From ‘mosque’ to museum

A mosaic of rich Ottoman and British history tells Beersheba’s story

Beersheva Museum of Archeology 521 (photo credit: Goel Drory)
Beersheva Museum of Archeology 521
(photo credit: Goel Drory)
Beersheba’s Old City has added a new museum to “Museum Row,” but don’t call it “the mosque.” According to Goel Drory, curator for Beersheba’s new Museum of Archeology, the elegantly restored Ottoman-era structure might look like a mosque on the outside but in fact, never in its 106-year history did it serve in that capacity.
“It’s not a mosque,” Drory notes, as he begins a tour. “It was never sanctified. From the beginning it was used for other purposes – meeting rooms, as a courthouse, a school and other functions, but Muslim prayers were never conducted here. They were held in another building down the street.”
Why would a building clearly built to look like a mosque not be used as one? Drory grins. “Great question. That’s one of the reasons the Museum of Archeology exists: to tell the story of Beersheba, 1900 to the present, including all these little details that make our city so unique. We’ll answer that question about the mosque soon, but the official tour starts outside.”
Standing in the shade of an ancient tree, Drory talks about the time not so long ago when there was no city here. Waving toward what’s today known as Allenby Park, a green little gem of open space just across the way, he begins, “In 1900, the Turks decided to build their capital here, in what they called Bir-es-Seba. In over 400 years of Turkish rule, Beersheba was the only city they built in the Land of Israel.
“Why right here? Convenience. Their trains could run from Gaza to Damascus, a big asset after the Suez Canal opened in 1869. Then too, Beersheba had a good water supply from wells, and historically had served as a natural junction for traders. Plus it was neutral territory among the Beduin tribes. But before they started, there was nothing here at all, just a few wells and scattered tents.
“Since they started from nothing, the Turks could build it right, so they brought in two Arab engineers from Jerusalem and two architects, one from Germany and one from Switzerland. Beersheba should be built on a grid, they said, like Roman and Greek cities, not the scattered ‘as lived’ building patterns more common to the Middle East. Each block of development would be 60 meters long, with precisely measured streets, 15 meters wide, with one sole exception – a 20-meter street intended for a bazaar.
“The building they intended as a mosque sat precisely, square on, within that grid, together with the three other main official buildings. There’s the Government House, the Saraya, over there, by the side of the park; the School for Sheikhs’ Children, which will soon open as Beersheba’s new Science Park; and the Governor’s House, now the Negev Museum. The first public park in all of Palestine was right there, where Allenby Park is now. They called it Djemal Pasha Park, named for the regional governor stationed in Damascus,” says Drory.
The original Djemal Pasha Park suffered an ignominious fate. Created as a place where the Turks could hold public assemblies and ceremonies, the Beduin didn’t understand the concept of a park, instead bringing their flocks to graze on the plants, then cutting the trees for firewood. In 1915, the park was restored as a formal Islamic garden with four paths – representing the victoriesof the Ottoman Empire – leading to a tall central pillar, topped by the symbol of the empire.
Drory leads the tour inside. The interior of the newly restored building – which is indeed called “the mosque” by just about everyone – leaves most visitors gaping in wonder. With a total of 696 square meters, it includes a vast open courtyard, offices, a small gift shop and a visitors center, while the contrast between the ancient Beersheba stone outside and the astonishingly light and airy interior comes as a surprise. Sunlight pours in from tall windows all around. Black and white tiles cover the floor, colors echoed by small black and white ottomans designed to allow visitors to sit and rest. Exhibits abound – hundreds of historical photos, mannequins displaying what the bestdressed soldiers of each era wore, implements, tools, weapons and clay statues depicting all the various ethnicities to settle in Israel’s South, including a clever 90-cm. statue of a little guy universally known as “Srulik,” Israel’s answer to Uncle Sam.
AS A mosque, the building presented trouble for the Turks right from the beginning, Drory explains. “When the four official buildings were finished in 1906, they arranged a huge public celebration to showcase the new city. All the Turkish dignitaries came, many of them dressing up like Beduin. But when the imam went to inspect the mosque, they discovered a major flaw: set straight on the grid as it was, it didn’t face Mecca, which made it completely unacceptable. The mosque had to be torn down and rebuilt. They tore it down, then rebuilt it at a huge cost – 400 Turkish lira! – which they passed along to the Beduin.”
The misfortune didn’t end there. “After it was rebuilt, properly facing Mecca, religious officials came to sanctify it, a ceremony that required the sacrifice of a ram. The ram would be slaughtered near the mosque, after which they would dip their hands in the blood and place them on the building. But somehow, the ram got loose and ran away. They finally caught it over by the train tracks, and someone whipped out a knife and slit its throat there. But in terms of sanctifying the building, that wasn’t good enough. Unfortunately, by this time, the Beduin had come to regard all of these mishaps as bad omens. The building was cursed, they said. That’s why this building was never used as a mosque – it was used for other things, but not for prayers,” Drory adds.
That pillar in the center of the park serves as a historical time line. “Originally the pillar had the star and crescent, symbol of the empire, at the top,” Drory continues, “but not for long. When the British captured Beersheba in October 1917, they took down the crescent and replaced it with a statue of Gen. Edmund Allenby, who commanded the troops who took Beersheba. It was carved by sculptor Abraham Melnikov, the man who carved the famous roaring lion that marks the mass graves from the Battle of Tel Hai, up north. But even that didn’t last long – in 1939 there was a fire and the roof of Government House burned. In the rebuilding process, that statue was replaced, too. The current bust of Allenby was a gift from the Allenby family of England.”
Still, the controversy over the mosque wasn’t over, says Drory. In the 1950s, after the declaration of the State of Israel, the building became an archeological museum. In the 1990s, the building was declared a public hazard and closed. Resident Muslims began petitioning the city to be allowed to use the structure for prayers, and what followed were years of study, debate and discussion, followed by litigation and court rulings. Finally, in 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that the building would be used as a museum dedicated to the culture of Islam and the Mizrahim, the Jewish immigrants from Eastern lands.
AT THIS point Drory, an artist and photographer with an international reputation, himself enters the picture. “The day after the ruling, Rubik [Mayor Rubik Danilovich] called me and asked me to curate an exhibition to tell the story of Beersheba in pictures. It would actually be the third exhibition to be shown here. The first was in 1950, mounted by Zvi Ofer, a resident of Beit Eshel, one of Beersheba’s early settlers. In 1953, a second exhibition was mounted, this one by archeologist Joseph Dubi. So in planning this third exhibition with the mayor, our first question was, which time period should we cover? Should we go all the way back to Abraham? Back before that, to the Chalcolithic period? In the end, we decided on 111 years of history – 1900 to 2011. That settled, I began thinking about which photographs, documents and objects would best tell the story of Beersheba.
“I started by coming into this vast empty room all by myself and sat down to think. I first saw three basic geometric shapes in the room, the high round circular windows, the square tiles on the floor, the triangular peaks of the arches. In my mind, I could see the carriages carrying the Turkish dignitaries coming from Jerusalem to inaugurate their four new beautiful buildings. Then I heard the winds of World War I rustling as I visualized the British, in 1917, sending their ANZAC [Australia and New Zealand Army Corps] troops to conquer the city, staging what will forever be remembered as the last cavalry charge in history.
“When the state was declared, I was able to recall things I personally remembered. In 1948, I met the Palmah Negev Brigade that was liberating the city. Together with my parents, I was living in one of the immigrant transit camp tents. I watched as the Northern neighborhood was built, what today we call the Alef neighborhood. The years began to spin faster and faster, and I saw modernity arrive – the building of the Negev Mall, with the massive cultural change when consumer shopping shifted from Beersheba’s Old City tonew open shopping malls. I saw the waves of immigrants coming from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, new citizens who were also temporarily housed, just as I had been, in camps, although this time, they lived in caravans lined up in Nahal Bek’a, while the newcomers waited for new neighborhoods to be constructed.
“From all of that, I began to design an exhibit that would be broken into four main segments: 1900-1917, the Ottoman Era; 1917-1948, the period of the British Mandate; 1948-1989, what I think of as the First Israeli Era; and 1989 to the present, the Second Israeli Era.
“People always ask, ‘Why 1989? What happened in 1989 that was so significant?’ A number of things, starting with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, world events that played a huge part in Beersheba’s history, because of the waves of immigrants from former Soviet Union countries who poured in, followed by the Ethiopians. It was the Russian and Ethiopian immigration of the 1990s that sparked the transformation of the city of Beersheba into a metropolis – the coming of rapid transportation, the new shopping malls, the advent of hi-tech plus all the cultural institutions that followed, the Youth Center, the Center for the Performing Arts, the Goodman Acting School, the Negev Museum of Art, and many more. All these combined brought cultural prosperity to the city,” says Drory.
But how to display it, how to make it come alive for visitors? “We used the four walls of the building itself for displays of all kinds – art, sculpture, uniforms, artifacts. Just inside the walls, we placed four main display panels, arranged in a circular pattern, with appropriate breaks to distinguish the four eras. On these we arranged photographs, documents and historical ephemera of all kinds – newspaper articles, letters, tickets, ration coupons. In the center of that circle is a seating area, with ottomans arranged around three big viewing screens – a triangle – each showing videos of various elements of Beersheba’s story, past to present. So there we did it: Two world wars, the end of an empire, the birth of a modern city and its transformation into a metropolis, all in one big room,” Drory explains.
The provenance of many of the photographs is a story all by itself. “The Turks were great photographers,” Drory recalls. “They took photographs of all their work, and made up two identical photograph albums. One they kept, the other they gave to the first mayor of Beersheba, Abu Meddien – remember that it was a Beduin who was actually the first mayor of Beersheba, not a Jew. After the Jewish state was declared, the Turks gave their album to Beersheba as a gift to the city. Specifically, they entrusted it to one of the workers in the Israeli consulate in Istanbul, with the direction that the album would be placed in the city museum of Beersheba. But somehow, no one knows how, the album was lost. No one knew where it was.”
Theoretically, the other album that was presented to the Beduin mayor still existed, but no one knew where it was either. “In 1974, Sasson Bar-Zvi, a local historian who’d dedicated his life to collecting bits of Beersheba history, made a discovery. Bar-Zvi called me one day. ‘Get ready,’ he told me. ‘We’re going to Hebron.’ ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Just pack up your photographic studio and let’s go,’ Bar-Zvi told me. ‘I found the other album. We’re going to go make a copy of it,’” Drory recounts.
“Bar-Zvi had become friends with the grandson of the Beduin mayor, and ultimately learned that he’d kept his grandfather’s album. We went to Hebron, and I took pictures of every page of that book – pictures of pictures, to be sure – but until Noga Raved’s discovery, it was the best we had.”
IN 1998, Noga Raved was appointed director of the Negev Museum of Art, which was to be housed in the old Governor’s House, just a few meters from the Museum of Archeology. The Governor’s House has a colorful history all its own. “During the days of the Empire, the governor and his family lived on the second floor, while the administration of the Ottoman lands was conducted on the first floor,” Raved notes. “The British came, and in 1938, the mansion became a girls’ school. When the Municipality of Beersheba was organized in 1950, the mansion became Beersheba’s first City Hall. When the city moved to larger quarters in the 1980s it became a fine arts museum. In 1998, the structure was declared structurally unsound and closed. The plan was to restore the old mansion and open it as the Negev Museum of Art. I was there from the beginning, overseeing the reconstruction.”
Raved describes the deplorable state of the old mansion. “Over the years, only temporary repairs had been made and the building was a complete mess. The engineers decided the best thing to do was to strip away anything that wasn’t original. They began hauling everything out – not just plaster and cement, but old carpets, furniture, everything you can imagine. Much was lost – burned, water damaged, destroyed. In the rubble, I came across a monumental pile of papers – I can’t even tell you what it was. But I started to sort through it, page by page, to see if anything had value. Amazingly, I came across two pages of the original Turkish photo album.”
“I knew right away what it was,” Raved recalls. “I knew about the lost album. I knew I’d found two of the original pages.”
What happened to the remainder of the album? “I have no idea,” Raved, who is now with the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, says. “It’s impossible to say. I kept those two pages, looked through everything else hoping to find more, but that was it. There’s no way to even guess what might have happened.” Today, the pages Raved found are on display in the new museum. The original writing, faint but readable, can be seen. Drory’s “photographs of photographs” are there as well, but much of the other photos and artifacts came from other sources, many of them global.
The most striking photos from the Ottoman era show Beersheba before it existed – a vast empty stretch of desert. “You are here,” Drory grins, pointing to a spot in the midst of nothing. In another photo, men draw water from a well, while other photos depict Turkish dignitaries arrayed in all their finery, military and ceremonial.
Another photo shows a heavily draped camel, laden with ceremonial medallions, tassels, blankets and other decorations, while several wide-eyed boys perch in a basket on the camel’s back. “This was the ceremonial camel,” Drory notes. “It was used to carry 12-year-old boys to their circumcision.” A photo depicts a hospital, showing surgery being performed outside a tent.
Another shows little Turkish boys at the School for Sheikhs’ Children, each of them holding a Koran, while another shows a very crowded – and wellstocked – bazaar being held on the 20- meter wide street, a street that today serves much the same purpose.
BY 1917, the photos begin to show a much more sophisticated city. Most striking is a photo of the entire Jewish community of Beersheba, some two dozen men and women, grinning into the camera. We see the railroad station, the newspaper and its staff, together with copies of some of the articles printed. One recounts how there had been no incidents of crime or murder in the territory that year – with only two exceptions. Someone was chopped to pieces, and there was an incident of highway robbery, but other than that, there was no crime. Beduin are pictured in their Britishinspired wheat fields, back when the British tried to teach the desert nomads to grow wheat. There’s the first wedding in Beersheba – a Jewish girl marrying the son of a sheikh.
Another historical tales emerges: A Turkish soldier sat on his horse, his saddlebags packed with maps. The soldier fell from the horse, the maps tumbling after him. He remounted, but in his haste to get away, he abandoned the maps – a treasure trove of battle information. The British retrieved the maps and were thereby able to revise their own battle plan: instead of a direct attack, they now knew it would be better to circle around and launch a totally unexpected – not to mention victorious – attack from the south.
The First Israeli Era starts with the Palmah, the Jewish fighting force that liberated Beersheba on October 21, 1948.
Uniforms are on display, with soldiers now decked out in shorts, as compared to those who fought in the Battle of Beersheba, where soldiers still wore the heavy wool uniforms they’d had in Gallipoli. Now Beersheba’s endless building boom begins. First to come were the new neighborhoods of Alef and Gimmel, photos of the new Soroka University Medical Center being dedicated.
Pointing to a tent in a photo of the ma’abarot – the transit camps for new immigrants – Drory says, “This is where I grew up. Right there.”
Then we have the new era, and a modern city springs into life – a huge and magnificent photo of Beersheba celebrating Independence Day with fireworks dominates the back wall. Others images recall Beersheba’s unique architectural style, including a glorious photo of the Sami Shamoon College of Engineering taken by Drory himself.
Among the fascinating ephemera from this era is a tale of an encounter when then-Egyptian president Anwar Sadat visited Beersheba in 1979. “Sadat came to only two Israeli cities,” Drory recalls. “Jerusalem and Beersheba. It was in Beersheba that Egypt’s first agreement for peace was written, Sadat said, so he wanted to come here.
Drory tells the story of how after the ceremonies were over, Sadat and Beersheba’s then-mayor, Eliyahu Nawi, sat, talking. “So Sadat asked Nawi, ‘Were you elected mayor of Beersheba because there are so many Sephardim in this city?’ Nawi replied that he didn’t know. Sadat tried again, ‘How many Sephardim are there in Beersheba?’ Again, Nawi said he didn’t know. Sadat started to get a little testy. ‘Come on now, how can you not know? I’m not asking about your spying in Egypt, I’m not asking about your nuclear weapons, all I’m asking is how many Sephardim there are in Beersheba!’ Just then, a young man walked into the room. ‘See that guy there?’ Nawi said. ‘That’s my son-in-law. His mother is from Austria, his father is from Morocco. I am from Iraq, my wife is from Germany. My daughter is now pregnant. So you tell me: will that baby be Ashkenazi or Sephardi?’ Sadat grinned. ‘Okay, I guess for this question I need to use the big computer in Cairo.’”
The history of Beersheba: full of battles, disputes, quirks, tales and stories of highly improbable events, all the kinds of things that happen when you blend people from all over the world, of many different ethnicities and religions, into one extremely ancient city, and start all over again.
“What sums up this city?” Drory asks. “This picture says it all. Here’s the Cinema Paradiso, a movie theater build in the 1950s. It was huge – 1,300 seats! But at the time, there were only about 3,000 people in Beersheba.
That’s Beersheba – always building for the future.”