Beit She’an’s location has often been strategically significant, as it sits at the junction of the Jordan River Valley and the Jezreel Valley, essentially controlling access from the interior to the coast, as well as from Jerusalem to the Galilee.
Early Beit She’an
In 1933, archaeologist G.M. FitzGerald, under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania Museum, carried out a “deep cut” on Tell el-Hosn, the large mound of Beth She’an, in order to determine the earliest occupation of the site. His results suggest that settlement began in the Late Neolithic or Early Chalcolithic periods (sixth to fifth millennia BCE. Occupation continued intermittently up to the late Early Bronze Age I (3200-3000), according to pottery finds, and then resumes in the Early Bronze Age III. A large cemetery on the northern side of the mound was in use from the Bronze Age to Byzantine times. Canaanite graves dating from 2000 to 1600 BCE were discovered in 1926.
BetShe’an – an ancient house of Egyptian governor
After the Egyptian conquest of Beit She’an by pharaoh Thutmose III in the 15th century BCE (recorded in an inscription at Karnak), the small town on the summit of the Tell became the center of the Egyptian administration of the region. The Egyptian newcomers changed the organization of the town and left a great deal of material culture behind. A large Canaanite temple (39 meters in length) excavated by the University of Pennsylvania Museum may date from about the same period as Thutmose III’s conquest, though the Hebrew University excavations suggest that it dates to a later period. Artifacts of potential cultic significance were found in the temple. Based on a stele found in the temple and inscribed with Egyptian hieroglyphs, the temple was dedicated to the god Mekal. One of the University Museum’s most important finds near the temple is the Lion and Dog stela (currently in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem), which depicts two combat scenes between these two creatures. The Hebrew University excavations determined that this temple was built on the site of an earlier one.
During the three hundred years of Egyptian rule (18th Dynasty to the 20th Dynasty), the population of Beit She’an appears to have been primarily Egyptian administrative officials and military personnel. The town was completely rebuilt, following a new layout, during the 19th dynasty. The University Museum excavations uncovered two important stelae from the period of Seti I and a monument of Rameses II. Pottery was produced locally, but some was made to mimic Egyptian forms. Other Canaanite goods existed alongside Egyptian imports or locally-made Egyptian style objects. The 20th dynasty saw the construction of large administrative buildings in Beit She’an, including Building 1500, a small palace for the Egyptian governor. During the 20th dynasty, invasions of the “Sea Peoples” upset Egypt’s control over the Eastern Mediterranean. Though the exact circumstances are unclear, the entire site of Beit She’an was destroyed by fire around 1150 BCE. The Egyptians did not attempt to rebuild their administrative center and lost control of the region.
Map of the Decapolis showing the location of Beit She’an, (here called by its Greek name, Scythopolis)
An Iron Age I Canaanite city was constructed on the site of the Egyptian center shortly after its destruction. Around 1100 BC, Canaanite Beit She’an was conquered by the Philistines, who used it as a base of operations for further penetrations into Israel proper. During a subsequent battle against the Jewish King Saul at nearby Mount Gilboa in 1004 BC, the Philistines prevailed. 1 Samuel 31 states that the victorious Philistines hung the body of King Saul on the walls of Beit She’an. Portions of these walls were excavated on Tel Beit She’an recently. King David was able to capture Beit Shea’an in a series of brilliant military campaigns that expelled the Philistines from the area, pushing them back to their coastal strongholds of Ashkelon, Ekron, Gath, Gaza, and Ashdod.
During the Iron Age II period, the town became a part of the larger Israelite kingdom under the rule of the Biblical kings David and Solomon (1 Kings 4:12 refers to Beit She’an as a part of the district of Solomon, though the historical accuracy of this list is debated. The Assyrian conquest of northern Israel under Tiglath-Pileser III (732 BCE) brought about the destruction of Beit She’an by fire. Minimal reoccupation occurred until the Hellenistic period.
The Hellenistic and Roman Periods
Beit She’an theatre
The Hellenistic period saw the reoccupation of the site of Beit She’an under the new name Scythopolis, possibly named after the Scythian mercenaries who settled there as veterans. Little is known about the Hellenistic city, but during the 3rd century BCE a large temple was constructed on the Tell. It is unknown which deity was worshipped there, but the temple continued to be used during Roman times. The local Greek mythology holds that the city was founded by Dionysus and that his nursemaid Nysa was buried there; thus it was sometimes known as Nysa-Scythopolis. Graves dating from the Hellenistic period are simple singular rock-cut tombs. From 301 to 198 BCE the area was under the control of the Ptolemies, and Beit She’an is mentioned in 3rd–2nd-century BC written sources describing the Syrian Wars between the Ptolemid and Seleucid dynasties. In 198 BCE the Seleucids conquered the region. The town played a role after the Hasmonean Maccabee Revolt: Josephus records that the Jewish High Priest Jonathan was killed there by Demetrius II Nicator. The city was destroyed by fire at the end of the 2nd century BCE.
In 63 BC, Pompey made Judea a part of the Roman empire. Beit She’an was refounded and rebuilt by Gabinius. The town center shifted from the summit of the Tel to its slopes. Scythopolis prospered and became the leading city of the Decapolis, a loose confederation of ten cities that were centers of Greco-Roman culture, an event so significant that the town based its calendar on that year. The city flourished under the Pax Romana, as evidenced by high-level urban planning and extensive construction, including the best preserved Roman theatre of ancient Samaria, as well as a hippodrome, cardo, and other trademarks of the Roman influence. Mount Gilboa, 7 kilometres (4.3 mi) away, provided dark basalt blocks as well as water via an aqueduct. The town is said to have sided with the Romans during the Jewish uprising of 66 CE. Excavations have focused less on the Roman period ruins, so less is known about this period. The University Museum excavation of the northern cemetery, however, did uncover significant finds. The Roman period tombs are of the loculus type: a rectangular rock-cut chamber with smaller chambers (loculi) cut into its side. Bodies were placed in the loculi or inside sarcophagi which were the placed in the loculi. A sarcophagus with an inscription identifying its occupant in Greek as “Antiochus, the son of Phallion” may have held the cousin of Herod the Great. One of the most interesting Roman grave finds was a bronze incense shovel with the handle in the form of an animal leg and hoof, now in the University of Pennsylvania Museum.
Copious archaeological remains were found dating to the Byzantine period (330 CE – 636 CE) and were excavated by the University of Pennsylvania Museum from 1921-23. A rotunda church was constructed on top of the Tell and the entire city was enclosed in a wall. Textual sources mention several other churches in the town. Beit She’an was primarily Christian, as attested to by the large number of churches, but evidence of Jewish habitation and a Samaritan synagogue indicate established communities of these minorities. The pagan temple in the city centre was destroyed, but the nymphaeum and Roman baths were restored. Many of the buildings of Scythopolis were damaged in the Galilee earthquake of 363, and in 409 it became the capital of the northern district, Palaestina Secunda. Dedicatory inscriptions indicate a preference for donations to religious buildings, and many colourful mosaics, such as that featuring the zodiac in the Monastery of Lady Mary, or the one picturing a menorah and shalom in the House of Leontius’ Jewish synagogue, were preserved. A Samaritan synagogue’s mosaic was unique in abstaining from human or animal images, instead utilising floral and geometrical motifs. Elaborate decorations were also found in the settlement’s many luxurious villas, and in the 6th century especially, the city reached its maximum size of 40,000 and spread beyond its period city walls.
The Byzantine period portion of the northern cemetery was excavated in 1926. The tombs from this period consisted of small rock-cut halls with vaulted graves on three sides. A great variety of objects were found in the tombs, including terracotta figurines possibly depicting the Virgin and Child, many terracotta lamps, glass mirrors, bells, tools, knives, finger rings, iron keys, glass beads, bone hairpins, and many other items.
Arab Caliphate period
In 634, Byzantine forces were defeated by the Muslim army of Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab and the city was renamed Baysan. The day of victory came to be known in Arabic as Yawm Baysan or “the day of Baysan.” The city was not damaged and the newly arrived Muslims lived together with its Christian population until the 8th century, but the city declined during this period and its glorious Roman-Byzantine architecture was lost to neglect. Structures were built in the streets themselves, narrowing them to mere alleyways, and makeshift shops were opened among the colonnades. The city reached a low point by the 8th century, witnessed by the removal of marble for producing lime, the blocking off of the main street, and the conversion of a main plaza into a cemetery. Abu Ubayd al-Andalusi noted that the wine produced there was delicious.
On January 18, 749, Umayyad Baysan was completely devastated by the Golan earthquake of 749. A few residential neighborhoods grew up on the ruins, probably established by the survivors, but the city never recovered its magnificence. The city center moved to the southern hill where a Crusader fortress surrounded by a moat was constructed.
Jerusalemite historian al-Muqaddasi visited Baysan in 985, during Abbasid rule and wrote that it was “on the river, with plentiful palm trees, and water, though somewhat heavy (brackish.)” He further noted that Baysan was notable for its indigo, rice, dates and grape syrup known as dibs. The town formed one of the districts (kurah) of Jund al-Urdunn during this period. Its principal mosque was situated in the center of its marketplace.
In the Crusader period, the settlement was part of the Belvoir fiefdom. A small fort was built east of the defunct amphitheater.
During the 1260 Battle of Ain Jalut, retreating Mongol forces passed in the vicinity but did not enter the town itself.
Under Mamluk rule, Beit She’an was the principal town in the district of Damascus and a relay station for the postal service between Damascus and Cairo. It was also the capital of sugar cane processing for the region. Jisr al-Maqtu’a, a bridge consisting of a single arch spanning 25 feet and hung 50 feet above a stream, was built during that period.
Beit She’an was long home to a Jewish community. The 14th century Jewish topographer Ishtori Haparchi settled there and completed his work Kaftor Vaferech in 1322, the first Hebrew book on the geography of Palestine.
During the 400 years of Ottoman rule, Baysan lost its regional importance. During the reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid II when the Haifa-Damascus extension of the Hejaz railway was constructed, a limited revival took place. The local peasant population was largely impoverished by the Ottoman feudal land system which leased tracts of land to tenants and collected taxes from them for their use.
The Swiss-German traveler Johann Ludwig Burckhardt described Beisan in 1812 as “a village with 70 to 80 houses, whose residents are in a miserable state.” In the early 1900s, though still a small and obscure village, Beisan was known for its plentiful water supply, fertile soil, and its production of olives, grapes, figs, almonds, apricots, and apples.
In 1934, Lawrence of Arabia noted that “Bisan is now a purely Arab village,” where “very fine views of the river can be had from the housetops.” He further noted that “many nomad and Bedouin encampments, distinguished by their black tents, were scattered about the riverine plain, their flocks and herds grazing round them.” Beisan was home to a mainly Mizrahi Jewish community of 95 until 1936, when the 1936–1939 Arab revolt saw Beisan serve as a center of Arab attacks on Jews in Palestine. In 1938, after learning of the murder of his close friend and Jewish leader Haim Sturmann, Orde Wingate led his men on an offensive in the Arab section of Beit She’an, the rebels’ suspected base.
Pioneers of Kibbutz Ein Hanatziv settle in Bet She’an, 1946
According to population surveys conducted in British Mandate Palestine, Beisan consisted of 5,080 Muslim Arabs out of a population of 5,540 (92% of the population), with the remainder being listed as Christians. In 1945, the surrounding “Beisan district” consisted of 16,660 Muslims (67%), 7,590 Jews (30%), and 680 Christians (3%); and Arabs owned 44% of land, Jews owned 34%, and 22% constituted public lands. The 1947 UN Partition Plan allocated Beisan and most of its district to the proposed Jewish state.
State of Israel
Jewish militias and local Bedouins first clashed during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War in February and March 1948, part of Operation Gideon, which Walid Khalidi argues was part of a wider Plan Dalet. Joseph Weitz, a leading Yishuv figure, wrote in his diary on May 4, 1948 that, “The Beit Shean Valley is the gate for our state in the Galilee…[I]ts clearing is the need of the hour.”
Beisan fell to the Jewish militias three days before the end of British Mandate Palestine. After Israel’s Declaration of Independence in May 1948, during intense shelling by Syrian border units, the Arab inhabitants, followed by the recapture of the valley by the Haganah, fled across the Jordan River. The property and buildings abandoned after the conflict were then held by the state of Israel. Most Arab Christians relocated to Nazareth. A ma’abarah (refugee camp) inhabited mainly by North African Jewish immigrants was erected in Beit She’an, and it later became a development town.
From 1969, Beit She’an was a target for Katusha and mortar attacks from Jordan. In the 1974 Beit She’an attack, militants of the Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, took over an apartment building and murdered a family of four.
In 1999, Beit She’an was incorporated as a city. Geographically, it lies in the middle of the Beit She’an Valley Regional Council.
Beit She’an was the hometown and political power base of David Levy, a prominent figure in Israeli politics.
During the Second Intifada, in the 2002 Beit She’an attack, six Israelis were killed and over 30 were injured by two Palestinian militants, who opened fire and threw grenades at a polling station in the center of Bet She’an where party members were voting in the Likud primary.