’s Tourist Development Authority, “This project has been 10 years in the making.”

Back in the mid-1980s, Kaminsky said, “the government was looking for a way to help Beit She’an get on its feet. The first priority was finding jobs, since there was not much local industry. By looking at the town’s resources, it came up with the idea of turning the ancient city into a main tourist attraction.”

To accomplish this goal, the government in 1986 enlisted the assistance of five public bodies and established the Tourist Development Authority.

Funded in large part by the Finance Ministry, the participants — including the Ministry of Tourism, the town council, the Antiquities Authority, the Parks Authority and the Jewish National Fund — formulated an ambitious plan to promote the archaeological site and the town that houses it.

Realizing that tourists will not visit a site until it is excavated, the authority earmarked a large percentage of its $6 million annual budget for excavation and restoration work. The remainder of the funding went, and continues to go, toward building the kind of infrastructure needed to accommodate up to a million tourists a year.

“From the beginning, we realized that tourists expect certain services when they visit a site like this,” Kaminsky said.

PROJECT RENEWAL HELPED REVIVE TOWN

Kaminsky stressed that the development project extends far beyond the actual ruins.

After examining the level of service provided by local eateries, the authority hired a quality-control consultant from Tel Aviv, who has encouraged the restaurants around town to upgrade the quality of their food and service.

Walking around town, it is obvious that the advice has been heeded. Though still not among the fanciest of the country’s restaurants, several of the local eateries have modernized both their establishments and their menus.

Thanks to assistance from Project Renewal and other programs, once barren stretches of land have been planted with grass, and a series of gurgling water channels run through the town center. The streets are immaculate.

Though much of the infrastructure will not be in place until 1996, people here say they are already seeing results.

Last year, Beit She’an attracted 250,000 tourists, 70 percent of whom came from overseas.

According to the National Employment Service, unemployment is down to about 6.5 percent — compared to a national unemployment rate of about 8 percent — and everyone from taxi drivers to falafel-stand owners say they are profiting.

With the new border crossing with Jordan expected to open within weeks, Gabi Mazor, director of archaeology at the site, foresees the day when large numbers of tourists will combine a visit to ancient Beit She’an with a tour of Jerash, another Roman city in Jordan built during the same period.

“Beit She’an and Jerash are sister cities,” Mazor said, “and tourists who come to see one will want to see the other.

“Our proximity to the new bridge will definitely be an advantage,” Mazor said.

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