Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The wheels on a bus go round round round

Genesis 21:23
Genesis 26:23
Genesis 28:10
(all our forefathers lived in Beer Sheva, and they got places even without buses)

Art has to move you and design does not, unless it’s a good design for a bus.
David Hockney

It is not often that I ride the buses of Beer Sheva. Though service is relatively good, and prices are relatively cheap, a car is far more convenient. I take my daughter and her friend to school every morning, pick them up three times a week, do countless errands, and even find time to go to work; all with a car. Last week, however, the husband needed the car to ferry around family members who were in town to celebrate our daughter’s Bat Mitzva. So early in the morning, I walked the 15 minutes to the bus stop, where a computerized clock told me exactly how much time I had to wait for the bus (8 minutes). Once on the bus, each stop was announced – in a deep and rather newscastery voice – twice. “Next stop, the hospital”. Upon arrival at the stop, the disembodied yet distinguished voice would announce “The hospital; Next stop, the emergency ward”. Etc. etc. I waited patiently for the announcement “next stop, the University”.

Beer Sheva’s public transport system has come a long way (no pun intended) since the British army won the battle for the city on horseback in 1917.

Turkish army circa 1917
More modern transport - camels on the road to Beer Sheva

Today, buses are available to both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem every half hour. Trains run 24 hours a day to Tel Aviv, leaving every half hour at peak times. Within the city itself, there are approximately 90 separate bus lines intersecting the city and joining the various neighborhoods.  

Beer Sheva's first bus, 1950ish

In addition, about three years ago, a decision was made by the mayor to build a new bus station.
Beer Sheva’s mayor, Ruvik Danilovich, is a young, energetic, forward-thinking, ambitious man. His many plans for the city include building a skate park, a beach front (no actual sea, just the front), the largest amphitheater in the country, a boating lake (not adjacent to the beach front), and restoring the old, dilapidated, neglected Turkish areas of the city into tourist sites. To greet the hordes expected to descend on the city when all these projects are completed, (and some are already finished, while others are nearing completion) Danilovitch understood that first, the city needed a new central bus station. In truth, a new one was needed, even without all the grandiose plans, as the old bus station, which sees tens of thousands of people a day, was built in the 1950s when Beer Sheva was a small immigrant town. Today, the Beer Sheva bus station acts as a hub for all points north, south, east, and west in the country, in addition to serving the nearly 200,000 residents of the growing city.

Old bus station

Old bus station
So money was collected, architects hired, and plans were drawn up. This being Israel, an added challenge was thrown in, just to make it interesting. It was decided to build the new bus station in the exact spot of the old bus station, without interfering with or rerouting the daily bus service. No problem; the powers that be agreed to build the new station one bit at a time and rope off small bits of the old bus station. The plan was approved, and construction began. There was, however, one small hitch. Archeologists knew that an old Byzantium town lay underneath the station. So, under the direction of the Israel Antiquities Authority, careful digging commenced. What was unearthed was truly amazing. The remains of two churches and a Roman army camp were discovered, along with dozens of underground rooms where hundreds of jars and coins were found. It is speculated that the 1500-year-old town that was revealed may be among the largest Byzantine towns found to date in the Holyland.
some of the finds

On display

an air view of the excavations

The excavations took a little longer than expected, but with the help of archaeology students from Ben-Gurion University, all that could be removed was removed, and all that could be preserved was preserved, and work on the new bus station proceeded.
For two years, incoming buses and passengers had to detour somewhat around construction works. Dust filled the air so that travelers had a hard time breathing. Road renovations brought traffic to daily gridlocks. Undeterred, the project advanced.
The other day, when I had to take the bus to work so the husband could have the car, I deliberately took a different bus home so that I could visit the almost finished, newly renovated, Beer Sheva Central Bus Station.
From the outside, it’s still a mess. Dust and rubble are everywhere. Urban buses still stop in temporary stations, so chaos abounded, as travelers searched for the correct station. The biggest complaint, however, was not having to search for the right stop, or running through mud and dirt, or almost getting hit by a bus as they make U-turns in the middle of the road. The only complaint I heard was that there were no benches available to sit while waiting for your bus to arrive. Really, that was the problem??

Inside the bus station, however, was a different world. First, there were benches to sit on while you wait for your inter-city bus. Second, there was a floor. A nice tiled, almost clean, floor. Third, there was a roof over your head to protect you from rain the winter (even in Beer Sheva it’s been known to rain) and the sun in the summer. A glass wall (probably reinforced glass due to security considerations) has been installed between the benches and the incoming buses to stop exhaust fumes from bothering patrons. 
Inside the bus station

The doors to the buses do not open from the outside, so you can’t enter the station that way. And, Israelis being Israelis, they have trouble waiting patiently on the new benches for their buses to come, so dozens were outside waiting on the platforms, unable to get back in.
New shops, fast food places, lovely bakeries and coffee shops have opened inside the station, but most of the old places have also been kept. These have all received a substantial facelift, with new floors, ceilings, and lighting. It was a rather surreal experience to see that Shmulik, the ancient tattoo artist, has had his decrepit, filthy ‘parlor’ outfitted with modern wooden floors, floor to ceiling glass walls, and white lights (better to see his artwork).
As it was a Sunday afternoon, the station was full of soldiers returning to their base. I love watching the soldiers, and trying to discern to which unit they belong. Most keep strictly with their ‘own kind’; the air force with the air force, paratroopers with paratroopers, etc. etc. But not always, and at one stop I was lucky enough to catch a hug between a paratrooper (scarlet beret0 and a soldier from Givati (purple beret) while a Golanchik (brown beret) and a NaChal soldier (bright green) looked on. Further on, there were several army engineers (silver) drinking cokes and smiling at the hugging group.
This is the original picture - just coincidence that my son has a purple Givati beret
Soldiers, tattoo artists, and impatient, locked-out travelers are found in all Israeli, and maybe the world, bus stations. What makes the new Beer Sheva Central Bus Station unique is that it is the only bus station in the world — here, I’m presuming – that comprises a 1500-year-old Byzantium bus station in the middle of it. The artifacts discovered in the dig will eventually be on display, but in the meantime, beneath see-through floors, glimpses of the Byzantine buildings can be seen.
Beer Sheva was first settled, according to the Bible, about 4000 years ago by Avraham Avinu. Indeed, archaeological finds outside the city testify to this. After the wars of King David, Beer Sheva was the southernmost city in Land of Israel, and was an administrative, commercial, and military center. The prophet Eliyahu HaNavi, fleeing from the Queen Jezebel, took refuge here. King Saul built a fort against the Amaleks here. After the Babylonian conquest, the area was deserted, only to be rebuilt with the return of the Jews in the time of Ezra. After the Roman conquest the area became a military defense post against the Nabateans (who traded in precious metals and spices – probably drugs, too).
The Byzantines were the last to live here, abandoning the town in the face of the Arab conquest during the 7th century. The area was deserted until the late 19th century, when the Turkish Ottomans, with German help, built another administrative center complete with a train station, but no roads. Under the British mandate, the town had approximately 5000 residents, and no bus station.
It was only with the return of Jewish sovereignty that Beer Sheva flourished, and built a bus station. 

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