Beersheva has been an important site and regional center as far back as the Middle Bronze Age, some 4,000 years ago. Situated at the northern tip of the desert, it historically marked the end of the cultivated and domesticated area, and the gateway to the southern wilderness. Its location is mentioned in the biblical phrase “from Dan to Beersheva,” meaning the entirety of territory then inhabited by Israelite tribes during the Iron Age. And indeed, ever since, it has seen countless waves of immigration, diverse populations, and a variety of customs, cuisines and rituals.
When Abraham first arrived here, according to the Bible, he dug a well and planted a Tamarix tree. Digging a well and planting a tree signify a crucial transition in the Abrahamic story: a switch from Bedouin-like pastoral nomadism to sedentary agriculture. In fact, even today many Bedouin from the region have taken up permanent residence in and around Beersheva, thereby effectively repeating Abraham’s transformation.
According to Genesis, Abraham squabbled with the servants of Abimelech, King of Gerar, over ownership of local wells. Reconciliation swiftly followed, and standing atop a well the two men swore to dwell in peace. Sheva, or shava, comes from the Hebrew verb “to swear or make an oath” and the biblical interpretation of the word Beersheva is that it means ‘well of the oath’, a place symbolizing harmony and reconciliation. In the Islamic tradition Beersheva (Bir Saba’) literally means ‘seven wells’ with saba’ meaning seven. According to one story in this tradition, Abraham gave away seven goats to people that quarrelled with him over a well that had run dry, an act that restored water to the well. Perhaps the most practical reason for Beersheva’s stories of harmony is that it is simply too hot to quarrel. With summertime temperatures frequently surpassing 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), chatting in the shade is a common pastime.
In 1900, the Ottomans were the most recent to construct an entirely new city here. To this day their architecture forms the core of Beersheva’s Old City. The British General Allenby conquered the city during WWI, in what would become the last cavalry battle in the region. Presently, the city has a mixed Jewish population from various backgrounds such as Iraq, Eastern Europe and North Africa, as well as Arab and Bedouin communities.