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Shivtah (Heb. שִׁבְטָה) or Sobata

SHIVTAH (Heb. שִׁבְטָה) or SOBATA, former town in the Negev, 35 mi. (56 km.) southwest of Beersheba, near the Nessana highway. It was founded in the first century B.C.E. by the *Nabateans (only pottery and an inscription mentioning Dushara are known), but it expanded considerably under Christian rule during the course of the Byzantine period (4th to 7th centuries) and thrived until the Abbasid period (c. 800 C.E.), at which point it was finally abandoned. The original Nabatean name for the site may have been Shubitu. The town is mentioned in the later story of St. Nilus and in the Nessana papyri. The settlement (covering an area of about 22 acres) is unwalled and comprises many sumptuous residences, stables, various public buildings, three churches, public squares, and winding streets. Three types of stones of varying quality were used for building houses: a very hard limestone for the foundations and the walls of the lower stories; a yellowish medium-hard stone for the middle parts of the walls and the voussoirs of the arches; and a soft chalk for the upper stories and the cover-stones of the roofs. Wood was hardly used in private houses, except for shelves in built-in cupboards. The roofing of the private houses was based on a system of arches and cover-stones, and only in the churches were large quantities of wood used. The southern and older part of Shivtah is centered on two large pools. The nearby southern church was built after the other buildings. The northern part, covering 40 dunams (10 acres) with 340 rooms, contained a church with a tower, perhaps a public building, at its southern end and a large church dedicated to St. George at its northern extremity. This church consists of an open court, a narthex, a mosaic-paved side chapel, and a baptistry; the main church (66 × 37 ft.) has a nave and two aisles separated by six columns. It has three apses and its walls were once covered with white marble. Near the church was a large square surrounded by 36 shops and workshops (for potters, dyers, etc.).

The Byzantine-period inhabitants of Shivtah cultivated an extensive area in the Lavan Valley, amounting to 4,945 dunams (over 1,270 acres); rainwater from a drainage area of 77 sq. mi. (197½ sq. km.) was carried by means of a series of complicated channels into their fields. An excavation of farm buildings and a columbarium was made by C. Baly at the time of the Colt expedition, but remains unpublished. All the valleys, large and small, were traversed by dams, and an elaborate system of channels collected the rainwater from afar, in a ratio of 1:20 or 1:30 of catchment area per unit of arable field. Experiments in ancient methods of farming and water use are being carried out by M. Evenari of the Hebrew University on a reconstructed farm at Sobata. The presence of a number of wine-presses (described by the excavators as baths of a very economical type) indicates that grapes were probably one of the main crops. In the city itself, water was based on rainwater collected in cisterns and the cleaning of the reservoirs was a duty to be performed by every inhabitant; each house was also provided with one or two cisterns. In the 8th–9th centuries C.E. a small Muslim community lived at Sobata and built a small mosque near the South Church.

The first European scholar to visit Sobata was E.H. Palmer (1869), who suggested identifying it with Zepath, which Simeon conquered, changing its name to Hormah (Judg. 1:17). This identification has not been accepted. The site was later visited by A. Musil (1902); A. Jaussen, R. Savignac and H. Vincent (1905), who found the first Nabatean and Greek-Byzantine inscriptions; C.L. Woolley and T.E. Lawrence (1914); and T. Wiegand, who visited Sobata at the head of the Committee for the Preservation of Ancient Monuments attached to the Turco-German Headquarters (1916) and thus had the opportunity to correct some of the mistakes made by earlier scholars. In the years 1934–38 an expedition of New York University and the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem, under the direction of H.D. Colt, made large-scale excavations at Sobata, the results of which have not been published. In the years 1958–59 the Israel National Parks Authority, under the guidance of M. Avi-Yonah, carried out some clearance and restoration of the ancient buildings. The North Church was studied by R. Rosenthal in the 1970s and later excavations were conducted by S. Margalit. An architectural appreciation of the site was also made by A. Segal. In 1981 A. Negev fully published the 30 or more inscriptions found at Shivtah (see L. Di Segni 1997). In 2000, Y. Hirschfeld prepared a new map of the site and made a detailed study of the architecture of the settlement. T. Tsuk also made a study of its water systems.


C.L. Woolley and T.E. Lawrence, The Wilderness of Zin (1915), 72ff.; C. Baly, "Shivta," PEFQS, 68 (1935), 171–181; QDAP 8 (1939): 159; H.C. Youtie, "Ostraca from Sbeita," in: AJA, 40 (1936), 452–59; Y. Kedar, "Ancient Agriculture at Shivtah in the Negev," in: IEJ, 57 (1957), 178–89. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: B. Brimer, "Shivta – An Aerial Photographic Interpretation," in: IEJ, 31 (1981), 227; A. Segal, "Shivta – A Byzantine Town in the Negev Desert," in: Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 4 (1985), 317–28; idem, Architectural Decoration in Byzantine Shivta, Negev Desert, Israel (1988); S. Margalit, "The North Church of Shivta: The Discovery of the First Church," in: PEQ, 119 (1987), 106–21; L. Di Segni, "Dated Greek Inscriptions from Palestine from the Roman and Byzantine Periods" (doct. diss., Hebrew University (1997), 813ff.; Y. Hirschfeld, "Man and Society in Byzantine Shivta," in: Qadmoniot, 36 (2003), 2–17; T. Tsuk, "Water Supply in Byzantine Shivta," in: Qadmoniot, 36 (2003), 18–24.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.