In the blink of an (ancient) eye

Can it be that just 100 years ago, there was no city on the site of modern Beersheba?

stop and smell the roses 521 (photo credit: Yocheved Miriam Russo)
stop and smell the roses 521
(photo credit: Yocheved Miriam Russo)
Nothing is more fun than coming across a treasure trove of old pictures, especially when the photos were thought to have been lost forever. Today, at the Artists House of the Negev, a new exhibition of century-old Turkish photos from Beersheba’s earliest days is attracting visitors from all over. Most are surprised by what they see.
Beersheba as a biblical site – the place to where Abraham so famously came – sticks in the public mind as representing Beersheba’s modern origins as well. But show visitors the old photos chronicling the beginning of the modern city – how it arose from the dun-colored sand of the Negev under the direction of the Turks – and people are astonished.
Can it be that just 100 years ago – a blink of the eye in ancient Israel – there really wasn’t a city here at all? The Artists House of the Negev, that venerable center for art and culture in Beersheba’s Old City, recently mounted a unique photographic display designed to delight anyone interested in the city’s modern origins.
If visitors are lucky enough to come when Goel Drory, one of Israel’s most prominent photographers and temporary chair of the Artists House board of directors, is around, that’s even better. Decades ago, Drory himself helped find and preserve this early record of the city’s origins. Hearing the tale from him brings the story to life.
“These photographs have an amazing provenance,” Drory notes. “The story starts in 1900, near the end of the Ottoman Empire (1299-1923), when much of this part of the world was under the control of the Turks.”
The Ottoman Turks came to power in 1299, and in succeeding centuries allowed the glory that had been the Byzantine Empire to crumble and fall into ruin.
“By 1900, what is now Beersheba was little more than an empty, dusty little meeting place where local Beduin came once a week to trade, buy and sell. Few permanent structures existed. Then, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Turks decided that establishing a city here would help them control the local Arab population.
“As an ancient population center, Beersheba, situated on a low, flat plane, had abundant water resources and was already an established meeting place. In reconstituting a modern city here, the Turks were determined to do it right. They brought in two Arab engineers from Jerusalem and two architects, one from Germany and one from Switzerland.”
The original drawings no longer exist, but the engineers and architects agreed that the new Beersheba should be built on a grid with intersecting streets – a very different model from the chaotic ‘life-as-lived’ sprawl that characterized most Middle Eastern developments.
From the beginning, the idea was to create Beersheba as a government center with a classical development plan that drew more from ancient Greece and Rome than from Istanbul.
“Outside of Turkey itself, Beersheba is the only Turkish city the Turks built anywhere in the world,” Drory notes. “Their plan was fascinating because it’s so exact. Every block of development is 60 meters exactly and each street is 15 meters wide – with one single exception, the main artery, now the Old City’s pedestrian mall, which is 20 meters wide. They allocated construction plots to the Beduin and to Arabs from Gaza and Hebron for their use in building homes and shops.
“As the work began, the Turks began taking photos.
Then, upon completion, they made up two albums of photos. One they took with them, 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.
“Later, in 1951, after the creation of the Jewish state, the Turks gave their copy of the album to Beersheba as a gift to the city. Actually, they entrusted it to one of the workers in the Israeli consulate, not to the ambassador, with the intent that the album be placed in the city museum of Beersheba.
“But then something happened. That album disappeared. In some manner no one could recall, it was lost. No one knew what became of it.”
Theoretically, the other album, the one presented to the Beduin mayor, still existed, but its location was lost, too.
“In 1974, Sasson Bar Zvi, a local historian who’d dedicated his life to collecting bits of Beersheba history, located the other copy of the album,” Drory recalls.
“Bar Zvi called me one day. ‘Get ready,’ he said. ‘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.’ “Bar Zvi had a very good relationship with the Arabs.
He was acquainted with the Beduin mayor’s grandson and had discovered that he’d kept his grandfather’s copy. So we went to Hebron. I took all my photographic equipment, and we took pictures of every page of that book – pictures of pictures, to be sure – but until Noga Raved’s discovery, it was better than anything else we had,” Drory continues.
The saga continues with Raved, who back in 1998 had just been appointed director of the Negev Museum of Art, a graceful art gallery now located in the old Turkish Governor’s Mansion just a few blocks away from the Artists House.
“The Governor’s Mansion has a fascinating history of its own,” Raved recalls. “Built during the Ottoman days, the governor and his family lived on the second floor, while the administration of the Ottoman lands was conducted on the first floor.
“In 1938, under the British, the mansion became a girls’ school. When the municipality of Beersheba was organized in 1950, the mansion became Beersheba’s first city hall. When that 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, many temporary repairs had been attempted and the building was a complete mess. The engineers decided the best thing to do was strip away anything that wasn’t original. They started by hauling everything out – not just plaster and cement, but old carpets, furniture, everything you can imagine.
Some remnants remained in storage, but much was lost – burned, water-damaged, destroyed.
“I came across a monumental pile of papers – I can’t even tell you what it all was. But I started to go through it, sorting, page by page, trying to see if anything was valuable. 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 other pages? “I have no idea,” replies Raved, who now works for the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. “It’s impossible to say. I kept those two pages, looked through everything else trying to find more, but that was it. It was such a mess there’s no way to even guess what might have happened to the rest of the album.”
Today, a century after they were taken, the old Turkish photographs of Beersheba’s first days – the ‘pictures of the pictures’ taken by Goel Drory as well as the pages found by Noga Raved – are featured as a special exhibit in the Artists House, together with several very early photos of Beersheba taken by Dov Barnea (1916-1998).
BARNEA AND his wife, Magda, came to Beersheba in 1953 to teach. Both made their mark in education in the South, but Dov also became one of the era’s most prolific photographers, recording for posterity Beersheba’s early days as an Israeli city.
In the oldest photos, Beersheba’s broad new streets look very empty. Only a few heavily garbed Arabs walk arm-in-arm. In one photo, a couple of small shacks stand alone in the vastness of empty desert, camels grazing in the background.
In another, a group of Turkish schoolchildren pose with their teacher outside a building of locally quarried Beersheba stone. In still another, two Arabs, one atop a camel, pose with a uniformed Turkish official.
Mostly the photos show desert and more desert, with growing indications of the modern city that was rising from the rocky, windswept earth.
“For Beersheba, these photos are priceless, but they’re equally important to the Beduin,” Drory notes. “They prove the Beduin were here, too.
During those early days, most of the population of Beersheba was Turkish, workers who’d come to labor or work in administration. For the most part, the Beduin came once a week to trade, so having these photos records their early presence here, too.”
Not just that, Drory adds. The Artists House itself proves that Jews were here as well. “There are those who assert that there weren’t any Jews in Beersheba until shortly before the state was declared. But look at the Artists House building itself: This house was built by the British in the 1930s, but the first tenant was a Jewish doctor named Mayer.”
“There’s something even stranger than that,” laughs Yehudit Mayer, Artists House director and curator. “It’s an odd coincidence, but Dr. Mayer’s wife was also named Yehudit. Sometimes people ask me about that – I have to tell them I’m not quite that old.”
As a repository for art and culture in Israel’s south, the Artists House, located on a quiet, treelined street in Beersheba’s Old City, serves many functions.
“People shouldn’t think of the Artists House as just an art gallery,” says Mayer, who eight years ago oversaw the transformation of the Mandateera mansion into the light and airy seven-room showplace it is today. “This is where the artists of the Negev display their work, that’s true. But we’re an artistic community center, too. People with all kinds of artistic and cultural interests come to look, relax, enjoy themselves or participate in our classes and tours.
“Our exhibitions change all the time – we keep everything moving, so there’s always something new. The art is for sale, but it’s the classes, programs and learning opportunities that really set us apart. In many ways, the Artists House is the cultural heart of the Old City.”
It was Mayer herself who, back in 2003, decided that the artists and artisans of the Negev should have a place of their own.
“I have my own studio in the Old City, at 11 Trumpeldor – it has one of Beersheba’s buried treasures, an ancient Byzantine Church, lying directly underneath,” Mayer, an internationallyrecognized ceramicist, recalls.
“For many years, during the High Holy Days and Hanukka, I’d open my studio and invite the public. People kept telling me I should keep it open all year, but I couldn’t do that. It’s my work space. But the idea had merit. The artists of the Negev needed a permanent place for their unique works, a site that could be open all year.”
TO MAYER, the “artists of the Negev” is a literal concept. Each piece of art is directly tied to the Negev, either by being composed of materials found in the Negev or in its reflection of Israel’s southern wilderness in some other way. In Mayer’s own work, the clay and many of the glazes she uses come directly from the desert, materials she mostly collects herself.
Throughout the Artists House, other artists have done the same. In paintings, ceramics, sculpture, weavings, engraving, woodcarvings, wearable art and other works, everything links with the Negev.
As Mayer’s idea for a Negev artists’ showplace began to take shape, several different sites were considered; but when the building at 55 Rehov Ha’avot became available, that was it.
Built by the British and sold to the Jews after the 1948 War of Independence, the big home initially served as a school. By 1967, it functioned as a home for the mentally challenged.
“During the Six Day War they closed in the big veranda,” Mayer notes. “It was too dangerous for the children to go outside, so the enclosure gave them a little more room to play. When the city gave the building to us in 2003, it was freshly painted and ready to use. Other than installing air conditioning, we didn’t need any renovations at all.”
Today, in an adjoining room, another special exhibit represents the other end of Beersheba’s timeline, the arrival of the Ethiopians. It, too, has a story.
“In 1985 when the Ethiopians began coming, I was asked to go to Yeruham to teach ceramics,” Mayer recalls. “Several artists were invited to teach different kinds of handicrafts to small groups of recently-arrived Ethiopians. Within that group, I discovered two extremely talented young men. Each was exceptionally creative and both had an amazing ability to work with their hands.
“In teaching those classes, we had almost no money or resources, so mostly what we did was teach them the basics, plus what materials they could find here and how to use them. They’d used black clay in Ethiopia, which was hard to find here, so we helped them learn to work with local materials.  “When the class was over, the little group disbanded.
One of the talented young men became ill and moved to Jerusalem. But the other talented student – Eli Aman, who was about 30 at the time – just disappeared. I had no idea where he went.”
The years passed. Ethiopians kept arriving, Mayer continued with her ceramics.
“Two years ago, Tamar Licht, a friend who works with the Ethiopians, called to tell me about a very talented sculptor who’d been working at the “Tukal,” the distinctive peak-roofed buildings that house the Ethiopian community center. When they’d seen the quality of the work he was doing, they’d given him a small workroom.
His work was exceptional. ‘Would the Artists House consider showing some of his sculptures?’ Tamar asked.
“I said I was interested, but somehow nothing happened.
Recently, Tamar called again and asked again about an exhibition. I told her I was still interested. I went to see the sculpture, and there was the artist, Eli Aman, my student from his first days in Israel. We recognized each other from the first minute – and I’d been right. Eli Aman is a major talent.”
Aman’s sculptures depict people, animals and scenes from Ethiopia, lifelike statues of farmers carrying water or grain, mothers with children, all kinds of Ethiopian village dwellers doing what they did on any normal day. Most stand 46-60 centimeters tall, each exquisitely detailed. Every hair on their heads, every fingernail, brings the sculpture to life.
Because of these two special exhibitions, visitor traffic at the Artists House has been brisk, Mayer says.
“We had 32 students from Jerusalem here the other day to see the old photographs. I think Goel spent over a half-hour with them, explaining what they were seeing.
Normally, we wouldn’t have kept these exhibits up so long, but as long as people still come, we’ll keep them open.”
AS INTERESTING as the inside artwork at the Artists House may be, frequently it’s the building’s outdoor gardens that attract visitors. Filled with unique and sometimes whimsical weather-resistant artworks, people enjoy finding a shady nook to relax, enjoy the flowers, or participate in one of the ongoing classes.
A relative newcomer to Beersheba deserves credit for much of the outdoor programming. Hannah Goodman Rendell, who made aliya from London just three years ago, breathed new life into many of the events.
“I’m an artist, so I looked up the Artists House right away,” Rendell recalls. “I displayed some of my own work and wanted people to come. Ever since, I’ve helped out as much as I can. I’ve studied sculpture, installation art and mixed media painting, but now I’m teaching more – some of it at the Artists House, some at my own open studio, ‘The Art Room’ which is just a short distance away in the Old City.”
One of Rendell’s most successful Artists House events was a hat-making session for kids just before Purim.
“I gave them templates made out of cardboard, then we used papier mache to create very individual hats. It was one of those workshops that really worked. Everyone had fun.”
Rendell is no stranger to working with kids, having two small children herself. “I started all this when my youngest was just two weeks old,” she laughs. “It’s pretty intense sometimes.
“This summer, at the Artists House, I’m conducting summer art camps. We take 12 children at a time and offer two-week learning workshops for two groups of six kids each: ages six to 11, and 12 to 15. They’ll learn professional art techniques in ceramics, painting and sculpture. It’ll be taught in English, so another benefit is learning English through art.
“We’ll also visit several local artists’ studios to watch them work. Some of that will be in Hebrew, so they’ll get both languages.”
Another new Artists House activity includes tours to other art museums.
“We took one tour to the Israel Museum,” says Mayer.
“The next will go to the Museum of Design in Holon. Those trips attract a different group of people, so it’s another way to reach out to other segments of Beersheba’s population.”
Unfortunately, one of the more popular Artists House programs disappeared this year. “For several years we offered Friday morning concerts,” Mayer says. “In previous years, we had a grant that covered the basic costs.
But this year, one of our biggest supporters passed away.
He was the one who was always able to find funding for us, and when he wasn’t there to do it, we floundered.
“I miss the Friday concerts. Friday is a big day in the Old City. There’s the street fair on the pedestrian walkway, which brings thousands of people to town. Many would shop at the fair, then come by the Artists House to relax and listen to music – usually jazz or klezmer.
“To restart the concerts, we need a donation to cover the basic costs, which we haven’t found so far. It’s important to us that at the Artists House there’s no admission charge. The exhibits themselves are free, which means we really do welcome everyone.”
Two groups of locals have already claimed the Artists House as their own.
“I don’t know how it happened,” Mayer says, “but we have a strong contingent of Russian speakers who are regulars and another of English-speaking supporters.
We’re working to attract other groups, too. We’re trying a variety of new programs to see which work best.
One session features an artist who simply comes, sits down and draws – inviting visitors to do the same. We also have a lady who wants to offer vintage clothing for sale on Friday mornings – maybe we can try that. We’ll have a ‘Pinat Café’ at the same time – just a little coffee counter, not a real coffee shop – to add to the festivities. We’re open to ideas to bring more people in.”
Artist Rendell is working at it. “I’m really passionate about Beersheba, and especially the Old City. As a community center for people interested in art and culture, the Artists House is perfect. There’s always something to surprise and delight you, no matter where your interests lie.”
The Artists House, 55 Rehov Ha’avot, is open Monday to Thursday, 10 a.m. – 2 p.m., Friday and Shabbat, 10 a.m. – 1 p.m. (08) 627-3828.