Stepping off the bus at Be’er Sheva’s Central Bus Station amid the crowd of Israeli soldiers and students, bus fumes wafting into the hot desert air, enveloped in the sound of chattering Hebrew, I am hit with waves of nostalgia. It has been 30 years since I lived in Israel’s Negev Desert, on a small kibbutz several hours south of Be’er Sheva.
Be’er Sheva, also known as Beersheba, was a sprawling desert development town in the 1970s, its small houses and drab, sand-colored apartment blocks tightly packed with new immigrants from Morocco, Iraq, Yemen, Poland and Egypt. It was also home to several thousand Bedouins, who lived a nomadic life outside of town in wind-whipped tents, often surrounded by herds of goats, sheep and camels.
The ancient city is known for its association with the Jewish patriarchs Abraham and Isaac, who named it Be’er Sheva, or “Seven Wells.” The present Old City dates to the early 1900s, when the Turks constructed a town in the Ottoman tradition of regimented street grids.
Today, the Old City is no longer the commercial hub of town. Although some old-fashioned shops and cafés line the streets, most of the district’s stone houses and commercial buildings, designed in ornate Turkish and Arab architectural style, are empty, and locals shop at the three-story, air-conditioned Negev Mall.
Across the street from the mall, Be’er Sheva’s new downtown is a clean, compact and somewhat sterile- looking collection of high-rise office and residential towers, including the marble and blue glass court building and a 30-story condominium tower called Manhattan Gardens. A pedestrian street lined with palm trees, fountains and a government office complex, should be a gathering place for the city’s residents, but, during the baking summer heat, it is mostly empty.
A few miles from the city center are a growing number of modern glass and stone office parks. Their office windows overlook the new residential suburbs that have sprouted in the desert north of town, where lovely homes on nicely paved streets sell for upwards of $300,000 and offer all the amenities, including the priceless daytime view of a limitless horizon and a consistently clear, star-filled night sky.
Although the city experienced population surges through the 1990s, due to the heavy influx of immigrants from Ethiopia, Russia and the former Soviet state of Georgia, its population has since leveled off at about 200,000. The current 3-percent annual growth rate may not be enough to sustain the rapid residential and commercial development city officials once anticipated, however, the fact that 50 percent of residents are under age 29 means that natural population growth should fuel moderate economic growth, and outlying neighborhoods like Neve Ze’ev, Ramot and Omer could also succeed in attracting young families from Israel’s congested northern cities. (With the rail line from Tel Aviv now terminating at Be’er Sheva’s modern train station, and the high speed trans-Israel Route 6 toll road expected to reach the city in another year or two, Be’er Sheva is becoming more accessible from the north.)
Until the 1990s unemployment had been a problem in the Be’er Sheva area, where there were few large employers and an unskilled population. But with the growth of Soroka Hospital, Ben-Gurion University, agro-chemical firms, high tech companies and solar energy research — not to mention several large Israeli military bases — the city is now able to employ many of its residents.
Yet life here has never been easy. In 1947 the city’s population of 4,000 was mostly Arab — under Arab control, with a unit of the Egyptian Army based nearby. During the 1948 war, however, Be’er Sheva was captured by Israeli forces and integrated into the new state as a settlement area for Jewish refugees who flooded into Israel following independence. Until recently, Be’er Sheva’s relative isolation from Israel’s two largest cities — it is almost two hours by car from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem — had kept it relatively free of political turmoil. But two suicide bus bombings, one in August 2004, which killed sixteen, and another at the central bus station, in August 2005, which injured several bystanders, brought the Arab-Israeli conflict to the heart of the city.
Generally considered a place to “get in, do your business, and get out,” Be’er Sheva can exude a certain offbeat flavor. There are interesting galleries, shops and cafés in the Old City, including a place called Bulgarit, which claims to make the best hummus in the Middle East. And unique events, like the International Festival for Plucked String Instruments at the Be’er Sheva Conservatory, can yield charming surprises.
For tourists, Abraham’s Well is Be’er Sheva’s main attraction. It’s supposed to date from biblical times, but most likely it was built during the 1800s. A Thursday morning Bedouin market, selling flowers, fruits and vegetables, spices and inexpensive clothing, also draws visitors and locals. The Bedouins arrive early, and return to their settlements in the Negev before mid-morning. Tel Be’er Sheva, about three miles outside of town, is a biblical archaeological landmark and a UNESCO World Heritage site, where excavations have turned up many Byzantine artifacts. Also outside of town is the Negev Brigade Memorial, which describes the capture of Be’er Sheva during the 1948 War of Independence.
But it is the Negev terrain surrounding the city that captures the imagination. Look one way, through the shimmering heat haze, and you might see a Bedouin boy herding goats on a distant plateau; look the other way and a luminous green patch of tomatoes or melons miraculously appears on an irrigated field. That startling juxtaposition gives visitors a true sense of just where they are in the Middle East.
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