Ancient charm is revived in Beersheba’s new Old City
Artistic, cultural and commercial renewal sprout from longstanding Ottoman institutions, making biblical Abraham’s one-time hometown an oasis of tourism in the Negev Desert
During World War I, the Turks who ruled Palestine launched a plan to conquer Egypt. With that in mind, they built a railroad terminal and laid tracks from Beersheba to the country’s southern border.
The British who came after the Turks decided it wasn’t worth keeping the station going and abandoned the site in 1927. And so it remained, derelict and desolate.
But those days of neglect are over. Although the trees are still there, and the gabled roof on the side of the terminal reads, in Arabic, Bir-El-Saba (Beersheba), the train station is, today, the hub of Beersheba’s Old City.
On a visit two weeks ago — the very day the government lifted its pandemic health restrictions on Israeli restaurants — we enjoyed a lovely breakfast at the café in the beautifully restored terminal. We also walked around, viewing two of the original railroad cars, the station master’s dwelling, and a Turkish engine that could easily have operated here in the past.
Restoration of the station, completed in 2013, is only one sign of the recent times. So much has changed over the past few years in both Old and New Beersheba that natives, once shy about their heritage, are now proud to claim the town as theirs. Indeed, there is an overflow of positive energy in the city, and there are so many locals bursting with new and exciting initiatives, plans and ideas, that you can actually feel it in the air.
Beersheba was born, according to the Bible, when Abraham built a well (be’er, in Hebrew) in the Negev Desert (Genesis 21:31). When servants of the king seized his well, Abraham complained to their master. Abraham and the king settled the dispute with a treaty, and the two then swore a shevua, or oath.
At the beginning of the 20th century, or so we have been told, the fight to control what many believe to be Abraham’s well was re-enacted. As the Turkish moved to establish their presence in the area, a local sheikh took over the original well and dug a second, hoping to demonstrate that the Bedouin owned Beersheba’s water. The Turkish rulers reacted by throwing the sheikh in jail.
Until recently, Abraham’s well stood in Old Beersheba under a simple shelter. Since 2013, however, the well has been part of a massive modern production called Be’er Avraham. It begins in a large structure symbolically designed to remind visitors of a tent, where a guide explains biblical passages relating to Abraham. Then, with the latest that technology has to offer, you join him on his desert journey.
Over the past few millennia, Beersheba has been inhabited consecutively by Israelites, Romans and Byzantines. Arab conquerors completely destroyed Beersheba in the seventh century, and the city was abandoned.
Beersheba only rose from the ashes in the year 1900, when it became the only city that the Turks built from scratch during their 400-year sojourn in Palestine. They worried that area Bedouin, who were a law until themselves, threatened the stability of the region and hoped that an attractive town that responded to Bedouin needs would convince these eternal wanderers to become farmers and landowners, loyal to the Turkish government and under its control.
Designed by German, Swiss and local Arab architects, Beersheba — today’s Old City — was a wondrous combination of East and West. Along with well-planned streets and beautiful public gardens, it featured splendid oriental buildings filled with ornamental arches and decorative balconies.
Fortunately, over the past several years, quite a few buildings erected by the Turks have been charmingly restored. Today they house museums, restaurants, art centers, youth centers, an independent theater, galleries, a bank and a science center.
One such building is the Government School, built for the children of area Bedouin. On previous visits to Beersheba we found the once magnificent structure lost amidst dry grass and scrawny trees. Then, in 2013, it reopened in all its glory as part of the impressive Carasso Science Park.
Nearby, the Turks erected a magnificent mosque with a towering minaret. Serving local residents and area Muslims, it was built on the diagonal, facing Mecca.
At one time, the former mosque housed the Negev Museum’s archeological wing. But when the building was in desperate need of repair, no funds were available and it was declared unsafe.
After a long, drawn-out court case concerning future use of the building, it reopened in 2014 to house the marvelous Museum of Islam and the Far East. In the courtyard are fascinating archeological finds from the country’s early Muslim period (between the 7th and late 11th centuries), on permanent loan from the Israel Antiquities Authority.
Contemporary Islamic works on display, created by Muslim artists from all over the country, prove that Islamic art is still alive and well. Their artwork is stunningly showcased in the museum’s current, interactive exhibit called “Local Design in a Global Context.”
In 1906, then-governor Achaf Bey and his family moved into an elegant mansion located directly across from the mosque, featuring the only bathtub in town. For some years the villa served as Beersheba’s City Hall, but it opened in 2004 as the Negev Museum of Art whose walls, at the moment, are covered with comic strips.
Another villa built in 1906 became the residence of Jaffa-born Hiram Danin during the British Mandate. Danin was posted to Beersheba by Yehoshua Hankin, an amazing, selfless fanatic whose mission in life was the redemption of land in Israel. Charged with buying property in the area for Jewish settlement, Danin was told to get to know the locals, to act with honor, and to keep any promises he made.
The building was taken over by the Israel Defense Forces at some point, and later it fell into rack and ruin. But in 2013, although there was already an art gallery inside the Ben Gurion University campus, the school’s then-president Dr. Rivka Carmi felt there was a need for a gallery inside the Old City that would be accessible to the general public. She chose to place it in the former Danin residence, which was lovingly restored to its original beauty and exhibits high quality artwork created by both Israeli and international artists.
Nearby, and lodged in a renovated Turkish villa in conjunction with the Jewish National Fund-USA, the Lauder Employment Center is dedicated to supporting social entrepreneurism and to promoting economic development. To that end, the center provides support and tools for emerging small businesses in the Negev, and connects aspiring young professionals with the area’s leading hi-tech companies.
We got a look at a work in progress last week while observing a photography course attended solely by disabled men and women. It seems that a small group of professional photographers planned to set up a new business with a social agenda, and approached the Lauder Center to reap the benefit of its expertise. That resulted in this special course, one of many initiatives in the city helping to create equal opportunities for its residents.
Directly across from the center, Gallery 44 is both home and platform for sculptor Daniel Toledano. Toledano turned a Turkish ruin into a gallery where he exhibits a lifetime of his unusual works.
The newest old hotel in Beersheba, called the Negev Hotel, was built in 1949 and reopened last year after major renovations. An excellent example of the way old and new can be successfully woven together, the boutique hotel combines the oriental beauty of the restored Turkish portion of the structure with small, ultra-modern rooms.
A completely new attraction, the Anzac Memorial Center was inaugurated on the 100th anniversary of the British conquest of Beersheba (which took place, after horrific battles, on October 31, 1917). Located next to the Beersheba Cemetery for Soldiers of the British Commonwealth, the center tells the story of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) Light Horse Brigade that fought in the war together with British troops. It features actual video clips from the war in this region, human interest stories, and a riveting film. Unless you are with children too young to watch battle scenes, this center is an absolute must.
Mayor Ruvik Danilovich has been the driving force behind many of the changes in Beersheba, including the creation of new city parks and playgrounds, and the restoration of older ones. You will find them simply everywhere in both the Old and the New cities, along with a wonderful five-kilometer city promenade.
New Beersheba is, indeed, new, with gorgeous apartment buildings, and three terrific modern-day attractions. Inaugurated in 2015, an interactive experiential museum called Lunada is meant for children, but is so much fun that adults who are young at heart can find it hard to leave. When you do, however, you can walk down the hill to the stupendous “Children’s Park” which opened soon after the Lunada made its appearance.
The park has something for everyone, from waterfalls to carpet-like lawns, waterfowl and innovative playgrounds. If you grew up on the book “Make Way for Ducklings” you will smile nostalgically at the sight of Mr. and Mrs. Duck parading the grounds with their offspring.
Of all the city’s new attractions, perhaps the most ambitious — and certainly the most impressive — is Beersheba River Park. Funded mainly by JNF-USA and the Israeli government, it won’t officially open for a few months. Yet the public has already discovered its multitude of attractions: lawns, playgrounds, a sporteque, an amphitheater, archeological finds, historic sites, walking, running and bicycle paths as well as the second largest lake in Israel. Located at the southern edge of Beersheba and almost twice the size of New York’s Central Park, it services over 800,000 people in Beersheba and its periphery.
The park has already been the catalyst for the arrival of additional commercial enterprises to the area, along with dozens of new apartment complexes that are reasonably priced and filling up with young families. Development of the park is ongoing, with a restaurant and recreational boating already in the works. In the distant future the park will also host a JNF-USA international educational center for students and visitors.
Note: All sites in this article are stroller and wheelchair accessible. The following are free of charge: Trumpeldor Gallery, the train station, Children’s Park, Beersheva River Park, Gallery 44, public gardens and parks all over the city.
For contact information on the sites, check out the Beersheba municipal tourism website, the Beersheba Old City website, or call the city’s information line: 08-6463777.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel. Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.
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