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Beersheva's emblem depicts a tamarisk tree, representing the biblical past, and a pipe through which water flows, symbolizing the city's modern revival. Four thousand years ago, the patriarch Abraham dug wells (be'er in Hebrew) here and swore an oath (shevua) over seven (sheva) ewes with the king of Gerar, who vowed to prevent his men from seizing the well. And it was here that Abraham planted a
grove of tamarisk trees. Isaac built an altar here, the prophet Elijah found refuge here from Jezebel, and King Saul constructed a fort here. It's easy to envision these scenes today thanks to the cloaked figures of Bedouin shepherds with their sheep and goats on the hillsides surrounding the city.
With a population of some 200,000, Beersheva has often been overlooked in spite of its size. But in recent years a young and ambitious mayor, Ruvik Danilovich, has pushed to raise the profile of Israel’s fourth-largest city by introducing or renewing public spaces, museums, and attractions and encouraging investment in infrastructure and the arts. Beersheva houses a major university, named after David Ben-Gurion, an Israel Aircrafts Industries complex, a high-tech center, a sparkling performance hall, and a regional hospital serving Bedouin shepherds, kibbutzniks, and other desert dwellers.
New additions to the city are an expansive river-flanking park, the largest shopping mall in the Middle East (currently under construction), and the revival of biblical sites like a well believed to have been used by Abraham (at this writing, the project was scheduled to open sometime in 2014). The city is also home to thousands of more recent immigrants, many from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union.
The Old City, anchored by Smilansky Street and dotted with handsome stone structures and the lion’s share of Beersheva’s better restaurants, continues to evolve. Many structures are boarded up, awaiting purchase and renovation by enterprising entrepreneurs. The famed Bedouin market, once a source of some of Israel's best ethnic handicrafts, has been hit hard by modern times (especially the competition of cheap imports from the Far East), and isn't what it used to be. But it now has a permanent location, and you might still find something authentic. Most intriguing are the Bedouin themselves, sitting cross-legged with their goods spread out on the ground.
Tel Beersheva, just outside the city, is the site of biblical Beersheva and could easily be the site of Abraham's well. An expression from the book of Judges, "from Dan to Beersheva," once indicated the northern and southern boundaries of the land of Israel. UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in July 2005.
Romans and Byzantines built garrisons in Beersheva, but in subsequent centuries the city was abandoned. In 1900 the Ottoman Turks, who had ruled Palestine since 1517, rebuilt Beersheva as their Negev district center (the present Old City). They set aside an area for a Bedouin market, which still takes place every Thursday. During World War I, when the British took Beersheva from the Turks, the city rapidly expanded; in October 1948 it was conquered by Israel.
From time immemorial, Beersheva has acted as a crossroads. In antiquity, the city straddled 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. Today, because it's quite close to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, this unpretentious city serves as a jumping-off point for Negev travel—main roads branch out from here; buses serving the Negev depart from here; and trains from the north end up in Beersheva. If your schedule permits, stay overnight in Beersheva for a glimpse of a growing desert city with an interesting citizenry and a gentrifying population.
A legend says that after the Creation, the angels painted the earth and when they got tired, they spilled their paints: the blue became the...