New and Old Pedestrian Malls in Beth-Shean

Danny Syon

Following plans to build a modern pedestrian mall in the eastern part of Beth-Shean, a salvage excavation conducted to sample the four acre large site, uncovered what may be termed the ‘ancient pedestrian mall’ built on the site some 1500 years ago. The excavation squares were laid out to approximately coincide with the planned buildings, as these areas would suffer most damage by the new development.


About 1.5 meters under the surface a paved street was discovered, stretching in a North-South direction, lying very close and parallel to the modern road leading south from Beth-Shean towards the Jordan valley.


The remains uncovered consist of a c. 60 m. long stretch of a Byzantine street that led south from the city center. The street is paved with basalt stones laid in a herringbone pattern, with a drainage channel under the centerline of the street. Along the West side there was a covered sidewalk, separated from the street by a colonnade, of which only the stylobate (the low wall supporting the column bases) survives and a few bases and fragments of columns. The sidewalk itself is paved with a mosaic pavement with simple geometric patterns. From the sidewalk there is access to a row of shops facing the street, of which only about 2-3 courses of the basalt walls survive.


The preliminary analysis of the finds suggests a date in the 5th c. C.E. for the initial construction of the street, coinciding with other major building activity in the city, and especially the building of the walls around it; Beth-Shean had been unwalled up to that time. The street underwent repairs, the latest dated to the mid-7th century, around the time of the Arab conquest. In the Umayyad period (mid 7th-mid 8th c.) the street was narrowed, as the shops gradually expanded into the street, and some of them were turned into houses. Following the severe earthquake of 749 C.E. the colonnade and shops collapsed, and the little evidence of subsequent occupation consists of makeshift houses and fireplaces. The finds include mainly Umayyad pottery and some 1100 coins, which will eventually serve to date the various phases of repairs and occupation of the street.

The highlight of the finds is a Greek mosaic inscription, set in the sidewalk, at the entrance to one of the shops. The mosaic here is of a much higher artistic quality than the rest of the sidewalk. The inscription proclaims: ‘ May the Tyche of the Blues be victorious’ or, in other words, ‘ May the Blues be lucky’. The reference here is to the Blue and Green circus factions of the Byzantine period, which may — with some reservations — be likened to modern sport clubs. The extremely popular horse races in this period drew huge crowds, involved big money and political influence, and had social connotations. The races quite often ended in riots and bloodshed. The present inscription joins a group of similar ones found in Jordan and one in Jerusalem. All of them mention the ‘Blue’ faction, apparently the more popular one in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The street apparently led to the south gate of the city, which should lie nearby. This south gate is mentioned in the famous inscription, which was found in the Rehob synagogue, about 3 Km. South of Beth-Shean. The inscription deals mainly with Jewish Halacha, but mentions also the four main gates of Byzantine Beth-Shean, the southern one being called ‘pile de campon’, gate of the camp, referring to the Roman military camp situated just south of the city.