DISCUSSION

Ascalon, Gaza, Negev and Sinai

104. Beersheba, today Berosabba. The boundary of Judaea to the south reaches down to it from Dan near Paneas, which marks the northern boundary - (Beersheba)


City in the Negev on the southern border of Judah; its name has been preserved in the Arabic form Bir (Ber) al-Sab. Beersheba was first settled in the Chalcolithic period. Excavations conducted in its surroundings by J. Perrot uncovered remains of cave dwellings dug in the earth from this age. The inhabitants of the caves engaged in raising cattle and the manufacture of metal tools. Their pottery and stone vessels and figurines carved out of ivory and bone display a highly developed craftsmanship. Evidence of the beginnings of a religious cult was also found. According to the Bible, Abraham and Isaac dug wells at Beer-Sheba and also formed alliances there with Abimelech "king of the Philistines." The allies bound themselves under oath to observe the treaties, and in one source Abraham set aside seven ewes as a sign of the oath, which the Pentateuch explains was the origin of the name of the city (Be'er, "well"; Sheva, "oath" or "seven"; see Gen. 21,31; 26,33). The sanctuary of "the Lord, the Everlasting God," which was apparently located there in very early times, was invested with great importance in the patriarchal period (Gen. 21,33; 26,23-24, 32-33; 46,1). After the Israelite conquest, Beer-Sheba became a city of the tribe of Simeon and was later incorporated into the tribe of Judah (Josh. 15,28; 19,2). It appears to have been a center of the Israelite settlement in the Negev in the time of Samuel since his sons were sent there as judges (I Sam. 8,1-3). The sanctuary at Beer-Sheba was regarded as the extreme southern point of the country in contradistinction to the sanctuary at Dan which was held to be the northern point (Amos 5,5; 8,14). Thus the phrase "from Dan to Beer-Sheba" (Judg. 20,1, etc.) was the customary designation, at least until the days of David and Solomon, for the entire area of the country. After the division of the monarchy, Beer-Sheba continued to be the southern frontier of the kingdom of Judah; the expression "from Dan to Beer-Sheba" was then replaced by "from Beer-Sheba to the hill-country of Ephraim" (II Chron. 19,4) or "from Geba to Beer-Sheba" (II Kings 23,8). Zibiah, the mother of Jehoash, king of Judah, originated from Beer-Sheba (II Kings 12,2). Elijah set out on his journey to Horeb from Beer-Sheba, the gateway to the desert (I Kings 19,3, 8). The city was settled by Jews after the return from Babylon (Neh. 11,27, 30). The biblical town of Beer-Sheba is to be sought at Tell al-Sab (Tell Beer-Sheba), 2 1/2 mi. (4 km.) northeast of the new town, where remains of a fortress and potsherds from the Iron Age to the Roman period were found in excavations begun in 1969 by Y. Aharoni. After 70 C.E. Beersheba was included in the Roman frontier-line defenses against the Nabateans and continued to be a Roman garrison town after the Roman annexation of the Nabatean kingdom. A large village existed then at its present site, where many remains have been found including mosaic pavements and Greek inscriptions (including a sixth-century C.E. ordinance regarding tax payments, which was issued to the south of the country, and a synagogue inscription). In the fourth and fifth centuries C.E., Beersheba first belonged to the district of Gerar and was later annexed to "Palaestina Tertia." The town was abandoned in the Arab period.

Michael Avi-Yonah, Encyclopaedia Judaica, ad v. "Beersheba"

Herbert Donner (The Mosaic Map of Madaba, Kampen 1992, 70)
Beersheba, now Bir as-Saba' (coord. 130-072), is very often mentioned in the Bible and in other ancient literary sources. Some of the formulas used in the inscription are taken from Eus. On. 50: 1 ff., but combined in such a way that a somewhat strange kind of Greek emerged. Both Eusebius and the mosaicist are influenced by the Biblical formula 'from Dan to Beersheba' (e.g. Judg. 20: 1; 1 Sam. 3:20; 11 Sam. 17:11 etc.) describing the totality of the promised land; they applied it to the political conditions in the Roman-Byzantine empire since Herodian times. Beersheba was the main military garrison of the so-called limes Palaestinae (the fortified border line of Palestine). Only this walled rectangular military encampment seems to be represented on the Madaba map. But this impression may be misleading: we note a colonnaded street in the east, a red-roofed ecclesiastical building in the west, and clustered houses in between - on the whole not typical for a military camp.

Bellarmino Bagatti (Ancient Christian Villages of Judaea and Negev, Jerusalem - in the press)

Bir es-Saba, Beersheba

The locality is famous for three wells which are popularly connected with Abraham, even though this can hardly be proven. In the late Roman and Byzantine periods, Beersheba was a "large village," as Eusebius observes in the Onomasticon. But having fallen under Arab rule, it gradually became a ruin which the sand slowly covered. In the thirteenth century the itinerary ascribed to Oderic of Pordenone (Laurent, Peregrinationes Medii Aevi, p. 154) informs us that it was "a desert inhabited by Bedouins while during the last Christian time there had been a good and distinguished city there." Research aimed to partially uncover the city's history began in the 19th century and developed in our century but is yet incomplete. A map of the city (Fig. 15) accompanied by a study made by P. Figueras, professor of Christian Antiquities at the University of Beersheba (Boletín de la Associación española de Orientalistas 16, Paris 1980) , helps us to recognize and locate some ancient Christian remains in the modern city. In 1875 Conder (PEFQS 1875, pp. 23-24) noted that the ruins were very extensive but that they had already begun to be robbed by new builders who wanted to erect houses at small expense. Macalister (PEFQS 1902, pp. 232-36) found 300 inhabitants living permanently there.


Plan of the Bersheba center

The blue menorah indicates the discovery site of a synagogue. The red crosses indicate sites where churches were found (after Figueras, 1980).

The Churches. In 1903 Father Abel made a provisional sketch of the terrain and marked off a church on the north-northwest side, a "Deir" and church near the wadi to the east. Unfortunately, he did not have the leisure to give a detailed description of the remains. In any case, two churches are mentioned also by Woolley and Lawrence (PEFA III, pp. 107-08).
In 1875 Conder mentions the church located near the dry well; according to the SWP (III, pp. 394-96) its apse was recognizable.
A report on the excavation of the church at the Eilat-Hanessyim crossroads was given by Y. Israeli (RB 75 [1968], pp. 415-16) who had brought it back to light. The church measures 15 x 24 m and has three apses. The floor is made of flagstones; the remains of painted plaster show that the walls had been frescoed. In the central apse the floor was raised up about 60 cm and paved with white, black, and reddish stones. It covered some tombs.
The coins discovered in the dig belonged to the Umayyad period, which shows that the church was in use up to that time. In a room flanking the church to the south glass tesserae of wall mosaic in blue, green, yellow, and red were found . A. Ovadiah (Levant 13 [1981], pp.207-08) clearly distinguishes two periods in the church building.
Woolley and Lawrence deduced the presence of churches from column shafts Iying on the ground along with moulded cornices.
Among the architectural fragments is a decorated slab bearing a dedication to St. Stephen made by one Severus, which attests the cult of the protomartyr at Beersheba. Such cult is common also to other places in southern Palestine (Alt, GIPT, p.14, no.8). A lintel bears a Greek inscription from Psalm 117, 20: "This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter it" (a verse often used on the doors of churches). The stone (non è la stessa della precedente) was broken in two pieces which were found at different times, and it had a rather curious history, owing to the fact that one piece was said to have been found in Jerusalem (Abel, RB 12 [1903], p.428; Vincent, RB 16 [1907], pp. 607-11 and cf. Alt, GIPT, p.14, no.9) (Fig. 16, 2).
Fragments of liturgical furnishings have been found in several occasions, especially fragments of chancel screen decorated with garlands, and pillars which supported them. The best preserved piece is the one published by Woolley and Lawrence (PEFA III, p. 107) (Fig. 16, 4). Members of the clergy are known from inscriptions, among them two deacons, Marutha and Peter, and a deaconess named Nonna whose epitaphs were recovered (Fig. 14, 2).
The Baptistry. Macalister (PEFQS 1902, p.233) was the first to draw attention on the monolithic stone of a baptismal font, and later Woolley and Lawrence published a drawing and a photo. It is circular in contour with a quaterfoil internal cavity in which are steps on opposite sides, sufficient to accomodate adults: one flight for getting in and the other for getting out. Macalister was informed that the font had been found in situ in a baptistry, next to a splendid mosaic pavement which had been destroyed shortly before his visit. Whoolley and Lawrence saw the basin near the Serai. Where the baptistry had been and whence the monolith had been brought, they could not discover.
The Mosaic Floors. Back in 1875 Conder saw a mosaic pavement and another fragment near the wadi. Macalister mentioned it although he had only heard it described by Mr. Hoyer of Hebron who regarded it as among the finest he had seen in Palestine.
In 1934 Avi-Yonah, then working in the archives of the Department of Archaeology of the British Mandate, published some fragments of mosaic from Beersheba (QDAP 3 [1934], p. 49, no.335), indicating their patterns. Some had a simple geometric design; others bore some figures - two sandals decorated with St. Andrew 's cross and a bear set in an octagon. Of the latter he observes: "It is apparently attached to a sort of pole with a red rope." The lower part of the animal is broken The sandals suggest a building of sacred character rather than of a bath.
In the course of construction of the new Bedouin market, hence near the main well, Miss Y. Yisraeli discovered three underground rooms which contained some Christian objects. Among other things there was an ivory head with a cross on the nape of its neck and a little column with a carved cross. On the walls of the rooms were pictures, among them two men in prayer and a cross (CNI 18, 1-2 [1967], pp.42-43). The article also mentions another building, a room measuring 3.4 x 3.7 m, with a black and white mosaic floor decorated with fragmentary inscriptions dating from the sixth century. One of the inscriptions mentions the names of Flavius Peter and Flavius Anastasius and states that they "renovated" some building, which was apparently of religious character since it faced east. In 1968 Cohen found in the same Bedouin market an area paved in mosaic measuring 4.50 x 7 m , made of small tesserae. He was able to identify 11 medallions featuring animals: snake, lion, leopard, giraffe, and the like (IEJ 18 [1968], pp. 130-31; CNI 20, 3-4 [1969], p. 51).
Tombs. Since the beginning of the century, Bedouins on their camels used to bring to Jerusalem inscribed tombstones in order to sell them. A few ended up in the City Museum and then disappeared even from there. This prompted scholars to publish them in various journals (RB, PEFQS, ZDPV), in Woolley and Lawrence's report , and finally in vol. VIII of SEG.
Simply to acquaint the reader with some inhabitants of the town, I will give a few names, beginning with those whose year of death is known. The time span is 510 to 613; this period seems to have been the most flourishing one for the city. In 510 Maria died; in 518 one Solleos; in 543 Ranemos of Eilat; in 544 Zonainos, son of Sergius who came from Elusa; in 547 Nonna, daughter of Stephen of Eilat; in 555 Stephen, son of Theodore, lawyer; in 569 John; in 576 Procopius; in 605 Elias, actuary, son of Promos; in 613 John the tribune, whose epitaph can be seen in the Flagellation Museum. The inscriptions are often very sober, although an occasional phrase can be found which shows the affection of the bereaved relatives. Thus, for example, a certain Susanna is wished: "May the Lord grant you rest."
The dates listed above are generally reckoned by the era of Eleutheropolis (Beth Gobrin), and sometimes also by the era of the Provincia Arabia and possibly by the Christian era. There was therefore some cultural difference and perhaps difference in origin among the inhabitants.
These and other tombstones were not seen in situ, but recently some tombs built with ashlars and arranged in rows have been found. Cohen describes them in IEJ 18 (1968]) pp. 130-31. Some were found in the northern part of the city (Shikhun Dalet), among them some containing stones with carved crosses. In the industrial zone to the south, Cohen discovered about 60 tombs arranged in 10 rows, built of ashlars and containing the remains of wooden coffins; two of them contained lead coffins decorated with crosses. The tombs were ascribed to the 5th century. The epitaphs mention blessed Nonna the deaconess and one Gregory.
The Imperial Edict. The inscription which has made Beersheba famous in recent years is the celebrated imperial edict which seemingly regulated the military annona (a tax originally paid in kind), establishing the contributions in gold coins which were to redeem payments in kind. The inscription is dated to the first half of the sixth century. The text contains many names of places located near Beersheba, in Transjordan, and also in northern Palestine. The inscription was found in pieces at different times and finally was reassembled by scholars in such a way as to yield almost complete sense (DB Suppl. I, 963-968; Alt, GIPT, nos.1-4) (Fig. 16, 1).
Modern Times. In the 1922 statistics made by the Mandate government, Beersheba had 235 Christian residents subdivided thus: 192 of the Orthodox rite; 8 Roman Catholics; 7 Melchites; 1 Armenian; 21 Church of England; 3 Presbyterians, and 3 Protestants.
The Annuaire de l'Eglise Catholique en Terre Sainte (Jerusalem 1979, p. 20) lists a filial parish of Beersheba founded in 1959 and named after St. Abraham. There is also a reconciliation center for Christians of the Hebrew language and for contact with the Jews.
The Wells In 1897 Br. Liévin (II, p. 151) observes: "I have no doubt that such wells were excavated by the patriarchs Abraham and Isaac; however, their regular construction, done with squared stones of medium size, well dressed and joined, cannot go back further than the Roman period." He saw three wells still holding water and another dry. Their water was good but is not very plentiful. The wells are 13 m deep. The largest has a diameter of 3 to 4 m. Regarding the dry well, Br. Liévin reports the legend about a Christian traveler who had measured it. Since that time the water had disappeared. This is why the Bedouins are alert to prevent Christian travelers from measuring the wells. These people, called el-Aazazimeh, live south of the wadi while the tribe of the Teiaha has its tents north of it.

For more sources and bibliography see:
Tabula Imperii Romani. Iudaea - Palaestina (Jerusalem 1994) s.v. "Beersheba I", 75.

Map Section 9 Place Sources

logo logo

Created Tuesday, December 19, 2000 at 23:40:31
by Eugenio Alliata ofm in collaboration with Stefano de Luca ofm
Webmaster: John Abela ofm - Space by courtesy of Christus Rex
copyright - Studium Biblicum Franciscanum - Jerusalem 2000