Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Fellini in Beer Sheva's Old City

Beer Sheva is a biblically ancient site -- the place where Avraham made Avimelech swear to acknowledge his having dug his wells (hence the name "Beer Sheva", the Well of the Oath); the place where Isaac dug seven wells (hence, perhaps, the Well of Seven). The current Old City, established in 1900, is the only city planned and built entirely by the Ottoman Turks in the 400 years of their Caliphate. The plan for the Old City was originally designed by a German and a Swiss architect, calling for a grid pattern, which is still quite evident today.

The original grid pattern of the Old City is still in place today.

It has been dressed-up and gentrified by the new city which has grown around it, but it still looks to me like an ugly dowager wearing too much makeup. New Beer Sheva, on the other hand, I find quite interesting and attractive, a bustling center of commerce, medicine, culture, the arts and education, Israel's 4th largest and the administrative center of all things in the Negev.

We were wandering in the Old City streets of Beer Sheva, an unlovely place if there ever was one. The streets are narrow and seem to close in on you, even though most of the buildings are just a squat one story high. There is an oppressive and suffocating atmosphere, despite the attempts of the new city to modernize and gentrify the neighborhood with trendy shops and boutiques. The many bridal and wedding planning shops combine with the tawdry tourist, tchatshke and food vendors to make for a Felliniesque atmosphere.

A felliniesque bridal gown on the side show streets of the Old City of Beer Sheva

  This photo does not do justice to the oppressive feeling induced by the sight of the building.

Together with the newer buildings, many old buildings from the days of Ottoman rule remain. They are badly built, ugly and generally have ungainly proportions, coming as a surprise if you are used to the antique buildings of Jaffa or Jerusalem's Old City and walls.
A wall remaining from the Ottoman days of the Old City of Beer Sheva

Near the center of the Old City lies a reconstruction of Abraham's Well, together with another well of much later date. The reconstruction uses a system of lifts that raise the water to an aqueduct that runs the length of the Old City's central town square, returning it to the well in a closed loop.

 A reconstruction of Abraham's Well in the town square of Beer Sheva's Old City

Aqueduct carrying water in Beer Sheva's Old City town square

The Old City's town square has also been provided with fountains adjacent to the aqueduct. The whole thing seems too tschatchkafied and artificial in a place that is steeped in so much real history, but it is  still a big improvement on what the Ottoman Turks left behind to work with.

Modern fountains recall Beer Sheva's watery past.

Perhaps one of the creepiest aspects of the Old City is the old Muslim cemetery, a huge plot of land surrounded by fences with warnings to keep out. The upheaved old tombs and graves make it look like a real Night of the Living Dead took place there. It appears that this is another disputed piece of real estate in the battle between the Jews and Muslims to control the Holy Land.

Muslim cemetery in Beer Sheva's Old City

 "Muslim Cemetery - Keep Out by Order of the Municipality of Beer Sheva and the Committee for the Advancement of Bedouins in the Negev"

Don't let my comments put you off visiting the Old City. It is certainly interesting in a freakish kind of way to me. And I will also note that my opinion of the Old City is a minority one, since most of the people I have spoken to like it quite a bit and seem to think the modernization is a success and a big improvement over the Arab slum that used to be there. And there are always interesting sights with great people watching. A big plus -- the Old City is quite safe any time, day or night.
Interesting sights abound in Beer Sheva's Old City -- A bride prepares for her wedding.

1 comment:

  1. What a weird mixture of the old and the new. Thank you Ira!


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