Beersheba (biblical: Beersheba; Heb. בְּאֵר שֶׁבַע, also Beersheva, Beer Sheva) is a city in the Negev on the southern border of Judah; its name has been preserved in the Arabic form Bīr (Beʾr) al-Saʿb. 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.
Tel Sheva, the mound of biblical Beersheba, is located several kilometers east of the present-day city of Beersheba. 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). According to the Bible, Abraham and Isaac dug wells at Beersheba 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 early times, was invested with great importance in the tales set in the patriarchal period (Gen. 21:33; 26:23–24, 32–33; 46:1).
After the rise of Israel, Beersheba 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 Beersheba 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 Beersheba” (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, Beersheba continued to be the southern frontier of the kingdom of Judah; the expression “from Dan to Beersheba” was then replaced by “from Beersheba to the hill-country of Ephraim” (II Chron. 19:4) or “from Geba to Beersheba” (II Kings 23:8). Zibiah, the mother of Jehoash, king of Judah, originated from Beersheba (II Kings 12:2). Elijah set out on his journey to Horeb from Beersheba, 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).
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.
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)
King Sennacherib of Assyria destroyed the city of Beersheba, 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.
UNESCO World Heritage Designation
In 2005, Beersheba, along with the other two Biblical tels were registered as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
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.
The modern settlement dates from 1900, when the Turkish government set up an administrative district in southern Palestine separate from that of Gaza and built an urban center in this purely nomadic region. The Turks were motivated by the need to strengthen governmental authority over the Bedouin at a time when Turkey was struggling with Britain over the delineation of the Egyptian border in Sinai. German and Swiss engineers aided in laying out a city plan. Both a city and a district council were set up, and Bedouin sheikhs held seats on them. Until 1914, however, progress was slow, and Beersheba had about 800 Muslim inhabitants and some Jewish families, one of whom ran a flour mill.
In World War I, the town became the principal base for the Turko-German Army fighting on the Suez and Sinai front. Fortifications were laid out around the town and more settlers, including Jews, came and provided services to the army. A branch of the Jerusalem-Jaffa railway line was constructed and led beyond Beersheba to the southwest.
On October 31, 1917, the town was taken by Allied forces under General Allenby’s command, with Australian and New Zealand units prominent in the battle. Allied losses were considerable; the British War Cemetery at Beersheba has about 1,300 graves.
When Beersheba’s strategic role ended, its economy dwindled and the railway was dismantled. In 1920, a few Jewish laborers planted a tree nursery and eucalyptus grove there and experimented with cultivating vegetables and other crops. In 1922, the population reached 2,356, among whom were 98 Jews. By 1931, the number of Jews had decreased to 11. The last Jews left during the 1936–39 riots, but efforts were intensified to purchase land for Jewish settlement in the Negev. During the War of Independence the invading Egyptian army made Beersheba its headquarters for the Negev. When Israeli forces captured the town on October 21, 1948, it was abandoned by its inhabitants.
Early in 1949, Jewish settlers, mostly new immigrants, established themselves there. The population, which totaled 1,800 at the end of 1949, reached 25,500 in 1956, 51,600 in 1962, and over 70,000 in 1968.
The vast majority of its inhabitants were originally new immigrants, mainly from North Africa, Iraq, India, Romania, Poland, Hungary, and South America. The first arrivals took over the abandoned houses, but from 1951 large new suburbs were built extending mainly to the north and northwest, while to the east a large industrial area sprang up. Arab Beersheba of Turkish times now became a small “old city” in a large modern town. The municipal area of about 10 sq. mi. (26 sq. km.) was doubled in 1967.
Beersheba became the capital of Israel’s Southern District, and a hub of communications linking up with the main roads and the railway lines Lydda-Kiryat Gat and Dimona-Oron. A pumping station of the Eilat-Haifa oil pipeline was located there. Its largest industries (ceramics, sanitary ware, fire-resistant bricks, pesticides and other chemicals, and bromide compounds) exploited Negev minerals. There was also a large textile factory, flour mill, machine garage, and smaller plants for building materials, diamonds, metals, and other industries. The city had several academic, scientific, and cultural institutions, of which the Soroka Medical Center and the Municipal Museum were the first.
In 1957, the Negev Institute for Arid Zone Research was established, which experiments with water desalination by electrodialysis, exploitation of solar energy, cloud seeding, adaptation of plants to aridity, hydroponics, and human behavior under desert conditions. The Institute for Higher Education, opened in 1965, was formally recognized as the University of the Negev in 1970 and had 1,600 students. Subsequently renamed Ben-Gurion University after Israel’s first prime minister. It has approximatly 20,000 students.
In 1973, the Beersheba Theater and the Symphony Orchestra were established. Beersheba also had a Biological Institute, mainly for the study of plant life in the desert. The city also served as a market center for the Negev’s tens of thousands of Bedouin and had several large hotels. The traditional Thursday Bedouin market day was a noted tourist attraction.
In the 1970s, the population of Beersheba passed the 110,000 mark, making it the fourth largest urban concentration in Israel after Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa. The original plan to make Beersheba an industrial center was not too successful, though there were several large industrial plants, such as Makhteshim, which produced agricultural fertilizers and employed over 1,000 workers, and an Israel Aircraft Industries metal plant. The main sources of employment, however, were the Soroka Medical Center, employing over 2,000, and the university. The city thus continued to serve as a regional center and many workers in the Dead Sea chemical works and in the Nuclear Research Center near Dimona resided there.
By the mid-1990s the population had risen to approximately 141,400 and, in 2020, it was 210,595, making Beersheba the seventh largest city in Israel.
G. Dalman, Sacred Sites and Ways (1935), index; S. Klein (ed.,) Sefer ha-Yishuv, 1 (1939) S.V.; Albright, in: JPOS, 4 (1924), 152; Alt, ibid., 15 (1935), 320; L. Woolley and T.E. Lawrence, Wilderness of Zin (1915), 45ff., 107 ff.; Perrot, in: IEJ, 5 (1955), 17, 73, 167; Contenson, ibid., 6 (1956), 163, 226; Dothan, in: Atiqot, 2 (Eng., 1959), 1ff.; EM, 2 (1965), 6–8 (incl. bibl.); Press, Ereẓ, 1 (1951), 62–63. WEBSITE: www.negevba.co.il.