That the Roman Empire enjoyed a long Indian summer in its distant province of Palestine is sometimes overlooked. Even before the fall of Rome in the fifth century A.D., Jerusalem, geographically immune to the barbarians and emotionally magnetic as the center of Christendom, had embarked on its unparalleled conquest of the human mind and heart. The rule that “all roads lead to Rome” was now reversed, and pious folk from every province of the Empire flocked to the Holy Land to devote themselves to pilgrimage, disputation, prayer and good works. Sacred topography owes much to these newcomers whose urge to visit each and every shrine resulted in invaluable extra-Biblical geographical treatises.
Their acts of piety resulted also in the foundation of churches and monasteries commemorating every possible event in either Testament; many others were no doubt built on the happy philosophy that “the better the place, the better the deed.” This may account for the endowment, about the third quarter of the sixth century A.D., of a monastery by one “Lady Mary,” just within the city walls of Scythopolis, the ancient Beth Shan.
Largest of some ten cities leagued together as the New Testament’s Decapolis, Scythopolis was capital of Palestina Secunda; an episcopal see; and is said to have rivaled Jerusalem in size, population, and commerce. It had a wall some two and a half miles in perimeter, many monasteries and public buildings. The ancient Bronze Age acropolis–where the body or the armor of Saul may have been exposed–formed the nucleus of the booming Roman town. Atop this citadel, in the disconcerting way that Christian sanctuaries had of springing up on pagan shrines, stood one of Palestine’s rare round churches.
When discovered in 1930 by G.M. FitzGerald, director of the University Museum expedition, only the lowers courses of the walls and the splendid mosaics of Lady Mary’s monastery survived. But what mosaics! A network of improbably birds paved the chapel itself; a calendar with the personified months revolving around the sun and moon covered the floor of the courtyard or atrium; while scenes of the vintage carpeted still another chamber. Was this preoccupation with time a premonition that time was running out? For even Palestine’s Indian summer had to end. Lady Mary’s monastery lasted little more than fifty years; apparently it did not survive the Arab conquest of A.D. 636, though there is no evidence that it was destroyed; rather, it seems to have fallen into decay with the event.
The mosaics live on, however, unforgettable in the enchantment of their somewhat naive designs. Happily, they were not taken up to be mixed with other exhibitions in a museum, but today remain on their cliff above the Jalud, looking out over Esdraelon toward Gilboa, on view to those who still journey to the Holy Land as pilgrims.