Wednesday, July 11, 2012

More than just camels

Start spreading the news,
I'm leaving today.
I want to be a part of it -
Frank Sinatra

We have a first-time visitor coming to see us this summer. While discussing what we should show him while he’s here, my eldest simply sighed and said, “There’s nothing you can do about it, Beer Sheva is a boring place.”
And so, it gives me much pleasure to prove her wrong:

Beer Sheva is the second largest city in Israel in area. The largest is Jerusalem. It takes about an hour and a half to drive across Jerusalem. It takes about 20 minutes to drive across Beer Sheva, if all the traffic lights are working. It takes me 12 minutes to drive to work. That's the first good thing about Beer Sheva.
Though smaller in both size and population, Beer Sheva is actually older than Jerusalem, and was founded by none other than our Patriarch Abraham. Known as the City of Our Fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all lived here.
True, for an awfully long time after the Roman exile, the area was barren, though the Greeks and Romans maintained a garrison here. The Byzantines built a town here, but that was destroyed in approximately the seventh century. Byzantine ruins keep popping up around town, most recently during the renovations of our city bus station.

Over the centuries, because water was available here (the beer in Beer Sheva means a well – not Budweiser – and should be pronounced Be’er, with two syllables, but nobody ever says it that way), the area was used as a meeting place for local Bedouin. A weekly market (shuk) was created, where camels, goats, and wives were the main merchandise for sale. The Bedouin shuk still meets weekly, but unless you come at around the only camel you’ll see is a stuffed one, and today it’s illegal to sell wives. But you can find nargillas, bronze swords, and enormous chess sets, if that’s your thing. Mostly, however, there are cheap name-brand knockoffs that seem to have fallen off the back of a truck. There aren’t even that many Bedouin in the market anymore. But it’s still good fun and you can find some great bargains.

The area began to be built up under the Ottoman rule in the late 19th century. With German assistance, they built a police garrison (mostly to deal with those same Bedouin selling camels), a train station (the Orient Express stopped in Beer Sheva on its way from Constantinople to Cairo), a Mosque, and a school for Bedouin children. These buildings, along with the Governor’s house, still exist. For years, the structures were left to rot, but in the last few years they have been/are being renovated. The Governor’s house, built in 1906, is now the Negev Museum and houses works of art of local artists. The Mosque, which was empty for more than 60 years, now houses the Museum of Beer Sheva, which shows the 4000-year history of Beer Sheva in pictures and archeological finds.
Governor's House
The Turkish train station is still there, but doesn’t receive any trains. It’s the headquarters of the Society for the Protection of Nature, but is in pretty bad shape, physically. There are plans to renovate it and make the area into a park. The old Bedouin school is being renovated to the tune of $30,000,000 to become a children’s Science Museum, scheduled to open in about two years.

Beer Sheva circa 1917


After the Ottomans were defeated by the British in 1917, Beer Sheva became a major administrative center for the Mandate. British-built buildings dot the city center. Most of these building have been redone into shops or restaurants. The center of town, after years of neglect, is being restored, with old fashioned lighting, cobblestone streets, and cute pubs and boutiques.  There are now open-air concerts near the revamped Mosque, craft fairs on Mondays and Fridays on the pedestrian walk way in town, wine and beer festivals, and many ethnic restaurants and stores. You can also buy falafel. 

Beer Sheva has become a haven for artists. Beit Omanim (The Artists’ House) is home to the works of dozens of Negev artists. In addition, they host weekly events open to the general public. The Beer Sheva Simfonietta is considered one of the best concert orchestras in the country. We boast a ‘Youth Center’ that hosts plays, concerts, choirs, and more. The piece de resistance in cultural Beer Sheva is the Center for Performing Arts. This architecturally interesting building (you either love it or you hate it) holds performances by Israeli and international stars and is home to the Simfonietta, the Beer Sheva Theatre, and the Kamea Dance Company. Oh, and Beer Sheva has the largest number of chess master per capita in the world. 13.

Center for Performing Arts


One of the largest universities in the country, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) has almost 20,000 students. The Medical School opened following the Yom Kippur War in 1974. In 1998, the Medical School moved to a new set of buildings. Architecturally acclaimed, the buildings also house one of the world’s best medical museums.
Also at BGU, you can see a dinosaur.

There’s more to see:
·        The Air Force Museum where one can find every different airplane ever flown by the IAF, and an awful lot of planes flown by their enemies.
·        Kibbutz Nevatim (about three minutes south east of Beer Sheva) was founded by Jews from the Indian province of Cochin. On display there is the synagogue they brought with them.
·        Allenby park, where a monument to Edmund Allenby, who overthrew the Ottomans in 1917 was rededicated in 2007, 90 years after the battle. It was the first park in Beer Sheva, and is the only public park in the city with bathrooms.
·        Abraham’s Well, which actually is a well but probably isn’t Abraham’s, is enclosed in an old Ottoman building, and is being renovated into a museum of Beer Sheva.
·        Tel Beer Sheva, a national archeological park, is about 20 minutes outside the city. Some of the oldest finds in the world have been discovered there. 

Ottoman Train Station
After 2000 years and with a population of 5000 – none of them Jews – Beer Sheva, once again, came under Jewish administration after the 1948 war. To our lasting sorrow, the liberation of Beer Sheva from the Egyptian army took many lives. Situated on a hilltop, just outside of town, a memorial to the Negev Brigade overlooks the city. Made of a series of huge stone edifices engraved with the names of the fallen, today, kids dart in and out of the stones. It’s also a great place from which to watch the fireworks on the evening of Independence Day.

Beer Sheva quickly became the destination for Jewish refugees from Arab countries, and grew swiftly. By 1985, there were 60,000 people living here. At that point, Beer Sheva was mostly known for its bus station as a stop on the way to Eilat.
25 years later, the population, boosted by the Russian and Ethiopian Aliyah, has skyrocketed to 205,000 people, from 140 different countries.

Another time, I’ll write about some of those people.




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