Tel Beersheba: My Impressions

The following post is based on my visit to Tel Beersheba on March 2, 2015.

Tel Beersheba: Location

This map shows the Negev region in Israel. Tel Beersheba can be found at the center of the map.
This map shows the Negev region in Israel. Tel Beersheba can be found near the center of the map.

Tel-Beersheba is located in the northern Negev (“Negev” meaning “South,” so the southern area of Israel) east of the modern city of Beersheba. Tel Beersheba is situated in the heart of the Beersheba Valley, an area with rich soil for cultivation. However, the valley sits near the edge of the desert and receives little rainfall. Beersheba is, of course, famous in the Bible as one of the places where Abraham and Isaac stayed (Gen. 21:22-34; 26:15-33), although Tel-Beersheba did not exist in their day. There are many other ancient sites in the area, even some buried beneath the modern city of Beersheba, and it is probably one or more of these sites that would have existed in the time of Abraham and Isaac (some scholars think that a site known as Bir es-Saba’ may be the site of the patriarchs).

The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land. There are currently 5 vols. available.
The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land. There are currently 5 vols. available.

The Negev region around Tel Beersheba is more hilly than I expected, and I learned that the Tel sits on a hill that overlooks the Beersheba and Hebron valleys. “The city that developed at Tel Beersheba is located at an important crossroad: Mount Hebron in the north; to the Judean Desert and the Dead Sea in the east; to the Coastal Plain in the west; and to the Negev hills, Kadesh-Barnea and Elath in the south” (Ze’ev Herzog, The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, vol. 1, ed. Ephraim Stern, 1993, pp. 167-173–some of the information from this post comes from this source, see photo on the left). In biblical times, Beersheba, which was alloted to the tribe of Simeon (Josh. 19:1-2), was known for being the southern boundary of Israel. “From Dan to Beersheba,” is a well-known expression in the Old Testament (e.g., Judg. 20:1; 1 Sam. 3:20; 2 Sam. 3:10) describing the entire land from north to south.

Tel Beersheba: History

An aerial view of Tel Beersheba
An aerial view of Tel Beersheba borrowed from http://shalomisraeltours.com/

Tel Beersheba consists of 9 different layers (or strata). It was originally inhabited in the 4th millenium B.C., but was then abandoned for 2,000 years and only resettled during the beginning of the Iron Age (for Old Testament readers, this is the period of the Judges and dates from 1200-1000 B.C.). The city was continuously inhabited for about 500 years and experienced a violent destruction, probably at the hands of the Assyrian King Sennacherib in 701 B.C. Sennacherib boasts to have destroyed 46 fortified cities in Judah and left Judah’s King Hezekiah “like a bird in a cage” inside Jerusalem. The first four strata (IX-VI) date to the Judges era. The city was not fortified early on and consisted of simple dwellings with houses gradually appearing in later layers. Stratum VIII shows evidence of the first houses and it is suggested that these houses mark the progress toward a permanent settlement and may reflect the time period of Joel and Abijah, the sons of Samuel, who were appointed judges in Beersheba (1 Sam. 8:1-2).

This photo shows a storage room to the right of the main gate of the city upon entering. Notice the line that separates the original walls from the reconstruction.
This photo shows a storage room to the right of the main gate of the city upon entering. Notice the line (center wall) that separates the original walls from the reconstruction.

The time period most clearly reflected at Tel Beersheba is what is known as Iron Age II–specifically, 1000-700 B.C., the time of the united kingdom (David and Solomon), through the time of Hezekiah (the Judean monarchy). This consists of Stratum V-II, but it is particularly Stratum II (which represents the final destruction stage) that is most apparent. The city was clearly laid out according to a plan and I was struck by the fact that Tel Beersheba allows you to picture what a small fortified city in Judah would have looked like. The gate, houses, governmental buildings, and the streets have all been uncovered. In fact, the original excavation (led by the well-known Israeli archaeologist Y. Aharoni from 1969-1975) took great care to not only preserve the original walls, but also to rebuild part of the walls with the original material. The reconstructed area can be seen today by a line that marks the original from the reconstruction (see my photo at right).

 A modern tower has been constructed at Tel Beersheba that allows one a wonderful view of the layout of the city. The following photos show the city from left to right from the vantage point of the tower.

Tel Beersheba
Tel Beersheba
Tel Beersheba
This view of Tel Beersheba shows the city square ( upper middle to right of the photo). The “governor’s palace is just to the left of the city square.
Tel Beersheba
This view of Tel Beersheba shows the city gate (upper middle) and the storage room to the left of the gate.

Tel Beersheba: Important Discoveries

The 4-horned altar from Tel Beersheba which is now located in the Israel Museum.
The 4-horned altar from Tel Beersheba which is now located in the Israel Museum.

One of the interesting discoveries at Tel Beersheba was of a four-horned altar. This altar helps to confirm that Beersheba had a “high place.” Aharoni (the original excavator) believed that it provided proof of a temple in the city (similar to Arad, click here to read my article on the temple at Arad). The parts of the altar were found incorporated into one of the storehouse walls (see photo of storehouse above), which suggests it was dismantled during the cultic reform carried out by Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:1-6). The prophet Amos denounces those who worship at Beersheba (Amos 8:14). He compares it to the “sin of Samaria” and the false temple at Dan (see my article on Tel Dan here), which may suggest that Aharoni was right about an actual temple existing in Beersheba.

I am standing in a typical Israelite 4-room house at Tel Beersheba.
I am standing in a typical Israelite 4-room house at Tel Beersheba.

Although 4-room houses are not an unusual discovery–they were the common Israelite house of the First Temple period–I was surprised how many were uncovered at Tel-Beersheba. The photo at the right shows me standing in a typical 4-room house. These houses consisted of 3 parallel rooms with one long room against the back of the house. Based on the housing available, estimates of the population of Tel Beersheba are small. The inhabitants appear to have numbered no more than 300-400. The reason for this, however, is because it was a special admistrative and defensive city. Therefore, the city consisted of officials, soldiers, and their families.

My friend and host in Beersheba, Howard Bass, standing in the governor's palace.
My friend and host in Beersheba, Howard Bass, standing in the governor’s palace.

The most impressive building at Tel Beersheba is what is referred to as “the governor’s palace.” This is the building that was used by the commanders of the city and (as noted in the photo above) it is situated near the city square. This building consisted of 3 large reception halls, plus two dwelling units, and a kitchen and storeroom. Down the street is another large structure called the “Basement House.” The special characteristics of this building caused Aharoni to suggest that this was the area where the temple in Beersheba had originally stood. All of the rooms of this building had their foundations dug down to bedrock and the space between the rooms was filled with earth. This could have been the result of Hezekiah’s destruction of the temple at Tel Beersheba.

Bible Walks has helpfully provided a plan of the city, showing it's significant structures. For more info go to http://www.biblewalks.com/Sites/TelBeerSheba.html
Bible Walks has helpfully provided a plan of the city, showing it’s significant structures. The basement house can be found in the upper corner in blue, while the governor’s palace is in yellow at the bottom left. For more info go to http://www.biblewalks.com/Sites/TelBeerSheba.html
This photo also from biblewalks.com provides a nice overview of some of the important places at Tel Beersheba.
This photo also from biblewalks.com provides a nice overview of some of the important places at Tel Beersheba.

The water system at Tel Beersheba is also very impressive. Besides the ancient well that sits in front of the city gate (dated to about 1200 B.C.), there is a huge reservoir than can be accessed by going down a long stairway and into a tunnel that has been carved out of the rock. This water system was excavated by Ze’ev Herzog between 1993-1995, who formerly worked with Aharoni and took over the excavation in 1976 after Aharoni died. The system, as is the case in other cities as well, was built to access the water supply during times of siege. It consists of three parts: 1) A shaft 17 meters deep with a flight of steps; 2) a reservoir hewn into the chalk rock and thickly plastered, divided into five spaces, with a total capacity of about 700 cubic meters; 3) a winding channel that led flood waters from the Hebron streambed into the reservoir (this information is taken from the brochure at Tel Beersheba). Below are a few photographs I have taken of this impressive system.

The shaft leading to the reservoir at Tel Beersheba
The shaft leading to the reservoir at Tel Beersheba
The entrance to the tunnel at the bottom of the shaft at Tel Beersheba
The entrance to the tunnel at the bottom of the shaft at Tel Beersheba
One of the reservoir compartments inside the tunnel at Tel Beersheba.
One of the reservoir compartments inside the tunnel at Tel Beersheba.

Finally, I’ll end my tour of Tel Beersheba where I probably should have started–at the gate of the city! The first photo shows the gate and the second shows the old well that sits out in front of the gate.

The city gate at Tel Beersheba
The city gate at Tel Beersheba
The old well near the gate at Tel Beersheba.
The old well near the gate at Tel Beersheba.

Tel Beersheba isn’t usually on the list of top spots to see in Israel. For one thing, it’s a bit out of the way, and for another, it can’t be identified with Abraham or Isaac. However, if you can sqeeze in a visit while you’re in Israel, I definitely believe it’s worth the time and the 15 shekel entry fee. It will give you one of the best views (if not the best) of the layout of an ancient Israelite fortress city. After all, Elijah stopped here (1 Kings 19:3), why shouldn’t you?

(All photos are my own unless otherwise noted. They may not be sold or used for commercial purposes, but they may be freely used for educational purposes)

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