by Cunningham Geikie, D.D.

Notes on Revelation Online Books

 

Chapter 11 | Contents | Chapter 13


The Holy Land and the Bible
A Book of Scripture Illustrations gathered in Palestine

Cunningham Geikie D.D.

With a Map of Palestine and Original Illustrations by H. A. Harper
Special Edition

(1887)

CHAPTER 12—BEERSHEBA

The Wells at Beersheba—Ruins of the Ancient TownPersonal Ornaments, Modern and Ancient—Trinkets as CharmsThe History of BeershebaBroom and its UsesThe Desert of El-TihAncient Native Houses—Cairns—"Grape-Mounds"—Ruins of Christian ChurchesSebaita and its RuinsThe Hebron ValleyCave Dwellings at DhahariyehTell Arad, Moladah, and Aroer

The wells of Beersheba are on the edge of the wady, or torrent-bed, Es Seba, which, as I have said, sweeps in a long curve towards the north-west, till it reaches the sea a little south of Gaza. There are now only three wells: two, filled with water; the third, dry; but no traces of the other four, thought once to have been here, are visible. The existing wells are built of fine solid masonry, and are in good condition, according to the Oriental standard. There is no wall round them, so that it would be really dangerous to approach them in the dark, or carelessly, and the stones are worn, far down the sides, into deep furrows by the ropes with which, for many centuries, the Arabs have drawn water from them, for themselves and their flocks and herds. It would be pleasant to think that they are the very wells used by Abraham and the patriarchs, but, although the excavations may be the same, the masonry certainly is not, since, fifteen courses down, on the south side of the large well, Captain Conder discovered a stone with an Arabic inscription, dated 505 AH—that is, after Mahomet's flight from Mecca—in other words, in the twelfth century of our era. Rude stone troughs stand round the two wells which have water: nine round the larger one, five round the smaller.

The wady below is about 300 paces broad; its bed filled with stones, some of large size, rolled from the distant hills by the fury of the winter storms. On the low hills bordering the wady on its northern edge can be traced the ruins of what was anciently the town of Beersheba, for there was once a Roman garrison stationed here, and a considerable population. The houses appear to have been scattered over several small hills and the hollows between, traces of them being visible for half a mile along the edge of the wady, and a quarter of a mile back. On the south side of the ravine a wall of hewn stone extends for several hundred feet under the bank, apparently to prevent it from being washed away during the winter rains. The ground, like other ancient sites, is largely covered with fragments of pottery; the direction of some of the streets can be traced, and there are vestiges of some public buildings; but if it were not for the wells there would be no inducement to visit the spot.

Here, then, amidst dark-skinned Arabs, whose territory extended a few miles northward from the wells, were the remains of Beersheba. The poverty of the Ishmaelites, according to our notions, seemed extreme, though some of them had flocks and herds. The women, in some cases at least, wore no veils, and certainly they could not be called handsome, if one could judge from a poor creature who came to ask bakshish. Her dress had no sleeves, and showed her bust even a shade more fully than our full-dress at evening parties; in fact, nearly to her waist, round which was wound a cord, the first girdle I ever noticed on one of her sex. Her hair hung down the sides of her head in confusion; on her left arm, which was bare, were four different metal and glass ornaments, and her left nostril was set off with a ring which passed through the cartilage, as earrings do through the lobe of the ear. From her head a kind of sack hung down her back, part of it filled with a heavy brown child, whose head, which was all that was visible, was carefully done up in a close-fitting cap.

Like this poor creature, the ancient Israelites delighted in personal ornaments. They had rings for the arms, for the feet, for the neck, for the nose, and for the ear. Some were only of horn or of ivory, but Rebekah was won for Isaac by two bracelets of gold (Gen 24:22,30,47), and bracelets were among the free-will offerings to Moses, after the sin at Baal-peor (Num 31:50). Even the men wore rings on the arm, for the Amalekite brought to David the one he had taken from the arm of Saul (2 Sam 1:8,10). The ladies of Jerusalem gloried in rings on their ankles—Isaiah's "ornaments of the legs" (3:20)—joined by a chain, which made them mince their steps, and clattered as their wearers moved (Isa 3:16)—"walking and mincing as they went, and making a tinkling with their feet." Strangely enough, we are told that Judith put on these mock fetters when arraying herself to go forth to kill Holofernes. Necklaces are still common among the native women here, and among the Hebrews were worn not only by the fair sex, but by men. The spouse in Song of Songs boasted of this adornment (4:9), and Ezekiel pictures Jerusalem as a maiden with "earrings in her ears, and a chain on her neck" (16:11). But the other sex was as vain, for obedience to a father and mother is compared, in Proverbs, to chains about a son's neck—his special glory (1:9, 3:3). Nose-rings, such as my Bedouin friend wore, are common. At times you see the hole in the side of the nose marked by a mere star of metal, to keep it open; at others, a ring, it may be an inch and a half wide, sticks out, forming what, to Western eyes, is a hideous disfigurement of the face. Such a ring Rebekah, with bounding heart, allowed Eliezer to put "upon her face," when he met her at the well (Gen 24:47); and "nose-jewels" were still fashionable in Isaiah's time (3:21), nearly 1,400 years later. Jerusalem, under the figure of a maiden, is adorned with a nose-ring in the picture of her given by Ezekiel (16:12), and in Proverbs "a fair woman without discretion" is compared to a golden nose-ring in a swine's snout (11:22). Strange that such a custom, which makes it necessary for a woman to hold up the ring with one hand during meals, while she raises the food to her mouth with the other, should still be followed, after thousands of years!

Earrings one can easily understand, for the ears lend themselves to vanity in many ways. We see them in the ears of men on the Assyrian tablets, and Gideon's war-cloak could not gather up the mound of golden earrings taken from the Midianite warriors he had slain (Judg 8:25). Nor could the ladies in Israel boast superiority to the other sex in this respect, for even in the desert of Sinai enough golden earrings were given by the matrons and their sons and daughters to make the golden calf (Exo 32:3,4).

The worst feature of this vanity, however, was that too many of these rings and jewels were regarded by the Hebrews not only as ornaments, but as charms and amulets. They wore "little moons," such as even to-day are a favourite female decoration in the East, the new moon being a symbol of good fortune, and small crescents, copied from its shape, being regarded also as a protection against the black arts. The earrings which Jacob took from his people and buried (Gen 35:4) were both ornaments and charms, which the patriarch did well to put out of sight. Nor did belief in theses spells and talismans die out in later ages, for Isaiah mentions amulets as a part of female dress in his day, just as they are among Eastern women now.* They were either gems, or precious stones, or plates of gold and silver, like our brooches, magical spells being engraved on them, or hidden in them, to guard the wearer from harm when she had hung one round her neck. It is quite probable, indeed, that the old Jews were as superstitious as the present natives of Palestine, of all ranks; these would be very uncomfortable without any amulets or magic charms, not only for their own protection, but for that of their children, houses, herds, flocks, and even fruit-trees. Horses and cattle bear them round their necks; men, women, and children either carry them as we do, in the form of a locket, or hide them in their bosoms; and the very trees of the orchard are guarded by mystic characters marked on them.

* Isa 3:20, "lehashim"; in AV "earrings."
These charms are generally scarps from the religious books of the wearer, written after certain rules, perhaps also with mysterious diagrams, the document being sewn up in a small bag, either three-cornered or like a heart, worn next the skin from infancy to old age, as a Roman Catholic wears his scapulary. Some of these spells are believed to have the most varied power against all enemies, ghostly or bodily, turning aside bullets in war, guarding against robbers, and warding off illness or accidents, the only wonder being that the wearers ever know what trouble is. It is, moreover, very curious to notice that all the sects of all the religions of the country have equal trust in these worthless trifles.

Beersheba, as the Bible tells us, got its name from the treaty made respecting it between Abraham and the Philistines; the two parties to the agreement confirming it with a mutual oath, accompanied by a gift of seven sheep from Abraham to Abimelech, as the formal sign which guaranteed to the patriarch, thenceforward, the possession of the wells which he had dug. In allusion to this, the word means either "the Well of the Oath," or "the Well of the Seven" (Gen 21:28,29, 26:33). Herodotus tells us that much in the same way the Arabs marked seven stones with their blood, and kept them for witness respecting contracts made, having first laid them between the parties contracting (Herod., iii. 8). Always devout, Abraham, we are informed, planted a grove of tamarisk-trees, or, as some translate it, a single tamarisk, under which to build an altar to Jehovah, the stones lying so plentifully in the torrent-bed below supplying abundant material. Round these wells the Father of the Faithful sojourned for many years, and here Isaac also lingered, the Philistines confirming the possession of the wells to him by a new treaty, sealed, as usual, with an oath (Gen 26:33). From this spot Jacob set out on his weary journey to Mesopotamia, and hither he returned in his old age, on his way to Joseph, in Egypt.

At the conquest of Canaan, Beersheba was assigned to Judah (Josh 15:28), but it was afterwards made over to Simeon (Josh 19:2), and became the southern limit of the possessions of Israel, "from Dan to Beersheba" being recognised as equivalent to the whole country of the Hebrews, from north to south (Judg 20:1; 2 Chron 30:5). In later days, when the Ten Tribes seceded, the kingdom of Judah extended from Beersheba to the mountains of Ephraim (2 Chron 19:4). At Beersheba, in Samuel's day, a local court was held for the south country, under Abiah, the son of the prophet (1 Sam 8:2), so that there must have been some community round the wells even in that early age. Silent and desolate as they now are, they had once the honour of sending a maiden who had grown up beside them, to be Queen of Judah—Zibiah, the wife of Ahaziah, and mother of King Jehoash (2 Kings 12:1). A hundred years later Beersheba had become, with Bethel and Gilgal, a centre of idolatrous worship, to which pilgrimages from the northern kingdom were made by great numbers—a sin denounced vehemently by the brave prophet Amos (5:4,5, 8:14). Deserted during the Captivity it became once more a Jewish settlement after the return from Babylon (Neh 11:30). It was at Beersheba also that Elijah, fleeing to Horeb to escape the vengeance of Jezebel, left his attendant, himself going a day's journey farther south, when "he lay and slept" under a bush of the broom so common in this neighbourhood; for it was not, as our version has it, under a "juniper" (1 Kings 19:4,5). Glad of any shade in such a weary land, the prophet would be additionally cheered, if he passed on his way in spring, by the white and pink blossom which covers the broom, even before its small leaves have appeared. It is the largest and most noticeable plant in the desert, and it afforded shelter to Dean Stanley in the only storm of rain he encountered in these parts.*

* Sinai and Palestine, p. 80.
Unfortunately, the beauty of the shrub is no protection against the eagerness of the poor Arabs to make any profit that is possible in their wilderness haunts. The roots of the broom have long been famous for yielding the finest charcoal, and this seals the fate of the plant, wherever it is found in any quantity. Digging up the whole bush, the roots of which are much larger than the stem, the natives char as much of it as is fit for burning, and carry it to Cairo, where it fetches a high price. The Hebrews, it would seem, did the same, for we read of "coals of juniper"—that is, of broom (Psa 120:4); and it would even seem that in times of famine, caused by the hideous cruelty of war, fugitives dwelling in "the clefts of the valleys, in holes of the earth and of the rocks," "in the gloom of wasteness and desolation," dug up the roots of this shrub as a kind of food (Job 30:4, 6 [RV]); for, though very bitter, the softer parts might keep them alive, the plant being leguminous, and thus in some measure nourishing.

In the days of St. Jerome—that is, about 400 years after Christ—Beersheba was still a considerable village, with a Roman garrison: a sad enough post for the fashionable officers, and a dismal one for their soldiers. In the early Middle Ages it was the seat of a bishop, but in the fourteenth century* it had fallen into solitude.

* Reland, Palastina, p. 620.
The country round Beersheba is a rolling plain, broken by deeper or shallower torrent-beds, and covered for miles, in spring, with grass, flowers, and tufts of plants and shrubs. But it is very different in summer. The herbage is then entirely burnt up, and only a bare and desolate waste, as cheerless as the desert itself, is to be seen, unless there have been showers, which are very rare in the hot months. The Bedouins now move off to more attractive spots, and the wells are left solitary. Nowhere, far or near, is there any longer a relic of civilisation—all is abandoned to the wandering Arab. Yet it was once very different. Many miles to the south, in the desert of El-Tih, Professor E. H. Palmer* found ancient native houses in perfect preservation. They were seven or eight feet in diameter, or even larger, built of stone in a circular shape, with oval tops, and small doors about two feet square, with lintels and door-posts, all the stones used having been so carefully selected as to bear the appearance of having been hewn. Yet they are certainly unhewn, though those set in the doorway may have been rubbed smooth on other stones. In one dwelling a flint arrowhead and some small shells were found. Were these the houses of the old Amalekites? It is quite possible that they were. Close by them were some stone circles. Do these point to the ancient religion of the long-vanished builders? Deep wells with troughs round them, still in use for flocks and herds, speak of the presence of Arabs in numbers, at some seasons of the year, in these thirsty regions. Circular walls of stone, with a defence of prickly bushes over them, provide defence for man and beast.** All this is in full sight of the mountains of Sinai. The whole country was at one time inhabited. Nearly every hill has ancient dwellings on its top, or stone circles. Great cairns, also, are frequent; raised, apparently, over the more or less illustrious dead. Those who built them, whether Amalekites or a later race, seem to have buried their dead in short stone coffins, over which they piled the cairns, surrounding these with a stone circle, and offering sacrifices to the departed within the ring—for charcoal and burnt earth are found inside it. Were these sacrifices the "offerings to the dead," to eat which was so great a sin to the Israelites? The custom still survives in the offering of sacrifices at the tombs of Mahommedan saints.
* See The Desert of the Exodus, 2 vols. (passim), for this and the facts that come immediately after.

** See remarks on sheepfolds, p. 197, ante.

Spring is varied in these desert regions south of Beersheba by fierce rains, dense sand-storms, and oppressive heat; but even amidst the barest landscape Professor Palmer came upon a herd of 150 milch-camels, which contrived to get food from the stray broom-plants and thorny bushes growing here and there. At one place he found ruins in which beams of acacia-wood were still to be seen, though no trees of the kind now grow in the desert. Could the region have been wooded at some former time? Seventy miles south of Beersheba remains of large numbers of the primitive stone houses are still numerous. Ravines covered with vegetation are found at intervals. Hills rise on every side, in some cases to a height of 2,000 feet, but broad stretches of plain lie between. In one barren sunburnt valley are two long low walls, to regulate irrigation during the rains, one 180, the other 240 yards long, both very carefully built, two rows of stones being beautifully set in a straight line, with smaller pebbles between. Other steps or terraces, all faced in the same way with stone walls, had once sent vivifying moisture over both sides of the ravine. The whole country, indeed, though now, from want of care and failure of the water supply, little more than a barren waste, shows signs of very extensive cultivation, even at a comparatively modern period. The actual desert, to the south, was also much more suited to maintain a population in former times than it is now; the remains of houses, the presence of wells, and the traces of terraces showing this. Fertility has, in the course of ages, receded to the north. One of the most striking characteristics of "the south" is that for miles the hill-sides and valleys are covered with small stone-heaps, in regular swathes, over which grapes were trained, and which still retain the name of "grape-mounds." The valley of Eshcol, from which the Jewish spies carried off the great bunch of grapes, may not, therefore, have been near Hebron, as has been supposed, but far south of Beersheba, and near the Hebrew head-quarters at Kadesh.

The number of Christian churches in this far southern region in early times, as shown by their ruins, is one of the strangest features of the district. Fifty miles from Beersheba is a cave cut out in the rock, once used for a church, as may be seen from the crosses and Christian signs on the walls. Near it, on the opposite side of the wady, is a much larger cave, also cut in the hillside, with a staircase hewn out to lead up to it, the hermitage, it would seem, of some early monks. All the hills round are covered with ruins and stone-heaps, the remains of some primitive people; and the hill-sides are crossed and recrossed by innumerable paths. Perhaps, one of the "cities of the south," or of Negeb, was once here, but if so the country is sadly changed, for no city or village could exist in it now. Nor are the caves confined to one spot. Many hills are pierced with them. Professor Palmer thinks that the "south country," or "Negeb," began about fifty miles below Beersheba, but the signs of former habitation are widely scattered far beyond this point. Thirty-five miles south of it a broad valley opens out, covered with verdure; grass, asphodel, and broom growing in great profusion, flowers carpeting the soil, immense herds of cattle passing to the pastures and to the wells, and great flocks of fat sheep and goats feeding on the neighbouring hills. Nine terebinth-trees, very old, spread out their wide branches in the valley, and give it a pleasant aspect. Terraces, to check the rush of winter floods, and distribute them over the whole of the soil, succeed each other along its whole length, just as I saw them afterwards in the great wady leading up from Beit Jibrin to Hebron. A well-built stone aqueduct carries water from the wells to a large reservoir, also built of stone; and there are ruins of some large buildings. All this, however, belongs to the distant past.

Other valleys, as we get north, show equal signs of former diligent cultivation. A fort and a church, of which the remains still crown a hill-top near, overlook countless walls and terraces built across the Wady Hanein, formerly a valley of gardens; for though many of the large, flat, strongly-embanked terraces may once have been planted with fruit-trees, and others laid out as kitchen gardens, many miles were still left for the cultivation of grain. The black, flinty hill-slopes round the fort are covered with long rows of stones, once piled into numberless black heaps—the mounds on which vines were trained. Yet all is now desert, and has been so for many centuries. Remains of forest, churches, towns, terraces, grape-mounds, and aqueducts are, in fact, numerous in all directions. The ruins of Sebaita, twenty-five miles south of Beersheba, cover a space 500 yards long and from 200 to 300 yards wide, and show the fragments of three churches, a tower, and two reservoirs. The houses are of stone, undressed near the ground, hewn farther from it; and are all built, in the lower storeys, in arches, thick beams of stone being placed across these to form the roof. Nearly every house has its well, about two feet in diameter, and there are many conveniently placed at the street-corners, the streets themselves being distinctly traceable. Many of the house-walls are still from twenty to twenty-five feet high. But all is now stillness and utter desolation. Crosses on the houses and in the churches show that the town was Christian; but how long has it been abandoned? Sebaita is, possibly, the successor of Zephath of the Bible, which Judah and Simeon once took from the Canaanites, so utterly destroying it that they called its name Hormah, or "the Desolated Place."* All the way to Beersheba similar long-deserted towns occur, a proof of the great change in the physical condition of the country within the Christian era. Cisterns forty feet square, partly hewn out of the rock, partly built, broken Corinthian capitals, ruins of churches and sites of towns, dot the country, though as we approach Beersheba the stones have, in great measure, been carried away to Gaza and elsewhere, for new buildings. This accounts for the absence of similar remains in the plain of Philistia or elsewhere, within reach of existing communities; but the region beyond them, dry and waste as it now is, shows what the whole land must once have been.

* Judg 1:17. The identification is very doubtful.
Between Beersheba and Hebron the road, or rather track, lies through the Wady-el-Khalil—that is, the Hebron valley, which rises fully 2,000 feet in thirty miles, the whole way being thus a rough climb. On this retired and little-travelled route evidences of dense population, in former times, are no less striking than on the now desert sand-blown South. Ten miles north-east of the Beersheba wells are the ruins of a town among the hills, so full of ancient wells and reservoirs that Palmer gave it the name of "the City of Cisterns," a whole system of cisterns literally undermining the hills. The houses are still standing, in ruins, along the crest of a triple hill, their walls built of huge blocks of flint conglomerate, many of which measure six feet in length, four in thickness, and two in breadth, the houses formed of them being mostly of one room about thirty feet by twenty. One large building has the appearance of a temple; and the hills around are still covered with ruins. Another similar town, Sa'awi, lies about ten miles east of Beersheba. Fifteen miles north-east of the latter place, and 1,400 feet above it, are the ruins of Dhahariyeh,* at the entrance of Palestine proper, among hills covered with vegetation and dotted with the dwarf oak, which makes its first appearance here.
* Beersheba (level), 781 feet; Dhahariyeh, 2,180 feet.
The valley is banked up with strong walls and terraces of venerable age, running along where now there is no cultivation. Dhahariyeh itself is surrounded with fields, and there are two fine olive-trees at the foot of the hill on which it stands. Its houses consist chiefly of caves in the natural rock, some of them with rude arches carved over the doorways, and all of the greatest antiquity. Small terraces on the hill-side have been chosen for the excavation of these caves, the level obtained in front being fenced round with a mud wall, as a courtyard before the cave itself; dogs, goats, chickens, children, and other members of the household using it to take the air. These strange dwellings must be exactly like those of the old Horites, or "Cavemen," who, in Abraham's day, lived in Mount Seir (Gen 14:6), where they were afterwards attacked and virtually exterminated by the children of Esau—that is, the Edomites—who seized their country (Deut 2:12,22), with circumstances of horror which are, perhaps, referred to by Job, in verses I have already quoted in part. "Men in whom ripe age is, perished. They are gaunt with want and famine: they flee into the wilderness, into the gloom of wasteness and desolation. They pluck salt-wort by the bushes: and the roots of the broom are their meat. They are driven forth from the midst of men; they cry after them as after a thief. In the clefts of the valleys must they dwell, in holes of the earth and of the rocks."* The cave dwellings of Dhahariyeh have been inhabited by generation after generation since the days of this forgotten race. The village evidently occupies an ancient site, the foundations of a building of massive masonry, originally in three arched apartments, still remaining in the centre of it, while old arches and other remains of antiquity appear at every corner.** It brings us back, however, to a more prosaic picture of Palestine as it now is, to find, on entering the three-arched ruin, that you are immediately covered with fleas, so countless that you have to sweep and shake them off by hundreds from your arms, legs, and clothing. The women are all unveiled, and all apparently ugly, but eager, poor creatures, to sell their eggs and chickens to strangers, rushing out of their caves as one passes, to cry their wares in loud and almost angry screams.
* Job 30:2-6 [RV]. See Ewald, Gesch., i. 304, 305. The lineage of the Horites is given in Gen 36:20-30; 1 Chron 1:38-42.

** Pal. Fund Reports, 1870., p. 39.

Tell Arad, once a royal city of the Canaanites (Josh 12:14), is now only a large white mound, about twenty miles slightly north-east of Beersheba; and six miles south-west of it is a ruined town, Keseifeh, with the same wreck of houses as elsewhere, the remains of a small church, and traces of tesselated pavement. Twelve or thirteen miles east of Beersheba, and about six miles south-east of Keseifeh, are the ruins of the ancient Moladah (Josh 15:26, 19:2), with two finely-built wells at the foot of the hill on which the town stood, one of them dry, but the other containing good water, with marble troughs round it, like those at Beersheba. Belonging first to Judah, Moladah was afterwards handed over to Simeon, with whom it remained till the Captivity, after which it became again a Jewish community (1 Chron 4:28; Neh 11:26). Five miles to the south of it are the ruins of Aroer (1 Sam 30:28); but the only relics of the ancient city are some wells, two or three of them built up with rude masonry, and only a few containing water. It has been usual to think of the Simeonites as having merely a half-barren range of burnt upland pastures as their territory; but it is clear from the ruins that so plentifully cover the whole country, that while free to follow their pastoral prepossessions, they had also, on every side, all the advantages of a stirring, civilised population, and a region capable of yielding everything they could wish.

 

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