"Abraham planted an eshel in Beersheva, and there he proclaimed the name of Hashem, God of the Universe. And Abraham sojourned in the land of the Philistines many years … " (Parashat Vayera)
What's the eshel that Abraham planted? The sages differ: One says it was an orchard, for growing the fruit that the hospitable Abraham served the people who visited his famous tent. Another says it was the actual inn, where they stayed. Whatever, it was in biblical Beersheva where Abraham Aveinu set the standard for kindness, opening his tent to desert travelers of all faiths, offering fresh water and food, asking only that they bless Hashem for the bounty he set before them.
But where, exactly, was the eshel put?
There are some biblical hallmarks, but until now, the precise location has been archaeologically disputed, too. Some theorized it was not in the same location as the modern city of Beersheva, but rather a mile-and-a-half or so distant, at Tel Sheva, where an established archaeological park is open to the public.
Recently, however, an archaeological dig carried out across the street from Beersheva's city's shuk confirmed what archaeologists working under Isaac Gilead of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and Peter Fabian of the Israel Antiquities Authority had suspected for some time: The Beersheva of Abraham Aveinu was right where the modern city is.
In fact, the city's fruit-and-vegetable shuk - one of Israel's biggest and most lush - might be operating virtually on top of the ancient site in which our most gracious forefather served fruit and drink to his hungry, thirsty visitors.
Peter Fabian, of the antiquities authority, made the initial discovery - an "armchair" revelation that initially led to the identification of a huge Roman army camp that had been located on the site. "During World War I, 1917-18," says Fabian, "the German army, interested in tracking Turkish troop movements, took aerial photographs of this area - the first ever.
"When those photos finally came into the public domain, I was looking at them, and the clear contours of what appeared to be a massive stone enclosure - a wall - jumped right out at me. We investigated further; sure enough, that was it - evidence that a massive Roman encampment had been right there.
"It's not often you identify an archaeological treasure from behind your desk," Fabian continues, "but in this case, it was so clear anyone could have seen it."
Over the years, numerous digs - each involving just an acre or two - have been carried out in the general area. Last summer, an area adjacent to this year's dig was excavated.
"Decades ago, the Israeli Army buried gas tanks in this area," says Karni Golan, one of the project's area supervisors. "The tanks were removed in the 1960s, but they'd disrupted the layers, so it was hard to see anything. We finally brought in a small tractor to scrap away some of the bigger sections of dirt, and then we saw it - a wall!
"Everyone was cheering. After that, we found pottery, coins, all kinds of things. As we excavated further, we could see that under the Byzantine layer was a huge public building of some sort, dating from the third to fourth century, C.E., a structure that was also used during the Byzantine period.
"But what was it used for?
"We can only guess, but we did find a room we called a 'surgery' - we found implements that looked somewhat like medical tools."
Some of the most significant finds were layered even below that.
"There were four distinct layers," explains Gilead. "On the surface, of course, it was very dirty. But just below was the Byzantine layer, with artifacts from the fifth to seventh centuries, C.E. Below that were artifacts from the Late Roman period."
And there's more … "Below that, items from the Iron Age - the Judean Monarchy, from the eighth and seventh centuries BCE. When we dug still deeper, we found evidence of inhabitation during the Fifth Millennium, the Chalcolithic period, some 6,200 years ago. We were rewarded with some very interesting and significant finds."
Says Rona Winter, another area supervisor, "The area where our team worked was the highest topographically. Our Byzantine layer was over 8-feet deep, which means they must have stayed for a long period. We found coins, pottery, many things. The most fascinating thing for me was to see that the Roman walls were built on top of Iron Age walls - recycled, so to speak.
"The stone walls started out as Iron Age walls, and were built up by the Romans, some of them 5-feet thick. The Roman rooms were a little bit bigger, and the uses may have changed, but the lines of construction were the same. The floors, too, had been reused - huge chiseled stones from late Roman construction had been recycled."
Adds Winter: "We were under considerable pressure. We didn't have the time or money to excavate as much as we would have liked. But even at that, discovering the huge public building - complete with a drainage system - was important. And then to find Iron Age walls underneath that? It was exciting."
'We Can Now Be Certain'
This summer, a huge, mosaic-tiled Roman bath, complete with heating system, was unearthed. Equally fascinating was an Iron Age stove - maybe 2,500 to 3,000 years old.
"There were still fragments of a cooking pot in the stove," explains Kobi Vardi, another supervisor. "The stove or oven was constructed of handmade mud bricks, three large ones, used to line what was essentially a hole in the ground. The bricks captured the heat, and you could see from the changing color of the sand or soil around it the gradations of heat that radiated out from the fire.
"The cooking pot was upside-down, in three pieces. The stove itself was pretty big - maybe 16 inches deep, and over a yard long. From these kinds of artifacts, we confirmed that there was a permanent settlement, a big village, here during the Iron Age.
"Some 10 or 12 centuries later, there was a population boom - during the Roman period, probably 10,000 people lived right here," adds Vardi. "We know there were at least six big churches in Beersheva during Roman and then Byzantine times - six churches would have served a big population."
Indeed, the Iron Age discoveries were critical.
"The Iron Age findings indicated to us, pretty certainly, that this site was indeed the ancient city of Beersheva," says Dr. Gilead, "the Beersheva mentioned in the Torah.
"Most likely, the more distant Tel Sheva was an administrative center of some kind, because it had walls protecting it, and this much larger area did not. We can now be reasonably certain that the current city of Beersheva is indeed located in the same place as the ancient city of the same name."
There's a major gee-whiz factor in this discovery: to stand where Abraham Aveinu stood, or to see the stars from the very same place where Isaac stood, when he heard Hashem say, "I am the God of your father Abraham: Fear not, for I am with you … ."