How the story of Abraham’s Well continues to draw visitors to Beersheba

Searching for God and water

VISITORS TO Abraham’s Well.  (photo credit: Courtesy)
VISITORS TO Abraham’s Well.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When Abraham walked the desert dunes of Beersheba nearly 4,000 years ago, he could not have imagined that thousands of years later, people would still travel to the well associated with his sojourn in the region albeit not to water camels.
Indeed, Abraham’s Well, an international visitors’ center in the capital of the Negev, is a unique tourist site located on the outskirts of Beersheba’s Old City. Established six years ago, the center, designed as a tent, is the only place in Israel dedicated to sharing the story of Abraham through advanced technological means and historical context. A guided tour includes an audio-visual hallway, maps, a 3D movie, and a visit to the ancient wells in the courtyard of the Visitor’s Center.
“We have around 25,000 visitors coming to visit our museum each year, among them Israelis and international tourists,” said Einat Sasson Heredia, 40, the director of Abraham’s Well. Children from schools across Beersheba as well as from Bedouin communities in the area also visit.
“Tourists of all religious backgrounds are excited to visit this spot and connect with the story of Abraham, the father of monotheism, who brought the belief in one God to mankind,” Heredia told the Magazine in an interview. “Thanks to this visitor’s center, there is a lot more awareness to the story of Abraham and the important role the patriarch played in history.”
“Abraham symbolizes sacrifice, courage, faith, peace and hospitality. The story of Abraham is a universal one that serves as a starting point for the world’s three major religions; Judaism, Islam and Christianity,” she pointed out.
Japanese tour guide Shigeru Sakakibara, who recently visited the museum with a group of Christian tourists from Japan, said he believes that the center is an important stop for his groups touring Israel. The Tokyo-born guide has been leading tours for Christian groups from Japan across Israel for the past 37 years and it is his second visit to Abraham’s Well.
“It’s worth visiting this place even though Beersheba is far away,” he told the Magazine following a recent tour at the center with a group of Japanese tourists, whose first stop in Israel after their visit to Egypt was Abraham’s Well. “My groups know the story of Abraham very well. To be able to visit the well of Abraham, mentioned in the Book of Genesis, is quite a significant event for them.”
Lilach Ohev Zion, a Beersheba native and a guide at Abraham’s Well, leads Sakakibara’s current group during their visit to the center, which was built in cooperation with Beersheba Municipality, JNF-USA, the Prime Minister’s Office and the National Lottery. Ohev Zion has guided visiting groups from Japan, Vietnam and South Korea, as well as from other parts of the world and Israel. She says that guiding groups from abroad is always a special experience.
“It’s amazing to guide these groups – people get so excited by the story of Abraham,” she said. “Sometimes at the end of the tour, there are visitors who will cry, pray and even dance at the well. It’s moving for me to experience these groups and see their reactions.”
WHILE ABRAHAM’S Well is among the dozens of historic wells in Beersheba, it is the only well traditionally referred to as the well of Abraham, according to Ohev Zion. The well is believed to have been originally dug by Abraham, according to the three monotheistic religions. “There are even old newspapers and documents that mention this well as Abraham’s Well,” she pointed out.
One of those documentations was made by American biblical geography scholar and theologian, Edward Robinson, born in 1794 in Connecticut, who visited the Holy Land in the 19th century, where he set out to identify different locations from the Bible, including the area of Beersheba and the Negev desert. When Robinson reached the Beersheba area, he wrote in his travel journal: “Here, then, is the place where the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob often dwelt! Here Abraham dug perhaps this very well...”
Indeed, when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat visited Beersheba with Prime Minister Menachem Begin more than 40 years ago, he wanted to visit Abraham’s Well, the site where a peace treaty had been signed between Abraham and the Philistine King Abimelech thousands of years ago.
While the well seen today at the visitor’s center, in addition to another, does not date back to Abraham’s actual time, it dates back to at least 1,000 years ago. “It would be wonderful to have the original well from Abraham’s time, but wells go through numerous changes in history,” Ohev Zion explained, who noted that the well is 3.75 meters in diameter and 13 meters deep.
“There would be no way possible that the original structure of a well built 4,000 years ago could be preserved in its original state,” added Ronit, another tour guide at the center. “Even during the time of Isaac, the Bible relates that Isaac returned to Beersheba and had to dig a new well. Why? Because his father’s original wells had been destroyed.”
“The well served as a kind of café back then – a meeting place for people to make business transactions, a site to find a husband or wife, and a place where new ideas were shared,” Ronit said. “For Abraham, this was the perfect place he could speak about the belief in one God.”
ABRAHAM’S DIGGING of the well in the region signified his intent to settle in Beersheba, and continues to inform the identity of the modern city today. It is this well that gave the capital of the Negev its name thanks to the oath of peace (shevua) signed between Abraham and the King Abimelech as well as the seven wells dug by Abraham and Isaac in the area. Near his well, Abraham also planted the tamarisk tree (known as eshel in Hebrew), which makes water sweeter, according to Ohev Zion. Today, one can see a large tamarisk tree next to the well at the visitor’s center, recalling the one that Abraham himself planted. The tamarisk tree is also displayed on the coat of arms of the Municipality of Beersheba.
Ohev Zion frequently pauses during the tour so that Sakakibara can translate her explanations into Japanese. When she mentions the peace agreement between Abimelech and Abraham, she gives Sakakibara the biblical text in Japanese provided by the center so he can read it to the group.
“We want the information at the center to be accessible to as many people as possible from all corners of the world,” explained Heredia.
The Japanese tourists are happy to find out that the 3D movie has Japanese subtitles (as well as subtitles in eight other languages including Arabic, Chinese, German, Spanish and Russian).
“We saw that there was a demand for the different languages, so we added seven more subtitles to the original Hebrew and English for the movie,” added the center’s director. “All this helps our visitors gain a more in-depth understanding of Abraham’s desert journey and life.”
At the end of the tour, the tourists pause to take selfies and group pictures at the well. For Kaoru, of Osaka, the visit to Abraham’s Well impressed her.
“I’m Christian and I read the Bible and have always wanted to visit here,” she said. “I hope to visit Abraham’s Well again in the future.”
Abraham’s Well is open Sunday through Thursday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tours last around 45 minutes. For more information: (08) 623-4613.