Bet She'an

Beit She'an

(بيسان, Bayt Šān or بيسان, , Beisan or Bisan) is a city in the North District of Israel which has played an important role historically due to its geographical location at the junction of the Jordan River Valley and Jezreel Valley. It has also played an important role in modern times, acting as the regional center for the numerous villages in the Beit She'an Valley Regional Council.

History and geography

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. Its name is believed to derive from the early Canaanite "house of tranquility".

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.


During the Hellenistic period it had a Hellenised population and was called Scythopolis, probably named after the Scythian mercenaries who settled there as veterans, and Greek mythology has the city founded by Dionysus and his nursemaid Nysa buried there; thus it was known as Nysa-Scythopolis. Beit She'an is mentioned in 3rd-2nd centuries BCE written sources describing the wars of the Diadochi between the Ptolemid and Seleucid dynasties, as well as in the context of the Hasmonean Maccabee Revolt, who ultimately destroyed the polis in the 2nd century BCE.

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.


In 634, Byzantine forces were defeated by the Muslim forces of Caliph Omar Ibn al-Khatab was renamed Beisan. The day of victory came to be known in Arabic as Youm Beisan or "the day of Beisan". 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 had 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.

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.

Crusaders established a fiefdom and fortress called Belvoir (Beauvoir) circa 1140 about north of modern Beit She'an. They were besieged and then ejected circa 1190. The site is now a national park.

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.

20th century

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 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.


In 1999, Beit She'an was incorporated as a city. Geographically, it lies in the middle of the Beit She'an Valley Regional Council.

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+
Percentage 9.9 9.4 9.4 9.4 17.6 17.7 16.7 2.7 4.4 2.8
Source: Israel Central Bureau of Statistics


According to CBS, as of 2000, in the city there were 4,980 salaried workers and 301 are self-employed. The mean monthly wage in 2000 for a salaried worker in the city is ILS 4,200, a real change of 3.3% over the course of 2000. Salaried males have a mean monthly wage of ILS 5,314 (a real change of 5.1%) versus ILS 2,998 for females (a real change of -1.0%). The mean income for the self-employed is 6,106. There are 470 people who receive unemployment benefits and 1,409 people who receive an income guarantee.

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.


According to CBS, there are 16 schools and 3,809 students in the city. They are spread out as 10 elementary schools and 2,008 elementary school students, and 10 high schools and 1,801 high school students. 56.2% of 12th grade students were entitled to a matriculation certificate in 2001.


Historically, Beit She'an was a railway station in the Jezreel Valley railway, an extension of the Hejaz railway. Currently, no railway is in use in the city, although a planned expansion by Israel Railways seeks to change this by Q3 2010. The main means of transport in Beit She'an is the bus, and the city is served by the Egged (long-distance, bus 961) and Kavim (local) bus companies.


The local football club, Hapoel Beit She'an spent several seasons in the top division in the 1990s, but folded in 2006 after several relegations. Maccabi Beit She'an currently play in Liga Bet.


  • Yoram Tsafrir and Gideon Foerster: “Urbanism at Scythopolis-Bet Shean in the Fourth to Seventh Centuries”, Dumbarton Oaks Papers. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. Number Fifty-One, 1997. pp. 85-146.
  • Yoram Tsafrir and Gideon Foerster: “Bet Shean Excavation Project – 1988/1989”, Excavations and Surveys in Israel 1989/1990. Volume 9. Israel Antiquities Authority. Numbers 94-95. Jerusalem 1989/1990, pp. 120-128.
  • Yoram Tsafrir and Gideon Foerster: “The Dating of the ‘Earthquake of the Sabbatical Year of 749 C. E.’ in Palestine”, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies of London. Vol. LV, Part 2. London 1992, pp. 231-235.
  • Yoram Tsafrir and Gideon Foerster: “From Scythopolis to Baisān: Changes in the perception of the city of Bet Shean during the Byzantine and Arab Eras”, Cathedra. For the History of Eretz Israel and its Yishuv, 64. Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi. Jerusalem, July 1992 (in Hebrew).
  • Gideon Foerster and Yoram Tsafrir: “Nysa-Scythopolis – A New Inscription and the Titles of the City on its Coins”, The Israel Numismatic Journal. Vol. 9, 1986-7, pp. 53-58.


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