Archaeology is, in many ways, the guide book for leaving home. As the song reminds me, “There must be 50 ways to leave your lover,” so too, there are many ways that people left their homes. A unique example has been examined for the past 2 years by archaeologists studying Shivta in southern Israel.

Although we have pottery evidence from the 1st century C.E. of a Nabatean Spice Route town, the earliest buildings in Shivta date to the 4th century C.E.  This era saw the transition of the Roman Empire from pagan beliefs to Christianity (what we call today the Byzantine Empire).  Under the Byzantines, Shivta grows into an agricultural city and a stop for pilgrims on their way to St. Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai Peninsula
Some things changed in this formerly thriving Negev town between the 7th and 9th centuries C.E.  We don’t know whether it was plague, earthquake, climate change (an earlier climate change in the Negev is here), conquest or internal changes, but during those 300 years, Shivta went from a bustling city to an empty ruin.

During the 7th century C.E., the city begins this change and many areas were abandoned.  Those optimistic residents cannot believe that the hardships which are forcing them from their homes will be long-lived.  They block off the entry ways to their homes, with the hopes that when times get better, they will be able to return, reclaim and reoccupy them.  Not every home is abandoned at once and there is no mass exodus.  The decision to leave is one that is made on a family level.  We can only imagine the enormity of abandoning one’s home for an uncertain future.

What were the pressures affecting each family’s decision?
How did they justify their decision to their friends and neighbors?
What drove their hope for return?
How did the families who stayed behind feel about their neighborhood emptying out?

The parallels in the modern world are plentiful.  Whether you think about Syria or inner-city Detroit, decisions made by individuals to abandon their residences or to remain in an increasingly hostile area are some of the hardest to make.

Shivta survives Islamification in the 8th century  but after about 100 years, whatever forces started the decline and the compounding forces of a collapsing city, claim the last residents.  Shivta is filled with boarded up houses and hangs out its “closed for business” sign in the 9th century C.E., never to return.

There are many ways to leave home; but here, in Shivta, is a haunting example of a heartrending way – leaving begrudging and with an unrealized hope for return.  Today, Shivta remains one of the most remote national parks in Israel; its isolated location only compounds the questions surrounding her flourishing life and spiraling demise.

Nearby sites:

  • Ramat Negev Desert Agro-Research Center
  • Ramat Negev Winery
  • Ben Gurion’s Tomb

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