Monday, January 23, 2012

Beersheva-Arad – Biblical Negev

The Biblical Negev included only the Beersheva and Arad basins, which drain the whole area.  Negev means “wiped dry”.  The names of the 2 places have been preserved down the years to the present time with no changes.

This is the largest valley in Israel, at the widest part of the country.  It divides the country between the North and South, between a Mediterranean climate and a desert climate.  The Negev has between 50-100 mm rain per annum.

There are no tels further south in the country, as the people in the desert were nomadic, they did not establish permanent settlements.  The 2 tels here are different to those further north. There was no continuous settlement on them, sometimes with thousands of years between settlements (layers).  This is a sign of a nomadic population.

Beersheva/Tel Sheva

The Beer Sheva National Park, site of Tel Sheva, is located east of modern Beersheva, near Omer and modern Tel Sheva.  It was occupied during 3 different periods, the Chalcolithic period (4,000 BCE – bottom layer), the Israelite (Iron) period (2,000-1,000 BCE) and during Byzantine times.  The remains which can be viewed today are all from the Israelite period, when it was an urban ruling centre.  The fact that settlement was sporadic shows that it was only possible during certain periods due to a more comfortable climate or at the initiative of the central government.  The Hebron streambed lies to the north and the Beersheva streambed to the south-east.

There are no natural springs in the area, so only when people had the knowledge to dig wells could it be permanently settled.  Abraham came from Mesopotamia and knew how to dig wells, so his people were able to settle the tel.

The Beersheva basin has ground water very close to the surface, and the town of Beersheva has more than enough water to meet its requirements.  It even supplies water to Arad.

Tel Beer Sheva was declared a national park in 1986, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005.  The top of the tel is 307 metres above sea level, with the height of the tel itself approx 20 metres.  The size of the site is approx 11 dunams, which housed up to 300 people in about 70 dwellings.

Excavations of Tel Sheva were carried out from 1969-1976 by the Tel Aviv University Institute of Archeology, led by Prof Yohanan Aharoni and later
Prof Zeev Herzog.  In 1990 extensive restoration was carried out by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA), under Eliyahu Even Haim, with the assistance of the Negev Tourism Development Administration.  The INPA has reconstructed several of Tel Sheva’s ancient buildings using authentic materials, including mud-bricks.  More excavations were carried out by Prof Zeev Herzog in 1993-1995 to complete the uncovering of the water systems.

Ceramic sherds have been found from the Chalcolithic period, but no architectural remains.  During this period there were numerous settlement sites along the Beersheva and Besor streambeds.

During the Israelite period it was continuously occupied for about 500 years.  Archaeologists have uncovered two-thirds of the Israelite period city.  Pits used mainly for grain storage from the beginning of this period were found hewn into the southern slope of the hill.  One such pit was made into a dwelling and found to contain ceramic vessels and an oven.  The well outside the city gate is also thought to have been dug at this time.

The first fortified city was established at the beginning of the 9th century BCE, as one of the important administrative centres of the Kingdom of Judah.  The city of this period featured a solid, 4 metre wide wall, with its slopes reinforced and smoothed to prevent attackers from mounting the walls.  A complex gate was built, including a main entrance with an outer square, protected by an additional, outer gate.  Digging also revealed the city gate, water system and residential area from this period.

In the 8th century BCE the city’s entire fortification system was changed.  The solid wall was dismantled and replaced by a double wall with rooms inside.  A new gate was built over the remains of the previous gate.  The outer gate was done away with and the water system rebuilt after part of its ceiling collapsed.  Extensive storehouses were built near the gate and next to the water system.  These changes may have been as a result of an earthquake. 

At the end of the 8th century BCE there was a large fire in the city.  This may have been due to it being conquered by King Sennacherib of Assyria in 701 BCE.  After an unsuccessful attempt to rebuild the city, it was abandoned.

During the Persian period (4-5th centuries BCE) a small fortress, with dozens of storage pits beside it for supplies for soldiers and horses, was built at the site.  During the Hellenistic period (2-3rd centuries BCE) there was a temple, whose altar can be seen next to the Basement House.

During the Roman period (1st century BCE-1st century CE) there was a large fortress containing a bathhouse.  2 plastered pools can still be seen.

During the Roman and Byzantine periods the main settlement moved westwards and a large city was established in the area of modern Beersheva.  The city of Beersheva was later abandoned and rebuilt around 1900 by the Ottoman Turks as an administrative centre – the present-day old city.

During World War I, Beersheva was a staging ground for the Turkish army, which was preparing to attack the Suez Canal.  When the British army advanced from Egypt to Palestine, the Turks fortified the city.  An infantry unit of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) conquered the city on 31/10/17.

The well

The well is located outside the city gate.  It is very deep and its water served both the inhabitants of the city and passing commercial and military caravans.

The drainage channel

This is marked by stone coverings in the payment that leads from the main gate to the outer gate.  The channel let surplus rain water away from the city to prevent damage to the walls.  The channel exited via the outer gate and may have led to the water reservoir on the slope.

The main gate

2 high, thick-walled towers protected the front of the gate.  On either side of the gate were chambers with plastered benches, which may have served as seats for merchants or royal representatives.  The remains consist of 2 different gate structures, to the left of the passageway is the left side of the 8th century BCE gate, while lower down, on the right side is the earlier, 9th century gate.

The city square

This was just beyond the gates and was the only open space within the city.  All streets led to this central plaza, where the local market could be held or inhabitants could gather.  In the Bible such an entrance is call a “square of the city gate”.

The peripheral street

The peripheral street was parallel to the oval wall of the city.  It was approx 2 metres wide.  Additional streets were also found.

The Governor’s palace

This was a large structure, which was probably the biblical house of the “city prefect” or the governor.

The early street

In the center of the peripheral street there is an area dug to a depth of 3 metres, where the route of the earlier street was found.  It shows that the plan of the city was the same over the whole period of habitation.  There are also remains of a plastered pool from the Herodian period.

The basement house

Further along is a building with foundations 4 metres below the surface, 2 of whose rooms were probably used as cellars.

The residential quarter

Along the length of the street is the residential area.  The dwellings are uniform and on one side are integrated into the city wall.  Most had 3 or 4 rooms and steps to the roof.

The casemate wall

The casemate wall was built around the edge of the tel.  It consisted of 2 parallel walls, divided by partitions into rooms.  The rooms in the wall served as the back rooms of the dwellings.

The observation tower

From the top of the tower you can get a good idea of the plan of the city, as well as a view of the Beersheva valley, modern Beersheva, Omer and modern Tel Sheva.  At the foot of the tower are the remains of the Roman period fortress, which was restored in the early Arab period.

The storehouse

This is a 600 sq metre complex with 3 storerooms, each divided by 2 rows of stone pillars into 3 long halls.  Hundreds of potter vessels were found in the ruins, suggesting it was a storehouse.  Various items and food products were stored in the side halls, with the middle space serving as a passage for caravans of donkeys laden with supplies. 

The water system

The water system was built as part of the city’s fortifications.  It was intended to ensure access to the water reservoir within the city in time of siege.  It consists of 3 parts:
  1. A shaft 17 metres deep, lined with stones and with a flight of steps along its sides.
  2. A reservoir cut into the chalk rock and thickly plastered.  To prevent collapse it was divided into 5 spaces, with a total capacity of approx 700 cubic metres.
  3. A winding feeder channel that led flood waters from the Hebron streambed into the reservoir.

The water system was intended for use in times of siege, and the well near the city gate for used for everyday requirements.  The water system collapsed and became blocked at the end of the Hellenistic period, probably due to an earthquake.  It is possible to descend the stairway to the underground reservoir, where the original plaster can be seen on the walls.

The meticulously planned water system of this city on the edge of the wilderness near the confluence of the Beersheva and Hebron Streams demonstrates impressive engineering expertise.

The stone-built channel

Near the exit you can see a portion of a stone-built channel that led flood water from the Hebron streambed to the reservoir feeder channel.

The Altar

In one corner of the square is a reconstructed replica of a large, sacrificial 4-horned altar, whose stones were found incorporated into a storehouse wall.  The original alter is on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

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