Beit She'an is first listed among Thutmose III's conquests in the fifteenth century BCE, and the remains of an Egyptian administrative center from the XVIII and XIX dynasties have been excavated. The Bible mentions it as a Canaanite city in the Book of Joshua, and its conquest by David and inclusion in the later kingdom is noted, and large Solomonic administrative buildings destroyed by Tiglath-pileser III were uncovered from this period. Its ninth century BCE biblical capture by the Pharaoh Shishaq is corroborated by his victory list.
In 64 BCE it was taken by the Romans, rebuilt, and made the capital of the Decapolis, the "Ten Cities" of Samaria that were centers of Greco-Roman culture, an event so significant that it based its calendar on that year. Pax Romana favoured the city, evidenced by its 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, away, provided dark basalt blocks as well as water via aqueduct. Many of the buildings of Scythopolis were damaged in the earthquake of 363, and in 409 it became the capital of the northern district, Palaestina Secunda.
During the 4th-7th century Byzantine period, Beit She'an was primarily Christian, as attested to by the large number of churches, but Jewish and a Samaritan synagogue remains indicate established communities of these minorities. The pagan temple in the city centre was destroyed, but the nymphaeum and Roman baths were restored. Many 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 city was mostly destroyed by an earthquake in 749 and lost much of its population and its regional importance, as documented in Jewish literary sources. A small group returned to settle there, but few remains of this period exist.
Muslim and Arab chroniclers wrote of Beit She'an. Two notable examples include that of Al-Muqaddasi who wrote of it as "being on the river, with plentiful palm trees, and water, though somewhat heavy (brackish)," and Abi Obeid al-Andalusi who noted that the wine produced there was delicious.
During 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-Maqtua', 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 during its centuries as an Arab town. 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, Beisan 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 Burkhart 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.
The University of Pennsylvania carried out excavations of ancient Beit She'an in 1921–1933. They discovered many interesting relics from the Egyptian period, most of which are preserved in the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem and some in the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia, United States. Excavations at the site are ongoing and reveal no less than 18 successive ancient towns. Ancient Beit She'an is one of the most impressive Roman and Byzantine sites in Israel, but attracts relatively few tourists due to its location slightly off the main tourist routes.
In 1938, after learning of the murder of his close friend and Jewish leader Haim Sturmann, Orde Wingate led his men on a rampage in the Arab section of Beit She'an, the rebels’ suspected base. Wingate’s forces damaged property and wounded several people, and some may have been killed.
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.
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 Zionist 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, the property and communal buildings of the absent Arab population were confiscated and held by the state of Israel. Most Palestinian Christians were relocated to Nazareth, including Naim Ateek and his family, who he says left after his father was told by the local Israeli military commander that they would be killed unless they left straightaway. Demolition of homes in Beisan began in June 1948, but was halted to allow Jewish immigrants, largely Ashkenazi, many of them Holocaust survivors, to settle in what remained of the Palestinian homes.. A ma'abarah (refugee camp) inhabited mainly by North African immigrants was also erected in Beit She'an, and it later became a development town.
A family of four was held hostage and then killed in 1974 by terrorists from the Palestine Liberation Organization's Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who took over their apartment building.
According to the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), the population of the municipality was 16,400 at the end of 2006. In 2005, the ethnic makeup of the city was 99.5% Jewish and other non-Arab (97.3% Jewish), with no significant Arab population. See Population groups in Israel. The population breakdown by gender was 8,200 males and 8,100 females.
The age distribution was as follows:
|Age||0 - 4||5 - 9||10 - 14||15 - 19||20 - 29||30 - 44||45 - 59||60 - 64||65 - 74||75+|
|Source: Israel Central Bureau of Statistics|
Beit She'an is a centre of Israel's chief cotton-growing region in the surrounding district, and many of its residents are employed to that end in the neighbouring kibbutzim. Other local industries include a textile mill and clothing factory.