Taking a trip with Indiana Jones

What is Easter like in Be’er Sheva? It’s not like anything because it’s Passover here.

I’m such a funny guy. But really, unless you’re a Christian, or a somewhat attuned Jew or Muslim, you would not know it’s Easter here. Perhaps up in Jerusalem there would be more evidence Christendom is celebrating something. But my life is here in the desert. However, it hasn’t always been that the desert doesn’t know Paschal Time is upon it.

After Jesus’ death, Christianity grew to the point that much of this region (Be’er Sheva going south) was predominantly Christian until just after the Arab conquest in the 7th century A.D. That interesting bit of information came from a friend who plays the organ at the tiny Catholic church we go to in town. This organ player also happens to be an archaeologist and he recently took a group of us to the ruins of two significant Christian towns in the Negev: Shivta and Nitzana.

I was behind in my studying for neuroanatomy but I didn’t want to miss the chance to have a personal tour of some ancient ruins from one of the local university’s archaeologists I’ll call The Doctor. (I don’t want any accidental marring of the facts on my part to reflect badly on him.)

On the way out of town, The Doctor pointed to a parking lot and said they’d excavated a huge Byzantine church there, but the government decided to fill it back in and make a parking lot for the Be’er Sheva shuk (the outdoor market). It was unclear why, but the government seems to have been unsure what to do with it from a preservation standpoint.

Our first stop was Shivta, a Nabataean town and later a Byzantine colony. I didn’t have my recorder available, so I can’t enlighten you as much as The Doctor enlightened us, however, there were three well-preserved churches in Shivta, as well as two wine presses and many, many homes.

The theory is that each church served about 1,000 people, so the population was 3,000 and change. There were two baptisteries with the cross shaped fonts still intact. There were two things I thought of while I looked at those baptismal fonts. First, they look exactly like fonts you would see in any Orthodox, Catholic or Anglican church, assuming those churches had full-immersion fonts. Interesting how good designs hang around.

Second, I thought of the ancient people who’d walked down the steps to receive the sacrament of baptism and become part of the “tribe” of Christians. I’ve undergone the same sacrament and, other than it’s meaning in the Church, it struck me as a way that the sea of time is bridged between me and them.

Much of the marble that had adorned the homes and churches had been carted off over the centuries. The Doctor said we’d probably have a good chance of finding some of it being used as walls or roofs of surrounding Bedouin settlements. Though the marble was gone, the city was still covered in ancient etchings in the stones of the streets and doorways of the town. Crosses were a common sight, as were Chi-Rho symbols.

When asked what happened to the inhabitants, The Doctor said they’d simply left. After the Arab conquest in the seventh century many of the inhabitants of the Negev left, and it wasn’t because they were persecuted. The taxes were too heavy. A funny thing though: on our walk out of the ruins The Doctor told us to keep our eyes on the ground and look for money. Sure enough, several of our group found Byzantine coins just lying there.

The next place we went was Nitzana. Positioned on top of a hill (or “tel” in the local parlance), Nitzana is another Nabataean town later populated by Byzantine Christians until the Arabs took over. Nitzana was less well-preserved but there was a church that was at the foot of the hill there that had parts of it still standing.

On the acropolis, there were the remains of a hospital the Turks built there during World War I on the foundations of a Byzantine fort. There were stairs going up the side of the acropolis that predated the Byzantine inhabitants, meaning the Nabataeans built them. The Doctor believes there was something on top of the acropolis that was special to the Nabataeans, but he doesn’t know what it was.

The hospital was the best-preserved bit (obviously), but there were the remains of a monastery and another church on top of the hill. Before leaving the acropolis I picked up a green piece of glass that looked like a handle. Then I picked up a clay fragment of what looked like a handle and I brought them down the hill to The Doctor.

He said the clay bit was the handle of a clay jug or jar and was probably from around 1,000 A.D. He said the bit of green glass was the handle to a fancy cup, which he described it as “very nice.” He said it was probably from the 1st century A.D. I’d found it in a room off the sanctuary of the church on the acropolis, so I wonder what it was. He also handed me a piece of fancy pottery he called “terra singulata” (stamped pottery) that he said was probably from the 3rd century A.D. There is something thrilling about holding something that old in your hand and running your fingers over markings made by an ancient artist.

And that is the sort of thing you can do when you should be studying, but you live in Israel.