The capital of the Negev, the Old City, the university, the Turkish railway station, and the Bedouin market represent only a part of the colorful mosaic offered by the city of Be’er Sheba, a city full of life and proud of itself, as you will be told by any of its 185,000 inhabitants.
Be’er Sheba, spelt Beersheba in most English translations of the Bible, is a major crossroads whose potential was felt by Abraham, father of the Jewish people, who arrived here 3,700 years ago. He dug a well to water his flock, made a covenant of peace with Abimelech, the king of Gerar in those days, and the two swore allegiance to one another. “Therefore he called that place Beersheba, because there the two of them took an oath" (Genesis 21, Verse 21). To symbolize his ownership of the well, he planted a tamarisk tree. Thus the city of Be’er Sheba struck roots at that place and at that time. Abraham’s descendants continued to live here, in a place that was the cradle of monotheism.
Be’er Sheba is located at the intersection of two ancient important international road junctions: The "Way of the Sea" (Via Maris) which extended along the shoreline in the west, and the King’s Highway (the Valley Route) in the east. Consequently, the city is mentioned throughout biblical times as a wayside station, as a resting spot, as a border point and as a ritual center.
Tel Be’er Sheba, five kilometers east of the city, is usually identified with biblical Be’er Sheba. The site is fascinating, and contains the ruins of a walled city from the Israelite monarchic period. Due to the wonderful finds there, UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 2005. In the Roman Period, the settlement spread to the area of present-day Be’er Sheba, and was located in the center of the Limes Palestinae, the Roman defense layout from Rafah (Rafi’akh) to the Dead Sea, which mainly consisted of fortresses built the borderline. When the Romans converted to Christianity, it served as the Episcopal residence (the residence of the Bishop) and several churches were built there. The Crusaders also built a fortress in the city, but when it was destroyed it remained desolate for a long time.
Modern-day Be’er Sheba was founded at the start of the twentieth century by the Ottomans, and was the only city that the Turks built in the Land of Israel. Remains of buildings from this period and from the time of the British Mandate can be seen in the Old City, located in the south of the city. These include the Governor’s House – the residence and office of the city’s governor, which was built in 1906 and today houses the Negev Museum of Art; the city’s first mosque also built in 1906; the Turkish railway station built during the First World War; the station manager’s house; the water tower that supplied the trains’ steam engines with water; the Saraya – the Government House (today the city’s police station); a public garden; and additional buildings that tell the fascinating story of Be’er Sheba under Turkish rule.
The Jewish city was established in 1949. It developed and turned into the center of the south and became the capital of the Negev. Today, it has museums, a zoo, historical sites, one of the largest universities in Israel, and on Thursdays – the famous Bedouin market.
The market was officially opened in 1905, and became a weekly event where the Bedouins sold various wares. Nowadays, the market has modern stalls (footwear, clothing, etc) alongside authentic Bedouin stalls where you can buy unique items such as copper products, glassware, jewelry, beads and precious stones, as well as mats, carpets, cushions, and the like. The market is variegated, vibrant, exceedingly charming, and colorful.
Another important hub is the Center for Ethiopian Craftsmanship where new immigrant women preserve the ancient handicraft traditions of Ethiopian Jewry as practiced in their home villages, and engage in modeling earthenware, embroidering, sculpting, and straw crafts.
Be’er Sheba is the gateway to the Negev – you can start from here on endless walks and car trips.