The heart of the Negev

The unique features of Beersheba and its environs make them a delight to visit.

tel sheva negev 88 (photo credit: )
tel sheva negev 88
(photo credit: )
Beersheba, the capital of the Negev, was also a thriving metropolis at the time of the Bible. A reading of the coming weekly portions of the Torah will indicate just how important Beersheba was to our forefathers because of its strategic position on the main road between East and West and the availability of water (Beersheba means "seven wells" ), which even today is the most important aspect in developing the desert. A visit to Tel Sheva, the archaeological excavations of Abraham's hometown and site of his diplomatic career, will show just how carefully and cleverly the water systems were designed in his time. Ingenious engineering feats were used to design the water cisterns that maximized every last drop of rain. But after its biblical heyday, Beersheba takes a bit of a back seat in the annals of history until its conquest by the British in the early 1900s and later on, when the British left, by the Egyptian army in the War of Independence. David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, always believed that the Negev Desert would one day bloom and become a center of Jewish life. He also understood its strategic importance as a barrier to the attacking Egyptian army. In October 1948, when the UN was breathing down his neck to accept a ceasefire to the War of Independence, he turned a deaf ear and wasn't ready for any truce until the army had recaptured Beersheba from the Egyptians, a feat that wasn't easy and involved great loss of life on our side. A beautiful memorial to the Negev Brigade was built in the 1970s, on a hill overlooking the town. Each piece of the sculpture represents a different aspect of the battle, lists the fallen heroes, and tells its own story. Beersheba may not be quite the melting-pot of Israel, but it is not the backwater it once was, either. It has the thriving Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, which specializes in desert studies; a large, modern hospital; a very popular Light Opera Group of the Negev; a state-of-the-art shopping mall and city center; and a delightful old quarter, all of which put Beersheba on equal footing with many of Israel's other major cities, and its unique features make it a delight to visit. The Israel Air Force also plays a special part in Beersheba's attractions. Next door to the Hatzerim Air Force Base, just outside Beersheba, is Israel's Air Force Museum, an outdoor display of more than 100 aircraft which tell the aerial story of the history of the state. The first plane in the air force, a pieced-together Czech Messerschmitt; an old mail-drop plane; the Boeing 747 that took part in the daring Entebbe rescue; a skinny cobra used for chasing terrorists through narrow alleyways - all these are on display. There is also a children's section, where they can climb into the cockpit and be photographed. Visitors can also sit in a plane-turned-cinema and see a film of the air force's most famous exploits, including the bombing of Iraq's nuclear reactor and Operation Shlomo that brought thousands of Ethiopians to Israel. Ben-Gurion fulfilled his lifelong dream, not just of founding a Jewish state but also of retiring to the Negev. His admiration of the pioneering settlers of the area is well recorded in letters he wrote to them from Jerusalem while he was prime minister. He joined Kibbutz Sde Boker as soon as he retired from the government in 1953 and remained there until his death 20 years later. He and his wife, Paula, are buried on the kibbutz, and not on Mount Herzl as are most other heads of state, as he hoped that by being buried in his beloved Negev his tomb might bring visitors to the area who otherwise might never venture south of Tel Aviv. Both his tomb and the "hut," which was his home for 20 years, attract hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, amazed at the simple, almost austere life that Ben-Gurion led in his last years. When it's time for a picnic break, drive to the Eshkol National Park along the banks of the Besor River and enjoy the magnificent trees, rolling lawns, lake, and shade, as well as one of the largest swimming pools in the country. You could easily spend a day enjoying this 1,000-dunam park, which has a lookout post on a hill in the center, providing a beautiful view of the surrounding area. During WW I, when Australian soldiers fought the Turkish army, the remains of a Byzantine church were chanced upon. The remains of ancient Ein Besor were also found. To get to know the Beduin - Negev's indigenous residents - the best place to start is the Joe Alon Center: the Museum of Beduin Culture near Kibbutz Lahav. Modern life has overtaken this ancient tribe, and their lifestyle has changed drastically over the last 50 years. Few now live in the traditional tents divided into the men's section for hosting visitors and the women's family section; they now live in apartment blocks. So this museum stands as a reminder of their old heritage, which is slowly slipping away. Here you'll learn the significance of the colors embroidered into the women's dresses and the protocol that forces a man to welcome his enemy's son as his guest for a period of several days and take care of his every need. In the welcome tent you'll sit on the floor and enjoy a cup of thick black coffee, followed by hot sweet tea, which you will continue to be plied with until you learn the secret code for "Enough, thank you." You'll also listen to the message in the beat of the grinding of the coffee beans. The elderly Beduin man who is usually the host is very authentic. But when we visited, he was away and his 18-year-old grandson with his New York T-shirt and baseball cap somehow just didn't conjure up the authentic Bedouin atmosphere - but he certainly did embody the generation gap that faces the Beduin.