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Journey to the end of the world

Expert ... Professor Steve Rosen at Shivta

That is how it felt as we drove south from Beersheba. We were a group of ESRA Rehovot members traveling to meet Professor Steve Rosen, Deputy Rector of Ben Gurion University for a tour of Shivta. After the turn-off from the road to Nitzana, only 30 km from the Egyptian border, we had another 8 km of high desert emptiness to a parking lot, with the UNESCO World Heritage site of Shivta in front of us. Professor Rosen greeted us and we perched attentively on a low stone wall as he explained the history of the place. We first met Prof. Rosen, or Steve as he asked us to call him, when he spoke to our Rehovot group on Secrets of Archeology in the Negev. We were overwhelmed by his expertise and delighted by his gift as a raconteur; the lively audience response and extended Q & A period ended only when he had to start his trek back to Beersheva. The lecture included a teaser promo with pictures from Shivta — and he offered us a special tour of the site, time and weather permitting. So here we were!

Shivta originated as a Natabaean caravansary on the lucrative spice trade route from India, South Arabia and the Horn of Africa to Europe. Spices were in high demand as preservatives, incense, cosmetics, medicine and perfume; the route was well traveled until superseded by a route from the Red Sea through Egypt. By that time the Nabataean kingdom had been conquered by the Romans, and Shivta became part of Arabia Petraea. However, Shivta developed to a town of 2000 with the flourishing of Byzantine settlement in the Negev highlands and Sinai Peninsula in the 4th century CE. At one time there were more than 1000 monks in Sinai and Shivta was on the pilgrimage route to the St. Catherine monastery. The current remains of Shivta date from the Byzantium period up to its final abandonment in the 9th century due to economic decline. The site has been known to Westerners since 1869 when Edwin Palmer visited, and it was mainly excavated in the 1930s by Henry Dunscome Colt (of the Colt revolver family).

Steve pointed out that the town was not fortified, but that the outer wall of each dwelling was without openings, except for the gates. We toured the south, north and central quarters and the churches in each (the one you attend, the one you don't attend, and the one you would never set foot in). The churches still had faint signs of frescoes in the basilica, although most have been lost due to the ravages of weather and vandalism. The original mosaic floors have disappeared over the centuries, but Steve uncovered a small remnant to show us the colors - it is normally hidden in order to discourage thieves. A small mosque was built next to the south church, evidence of co-existence rather than conquest during the Arab period.

Of particular interest is the evidence of thriving desert agriculture. Although rainfall is only 100 mm a year, the inhabitants were able to grow grain, barley and wheat, as well as olives, grapes, figs and dates by practicing run-off irrigation. Dams were constructed to hold the rain water and feed it into the ground where crops were planted. These fields can still be discerned on the outskirts of Shivta. There are also the remains of large public cisterns in the town. In addition, the roof of each house slanted down to where a home cistern collected the rain water. We also saw a large wine press next to the north church, probably where a monastery had been situated. There is even a stable that is evidence of the presence of horses in the settlement.

The most impressive structure is the so-called Governor's House, rising more than three stories in height. We were able to see the layout of a house with the central courtyard and rooms leading off it but can only imagine the former white-washed walls, frescos and mosaics evidencing the prosperity of the town. Amazingly this building remains almost intact and the basilicas of the churches are still partially standing, surviving earthquakes and contemporary tremors from IDF artillery exercises nearby. Steve showed us evidence of reinforcements that bulwarked some structures after earthquakes that occurred during the time Shivta was inhabited.

The weather was a balmy 25°C and the 2.5 h tour was fascinating. At the end of the tour we were tired but exhilarated, having enjoyed an experience which made the stone city come alive for us. 



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Thursday, 25 July 2024

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