This week I went to Besor Stream National park in search of red flowers as part of the Red South February festival. It’s a national park I haven’t visited before and it was easily accessible by bus, so I figured I would give it a chance. Also, I’ve only left Be’er Sheva once in the last 6 weeks due to the lockdown restrictions because of COVID, so a little outing seemed in order.
Hillel and I arrived and walked into the National Park, paying the entrance fee and getting the explanatory brochure. On the way in, the loess flanked us on both sides of the road – but no red flowers. Inside the park, the situation was not much different. We avoided the crowds surrounding the pools which make this National Park so popular, and headed for the Besor Stream, hoping to find more flowers there. You guessed it; almost no red flowers there either.
But the lack of red flowers (and the crowds seeking them) meant that we had nature and most of the park to ourselves. One of the historical highlights here is the railroad car. During World War I, the British advanced on the land of Israel. (I wrote about Great War here and here.) As a part of that preparation for war and providing troops and supplies to the front, the British constructed a railroad. In the national park, you can see a rebuilt section of a bridge built to transverse the Besor Stream built in the summer of 1917 which would come to connect Rafah on the Sinai border with Be’er Sheva. Under the British, this line continued to serve Be’er Sheva until 1927.
The Commonwealth troops did more than build while they were in the area of the Besor Stream – they also looted. What could there possibly be to loot in this place, empty of everything except for badlands, streams and nature? On the highest point in the area, today sits a viewing area, offering a clear 360 degree view over the stream, and the important springs which feed it. The British and their Commonwealth troops weren’t the first to take advantage of this vantage point. During the time of the Byzantines, some 1500 years earlier, the control of the road and the spring was also very important. So important, in fact, that the Byzantine Christians built a church here with a mosaic floor. Like most Byzantine churches in the Negev, that church was most likely abandoned during the 7th century CE and its memory forgotten, its ruins being taken over by the natural landscape, and its stones carted off for other buildings through the ages.
In April 1917, Australian soldiers, part of ANZAC troop, captured this hill overlooking Nachal Besor (also called Wadi Shellal) from the Turks who had used it as a machine gun post. In the process of digging trenches to fortify the hill, some soldiers found multicolored tesserae and called over probably the most educated man in the division – the chaplain. After exposing more of the tiles, the chaplain confirmed that this was from a Byzantine era church. The Shellal mosaic, dated to the mid-6th century CE, was the first Byzantine mosaic found in the land of Israel. It was stabilized, crated up, and then shipped off to Canberra, Australia as “war spoils”, where it sits today in the Canberra War Museum.
Even without its original mosaic floor, the hilltop still has a commanding view of the surrounding countryside and one can see the outskirts of Kiryat Gat to the north and Ashalim power station to the south. The Besor Stream National Park showcases the Western Negev is a treasure trove of natural beauty, strategic importance and rich history.
In the next few weeks, the red flowers will surely be blooming on the banks of Besor Stream and maybe I’ll make it back there to see them. But as for visiting the mosaic, that’s a slightly longer trip – one requiring more than a 40-minute bus ride from Be’er Sheva.