Part of a Series – Hanukkah 2020 – Nes Gadol Haya Po – Be’er Sheva and the Negev

Sitting at the confluence of Nahal Besor and Nahal Atadim sits an archaeological site which almost doesn’t exist. The mostly unexcavated site off to the side of the modernRt. 222 doesn’t give up many clues to the naked eye. Its current state reflects the founders this city who hid the secrets of the area.

I’m talking about Halutza/Elusa. This is one of the last stops on the famed Spice Route bringing trade from the Arabian Peninsula to markets in the West. The people who controlled this spot, and most of the Negev, were the Nabateans – a loose confederation of desert dwellers who knew how to keep a secret. Their secret was the secret of water sources.

During the days of the Greek and then Roman empires, the wealthy elite of society craved the newest, most elusive products, just like today. And with world conquest came discovery of products from around the world. The only problem was how to get these exotic products to the wealthy elite in the Mediterranean basin. Pirates plagued the seas, so an overland route was preferred.

Spices which were light and easy to transport, and made food taste better and the hot, humid, bustling cities of Athens and Rome smell so much better, were the prime commodity on this route. Transversing the Arabian Peninsula, though, was not an easy task. The deserts challenged even the most robust camel. Those who had knowledge of how to find water stood to gain quite a bit of money from these traveling caravans. These hidden water holes turned into caravansaries, kind of like refueling stations, where camels and camel drivers could rest and refuel before continuing on their way. Several of these stations were located in the Negev along a route which ended in the port of Gaza.

The penultimate station on the Spice Route was Halutza. There, over time, the caravansary became a city. Pagan religion and government were made more concrete, and other industry, including wine making and other agricultural activities were conducted. The Nabateans were “conquered” by the Romans in 104 CE. I say “conquered” because there was no actual war, simply an acquiescing to the rule of the Roman empire – probably because it was good for business.

Halutza continued to flourish through the Byzantine Period, when the city converted to Christianity and 2 churches were built. It has it’s own bishopric in the 5th century CE and is pictured on the Medaba Map from the 6th century CE. It even was a regional capital.

Somewhere during the beginning of the early Moslem period, Halutza met its decline. We don’t know exactly what the cause of the decline of Halutza, or any of the other important stops on the Spice Route, was. Many proponents, from climate change to shifting governmental attention, from drop in the consumption of wine to opening other trade routes, have been suggested.

Unlike other stops on the Spice Route, however, in the beginning of the 20th century CE, Halutza found a new use in Be’er Sheva. Because Halutza had been such a wealthy town at its height, beautifully hewn stones had been brought to build its churches, houses, theater, walls and other buildings. At the end of the Ottoman rule, population was growing in Southern Syria and quality stones were needed as building materials. The new city of Be’er Sheva necessitated raw materials to construct the governor’s residence, saraya (city hall), schools, and mosques. Instead of going to the trouble and expense of hewing new stones, the stones heaped at Halutza, only 20 km from Be’er Shev, provided easy, beautiful building materials.

Governor’s Residence (current Negev Museum of Art), Be’er Sheva

Unfortunately the stones were not removed with an eye to preserving the past and much of Halutza’s glory was wontonly removed. Not every stone was removed, however. Recent excavations there have uncovered a stone etching in Greek naming the city, Elusa, so there is no question that the mound of stones with only limited archaeological finds is, indeed, the site of the once beautiful, important Negev city. But today, if you want to see Halutza, take a walk in the Old City of Be’er Sheva and gaze at the beautiful stones adorning the public buildings constructed 100 years ago.

Halutza and the Nabatean cities of the Negev, the control of water sources, and trade, are an important story in the haya – past – in the Negev.

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