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Archaeology in Israel: Ancient City of Beersheba

Tel Sheva, the mound of biblical Beersheba, is located in the northern Negev, several kilometers east of the present-day city of Be'er Sheva. The Arabic name of the mound, Tell es-Sab'a, preserves the biblical name; the archeological finds support its identification with biblical Beersheba.

The ancient town was built on a low hill on the bank of a wadi (dry river-bed), which carries floodwater during the winter months. A close-to-the-surface aquifer along the wadi ensured the year-round supply of water.

Beersheba is first mentioned in the biblical account of God's revelation to the patriarchs (Gen. 26:23-25; 46:1) and its name is derived from the Hebrew word shevu'a (oath) or shiv'a (seven) as elaborated in Gen. 21:31 and 26:33. Beersheba symbolized the southern boundary of the Land of Israel, as in the phrase from Dan to Beersheba. (Judges 20:1; 1 Samuel 3:20; and 1 Kings 5:5)

A large area of the site was excavated between 1969 and 1976, producing several layers of the remains of settlement, including fortified towns of the early Israelite period and the monarchic period of Judah, covered by remnants of small fortresses dated from the Persian to the Roman periods.

The earliest remains of settlement at Beersheba are a number of rock-hewn dwellings (12th-11th centuries BCE) and a 20 m.-deep well supplying fresh water to the inhabitants of the first permanent unfortified settlement of Israelites of the Tribe of Simon. (Joshua 19:2)

By the end of the 11th century BCE, a fortified settlement was established at Beersheba with the houses built close to one another on the hill's summit, forming an outer, circular defensive wall with only a narrow opening for a gate. The houses opened inwards, towards a central square, where livestock was kept.

In the mid-10th century BCE, during the monarchic period, the first large fortified city was established at Beersheba, to serve as the administrative center of the southern region of the kingdom. Its area extended over some 10 dunams (2.8 acres) of the hill's summit. It was a planned city, fortified by a solid wall of mudbrick on stone foundations. The city gate, with a four-chambered gatehouse, is typical of Israelite military architecture of that period. The plan of this city, on broad lines, was preserved throughout the next 300 years, during which time it was rebuilt several times.

In the 9th century BCE, a new city wall was erected on the remains of the previous one. The new casemate wall was composed of two parallel walls with a narrow space between them which was divided into small rooms, creating living and storage spaces within the wall.

The uppermost layer of the mound revealed the 8th century BCE city of Beersheba, a remarkable example of provincial town planning and indicative of the importance of the city for the defense of the southern border of the Kingdom of Judah at the end of the monarchic period. The area of the walled city was divided into quarters; peripheral, circular streets followed the course of the city wall and a main street cut through the center of the town; and all the streets met at the square inside its gate. A planned drainage system was constructed beneath the streets to collect rainwater into a central channel, which carried it under the city gate and outside into the well. An impressive water system was also constructed in the northeast of the city, within the wall, with a stone staircase leading down to a water chamber cut deep into the rock. This sophisticated system assured a regular water supply even in times of long siege.

In the eastern part of the city stood a complex of three pillared structures covering an area of 600 m2. This served as the city's storehouse, as is evident from its ground-plan, its location near the city gate and from the hundreds of pottery vessels, including many large storage jars, found there. Next to the city gate also stood the governor's palace, with many rooms and three large reception halls. Most of the dozens of houses in the city were built uniformly, with four rooms, one of which served as a courtyard. They were located along the streets and, in the houses abutting the city wall, one room was built into the narrow space in the casemate walls.

The population of Beersheba in the 8th century BCE is estimated at 400-500, including officials and soldiers of the army of Judah stationed in Beersheba, the regional capital of the south.

A large horned altar was uncovered at the site. It was reconstructed with several well-dressed stones found in secondary use in the walls of a later building. This altar attests to the existence of a temple or cult center in the city which was probably dismantled during the reforms of King Hezekiah. (1 Kings 18:4)

The city of Beer-sheba was destroyed by King Sennacherib of Assyria, during his campaign against Judah in 701 BCE. During the 7th century BCE a small settlement existed on the site, its poor and sparse construction indicative of royal neglect; it came to an end when the Babylonians conquered the Kingdom of Judah in 587-6 BCE.

In 2005 Beersheba, along with the other two Biblical tels were registered as  UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

UNESCO World Heritage Designation

Criterion (ii): The three tels represent an interchange of human values throughout the ancient near-east, forged through extensive trade routes and alliances with other states and manifest in building styles which merged Egyptian, Syrian and Aegean influences to create a distinctive local style.

Criterion (iii): The three tels are a testimony to a civilization that has disappeared - that of the Cananean cities of the Bronze Age and the biblical cities of the Iron Age - manifests in their expressions of creativity: town planning, fortifications, palaces, and water collection technologies.

Criterion (iv): The Biblical cities reflect the key stages of urban development in the Levant, which exerted a powerful influence on later history of the region.

Criterion (vi): The three tels, through their mentions in the Bible, constitute a religious and spiritual testimony of Outstanding Universal Value.


All components of the tels are included in the property. The three tels have preserved substantial remains of cities from the Bronze and Iron Age with biblical connection. Each tel relates to the overall property through its temples, fortifications and gate system, palaces, water systems, town planning and prominence in the Bible. None of the attributes are under threat.


All three tels have been generally left untouched and intact since their decline, and subsequent abandonment, between the 10th and 4th centuries BCE. Over time they have retained their authenticity, and acquired the characteristic appearance of a conical shape, with a flattish top, protruding above the surrounding countryside. From the beginning of the 20th century Tel Hazor and Tel Megiddo have been the subject of archaeological investigation, with Tel Beersheba being first excavated during the 1960's.

In the interests of safety and interpretation, some interventions have been made to the water systems at all three sites, but these do not seriously affect the authenticity of the overall system.

At Tel Hazor an unconventional approach was taken to dismantle and rebuild a storehouse and residential building elsewhere on site. These two Iron Age buildings had been excavated in the 1950's and had remained exposed to deterioration on an "island" as excavation work proceeded into earlier archaeological levels. This action was considered justified as it also permitted the completion of the site excavation, and the consolidation of earlier evidence around and beneath the two structures.

Protection and management requirements

The State of Israel owns the three tels. They are designated National Parks administered by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA), and protected under the 1998 National Parks, Nature Reserves, National Sites and Memorial Sites Law. Tel Megiddo and Tel Hazor are located in the Northern District, and Tel Beersheba in the Southern District, of the INPA.

The Planning and Development Forum of the Director General of INPA approves all significant plans regarding activities in the National Parks. In addition, there is an internal World Heritage Site Forum under the chairmanship of the Authority's Director of Archaeology and Heritage. This body coordinates and monitors activities at all the inscribed sites. It is also concerned with their management, and that of those on the Israel Tentative List.

In order to achieve a comparable conservation standard across the three sites that comprise the property a comprehensive conservation plan and monitoring programme is desirable.

Sources: Ministry of Foreign Affairs;